12 January 2021

Understanding and tackling the top HR challenges for charities

With many employees entering the charity sector to make a difference, HR teams struggle to get employees to maintain a work/life balance, but how can this be overcome?


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021, specialising in topics related to HR systems, recruitment, payroll software, and learning and development.


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With many employees entering the charity sector to make a difference, HR teams struggle to get employees to maintain a work/life balance, but how can this be overcome?

Over the years, HR teams have had to take on new responsibilities and face different challenges – with the coronavirus pandemic being just one example. For HR teams working specifically in the charity sector, however, the challenges they face are not always the same as those faced by HR teams in corporate organisations. A survey focused on the HR challenges of charities found that nearly 50% of HR teams struggle with succession planning and ensuring collaboration between staff and volunteers, but what are the other HR challenges that charities face?

“First and foremost, charities face a constant challenge from a lack of financial resources. There is always pressure to do more with less,” says Tim Ringo, author of Solving the Productivity Puzzle.

“As a result, most jobs in the charity sector do not pay on the level that many for-profit private sector organisations do. Therefore, attracting top talent is the number one challenge HR faces. This is quickly followed by challenges in retaining top talent.”

Pulvisha Raja, interim director of people and culture at Human Appeal – a British international development and relief charity based in Manchester – agrees with Ringo.

“Generally, recruitment has always been a challenge for charities and always will be because we’re not on the same level as corporate organisations.” Salaries tend to be lower in the charity sector, making it harder to recruit people. However, Raja says that the challenges with recruitment mean that HR teams have to highlight the benefits of working in a charity instead.

“People enter the charity sector because of their own motivation. They want to make a difference and get the fulfilment from here that they haven’t managed to get from working for a corporate organisation.” By showing off the difference that employees can make by working in a charity, Raja says HR teams can recruit the talent they need.

“When HR teams in charities are competing against corporate organisations for talent, we have to highlight what we as a charity can help potential employees with. When recruiting for Human Appeal, we make it less about the salary but more about what we can help you achieve. We provide extra annual leave based on length of service, we have big training agreements that help employees grow within the organisation, and we offer flexible working arrangements.”

Once they manage to recruit talent, another challenge for HR is retaining this talent.

Ringo says: “In order to retain top talent, charities need to create a unique and compelling employee experience that reinforces the employer brand and allows people to flourish. The challenge is to create an integrated employee experience where HR processes and technology are integrated from recruitment, to performance management, learning, succession, and workforce deployment.”

As pointed out by Raja, many employees join charities because of their self-motivation, however, this means HR teams struggle with making sure employees have a good work/life balance as a result.

“The work/life balance is a challenge in charities as employees always want to give their all and put in extra hours. At Human Appeal, I’ve had to stop one of our employees from working on weekends because we need to make sure that our employees have time to rest and are looking after their own wellbeing.”

Remote working has also meant that it’s harder for HR teams to make sure employees are switching off from work at suitable times – in a poll of 2,000 people in August 2020, almost half felt like they never fully switched off from work during the pandemic, and 63% of 18-24 year olds said they regularly checked their emails outside working hours, up from 48% in February 2020.

In the Small Charity Leaders Insight Report, over 60% of HR leaders said that a challenge for them is ensuring staff/volunteers maintain and develop their skills.

To improve learning and development, Ringo says HR teams must use technology and rely on professional bodies for support.

“One advantage that charities have relative to other sectors is the proliferation of professional bodies that provide learning and career development. The most effective charities make great use of these societies, to develop their workforce. Additionally, leveraging collaboration technologies should become the norm in charities, moving forward.”

Investing in technologies like a learning management system (LMS) can help HR and L&D teams engage and develop their people via a central platform for all learning content.

Lastly, Ringo points out that succession planning is another challenge for HR teams in charities.

“Charities are typically small organisations and there are fewer positions for people to move up to. This is a leading cause of high churn in the charity sector where often top talent needs to move to other charities to take more senior positions.”

For HR this means open communication with all employees is crucial so that they can understand what employees need/want to work towards, and what they need from HR to help make it possible.