Loads of people want to work for charities. Why do we make it so difficult for them?

The lack of diversity in fundraising is receiving increased attention. Thank goodness: it’s holding back the charity sector in many ways which we probably haven’t fully appreciated.

Fundraising also has a talent shortage which, in my view, goes hand in hand with the diversity problems. It’s incredibly difficult to find good fundraisers, especially at senior level. This also leads to a host of other problems, such as job-hopping; it’s easy to be tempted away to a new charity after a couple of years if you have lots of options. This means that charities rarely benefit from the long-term, sustained relationships that are vital in fundraising.

I’ve met many people, however, who would love the opportunity to work for a charity and change the world, but can’t find a way in (I’ve found other anecdotal evidence of this – for example the comments on Leon Ward’s Guardian article – but no broader evidence; I’d be fascinated to see any studies on this subject if they’re available).

My personal experience

I’m not sure how much has changed since I graduated in 2006, spent a successful year as a street fundraiser, then struggled to find any paid opportunities to progress in the sector. Instead I moved to the private sector for a few years, which gave me the necessary experience to move into a trust fundraising role.

My years in the private sector weren’t wasted: I gained valuable skills such as bid-writing, but it seems a shame that charities’ doors were essentially shut on me. I could have raised a lot more money for charity in those intervening years if given a chance. And I’m a white middle-class woman with a Cambridge degree who had a year’s relevant experience. If I found it difficult, what chance do those without my privilege have?

It seems absolutely mad that we need more talented people, and so many want to work for us, but we make it virtually impossible for them to help us achieve our missions.

Unpaid internships are still too common

There are far too many barriers to entering charities – especially fundraising and comms roles – for anyone without a certain level of financial privilege.

One of the most pervasive forms of discrimination is the prevalence of unpaid internships. What’s more, many paid entry level roles in charity require experience, therefore implying that these internships are a mandatory step.

This is a subject that’s gaining increased attention and there are some signs of improvement: a quick search of Charityjob indicated several enlightened charities advertising internships paying a decent wage.

However, when I turned to the “volunteering” section of the site, my heart sank. Many were genuine volunteering opportunities, but it wasn’t hard to find the less positive examples.

Look at this role description for a “Trust and Statutory Fundraising Intern” from a major charity that you’ve definitely heard of.

  • Supporting Fundraisers in the development of effective appeals, reports, proposals and updates aimed at Trusts and Statutory bodies, to raise income for the [charity’s] work.
  • Undertaking qualitative and quantitative secondary research to identify charitable trusts and statutory bodies that might have the potential to support the [charity].
  • Keeping information up to date on our fundraising database.
  • Assisting with a mailing programme to donors.
  • Providing timely feedback and reports to donors, including creation and delivery of thank you messages by mail.

I have hired people to do a virtually identical job, the only substantial difference being that the role I manage pays a salary. What’s the difference between the two positions? Why should one be paid and one not?

I also picked out the following telling phrases from “volunteer” adverts, all with the word “intern” in the job title, and all from relatively well-known charities (my comments follow each one):

“almost all the charity’s paid staff began as interns or on a pro bono basis.”

  • This is a charity that has intentionally limited its talent pool to those who can afford to work for free.

“our volunteer-based approach helps keep overheads low so that as much funding as possible can go to our projects”

  • Overheads are a fact of life. If donors won’t pay for them, someone else has to. In this case, it’s the “volunteers” who are bearing the weight of these costs. It doesn’t feel so good to boast about low overheads if you consider that the people in your organisation with the least power are the reason, does it?

“Some weekend and evening work may be required, with Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) available.”

  • I really, really hope this was a mistake. This statement does not belong on a volunteer ad. And if it was an error, it doesn’t say much about this charity’s commitment to caring for and developing its “volunteers”.

Many of the adverts I read were accompanied by diversity statements. How ironic.

Charities are exploiting the volunteering loophole

Volunteering is a vital and invaluable aspect of charity and should be encouraged. Because of this, I also think it’s impossible to legislate against unpaid internships in the charity sector. But I also think that if we’re honest with ourselves we know the difference: where does the power lie in the relationship? Is the volunteer desperate to get on the first rung of the career ladder? Or is it someone seeking to give back in their spare time?

Ultimately, there’s a very simple test to identify whether a charity “volunteer” should be paid: if you offered them a salary, would they accept it? (I think this hypothetical question has more depth to it than simply considering the offer of money. A salaried position comes with a host of responsibilities that many volunteers would prefer not to take on.)

