Charity Pulse 2016: A year of recovery for a weary sector

This year's Charity Pulse survey of staff morale shows things are looking up - despite ongoing criticism of the sector

After the charity sector endured arguably its most difficult year in decades in the wake of a number of media exposes of fundraising practices, levels of morale among charity staff could perhaps have been expected to have dipped even lower than in 2015, when they dropped a staggering 12 percentage points.

In fact, the Charity Pulse story of 2016 is one of recovery. Ten areas of this year's study show improvement on 2015 and responses to 36 out of the 46 questions show no change over the past year, suggesting that in 2016 there has been no significant drop in staff satisfaction levels. However, there are signs that staff are having to contend with increasing workloads and pressure to deliver results, an indication that continuing financial pressures on the sector are taking their toll on the workforce.

It should also be noted that the study took place between March and April, prior to the UK's vote to leave the EU.

Frances Hurst of Birdsong Charity Consulting, which conducts the annual survey in partnership with Third Sector, says: "What I think we are seeing reflected in these uplifts is that internal, organisational factors are having a greater impact on staff morale and job satisfaction than what's going on externally. For example, the fact that a funding source might be coming under threat will not have a significant impact on staff morale if the charity's leaders are communicating openly about it and involving staff in trying to address the problem. In fact, such a situation can even bring organisations closer together. The Dunkirk spirit, if you like."

What has improved?

The key indicator of morale has returned to 2014 levels after dropping significantly last year (see chart 2): 42 per cent of respondents said morale was high at their charities, compared with only 33 per cent in 2015.

Staff also displayed an increased confidence in their senior management teams this year, with 59 per cent saying they had confidence in their senior management teams, compared with 54 per cent in 2015.

Questions about people management scored well too, with three areas showing a significant uplift compared with a year ago (see chart 3). Sixty-four per cent of respondents said their views were listened to and valued - seven percentage points higher than last year.

Fifty-eight per cent of staff felt they received the support they needed to do their jobs well - nine percentage points higher than in 2015.

Staff also scored their employers better on personal development opportunities (see chart 4). In 2016, 43 per cent of respondents said they were happy with personal development opportunities offered by their employers, compared with 38 per cent last year.

Internal communication showed improvement too (see chart 5). Seventy-one per cent of respondents said that they felt well informed about what was happening within their charities - compared with 62 per cent a year ago - and 39 per cent felt that communication between teams and departments was effective, compared with 32 per cent in 2015.

But a number of respondents did cite a lack of communication between senior management and the workforce as the main thing they would like to change in their charities. One respondent said: "We need better planning for the future and communication about the plans. We need less of a 'fingers-crossed' approach." Another said: "We need better communication across different teams, especially with things that could directly affect another team."

The highs and lows

Staff scored their employers high once again in a number of key areas. When asked if they believed in the aims of their charities, 89 per cent of respondents agreed - one percentage point higher than in 2015 (see chart 6). Eighty-eight per cent of respondents said they understood what the charity wanted to achieve and 77 per cent of respondents said that they were proud to work for their charities.

However, charity staff continued to score their employers low in some areas. For example, only 24 per cent of respondents said they dealt with poor performance effectively and only 31 per cent of staff said their charities were doing everything they could to reduce their impact on the environment.

The study shows little improvement in the area of job security, with 47 per cent of respondents saying they were not concerned about losing their jobs, compared with 45 per cent a year ago (see chart 6).

Managers vs the staff

Like last year, charity managers were found to be more satisfied with their jobs than non-managers. Managers had more confidence in the senior management teams (67 per cent) than non-managers (47 per cent). They also felt more empowered to make decisions (76 per cent) than their more junior colleagues (60 per cent). Managers were more likely to feel their views were listened to and valued (71 per cent) than non-managers (56 per cent). They also felt more supported in developing their careers (51 per cent) than non-managers (35 per cent).

Areas under pressure

Despite the study showing no significant falls in staff satisfaction levels, it does detect growing levels of dissatisfaction in some areas. For example, 35 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that their workload was reasonable, compared with 28 per cent last year (chart 7).

Fifty-nine per cent disagreed with the statement that they rarely worked more than their contracted hours in a week, compared with 54 per cent last year (chart 8).

The study also indicates growing levels of stress. Forty-six per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that they rarely got stressed at work, compared with 42 per cent in 2015 (chart 9).

An increasing proportion of staff (38 per cent) said their employers did not have the correct processes and procedures in place to help them carry out their roles effectively.

A reduction in workload was frequently mentioned as one of the things respondents would have liked to change about their workplaces. One respondent said: "The workload is too high. We never have enough resource planned." Another said: "There's an expectation to continually work in the evenings and weekends because 'that's what happens at your level'."

Respondents: What they said

My charity needs to make its employees feel more valued. As Richard Branson says: 'Train people well enough so that they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don't want to.' I feel this organisation does not value its greatest asset: its employees.

There should be a compromise for the reduced pay I receive as a result of working for a charity rather than in the private or public sectors. But, if anything, they are even less flexible than those employers when it comes to flexible working or working conditions. They don't seem to have any trust in staff to do their jobs without micromanagement.

Like most small charities, we struggle financially, which means I am paid very poorly and end up doing far more work than my job description requires. The pay-off is the variety of the work, working in a sector I love, having a belief in what we do and having the flexibility that allows me to be at the school gate for my son every day. But I do worry about my long-term career progression and financial security in old age.

What has changed over past 10 years

The voluntary sector was in a very different place when the first Charity Pulse study took place in 2007. It was the latter years of Labour's time in power and funding was aplenty.

But much has changed in the intervening years. The financial downturn has placed charities' budgets under pressure and recent media attacks have led to increased levels of scrutiny. To mark the 10th year of the study, Birdsong has analysed how staff's views towards their jobs have changed since 2007.

Not surprisingly, given the turmoil, satisfaction levels among the workforce have been in long-term decline. In 2007, 60 per cent of respondents said that they felt their workloads were reasonable, but in 2016 this figure was 48 per cent - on a par with the previous low figure in 2012.

The expectations placed on staff rose to the point that only 54 per cent said they felt that what was being asked of them was realistic, 14 percentage points lower than in 2007.

On the issue of development and reward, the study shows that 50 per cent of staff felt their pay was competitive, compared with 63 per cent in 2007.

Niall Larkin, director of operations at Dementia UK and a contributor to this year's report, says the funding environment is now very different. "There is a growing need for charities to ensure their income streams are as diverse as possible, especially now that traditional funding opportunities from clinical commissioning groups and local authorities are much thinner on the ground. There has also been a knock-on effect, with an over-reliance on volunteers and less skilled, generic support workers required to carry out what can be complex front-line work."

Charity Pulse is an annual voluntary sector-wide staff satisfaction survey conducted by Birdsong Charity Consulting and Third Sector. The survey ran between March and April 2016 and asked 46 questions about working life at each charity. The survey was completed by 413 people, representing 170 charities. Click here for the full Charity Pulse reports 

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