Charities seek a smarter way

Training is often one of the first budgets to be cut when times are tough. So how can charities find the right training and development in a time of strained finances? Patrick McCurry reports

The Charity Pulse survey, published earlier this month, found that only 45 per cent of staff believed they had sufficient training to do their jobs well - the lowest figure since the survey began in 2007.

In May, a review of skills and leadership led by Dame Mary Marsh also found the charity sector wanting in eight key areas. These were strengthening governance, attracting and developing leaders, routes into and through the social sector, skills sharing, digital fluency, data-informed social change, enterprise capability and collaboration in the social sector.

Among the conclusions the Marsh review reached was that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to their own development. "There are so many opportunities to provide peer-to-peer support and learn from each other," said Marsh. "We can all use and create networks for sharing experience, skills and safe spaces for reflection."

She added that it was crucial that people at the top of organisations took responsibility for developing their staff and that charities should urgently address specific skills gaps in digital technology and enterprise.

Here we speak to four charities of different sizes to establish how they provide staff with training and seek to address the issues identified by the Marsh review.


Campaign for Learning is a small charity, with 15 staff. As one might expect, however, training and development is encouraged even when money is tight. The charity coordinates National Learning at Work day in May each year.

Chief executive Tricia Hartley says the charity contributes financially towards staff acquiring new qualifications, such as MBAs at the Open University. It also offers staff free 'learning days', when they can take time off and get £50 towards training, even if it is not directly work-related.

"It could be a photography course, making jewellery or learning to fly a helicopter - we support all these kinds of learning because we believe they will indirectly benefit us," says Hartley.

She says that the Marsh review has been useful but one of the biggest challenges for the sector is a lack of partnership working skills. "In a downturn there is more need to work together, and many organisations find that difficult," says Hartley.

She says that while there are steps that charities can take to improve leadership development, it will always be difficult to attract candidates to the sector while the work is insecure, pay is relatively low and the hours long.

On the question of improving staff's digital skills, Hartley believes younger people can play their part. For example, the organisation has recently created a computer programme that enables staff to share files. "It was our younger, more tech-savvy staff who took the lead on this, and older employees like me have learned through them."


In a tight financial environment, charities need to look at more innovative and cost-effective ways of offering training and development, says Graham Hodgkin, chief executive of London's Air Ambulance.

Hodgkin says that the training budget for charity staff, as opposed to specialist staff such as doctors and pilots, has been low for several years but is now going up. He says the organisation makes the most of its network by inviting corporate or individual supporters who have specialist skills to offer support in specific areas such as social networking, public affairs, business planning and marketing.

He says: "We pay for some training but mostly use in-house skills, pro-bono support or industry experts in my network.

"This support is not always described as training but that is what it is, and it allows our people to learn from an expert, on the job."

Staff are encouraged to run training sessions. "Before joining London's Air Ambulance I ran a leadership and management consultancy, so I'm able to run workshops for our staff," he says.

Hodgkin says the charity has also worked with an HR consultant "so that new staff can see a career path".

He says the charity is in the early stages of making better use of digital technology, and agrees with the Marsh review about the importance of developing enterprise capability. He adds that the charity is exploring new ways of raising funds, beyond traditional techniques and funders.


Half of the staff at the charity are volunteers, many of whom work just a few days a month, which makes the provision of training difficult.

Keith Best, chief executive of the charity, says: "The traditional training methods of getting everyone together at the same time aren't always practical, so we're exploring how we can use online training more."

Unlike many voluntary organisations, he says, Freedom from Torture is spending more on training than in the past, though he is unable to say by how much because the budget has not yet been approved. More money is being invested - partly for quality assurance reasons, says Best: "We want to provide a uniform level of service, in whichever centre a client contacts us." The increase in training also stems from the importance of meeting high ethical and clinical standards, he adds.

Best says that the charity has limited funds to send people on courses, but he and colleagues keep a close watch on free training courses for charities. "I went to a free training event on the Bribery Act recently, offered by a law firm, and it was very useful," he says.

The charity employs lawyers, medical clinicians and psychological therapists, and organises internal training so that, for example, its lawyers provide training to clinicians on legal issues they might need to be aware of when talking to clients.

It also uses mentors from other organisations to help support staff. "I have a mentor, someone from industry, who has been very helpful and works for us pro bono," says Best.


RSPB head officeThe wildlife charity the RSPB has changed its approach to training over the past 10 years. David Hepburn, head of training and development, says it used to offer a large menu of courses but has reduced that and now delivers most of its training and development in-house, rather than using external providers.

Money for training is always tight, but Hepburn says that there's a firm commitment to staff development, which has ensured that training is taken seriously.

Courses range from handling machinery to management and communications. External providers are sometimes used to deliver the training. Fundraising training is the responsibility of the fundraising department and is all delivered in-house.

Hepburn says that managers work with their staff on deciding what kind of training is needed and the training team then decides how best to provide it. "We can't provide training and development on our own for nearly 2,500 staff, so we work with senior teams in the organisation, helping them to take responsibility for developing their people," he says.

Leadership is an important component of the charity's strategy, which means not only developing managers but also getting across the message that leadership is relevant to all staff. The RSPB has also put in place initiatives to encourage staff from its wildlife reserves to move into management roles.

"This included a highly successful apprenticeship scheme, by the end of which all participants had made career advances," says Hepburn. On digital fluency, Hepburn acknowledges that it can be difficult to ensure staff are using IT and other technical equipment effectively, but adds that IT courses alone are often not enough to teach staff the skills they need.

-       Read our interview with Keith Mogford of Skills – Third Sector

-       See our article on how to get financial training on a shoestring

-       Find out how to make better use of digital technology

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow us on:
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Google +

Latest Jobs

RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners


Expert Hub

Insurance advice from Markel

Cyber and data security - how prepared is your charity?

With a 35 per cent rise in instances of data breaches in Q2 and Q3 last year, charities must take cyber security seriously

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now