When it comes to work, size does matter

Our survey, covering more than 1,000 staff from a wide range of charities, shows that those working in medium-sized organisations are happiest with their working conditions. Does one size fit all? John Plummer reports.

Small: charities with fewer than 50 staff, medium: charities with 51 to 200 staff, and large: charities with 201 or more staff
Small: charities with fewer than 50 staff, medium: charities with 51 to 200 staff, and large: charities with 201 or more staff

For many years, people have argued about whether life is better at small or large charities. Now it seems the answer is neither: the ones in between are best.

The second annual staff survey by Third Sector and Birdsong Charity Consulting reveals that people from medium-sized organisations with between 51 and 200 staff are by far the most satisfied at work.

This is good news for those in the middle, but it is worrying for the charity super-brands that are growing rapidly, and for the multitude of small charities that make up the vast majority of the voluntary sector.

The fact that only 55 per cent of staff from large charities and 41 per cent from small charities plan to be with the same employer next year highlights the problems that many organisations face.

Frances Hurst, co-founder of Birdsong, thinks the low proportion of people, particularly at large charities, who believe senior managers are well informed about what staff think and do is a major worry. She says that some big charities ought to reconsider how they measure the effectiveness of their senior management teams.

"There are some problems with senior managers," she says. "Some in bigger charities have got their heads in the sand about their staff and aren't prepared to bother about internal issues. They are excited about their role in the management team, but see inward issues as a bit of a bore and a drag.

"The performance of managers is often measured by what they have delivered and not what they have done with their teams. But they should be rewarded for people management as well for meeting their external objectives."

Staff are worried, too, about pay and long hours. Hurst suspects this is linked to the economic slowdown. "Charity workers are feeling the heat," she says. "If people feel under pressure, they want to be better rewarded. Fundraisers in particular are under more pressure."

There has also been a 9 per cent fall in satisfaction with flexible working opportunities. Despite their resources, big charities score lowest of all. "Some big organisations have old-fashioned policies and aren't prepared to change them," says Hurst.

On the bright side, charities appear to be paying more attention to staff training and development. Fifty-four per cent of respondents from all charity sizes said they had good personal development opportunities, compared with 46 per cent last year. Fifty-three per cent said they felt supported in their jobs, compared with 43 per cent last year.

If this investment in people continues, future surveys might show a reduction in the proportion of people wanting to leave the sector. "There is a fear that you train people only for them to leave, but the evidence is the opposite," says Hurst. "If people feel their skills are being kept up to date, they are happy to stay."

Hurst says it's not surprising that medium-sized charities came out best. "They don't have the pressure of hand-to-mouth funding that small charities face and they aren't bogged down by structures and policies," she says. "They have some good people at the top and value what individuals bring."

But she was surprised by the extent to which they dominated. "I thought the big charities would come shining through on pay and development, but they didn't," she says.

The problem for medium-sized charities is maintaining staff satisfaction as they grow. "They have to establish good internal communications so they stay in touch with their staff," says Hurst. "They must put mechanisms in place to ensure messages get around. Poor relations between departments are real demotivators."

Communication is poor at small charities, which is surprising because there are fewer people to communicate with. "People don't think they have the time to communicate - even with colleagues on the other side of the room," says Hurst.

Small charities also score lowest on training. Hurst urges them to "explore what they can do" rather than use lack of resources as an excuse for ignoring their development needs.


Researchers posed 42 questions to more than 1,000 employees from 181 charities in April and May this year. The questions covered pay, work-life balance, flexible working, training and development, the effectiveness of management and the quality of internal communications.

The findings are contained in the report Size Matters, which shows staff in medium-sized charities responded most favourably to almost every question. Small charities were defined as those with 50 staff or fewer, medium as having between 51 and 200 staff and large as having 201 or more.

The report also contains recommendations on what organisations of all sizes should do to make staff more contented. Birdsong intends to conduct the research annually.

The full report can be downloaded for free from www.bird-song.co.uk/charitypulse.html.

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