Charity staff crisis begins to hit home

Crippling skills shortages and increased competition from the public sector
is bleeding charities dry when it comes to attracting and retaining staff. Ross
Wigham discovers it is not solely an issue of pay

Charities’ efforts to tackle staffing difficulties are being undermined by
the tight labour market and an inability to hold on to key staff.

Crippling skills shortages, low pay and heightened competition from the
public sector are presenting serious challenges for the sector.

These problems are highlighted in a new report by the National Council for
Voluntary Organisations which shows that staff turnover is rising and HR
struggling to recruit new faces.

Karl Wilding, head of research at the NCVO, blames the problems on a tight
labour market and chronic skills shortages. "Staff turnover has increased
from last year and half of all the respondents are having recruitment problems
because there’s a lack of specialist skills in the UK," he said.

The Voluntary Sector Salary Survey shows that staff turnover has increased
from 8.5 to 10.7 per cent despite wage increases being above the rate of
inflation. In fact, average salaries and earnings rises are outstripping the
private sector, rising at a rate of 4.7 and 4.4 per cent respectively.

Despite this, organisations are still struggling to recruit new staff with
50 per cent experiencing difficulties in finding suitable candidates. Although
this is a smaller proportion than in 2001, it still paints a disturbing

Wilding said charities must now invest in skills as they face tougher
competition for staff from the rejuvenated public sector. "Organisations
are increasingly realising they are competing against the private and public
sectors as well as other voluntary organisations."

Claire Smith, HR director of Leonard Cheshire, the charity which provides
care for the elderly, said a whole range of factors were contributing to staff
turnover and recruitment problems in the care sector. She blames the high cost
of living, an abundance of available jobs and staff being more empowered to
move elsewhere.

Smith said while most sectors were having trouble recruiting new staff, due
to the low unemployment rate, charities were suffering particularly badly.
"I don’t believe the increase in turnover is directly related to pay, but
this shows the voluntary sector is falling behind. It is especially difficult
to recruit care workers who are attracted by other industries such as retail.
"The sector really struggles at senior management level and it’s currently
the worst I’ve ever known it," she added.

Smith said she believes the sector will have to start competing on pay to
attract suitable candidates. "Voluntary organisations need to look at how
they can start to attract the right sort of staff and there’s also a question
over funding. Charities need to start thinking if they can afford not to
improve salaries," she said.

Julie Foley, a manager at the UK’s largest hospice St Ann’s, introduced a
range of initiatives to improve the retention and recruitment of volunteers,
but admits that finding paid staff was still a major headache. St Ann’s employs
around 320 paid staff but is struggling to get more people – especially
qualified nurses – into the charity.

"It’s hard to recruit but I think that’s a national trend. It’s been
especially difficult for us to get nurses but that’s not because of salary, as
we have the same levels as the NHS," she said.

She added charities would have to start increasing management salaries or
face more organisational difficulties.

"We’ve increased our fundraising efforts because we need to sell the
organisation and raise the money to attract the best people. Charities need to
start competing with private and public salaries to keep them afloat."

St John Ambulance has recently implemented a range of initiatives to help
modernisation and combat the staffing issues within the sector, following a
review of staff issues.

Head of personnel Sue Barrington said she had anticipated a rise in staff
turnover and introduced flexible working and new conditions to try and minimise
disruption. "We expected a large turnover so put a strategic vision in
place to make it a more attractive place to work. We have to continue to
modernise to keep one step ahead," she said.

Barrington believes the main issue for charities lies not in raising managers’
salaries, but in investing in training for all staff to ensure the
organisation’s aims are delivered.

Andrew Thompson, head of International HR at Oxfam said charities must start
increasing career development. "Pay isn’t the be-all and end-all but if
there isn’t consistent career development salary can become the final straw.
Staff in the charity sector are generally quite young and are looking for an
employer to invest in them," he said.

However, the advantage charities have over other sectors is the goodwill of
staff and the potential to ‘change the world’. Many highly intelligent people
go into the sector not for money or prestige but for the satisfaction of
helping others.

Oxfam often aims to attract top managers looking for a sabbatical by selling
overseas roles as a life changing experience that will prepare them for future
careers. "There’s a tradition of staff taking jobs because they are
worthwhile and people are still looking for meaningful work. Charities need to
make more of this and sell the job as an experience," he said.

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