Unpaid internships are a false economy – and this affects our ability to build relationships with donors

Compare the “Trust and Statutory Fundraising Intern” role to an identical, but paid position. Which is more likely to lead to better donor relationships for the charity, and ultimately more income? The short-term, unpaid post with a revolving door of new starters, all from similarly privileged backgrounds? Or the longer-term, more stable position with an employee who can afford to live independently, can take on more responsibility and is more likely to be loyal to the charity?

What can we do about it?

The diversity problems in fundraising are multi-faceted and complex. I have only addressed one small aspect of it in this blog post. However, there are many practical steps that organisations can take to remove some of the entry barriers and improve the situation for themselves and for the sector. It’s not just the right thing to do ethically; it makes real business sense.

  • Managers need to commit to finding and developing talented people: these may be young graduates or school-leavers, or older workers making a career transition. The role in question could take the form of an apprenticeship, a paid internship, or simply an entry-level post. Yes, training inexperienced people takes time and effort, but I’ve found that employees appreciate and remember the trust, belief and support provided. Charities that can “grow their own” talent can avoid recruitment agency fees, inspire loyalty and avoid high turnover.
  • Senior managers need to support their team to do this: finding and developing staff is time-consuming, but must be prioritised, no matter how busy the manager’s workload.
  • Charity recruitment agencies should do more to find talented, passionate people with the aptitude but not necessarily direct charity experience. There could be a gap in the market for an agency with more diverse candidates that represent the full spectrum of human experience. However, in order to do this the agencies need to know that there’s a business case for it: that charities will take on people who don’t have direct experience and commit to training and supporting them. We need to provide the demand.
  • Keep arguing for overheads: these are costs that literally keep the lights on, and ensure we can pay all staff fairly. We need to stop the overheads “race to the bottom” and give donors better ways of assessing our effectiveness, such as proper impact measures.
  • We need a coordinated sector effort to halt unpaid internships. Perhaps sector membership bodies could have a requirement for all organisational members to abandon unpaid internships and commit to finding new talent in more equitable ways.

We struggle to find good talent and have all the disadvantages of a homogeneous workforce, and yet there are countless people out there who would love to work with us if given the opportunity. Are we committed to our missions? Do we really want to change the world? We can’t do it unless we have the right workforce. And we certainly don’t have it yet.

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Loads of people want to work for charities. Why do we make it so difficult for them?

  1. Many unpaid internships are quite simply in breach of minimum wage law, let alone basic ethics! The simple act of requiring hours and offering “TOIL” to those who are working evenings and weekends is a lawsuit waiting to happen!

    I quite agree with your analysis. As someone from a working class background I could never have “interned” in London for two years before, by chance, stumbling in to a job.

    Keep up the campaign on this Hayley.

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  2. I’m not sure they’re technically illegal in the charity sector (due to volunteering being permitted) but a test case could change that. So I could have added that any charity with unpaid interns is also putting itself at risk of a court case!

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    1. Volunteering is fine but if you require fixed hours of work that someone has to do (and can’t just not turn up to), then the minimum wage applies regardless from my understanding.

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  3. Excellent article, Hayley, that highlights some serious structural and ethics flaws in the fundraising ‘profession’.

    Three quotes from the blog:

    “I’ve met many people, however, who would love the opportunity to work for a charity and change the world, but can’t find a way in.”

    “There are far too many barriers to entering charities – especially fundraising and comms roles – for anyone without a certain level of financial privilege.”

    “Charity recruitment agencies should do more to find talented, passionate people with the aptitude but not necessarily direct charity experience.”

    One of the most democratized routes into any profession or emerging profession is studying it for three years at university. Graduates with relevant degrees – in our sector whether that’s in something like charity development, nonprofit marketing, nonprofit studies, or even, shock, fundraising – can demonstrate a level of knowledge and probably experience (if an internship were part of the degree) that qualifies them for their entry level job, just as it does in so many other professions, and allows them to be assessed on a level playing field.

    You link the internship issue to the lack of diversity in fundraising and, as your quote above illustrates, you need a certain level of privilege to get a foot in the door.

    Giving everyone an equal opportunity to study a body of knowledge between the ages of 18-21 removes that privileged access, especially if you then promote this entry process as the ‘way in’ that young people are looking for.

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  4. I am a Development veteran with 32 years experience. A Latino too. There isn’t a shortage of good fundraisers there is poor hiring. I have a damn good track record and I can’t tell how many jobs I’ve interviewed for, only to see some extremely young person get the job. People with a fourth my experience. I am 55 years old. I’ve even had people who have gotten a job over me ask me to train them! Recruiting focuses on age, tenures and gives preference to those who have worked at universities. Most nonprofits or unaware they have a diversity problem, because they’re mostly white, especially management.

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