People Management: Winning the battle of staff retention

Indira Das-Gupta looks at causes of and solutions to charities' high turnover of staff.

People who work for charities should, in theory at least, enjoy high levels of job satisfaction. But staff in the sector stay with an organisation for an average of only two and a half years, compared to six years in the private and public sectors, according the UK Voluntary Sector Almanac 2004.

Most staff accept that as much money as possible should go to the cause they are working for, but that tends to mean lower pay, which inevitably prompts some to leave. And some jobs within the sector are by their nature demanding and will always see a higher rate of staff turnover.

Part of the problem is people's perception of what working for a charity is like, according to Richard Evans, chief executive of CF Appointments.

He explains: "People's expectations tend to be higher because they expect to be able to make a real difference."

Liz Deakin, director of Integrity Recruitment, feels that a lot of disappointment can be avoided simply by being honest. She says: "When we recruit people to do door-to-door and street fundraising, we are careful to tell them how hard it is. It's cold, it's wet, and the public do tell you to go away."

Training is another key area where the sector has a tendency to let itself down. A study by Agenda Consulting shows that charities spend an average of £256 per employee on training and development each year, some 30 per cent less than the private and public sectors, which spend £366.

Professor Ian Bruce, director of the Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness says: "The sector needs better professional staff development to encourage people to stay in their posts longer. Salaries tend to be lower, so there needs to be another incentive."

Richard Evans agrees: "Professional development is very important, and while it may be difficult for smaller charities to provide this, there is the possibility of secondment. Flexible working patterns can also help."

It is not all doom and gloom, however. According to the 16th Annual Voluntary Sector Survey by Remuneration and NCVO, 46.6 per cent of organisations reported problems retaining staff in 2004, compared to 54.7 per cent in 2003. Evans says: "Things are definitely getting better, and it is worth taking into account that there is more mobility in employment than 10 years ago."

But there is still a lot of room for improvement, according to Bruce.

He says: "Charities are sometimes so passionate about their causes that they treat staff as cannon fodder for the battle of the moment. Investing in staff more would only help in winning those battles."

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