Ian MacQuillin: Talent problem? The sector also has a knowledge problem

Diversity initiatives can increase the breadth of talent coming into the sector, but do little to provide them with the knowledge they need to make the most of their skills

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

At about this time last year, Joe Jenkins wrote a blog for Third Sector in which he argued that charities faced a talent crisis: there weren’t enough talented people joining the sector. Speaking at the Bond conference 12 months later, Joe said the problem hadn’t been fixed and the talent crisis still existed.

Who’s shocked?

Twelve months isn’t a long time in which to feel the effects of any initiatives we’d have to set up in order to bring about the fundamental, systemic changes needed to fix the talent crisis. We’d also have to ask whether any such initiatives have actually been put in place.

We have the Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective, which aims to make fundraising a more diverse and inclusive profession (and I am going to talk about fundraising rather than the entire charity sector).

Greater diversity brings well-documented benefits in and of itself. But simply making fundraising more diverse and inclusive does not guarantee that we’ll solve the problems we face because, as I wrote in response to Joe’s original Third Sector blog last year, fundraising also has a knowledge crisis separate from and in addition to any talent crisis.

Diversity initiatives could increase the breadth of talented people coming into fundraising, while doing very little to provide them with the knowledge they need to make the most of their talent.

But there is another challenge we face that isn’t even being considered: why would talented people want to become members of the fundraising profession in the first place?

A survey conducted for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the US in August might have passed British fundraisers by. Here a few findings from that market research.

  • 51 per cent of fundraisers say they will leave their current non-profits within two years.
  • 30 per cent say they plan to leave fundraising altogether.
  • 36 per cent say they’re dissatisfied with the support they get from their boards.
  • 29 per cent are dissatisfied with the support they get from their organisations’ chief executives.
  • 30 per cent are dissatisfied with the level of recognition for their accomplishments.
  • 21 per cent agree that the negatives of their jobs outweigh the benefits.
  • 27 per cent of those who are likely to leave fundraising or have left say unreasonable goals are a key reason.
  • 25 per cent of fundraisers are dissatisfied with their access to professional development (in other words, opportunities to broaden their knowledge).

Over and above the bald statistics, the research paints a picture of an undervalued and poorly understood "profession" in deep crisis.

It talks of "ageing leaders who hold too tight to the reins, dysfunctional management fostering a "toxic" culture, tight budgets, understaffing, workers feeling underappreciated". It says fundraisers are leaving the profession because they are simply "burned out". And it mentions a lack of professional development and promotion opportunities.

I would be flabbergasted if a survey conducted among British fundraisers didn’t turn up very similar results. Third Sector has written about "toxic workplace cultures" 11 times this year already, and a survey by the Unite union in May found that most charity staff were stressed at work.

Why would anyone – talented or not – want to join a profession where this is what’s in store for them? At least other sectors with toxic workplace cultures will pay you bigger salaries for having to endure those cultures.

We are facing, as we so often are, a problem that has deep, systemic roots. Yet we are trying to solve it, as we so often do, with initiatives that deal only with the symptoms of the problem while leaving the causes largely untouched.

We need a more talented workforce. We need a more diverse workforce. We need entry pathways into fundraising that will equip talented people with the knowledge and skills they need to maximise their talent.

But we also need to make sure that once we get diverse and talented people into fundraising, they don’t leave within three years because the culture we have invited them into is so toxic and dysfunctional.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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