PERSPECTIVES: Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO

In the past 10 years, working in the voluntary sector has changed to become more professional and diverse, says Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO.

The modern voluntary sector undoubtedly benefits from a well-motivated paid workforce as well as an army of unpaid volunteers and trustees. The sheer size of its workforce is often used by NCVO as an illustration of the nature and scope of the modern UK voluntary sector.

By simply stating that general charities employ one in 50 employees in the UK, it becomes immediately apparent that there is a lot more to the sector than just volunteering, even though unpaid work still forms a crucial aspect of the sector's role in our society. The paid voluntary sector workforce has grown by 85,000 jobs in just the past five years. In 2000, there were 563,000 people working in the sector, an increase of 5.1 per cent since 1998. There is no sign of this expansion slowing down.

Voluntary sector personnel are often highly educated. A higher proportion of employees have degrees or equivalent higher education qualifications than any other sector. It is also becoming a more diverse sector. More than 70 per cent of voluntary organisations have a written equal opportunities or diversity policy.

Some characteristics of the voluntary sector workforce are less prone to change and continue to resemble the more traditional image of charity work. Women still dominate the workplace. Almost two-thirds of voluntary sector employees are female and 80 per cent of the jobs created by the sector since 1998 have gone to women. Their representation in the workforce is greater than in either the private or public sectors.

Working conditions

The professionalisation and diversification of the voluntary sector workforce has been accompanied by an identifiable improvement in charities' employment practices and working conditions. Almost all now provide written contracts of employment for permanent staff and the majority for casual staff. It is also becoming increasingly common for charities to offer benefits such as pensions and flexible working arrangements.

However, it is worth remembering that most charities in the UK are small or medium-sized organisations. Limited resources often mean such benefits are beyond the reach of many. Relatively low levels of unionisation are almost certainly attributable to the predominance of small workplaces in the sector. However, if current trends continue, this is almost certainly set to change.

Surveys of pay in the sector suggest that the gap between charities and other sectors is closing. However, it is still there. Again, the picture is very different if you look at different sizes of organisation. Large household name charities often pay very competitive salaries from junior administrative positions right up to the level of chief executive.

But salaries for the same posts in small local community organisations with incomes of less than £100,000 per year could be less than half as much. Many voluntary organisations, particularly those carrying out activities previously undertaken by local authorities, link pay to established salary scales. However, due to the need to restrain rising employment costs, some are now being forced to abandon them. It seems that for much of the time empathy with the cause and a desire to do good is still compensating for differences in pay. At this point it is worth noting that the governance structures of charities remain entirely voluntary. Moves to pay trustees have quite rightly been rejected by most of the sector.

Recruitment and retention

An increase in employment across all sectors has inevitably exacerbated recruitment and retention problems. The voluntary sector is not immune from these. New research conducted for the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation shows that 47 per cent of voluntary organisations recruiting paid staff experience problems.

Recruitment problems are most commonly encountered when hiring managers or professional staff. The reasons given for recruitment difficulties fall into two distinct categories. First, there are internal reasons.

The most common of these is salary levels being set too low. Second, there are external factors which affect recruitment. The most common external problems encountered are a shortage of candidates with the specialised skills required and competition from other organisations.

It is now becoming increasingly common for voluntary sector employees, particularly senior members of policy and research departments, to be seconded to the civil service. Many do not come back.

The significance of this trend is that these individuals take with them their knowledge and understanding of the sector. This has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the Government's attitude towards the sector.

It is also becoming more common for high-profile figures in the private sector to become directors in voluntary organisations.

In the past 10 years, working in the voluntary sector has changed enormously.

The same motivations and principles of voluntary association exist, but now graduates, civil servants and company directors can all seriously consider a career in the third sector.

We must build on the sector's reputation as an enjoyable and rewarding place to work while rising to the challenge of changing working patterns and employment practices.

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