Stella Smith: Recruitment from other sectors must be carefully managed

An outsider's view is welcome, but transplanting someone from another sector rarely works, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

It can be fascinating to hear an outsider's perspective. Seeing everything with a fresh pair of eyes, they notice those habits and routines we've got so used to that we hardly see them any more. It's no surprise, then, that many charities are now looking to other sectors to recruit trustees and senior staff. Recently we've had Liz Warner coming from the world of entertainment to head Comic Relief and Martin Halliwell (previously of Unilever) taking up the role of chief finance officer at the British Red Cross. Some non-charity people manage the transition into the sector well, but this is by no means always the case. Recruitment from other sectors can be tricky if not managed carefully.

When people swap a successful corporate career for a spell in charities, they come with high hopes. Often passionate about making a difference, they have reconciled taking a smaller salary in return for giving something back. They see their new charity role as the opportunity to do just that: to work with committed people to make a positive difference. And charities are usually only too happy to facilitate this move. Excited that they have attracted people with top commercial credentials, they hope their new recruit will bring the clarity and professionalism of big business as well as access to corporate contacts and the secret to financial success.

The honeymoon is all too often brief, however. The new post-holder is rarely prepared for the challenges: working within tight budgets, with a board of volunteer trustees and with staff who are more passionate about the cause than about the organisation. These aspects of charity life tend to go unnoticed by those of us who have been in the sector a while but can be quite a culture shock to new recruits.

Charities have moved closer to the commercial world in the way they operate, but there is still a gulf between the different cultures. Non-charity recruits might be used to an environment in which staff are expected to be forthright, ambitious and committed to their own development, where there is an unspoken respect for hierarchical authority and much clearer delegated and decision-making responsibilities - and, of course, where the concept of working without financial reward is unheard of. Without considering these cultural differences, transplanting someone from a different environment into a charity and expecting them to recreate their success is unlikely to work.

There is undoubtedly huge benefit in cross-sector learning, but we need to consider other approaches, such as job shadowing, mentoring and networking. We still have a huge number of voluntary sector lifers whose long careers in the sector, though demonstrating commitment, do not bring the range of skills and experience charities need. So rather than waiting for people to come and join charities, more of us should perhaps consider spending time working in different sectors.

We should, however, continue to welcome people who make the transition to the voluntary sector and ensure we have frank and honest discussions with them early on in the process. Naturally we're concerned that complete honesty might dampen their enthusiasm, but it is surely better to do that than risk frustration, disappointment and failed recruitment later on.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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