State of the nation: charities proudly standing firm

State of the nation: charities proudly standing firm

Charity CEOs are having to innovate and dig deep at a time of talent shortages and a squeeze on donations, says Louise Beales, Consultant, Charities.

It’s been a tough couple of years for the third sector. Charities are continuing to experience high demand for their services following the pandemic and have adapted swiftly to offer a hybrid model of delivery, combining both face-to-face and virtual delivery of services online. The agility, innovation and hard work involved in these transformations should not be underestimated.

As the pandemic hit in early 2020, charities faced a funding cliff edge with fundraising revenues coming under huge pressure. Many organisations had to restructure to cut costs as strategies were revised and redundancies made. Some had to dip into charity reserves to keep the lights on and action critical projects. Research published in December last year found that the number of people to have recently donated to UK charities fell by almost three million compared with before the pandemic.

There was a great sense of optimism in the sector as 2022 began. A renewed ambition and enthusiasm to get plans back on track. This was soon punctured by the ramifications of the war in Ukraine, rising inflation and energy costs fuelling the cost-of-living crisis we are witnessing. As the pressure on individual giving income continues and operating costs rise at pace, CEOs are working hard to ensure that staff are feeling valued through these tumultuous times. Staff recruitment and retention remain front and centre as organisations struggle to attract talent. According to CIPD labour market research, 53% of charities have ‘hard to fill’ vacancies, above the 47% seen for employers in general. This is especially evident in health and social care where charities are having to be ever more inventive and accommodating to attract and retain people.

Mark Smith, CEO Naomi House & Jack’s Place adds, “Workforce remains one of our biggest challenges particularly regarding nurse recruitment and so we have been working alongside our NHS colleagues to recruit International Nurses to fill some of our vacant roles. We are continually monitoring salaries to ensure they stay in line or ahead of NHS pay levels, adjusting as required and are considering other ways to retain staff through flexible working, self-rostering and offering career development opportunities where possible.”

With the cost to hire talent unabating, retaining talent is critical. Pay reviews, cost-of-living payments, one-off bonuses, wellness allowances, flexible benefits, as well as super-flexible working are strategies that are already underway to support staff across the sector.

I asked Lea Milligan CEO MQ Mental Health Research his thoughts on the current situation. MQ Mental Health Research is the largest charity in the UK focused on better understanding, treatments, and prevention of mental health through world class research.

“At MQ Mental Health Research we see our staff as our greatest asset and that it’s our responsibility to ensure we do all we can to encourage mental health and wellbeing for the whole team. Since Summer 2020 we’ve taken a long-term view to the recovery from the Pandemic, preparing ourselves for one of the most difficult fundraising climates to-date and recognising the challenges our team faced during the early ‘emergency’ phase and now the likely slow ‘chronic’ economic recovery phase. Since 2020 we have given each member of the team; £50per month wellness allowance to spend on positive mental health activities, three additional days holiday by shutting the organisation through the Christmas period, high levels of flexible working with one core office day per week, annualised and flexible hours, a 2021 salary lift of £1,500 per person.”

He adds, “We’ve shaped this response by surveying and listening to our team on where they think most support can come from. Right now, we have just completed a salary benchmarking to ensure we remain in the upper quartile of pay for our size and sector, attract and retain the top talent to fuel our growth and give people the best financial support for the wellbeing. We will likely have an inflationary uplift for whole team in this year’s review that goes as far as we can to combat the cost-of-living crisis. We encourage staff to share, where they want to, their own mental health and life journeys and take all challenges people face on a case-by-case basis.”

Our people are all we are – and if we want to serve and transform mental health through our research; we must start with our team.”

Many charity leaders are looking more broadly and offering a holistic mix of benefits to support the financial welfare and mental health of their staff.

Caroline Stevens, CEO, The National Autistic Society says, "We believe that our greatest resource are our staff – their dedication, enthusiasm and passion to create a Society that works for autistic people,”. “We also believe that our staff are not just employees. They are parents, carers, brothers and sisters, volunteers; they have hobbies and interests; they get tired and are sometimes stressed or want to celebrate.  

“We will therefore endeavour to be an innovative employer that recognises the uniqueness of each of our staff ensuring that they can lead fulfilled lives where work is a part of, but not the only part of their life.  Our principle is that, within the inevitable constraints that each role has, we will allow staff to make flexible decisions for themselves about how they manage their time at work and their time in the rest of their life.”

NAS has recently started trials of several options such as a nine-day working fortnight, additional days off for special celebrations and staff Reset Days where the intention is to avoid booking meetings and sending emails to help people in the organisation better manage their workloads and free up some time for reflection, planning or strategic thinking. It’s hoped that this will help with the wellbeing of colleagues and make the charity a more attractive and supportive workplace.

As well as the challenges to attract paid staff, many charities are also grappling with a slump in volunteering. Charities rely heavily on the dedication of teams of volunteers to run shops, events, care services and activities. “Girlguiding has tens of thousands of talented volunteers,” says Angela Salt, CEO, Girlguiding. “Many of them are women, and many are key workers – two demographics which shoulder caring responsibilities in addition to work. We are already beginning to see signs that the cost of living and inflation mean volunteers need to work more hours, and sometimes more jobs. This will undoubtedly have an impact on their ability to volunteer.”

Angela adds that while Girlguiding may not be able to compete with commercial sector salaries, it can offer unrivalled volunteer experience, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to change girls’ lives. That’s a powerful message and one that Girlguiding will doubtless be looking to amplify going forward. Yet at the same time, there is a need for further change.

 “I think there was a shift in volunteer and potential volunteers’ behaviour patterns before the pandemic and it was heighted during it, with more personal choice and valuing the ability to take part in bite-size volunteering, choosing where and when and how to volunteer,” says Angela. “Organisations like ours have to adapt our business and delivery models in the light of these changes.”

Clearly, given the macroeconomic outlook, the road ahead remains highly challenging. Economic volatility is likely to remain for much of 2023 as consumers and businesses struggle to make ends meet. It’s a critical time for many. However, the charity sector has endured the pandemic and demonstrated great tenacity by finding other ways of working. Of course, keeping a lid on operating costs while simultaneously trying to be an attractive employer at a time of pronounced staff shortages is a tall order. But as we face further disruption, I see confident, empathic leaders standing tall with an overarching determination to succeed, not only for their staff, but for the many thousands of beneficiaries who depend on them.


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