Necessity is the mother of invention

Charities are one of the UK’s biggest employers. And, like nearly all organisations, they have training needs. But alack of budgets and resources means they must be innovative when it comes to providing staff training.

Training is just as important to charities as it is to any other organisations, yet they face obstacles that many in the private sector would find too daunting.

There are about 569,000 paid charity staff in the UK. They need training so that they can run those organisations more effectively, raise funds, and fulfil charitable missions. Many charities are developing innovative and successful solutions to these challenges. Consequently, there is much that other organisations can learn from their approach to training.

By far the greatest challenge that charities face is overcoming a lack of resources, especially money.

Few training departments in any type of organisation would claim to be over-resourced, but those in not-for-profit organisations tend to have even less money and time than their counterparts in the private and public sectors. Furthermore, as donors tend to look closely at where their money goes, charities have to provide ever more rigorous justification of any expenditure in areas such as training.

Most make as much use as possible of in-house knowledge and skills.

Louise Diss, managing director of TOAST, a charity which represents people whose lives are affected by obesity, says: “We often find that if someone has a training need, there is someone else in the organisation who can meet it. We encourage them to share as much knowledge as possible, and this goes a long way to reducing our expenditure on expensive external courses.”

Mark Freeman is a learning and skills manager at the Workforce Hub, a body funded by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to promote training in the sector. “Resources are scarce, especially for the smaller charities, and this has led many of them to set up learning and skills consortia, such as the Learning Curve in south-west England,” he says. “Under this scheme, voluntary organisations work with the local Learning and Skills Council to receive affordable courses in IT, management and office skills.”

Other charities have embraced online learning as a way to cut costs.

Working for a Charity is an organisation that provides courses for people who want to move their careers from the private to the voluntary sector. Until recently, those courses were only available at its offices in London, but in 2006, the charity piloted its first online version. As well as significantly reducing the cost of providing the training, this also made it available to a wider range of people.

The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has 39 staff at its head office, and Nick Cowan, director of HR, has to use innovative techniques to make his training budget stretch as far as possible.

He says there is a great deal of free information available if you look for it. The internet is the most obvious source, but he also recommends sending HR staff on the free employment law seminars that many law firms run. He says that although they are promotional activities, they usually contain a lot of useful information.

Cowan continues: “We’ve recently done a deal with a training provider – You Unlimited – under which we will receive free management training in exchange for giving them office space. It’s a one-year initial deal, while they look for a longer term solution to their space needs.

“Through it, our managers are gaining technical management skills and solving real problems, such as how to manage volunteers, and how to ensure we’re answering external enquiries properly.”

Because charities tend to run short, unaccredited courses to meet a specific need, it has always been difficult for those working in the sector to develop their skills and careers. But this may be about to change. Earlier this year, the Institute of Leadership and Management launched the UK’s first management qualifications for the voluntary sector.

Designed specifically for individuals who manage volunteers, the qualifications will equip managers to plan, organise and monitor voluntary staff. Most importantly, these qualifications are NVQs, which are recognised by all employers. The third sector has become increasingly professional over the past few years, and in the future, we can expect to see this recognised in a growing commitment to training, and more recognition through formal qualifications.

Case study: Live Music Now

Live Music Now was founded 20 years ago by legendary violinist and conductor, Yehudi Menuhin. Its mission is to use the healing power of music in places such as hospitals and prisons, and provide performance opportunities for recently graduated musicians. It now employs 350 classical, folk, rock and jazz musicians.

Sarah Derbyshire, executive director, says: “We audition and select musicians for their musical excellence, but we place a high value on their ability to engage with their audiences, so we provide a lot of training on communications skills. Our challenge is to offer a uniform scheme that also meets individual needs.”

Last year, the charity gained a large grant from Youth Music, much of which it invested in revamping its training programme. It appointed a former musician as training officer, and he delivers a standard pre-audition induction on areas such as legal issues, health and safety, and disability awareness. This is then supplemented by individual mentoring.

“Training is one of the most exciting things we’re doing at this charity,” Derbyshire adds. “We were very lucky to get the grant, and we’re confident that what we’ve done with it will bring us ever closer to partners such as colleges and orchestras, and that this will allow us to grow and bring the healing power of music to those who need it most.”

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