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How the voluntary sector can help attract and retain talent

From salaries to training, retaining staff is a tough business for the voluntary sector, but there are plenty of benefits to working in an environment that helps others

Charities are an essential part of society, helping those in need across a wide range of issues from mental health to accommodation to food. The need for charities is also increasing, as the cost-of-living crisis following the pandemic means more people are struggling than ever before. For those working in the industry, it may feel more like a vocation – mostly due to what are usually below-market-rate salaries. What can be done to attract new talent and retain existing staff in the charity sector, so they can continue their vital work?

Following a massive surge in demand for support in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, and now with the cost-of-living crisis hitting many people hard, the past few years have been a particularly difficult time to work in a charity. From public fundraising endeavours being limited by lockdowns to charities needing to shift to a different way of working to accommodate Covid mandates, the sector faced a lot of additional stress and strain during this time. While things have been somewhat getting back to normal, regarding the pandemic at least, the cost-of-living crisis is worsening and demand for support has increased significantly.

Stephen Moffatt, national policy manager at Barnardos, says there has been a huge shift over the past number of years in the charity sector. “A lot of charities had to change their way of working for nearly two years, which has had an impact. There’s been a lot of value from working hybrid and we have maintained positive relationships while providing services online.

“On the back of the pandemic, we’re straight into a cost-of-living crisis which means there can be more issues that families in our specific sector are facing. They’re coming out of Covid with heightened issues exacerbating existing underlying issues. There’s also the cost, and the impact of increased costs for charities themselves. When thinking about forecasting for the future – what’s going to happen in the country – there’s some uncertainty at the moment.”


There is generally an issue around recruiting across all sectors, although this is exacerbated in the voluntary sector for a number of reasons – and not just around salary, says Moffatt. “Making sure there are enough people training in certain areas is the first step. We have this business around social workers in the country but there might not be enough people training to get into the sector. When trying to recruit people into the sector, it is often the competitiveness and the ability to be competitive with other organisations and sectors that has been an issue and this is enhanced to some degree at the moment.”

It varies from sector to sector, Moffatt says. “We have to make sure there’s a culture that people want to fit in and work in, and be flexible within work environments. Also, it’s important to outline the values a charity stands for, and hope that people share those values and want to work for organisations that work with others to help them address whatever issues they would like to address.

“There is a big issue around remuneration and matching other sectors. When there were cutbacks in 2008 the voluntary sector accepted cuts, and they were never addressed. So, there are people in our sector who are still feeling the ramifications of those cuts all these years later. So, when we are competing with the public sector we still haven’t seen that increase that the public sector has. We’re still feeling the effects of the last recession from these Government contracts.”

The work the voluntary sector does isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity, Moffatt says. “If the voluntary sector wasn’t doing it, the public sector would have to do it. There’s a lot to be done with the Government working with the voluntary sector, that as things have improved across the economy, that the voluntary sector is properly remunerated.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, Moffatt hastens to assure, and outlines the many professional and personal benefits of working in the voluntary sector. “From a professional perspective, you can have a substantial amount of autonomy to drive your own work and achieve your own outcomes. The workplace environment and culture are often geared toward what your values are and are core to the work that you do. And that’s a huge benefit of working in the voluntary sector, your values are replicated in the overall organisation.

“The work itself varies extensively, whether you are working in admin, frontline services, HR or other areas. It’s very beneficial – the work that you do is vital to people who are disadvantaged. Without you working there, the people wouldn’t receive such a high quality of care and support.”

For those interested in making the move into the sector, there are many ways to get involved, says Moffatt, depending on the charity and charity area. “Similar to any other career, it’s about looking at what people would like to do and make sure they have the qualifications and explore their skillset and interests. The voluntary sector is broad and enables autonomy for individuals and builds really positive skills.

“For some charities, you’ll need a minimum qualification that might require people to do specific degrees or courses to get involved. By and large, across the voluntary sector, there’s always an option to get in touch with voluntary organisations.” He also suggests volunteering with a voluntary organisation, as a stepping stone to making the move. “Voluntary organisations encourage people to get involved. If they want to change careers, it can help to do voluntary work.”

Edel Corrigan

Edel Corrigan is a contributor to The Irish Times