Charity. Hell of a word. Hell of a concept. Ambiguity, challenge and opportunity run through ‘charity’ like sticks of rock.
Recruiting for charities is a funny old world. Granted, you meet, interact with and learn from some fascinating, mission-driven individuals. People campaigning to make the workplace fairer for people with disabilities. People lobbying government ministers to ensure animal welfare standards are upheld post Brexit. People briefing CEOs on air quality policy. The list goes on and on, and the day job gets more and more interesting.
You also get attention from people not working in the third sector, usually with an extensive background in senior corporate roles, who are looking for a change of scenery. To steal a phrase from a colleague, the job market’s in motion: not forwards motion, not backwards motion, just in motion. On a philosophical level, the lines between social impact and sector are increasingly blurred, not least due to a heightened sense of community and of the immediacy of environment.
I’m equally enthused and frustrated by, as well as neutrally interested in, the motivations and suitability of corporate candidates looking to break into the world of charity. So, in typical form, I’ve got an opinion (as well as some pointers for those looking to make the move).
The third sector is under immense strain. Yes, times are hard for most people who don’t have a spare $175.3 billion USD to hand (you could literally solve world hunger singlehandedly, Jeff, but here you are, hoarding 4 times the wealth of the equivalent of the GDP of the Congo), but our sector is being hit particularly hard. The NCVO’s projecting that around 1 in 10 charities face bankruptcy this year because of the pandemic, not to mention the huge numbers of staff furloughed or receiving redundancy elsewhere.
As a headhunter to this sector, I’ve noticed a marked increase in charities becoming more commercial, whether that’s their financial model, their strategic aims, how they fundraise or otherwise. Plus, the third sector can and should be seen as a crucial piece of the solution to today’s problems, but that’s a topic for another time. This demand for commerciality naturally attracts more attention from the corporate sector. Hey, it’s an opportunity to try something new, right? To put typically corporate attitudes and behaviours to good use. To make the bills pay while making the world a better place. KPIs, anyone?
Diplomatically, this is a nice, well-intentioned sentiment, one that is fundamentally human. Undiplomatically, it’s naïve and superficial bullshit.
In typical recruiter fashion, the first questions I ask candidates looking to make a move from a corporate into the third sector are, “Why this” and “Why now?” Is it existential crisis born of guilt? Is it personal experience of an issue that’s fostered an appetite to campaign on that very subject? Is it general human frustration at an unequal society? Don’t get me wrong, these are all entirely legitimate and worthy. Your reasons are your own and are, by nature, personal – who am I to judge? What this decision cannot stem from, however, is a sense that the third sector is an easy place to work, that charities are somehow soft, that this industry is lesser by factor of turnover or commercial drivers. This isn’t just wrong, it’s patronising too. If you want to ‘give back’, stick a fiver in a tin. Buy a copy of the Big Issue (cracking magazine, by the way). What the third sector has is a triple bottom line. Yes, it fundraises, it entertains, it lobbies. It also simultaneously works on the most pressing, personal, and serious issues of our time. Disability rights, poverty, racial inequality, you name it. Then, there’s the personal cost of working at the intersection of vocation and profession. Triple bottom line.
What I have also found in a career specialising in recruiting campaigners and policymakers is that it’s not essential to work in the charity sector to make the world a better place. It should not be assumed, as is often the case, that there is a default of social impact by factor of working in a particular sector alone. Look at big names like Paul Polman, Unilever’s ex-CEO, a global leader in sustainability. Look at Purpose, a social impact agency, helping the world’s leading nonprofits, philanthropies and companies put purpose and participation at the core of what they do (OK, I lifted that from their website, but still, they’re legit). Look at corporate foundations like the Co-Op Foundation or Lloyds Bank Foundation, working on major structural issues rather than acting as window dressing for a malevolent corporate (coughBPFOUNDATIONcough).
OK, corporate foundations are charities admittedly, but still, there’s a dotted line to a corporate.
Motivation for not just changing jobs but changing sector is a big decision: at the core of this must always remain the questions of why this, why me and why now. If you’re genuinely looking to use positive corporate attitudes and behaviours around pace, agility and results, then that’s great. Throw your hat in the ring. I’ll back you. If you’re looking to give back but be more proactive than donating money, then volunteer for a charity (and take it from me, voluntary positions are both challenging and rewarding). Giving your spare time to a cause is one thing; working in a mission-driven organisation as a profession is another.
Just go into these conversations with an open heart, an open mind and open eyes. Always have a goal of impact: ultimately, impact is sector agnostic. And finally, always be aware of the triple bottom line.