One step forward, two steps back: status quo in charity recruitment

Recruiting for charities is a funny old world. I, like most functioning members of the human race, didn’t grow up actively wanting to pursue a career in recruitment – I rather fell into it. I don’t think I’ll ever become an Indiana Jones-type archaeologist now. Three years later, I’m still here and have found an unexpected fascination with and enduring motivation for the role headhunters really play. Or maybe I’m just saying this for the benefit of my boss.

No one works in the charity sector for the money (with the possible exception of David Miliband, whose salary has risen from $240,047 to $911,796 at the International Rescue Committee. I’m all for raising charity wages, but come on). Instead, a balance is found between making the world a better place and making the bills pay. Recruiters to the third sector operate in a similar space, albeit from a different angle. Charity recruitment can pay well, sure, but commission on assignments is traditionally much lower than our counterparts who recruit to, say, financial services. As a counterweight to cut-throat, Apprentice-style assumptions, charity recruiters are – at least theoretically – interested or actively engaged in the sector we recruit to. In essence, it is – or should be – an intersection of commerciality and social purpose.

I would love to live in a reality where the recruiters who work with charities share proactive and common purpose, but unfortunately, I do not. Rather, our industry is too often left to the wayside when charities consider their supply chain, and I say that in two senses: as checks and balances against the industry’s practises as an essential link in the chain; and to encourage reciprocity in checks and balances to the charity sector.

These two strands knot together under the banner of diversity, as broad and varied a term as that is, but have been particularly noticeable in the recent social context of Black Lives Matter and the belated recognition of the importance of racial diversity in recruitment processes. A question frequently asked during pitches, for example, is, “How will you guarantee a diverse process?” It’s a question with, I think, good intentions, but one that is fundamentally restrictive. When a charity’s Board recognises its dearth of non-white faces, it rightly sees a need to become more representative of the communities it serves; but treating a black face on senior management as a silver bullet while retaining attitudes which denied a fair and equal structure is unquestionably tokenistic and changes little to nothing. Simultaneously, a recruiter who has laid no prior foundations to guarantee a so-called diverse process before it kicks off will be forced to reactively target people based on skin colour rather than ability; and let’s face it, no skill sacrifice has to be made to appoint someone from a minority ethnic background – the talent is there already.

On the note of laying foundations, this is where both parties must take stock of the other: for recruiters, we need to ask whether a charity’s efforts to ensure representation are sincere, whether they’re the first step in a much-needed process; and charities need to judge whether a recruiter is authentically committed to both guaranteeing a “diverse process” and proactively creating the conditions under which truly diverse recruitment can thrive.

And you know what? We’re not as far along this path as I had hoped we might be. Recently, a prospective charity client told me, “We have now interviewed a BAME candidate, we have met our quota for this role…”, as if that person were being interviewed for nothing other than their racial identity. On the flip side, a well-known charity headhunter, who has worked in the sector for over 20 years and is an active trustee, during the initial stages of lockdown was tweeting from his personal account content like “Black Lives Matter Is A Leftist Lie” and “Time to reclassify pandemic as a terror attack, kick all Chinese nationals out of the U.K. and seize all Chinese assets.” I also know from experience that this man talks about diversity in his proposals. Oh, the list goes on.

This is by no means limited to racial diversity. Diversity alone is a wonderful spectrum of backgrounds, identities and lived experiences on which a light is rightly being shone, and which has so much progress to offer. In the purpose-driven world of the charity sector, I would expect recruiters to display an understanding, or even engagement, with the causes of not just their immediate market but the sector as a whole; but alas, many firms operate in a purely service provision capacity – the ends justify the means. Similarly, I would expect charities to be treating the recruitment industry as a solution to their problems and as a critical friend, capable of not just supplying but progressing tomorrow’s leaders and campaigners; but too many charities do not afford recruiters the sense of (pardon the pun) agency we most need in order to maximise their impact. Of course, headhunters provide a service, but one cannot remove the service from the cause – in the charity sector, the two are inextricably linked, and without one the other falls. In brief, civil society is – or should be – an ecosystem.

I’m here to neither moralize nor preach, but would encourage charities and the organisations who recruit for them to ensure both sides are truly working towards a common goal of making the world a better place – not entrenching a status quo through lack of action. Positive noises are being heard across both sides of the aisle and we all need to play our part in amplifying them; but equally, where regressive attitudes may prevail, it is only through honesty, openness and action that they are challenged.

And yeah. He really said “Kick all Chinese nationals out of the U.K.”

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