The charity Water Aid realised it was in danger of losing some of its most talented people after a staff survey two years ago revealed dissatisfaction with its performance-management processes.
Its staff felt they were not having enough career development discussions with line managers and that there was a lack of performance assessment and clear objectives.
Of the charity's 750 staff, including about 200 in the UK, a third said they did not regularly meet their line managers and a quarter said they had not discussed career options with their managers.
Emily Wilton, talent and learning manager at Water Aid, says the survey highlighted under-performance. "In some cases, career and development conversations were not happening and no action was taken in cases of poor performance," she says. "We asked staff whether their line manager relationships worked effectively, and the results were not great."
Wilton says that performance assessment at Water Aid in the past was connected to length of service rather than delivery of agreed objectives, and that this culture needed to be changed.
The charity decided to bring in 3C, a performance-management consultancy, to develop a series of training modules. It paid 3C almost £10,000 to develop modules such as 'learning development conversations' and 'coaching for high performance'.
The modules were delivered in French, Portuguese and English, allowing Water Aid to use them in the 27 countries where it operates. The charity began using them last May.
"Sustainability was very important to us, so 3C trained our trainers to deliver the modules ourselves, and the feedback from staff was really good," says Wilton.
But did it work? The charity says another staff survey, carried out last year, shows opinion is heading in the right direction, albeit slowly.
The proportion of staff worldwide who said they had regular meetings with their line managers increased by two percentage points to 50 per cent between the 2010 and 2012 surveys.
"We are already moving in the right direction," says Wilton. "We are happy with the results so far, although there is still some way to go. We will see more impact when we conduct our end-of-year review."
Wilton argues that the cost of the consultants is outweighed by the benefits to the charity.
"If we hadn't done this, we would probably be losing some talented individuals who would choose to go elsewhere," she says. "We would also be achieving less as a charity."
Wilton says charities should consider bringing in consultants for tasks where in-house knowledge is not available.
"I think it is worth the cost for charities because bringing in an outsider brings a different outlook and way of doing things," she says.