Christina Marriott: Workplace culture - why I put the third sector in first place

The chief executive of Revolving Doors believes the voluntary sector is streets ahead of the private and public sectors, but needs leadership support

Christina Marriott
Christina Marriott

All things considered, the voluntary sector is a fantastic place to work compared with the private sector, the NHS and local government, says Christina Marriott, a former senior executive in the NHS who has also worked in the private sector and higher education.

Many of those who work in the sector do not fully appreciate how fortunate they are compared with staff in a "demoralised" public sector, says Marriott, who was appointed chief executive of the criminal justice charity Revolving Doors last year. "I left the NHS because I wanted to be somewhere where I could effect change, rather than feel constrained all the time," she says.

Apart from working in the health service, she has held senior jobs at the Care Quality Commission and the University of Central Lancashire. She has also worked at advertising agencies and set up her own business mentoring small and medium-sized enterprises.

The voluntary sector has several key strengths compared with other sectors, she says. One is the quality and commitment of its staff. "The third sector has a great talent pool, and at our charity we have a very bright, capable and committed workforce," she says. "Staff often have a shared vision of the organisation and an emotional link to their employer, compared with the more transactional relationship between staff and employer in the private sector."

Marriott says she has seen this kind of shared vision in parts of the public sector, but it is generally much stronger in the voluntary sector. This kind of commitment and passion makes voluntary sector performance stronger too, she says: "Attitudes among staff are crucial to an organisation's performance. For example, research in the NHS showed that those hospitals where staff were more engaged actually had lower levels of mortality than others."

She praises the level of collaboration in the sector too. "When I took this job, I received a great deal of support from within the charity and from others in the voluntary sector, which is fantastic," she adds.

Voluntary organisations also walk the talk when it comes to work-life balance, Marriott says. In contrast with many public and private sector organisations, she says, it is common to see charities in which policies for creating a good work-life balance are taken seriously, including at senior levels.

Marriott says many charity staff do not understand how much morale in the public sector has been eroded in recent years and how a long-hours culture has taken hold, especially at senior levels: "One of the reasons I left the NHS was that people were working 60 or 70-hour weeks - it's dysfunctional and damages people's health and family relationships. I hope that kind of culture never develops in the third sector."

But Marriott admits the voluntary sector has its own challenges. One is in the attitude to public tendering. Private sector companies are often much better at handling competitions for contracts, she says, and "the voluntary sector needs to develop a form of polite competition".

There are also questions about leadership development. The NHS has always invested heavily in leadership training, partly because it has assumed that managers will remain within the service. In the voluntary sector - and particularly in smaller charities - investment in skills and training for senior staff has been lacking.

"As in small businesses, smaller charities fear that if they spend a lot on training senior people, there will be only limited benefit because of the risk that those people will move jobs," she says.

The voluntary sector needs to be more aware of these development and training needs of senior managers, she argues. "People often assume that someone can just move into an executive role without specific training in areas such as financial management," says Marriott. "It's assumed that everyone can read a spreadsheet, for example, but that's simply not the case and many senior people, including trustees, struggle with financial information."

As for leadership, she says by far the worst examples she has seen have been in the private sector. "Nevertheless," she adds, "I would say that in all sectors there is a general reluctance to challenge bad managers or to welcome whistleblowers."

With the wider move towards more contracting of services, Marriott says, the number of people moving between the voluntary sector and other sectors will increase. "For example, with more health services provided by charities and private companies, people will be moving more between these three sectors.

"There is no more job for life, but moving between sectors can bring new skills into organisations. For example, I'm bringing to my role here a lot of experience in marketing from my private sector background and in commissioning from my public sector background."

She concludes that the voluntary sector is a "wonderful" sector to work in because of the inspiration, creativity and commitment of its workforce. She says: "When I look at what's been going on in the NHS and local government, the voluntary sector is a much better place to work."

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