Catherine Andrews: How to make the most of recruiting from the private sector

Many charities are seeking staff with commercial skills but not every talented candidate will be the right fit for your organisation, writes the not-for-profit recruitment expert

As the battle to find new funding streams continues, many charities are looking to the private sector for staff that can increase income and encourage growth.

There is a plentiful supply of eager and talented candidates looking for a role where they can "make a difference" – but not all of them will have the right attributes to succeed within a charity. This is my advice on how to hire the right person:

What expertise do you need?

Be clear about what you want to achieve as a result of bringing in private sector expertise. Are you looking for someone to help develop new products; or is it the way you structure your pricing? Do you want someone who can help you introduce a more commercial mindset across the team, or will their ability to challenge the ideas and assumptions of the senior team and trustees be crucial? Will the focus be on leading strong and competitive contract negotiation; or will they need an excellent track record in introducing efficiencies without compromising quality?

What can you afford?

It’s taken as a given that the rewards on offer in the charity sector are less about money, and more about personal fulfilment and contributing to something that really matters. Candidates from the private sector generally understand this, but it is important to recognise that the commercial skills they bring may generate significant value for your organisation. Don’t dismiss the possibility that this value can be reflected in their terms and conditions, alongside a clear delineation of the benefits and reward schemes that are on offer.

Clarity about your budgets and ambitions will ensure that you identify the right source of expertise and whether you would be better recruiting an interim or permanent new colleague.

Skills to look out for

It is vital that candidates can work across several bottom lines, understand the focus on delivering your mission and increasing your impact, and engage with staff, trustees, volunteers and external stakeholders – all while ensuring that the numbers are all going in the right direction. In my experience about 75 per cent of candidates from the private sector that we interview don’t show us that they can adapt to the culture of a charity, regardless of their specialist skills or enthusiasm for the job.

At the interview

Give candidates an opportunity to tell you what they understand about your mission and strategies, and assess their ability to apply their critical skills to your business. All too often, a candidate’s excitement for the cause means they leave their professional insights behind and get a little fluffy around the edges. Passion and enthusiasm are vital, but you are also seeking someone who will bring a new dimension and new insights to your commercial proposition.

A background in the private sector will bring experience in stakeholder engagement, but it might not be on the sustained, multi-layered and ongoing basis required in the not-for-profit sector. During the recruitment process, it is important to assess an individual’s ability to identify the motivations of your charity’s key audiences and tailor your messages accordingly. An ability to deliver clear communications is required in all sectors, so look for a capacity to explain complex information in a simple, understandable way, and back it up with robust analysis.

Different perspectives

Typically the private sector is seen to be relatively quick at reaching a decision, but within the charitable sector this can be much more complex. It often involves many more people, from both within and outside of the charity, and any decision made must satisfy the hearts as well as the minds of key decision makers. It’s likely that multiple levels of approval will be required, which many professionals from the private sector may find bewildering. Build these different groups into the early stages of your recruitment process so you can help candidates understand their perspectives and begin to tune into the agendas involved. 

There is much that can be done at the early stages of assessment and interview to help you get a sense of your candidate and the likelihood that they will prosper in your organisation: from informal chats to site visits, panel examination and psychometric profiling. Don’t scrimp on these assessment stages, as they are a crucial opportunity for you and the candidate to get to know each other and make the right decision about whether you can succeed together.

Catherine Andrews is director & UK lead of the not-for-profit practice at Veredus

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