HR on the front line: homing in on charity HR

The old interview question ‘why do you want to work here’ can often be met with that trusted cliché ‘because I want to make a difference’ – and nowhere more so than in the charity sector.

But because HR is largely a back-office function, perhaps the connection between how its work affects the front-line work of charities is a little harder to prove. So is it possible for HR to directly contribute to its charity’s community project work or campaigns?

Helen Giles, HR director at Broadway, a charity supporting homeless people, says her organisation can only be as good as the people it recruits, and this is where HR comes into its own.

The charity’s work is to support people to turn their lives around, so they move from a position of homelessness to one where they can sustain themselves. Broadway must attract staff committed to this aim, Giles explains.

“Our role is to recruit the right raw material throughout the organisation, from trainees to managers. We’re very selective and have a robust selection procedure to make sure people have what it takes,” she says.

Giles uses the recruitment phase as an opportunity to interact with her homeless clients.

“We train some of our homeless clients to serve on a selection panel for staff, not just bunging them on there in a tokenistic way, but giving them a proper training programme on how to do effective recruitment so they can interview people and spot the potential. Who better to know if they’d like to work with this person than the homeless people themselves?”

Giles is confident she can call on one of six clients who would be willing to help recruit new staff. They do not get money for doing so, but do benefit from the experience of working as part of a team, Giles says.

But recruiting in this sector can have its challenges. Richard Cove, the HR director at children’s charity NCH, which manages social care projects for local authorities, says hiring takes longer in his workplace because candidates need to go through appropriate vetting to work with children and vulnerable adults.

“The whole resourcing activity is fundamental to what we do. We have a whole range of people who work for us, from project workers to professional social workers. We need to assess individuals against the correct criteria, and make sure recruitment processes are comprehensive, checking and vetting staff before we get them in.”

Recruitment is often “more complex” in the charity sector, according to Cove, who previously worked in HR for private sector firms, including photographic firm Canon UK and Dunlop Tyres.

But, says Maureen Bliss, head of HR at the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB), HR must not lose sight of how those candidates will perform on the front line.

RNIB, which delivers services including care homes for the elderly, schools for partially sighted people and outreach services in the community, must be able to recruit from the widest possible talent pool to better reflect the community it serves, according to Bliss.

“It’s about helping those schools to recruit people and to plan how they’re going to do that,” she says. “It’s thinking about where we will get those care workers – from how we market our jobs, to what type of pay arrangements we can offer,” says Bliss.

Yet international development charity VSO, which places volunteers with business experience into overseas aid projects, said that core people skills such as performance management and leadership are becoming increasingly popular with clients.

For VSO, it is easy to see how HR can contribute directly to the front line and it places around three people a year with specific HR skills into overseas projects, and many more with general management skills, which includes an element of HR.

Vicky Masters, previously an organisational development adviser from the NHS in Scotland used VSO to take her skills to the Ministry of Education in Namibia.

A spokeswoman for VSO says: “Vicki’s role was to implement a performance management system across the region, but in doing so she saw the opportunity to improve standards further by developing a leadership programme for school principals.”

And after the posting a partnership between VSO and NHS Scotland will enable Masters to return to her employer after volunteering.

Developing key workers

In fact, the level of training and development open to front-line charity workers will determine the success of the charity’s projects, according to Giles.

“We have an excellent performance management system – we’ve worked in partnership with service delivery managers to develop clear performance standards for our staff. We also have a robust appraisal system, which is not just done once a year then forgotten about, but every staff member gets continuous feedback through one-to-one meetings throughout the year.”

In the same way, Broadway involves its clients in the recruitment process for new key workers, and Giles will ask up to six homeless people to take part in 360-degree feedback on their key worker.

“This means the homeless people can comment on whether the support they’re getting is up to scratch and what we can do to make it better for them,” says Giles. Ultimately, this is beneficial for the service and improves the skills of the key worker Giles adds.

“What we’ve been able to demonstrate is by investing in a strong HR team, giving managers and key workers the skills they require, we can measure sickness rates being lower,” she says.

Broadway’s sickness absence rate is under six days per person, lower than the sector average of 9.6 days [recorded by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2007].

Bliss agrees that HR’s impact in delivering the right training and development for employees reaps rewards for RNIB’s front-line work.

RNIB recently revamped its sight loss training for key workers, making it available in online or print workbooks, not just in the classroom, so that home-based workers could access it.

Bliss has also been working on different tools for staff development, which will affect care staff later this year.

“We hope this will enable us to attract and retain really good people, that are committed to the organisation and provide an excellent service – that’s the impact it has on the client,” she says.

Remember business needs

“The important thing in HR is that you are directing staff training and development towards what the business needs to achieve. We’re here to make the business run better, aligning people with business objectives,” she adds.

RNIB, NCH and Broadway insist their staff, particularly those in the back office, spend time visiting front-line staff – community projects, day centres, care homes or schools – where their charity operates.

“It’s about making sure the relationship between the back office and front-line activities is as good as it can be,” explains Cove.

“I encourage all of our staff to go and visit our children’s centres or one of our projects. They cannot possibly understand what it is we’re doing stuff for unless they’ve experienced it first hand.”

However, as Giles points out, because charities are ultimately focused on their own worthy cause it can be harder for them to take a step back and assess how they can contribute to global issues like reducing climate change.

Coprorate social responsibility

You would expect charities to be streets ahead when it came to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda, but Giles admits the charity sector has “lagged behind”.

“Charities have been in a position in the past where they had the view that because they are there to make a difference they don’t need to do more in terms of CSR. Now we’ve clearly got our eyes open, but we have lagged behind a bit. Before, it was clear that CSR is not just about your own activities, but about your impact on the world at large.”

At NCH, Cove says a lot of the CSR work they deliver is in partnership with large corporates. The campaigning arm of NCH will work with banks, for example, to put together a team of the bank’s volunteers to help work at an NCH project, such as redecorating a children’s centre.

Cove says the charity is looking to increase its fundraising and campaigning arm in future, to create more voluntary income to invest in the development of new services. Activities like fundraising raise just 10% of the overall income of NCH – the majority of funding comes from local authorities to provide frontline services.

“It’s about taking the opportunity of making contact with people from other organisations to encourage donations and funding. The more we can make out of that the more we can use to improve children’s services.”

Case study – How HR has made an impact on the front line

Head of HR Maureen Bliss at charity RNIB led two major people projects last year, which she claims have helped staff to provide a better service to clients.

In April and January 2007, RNIB merged with the Blind Centre for Northern Ireland and the National Library for the Blind. About 70 employees had to be transferred to RNIB under staff transfer (TUPE) regulations, which protect workers terms and conditions during mergers, and Bliss says HR was involved from the outset.

“We had to look at both sets of staff from the existing and future organisations and think about their skills sets and what training and development would be required post merger,” she says.

As well as advising management on the legal implications of transferring staff, HR worked on the induction process post-TUPE.

“One year on since the mergers happened, there are no noticeable disputes or ‘uncomfortableness’ from staff who have transferred. People are working together very successfully, and share the RNIB commitment to providing a great service,” Bliss adds.

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