Is there a talent crisis in the third sector?

Four sector insiders respond to Joe Jenkins's recent column, which argued that there were not enough talented people to go around

Joe Jenkins, director of supporter impact and income at the Children’s Society, sparked some lively debate earlier this week when he said in a column for Third Sector that there was a "talent crisis" in the voluntary sector.

He argued that, although many amazing people worked in the voluntary sector, the talent pool wasn’t growing fast enough and there were’t enough of these people to go around.

Was he right? We asked a selection of commentators for their views.

"We need to think more creatively about how we structure our organisations"

leon ward

Leon Ward, deputy chair of the sexual health charity Brook

There is no lack of talent in the sector – but there is a lack of new talent in the sector. The reasons for this are complex, but a toxic mix of low pay, unpaid internships, lack of apprenticeships, lack of graduate jobs, an obsession with degrees and a habit of staying in London all go some way to explaining why this might be.

We do also have the issues of bad talent sticking around and moving throughout the sector and people staying in jobs for life. None of this is unique to charities, though.

So what is the solution? Well, talent is everywhere. It might be time to think a bit more creatively about how we structure our organisations: can we embed remote working, regional offices, apprenticeship schemes and more creative pay structures to alleviate some of these issues?

The onus is not just on those people who are looking for work, but also on the providers of work to do things a bit differently to encourage the best people to work in charities.

"An agile, flexible workforce is critical"

emily petty

Emily Petty, fundraising and culture change consultant

I agree that there is a talent crisis in the sector. Leadership is the key to solving this, I believe. The working world has undergone a huge amount of change, but charities have been slow to catch up, finding it hard to adapt to different styles of leadership and to new ways of working. We need a new style of leadership that builds trust and enables flexibility.

Having an agile, flexible workforce is critical. We need to think differently about the roles we are advertising, offer more flexible, project-based contracts and be less London-centric. In order to do this, we also need to use technology better and invest in it.

We need strong leaders who can build the right culture, one that balances the needs of existing staff, focuses on retaining talent by supporting them through cultural and technological change and attracts new talent by being more outward-facing and looking to other sectors for inspiration.

I realise that leadership is an issue related to the talent crisis. I believe that in order to tackle the crisis, investment and focus should first be placed on developing leaders to manage the cultural and technological change needed to recruit and retain talent.

"A knowledge crisis"

ian macquillin

Ian MacQuillin, director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the University of Plymouth

A more fundamental problem than any talent crisis in fundraising is that there is a knowledge crisis.

"Talent" is all about natural aptitudes and abilities. But in a professional context, "knowledge" refers to the facts, information and skills that a person learns to be able to do their job.

For reasons I’ve never been able to understand, the fundraising sector valorises personal attributes such as passion and talent above the need to have professional knowledge.

In fact, many fundraisers will actively play down the need to have any knowledge at all, arguing that talent and passion are enough to see you through.

Just because you are knowledgeable about fundraising doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a talented fundraiser – you might be utterly useless at applying your knowledge.

By the same token, being knowledgeable certainly increases the chances of making the most of whatever natural talent you have.

It’s a fact that many fundraisers simply do not have sufficient professional knowledge, but the sector refuses to acknowledge this.

The foundation on which to fix any talent crisis in fundraising is to build a defined, knowledge-based entry route into the profession so that new entrants start their careers with a large proportion of knowledge they’ll need to apply. Without this, we’ll always struggle to attract new talented people into fundraising.

"We can’t wait around for someone else to take responsibility"

Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter, freelance coach and consultant specialising in organisational culture

Joe’s point that there’s not enough talent to go round in the charity sector will continue to be the case if we stubbornly work to the same recruitment model.

Do all the best candidates have a university degree and live in London? No.

Do all the candidates we choose to interview need to have the perfect experience? No.

Would looking for the problem-solving skills our organisations need to get to where they want to be prove more fruitful? Probably, yes.

Joe comments that there are people in our midst holding us back. That’s the same in any sector. Maybe what’s different is how some charities respond to – or ignore – poor performance.

Charities have a responsibility to hold people accountable. Good performance management is something that we tend to shy away from as a sector, though there are exceptions. But when people feel let down by colleagues and leadership teams they are likely to look elsewhere.

Joe is right when he says there’s an absolute urgency for strong leadership at every level, within our organisations and our national sector bodies. We can’t wait around for someone else to take responsibility. We need to act now.

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