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BLOG Supporting the Sector’s ‘Talent’

15 May 2014 at 11:40 am
Lina Caneva
In a sector where much of that effectiveness comes from the people who work for charities, we need to be able to talk about those people and how we sustain them says Not for Profit Fulbright Scholar Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine in her latest Blog.

Lina Caneva | 15 May 2014 at 11:40 am


BLOG Supporting the Sector’s ‘Talent’
15 May 2014 at 11:40 am


In a sector where much of that effectiveness comes from the people who work for charities, we need to be able to talk about those people and how we sustain them says Not for Profit Fulbright Scholar Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine in her latest Blog.

Last week I was delighted to join a panel for the Guardian newspaper’s Voluntary Sector Network on how charities can manage and nurture their workforce talent.

This is something I am strongly committed to and it was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-profit Leadership. It’s also an issue that speaks to the value of good transparency and accountability in the Not for Profit sector.

Articulating the importance of our workforce, and of investing in it, as legitimate and crucial to effective charitable activity is particularly important in countering perceptions that the work of this sector is primarily voluntary; and that investment in staff and organisational capacity runs counter to meeting charitable purpose ‘on the ground’.

The discussion got off to a great start with a contributor challenging the very notion of ‘talent’ as ‘way too corporate, trendy and, frankly, a bit self indulgent for a charity like ours’. This brought up the key challenge of how we frame this issue in a way that helps charities engage with it.

Language and process matter very much in our sector. There are many other starting points for this conversation that might make it more accessible, such as how do we support our staff or live by our mission.

For me, the core issue is ensuring that our charities are as effective as they possibly can be for the people and communities they support. And in a sector where much of that effectiveness comes from the people who work for charities, we need to be able to talk about those people and how we sustain them.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by smart, committed and creative colleagues who continually inspire me to support talent in our sector. Being on this panel also reminded me how important it is to share ideas and strategies across organisations.

We heard about Medecins San Frontieres’ approach of ‘a structured and thorough recruitment and selection process’, operating alongside successful employee engagement strategies.

British Red Cross reflected on the challenges they encountered with assessment and identification approaches, which were both ‘comparatively expensive and less successful overall, whereas we have great success in teams where managers have a bent towards developing staff and volunteers, they work on it systematically and see it as a central part of their role’.

Meanwhile Charityworks advocated the three c’s: ‘we encourage our people, and the people we work with to be “conscious, curious and challenged”… the people … who develop the quickest often demonstrate those qualities. They are self-aware and reflective, intellectually and professionally curious, and seek out and respond well to challenge’.

There was much interest in whether cost was a prohibitive barrier to developing ‘talent’, or more of a red herring, with panellists generally agreeing that charities can’t afford not to invest in their staff. The crucial step is for a charity is to identify managing ‘talent’ as a priority and set a strategy to do so. Once that commitment is there it can be achieved in any number of ways, whatever the resources available.

I agree but I also think there’s important work to do about how we scale talent development for the variety of non-profit organisations. While there are a small number of large charities, the vast majority of organisations are small to medium sized. Any strategies and solutions need to be able work across this diversity.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion turned on the nature of staff turnover within our sector. I hear often that high turnover of staff is a problem, yet it seems to me that while organisations struggle to keep their staff, the sector as a whole tends to retain those workers, as they move from one organisation to another. Turnover in the social sector isn’t necessarily about lost workforce so much as recycling workforce between organisations.

On the one hand there’s a real strength here, as people can move between charities working on similar issues, or even from Not for Profit to government or for-profit organisations, while maintaining their skills and expertise. But what do we lose in that turnover, by way of institutional knowledge, potential for collaboration and leadership?

Charities face a particular workforce challenge in attracting both the skills we need and the capacity to work in a Not for Profit environment. Because of that, I'm not sure we can afford to sit back and let good people go.

In the private sector there are corporations, including some of the major consultancies, who plan to keep staff for two years only. But the sheer size and scope of global companies is very rarely matched in the charitable sector; while the constant struggle in Not for Profits to do more with the limited resources we have makes our people even more valuable to us.

I concluded my contribution to the panel with two top tips:

i)   Investing in talent doesn't have to cost a lot financially, but it's worth more than not doing it in the long run; and

ii) Thinking laterally about your relationships within and beyond the charitable sector can help organisations leverage this to support their staff as well as their charitable purpose.

Quotations are taken from The Guardian’s How charities can manage and nurture the talent of their workforce – live Q&A, 9 May 2014. With me on the panel were Liz Lowther, Clore Social Leadership Programme; Rachel Whale, Charityworks, whose research on this subject informed the discussion; David McKnight, McKnight HR; Roger Smith, British Red Cross; Robert Payne, Prospectus; and Margareth Ainley, Médecins Sans Frontières. Thanks to Aimee Meade for bringing this discussion together.

About the author: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for charities and social services and the voice for people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia. She was awarded the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in non-profit leadership in 2013 and is currently undertaking her Fulbright at the Foundation Center in New York City and the National Center for Charitable Statistics within the Urban Institute in Washington DC. The Fulbright Professional Scholarship is sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation. Applications for the Fulbright Scholarship are open now and close August 1.   

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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