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Charities: surviving a retention crisis

Charities surviving a retention crisis

The charitable sector was hit particularly hard during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, recent Charity Commission research found 90% of charities reported a negative impact upon their service delivery, finances, staff, and morale.1

Now however, a staffing crisis is severely affecting the sector, just as it seeks to recover from the worst of the pandemic. Employment experts believe that charities are facing an ‘exodus’ of staff due to the increasing pressures of the job – with overwork, burnout and low pay cited as the main reasons charities are losing staff.2 However, there are other factors such as returning to the workplace post covid. Office based employees, whilst missing the social aspect, have experienced a different work-life balance, more flexibility and saved money through a lack of a commute. Money those employees may now be used to spending on other activities and feels very much needed with the cost-of-living crisis. While some corporates have been able to refurbish offices and offer incentives, many charities can’t do this without misappropriating donations. All these factors combined have exposed the scale of this retention crisis, highlighted by labour turnover research, which found the not-for-profit sector battling a staff turnover rate of 18.1%.3

To make matters worse, charities may struggle to simply recruit their way out of a retention crisis, with applications for charity sector roles still far below pre-pandemic levels. An analysis of 40,000 charity job postings found that worryingly applications per role had fallen to just 24 in July 2021, compared with 40 applications per role prior to the pandemic.2  

The impact of a retention crisis 

 A retention crisis during a challenging charity recruitment market can be very disheartening for employers, given the effect on almost every aspect of a charity’s work.  

For instance, any employee leaving a charity will take valuable knowledge and experience with them, which can be hard to replace during a recruitment crisis. Along with the obvious impact of a smaller workforce, this can harm productivity at a time when charities need all the help they can get in recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, even if a charity is successful in hiring a replacement, it can take time for them to get up to speed and deliver the same level of productivity as the prior employee.4

Naturally, these issues are likely to be more severe if a charity loses specialist or highly skilled staff like finance professionals – potentially affecting everything from fundraising and financial reporting to employers liability insurance arrangements. Especially if less able or qualified employees take on additional responsibilities, exposing the charity to potentially riskier work practices. 

Unfortunately, there are the wider issues like staff morale and reputation to contend with, which can both be affected by high staff turnover. It is often the case that high turnover tends to be self-feeding, with staff departures affecting the charity’s own culture, morale and potentially leading to further departures.4 At the same time, if high staff turnover also affects the charity’s wider reputation the knock-on effects can potentially damage both fundraising and recruiting efforts. 

There can be no doubt, therefore, that staff retention is a key issue for charities – and that finding ways to reduce staff turnover will be a key focus for many. 

Surviving a retention crisis 

The good news for any charity battling with a retention crisis is there is a range of strategies that could both help stem the tide of leavers, and aide recruitment efforts into the bargain. 

These include:5 

  • Offer flexible working options: A recent survey of charity professionals highlighted the growing importance of flexible working when it comes to attracting and retaining staff. It found that 76% of candidates had decided not to apply for a position because it did not offer enough flexibility, while – crucially – 62% said they had changed roles in search of greater flexible working options.6
  • Focus on purpose: Help employees to feel part of the charity’s purpose and understand their own contribution, it can really help strengthen morale and retention. This is a process that starts with new employee on boarding, but can be continuously strengthened – for instance by making sure that performance reviews include a discussion of how their individual achievements have contributed to the charity’s success. 
  • Be clear about career progression opportunities: Encouraging employees to stay for the long term means making sure they understand where their careers are heading and the opportunities that might lie ahead. That means putting in place a clear and detailed ‘progression framework’, which makes clear to every employee where they are now and what they need to do to take their next career step within the charity.7
  • Build a team culture: Strong teams tend to stay together, so look for way to deepen team bonds. For instance hosting social events and working harder to include employees in the bigger picture of the charity’s work, collaborate on solving challenges as well as celebrating successes. 
  • Look after staff well-being: Think about steps you could take to promote a culture of physical and emotional well-being in the workplace. That might include putting in place greater support for members of staff struggling with their own well-being – from links with counselling services to guiding them to sources of help with workplace stress.  
  • Recognise and reward achievement: A failure to reward staff for their hard work inevitably damages staff morale and motivation, so think about ways in which the charity can better demonstrate its appreciation for its employees. That might include putting in place an employee benefits programme, such as private health and dental care, or it could be as simple as extra day off on birthdays or accruing extra holiday for each year of service.8 It’s quite likely your employees have chosen to work for a charity having experienced the corporate world, regular communication of their benefits and reminders to use them with good leadership could make all the difference. 

Do remember, that changes in the way staff work could be a benefit, it could also create new risks that need to be reflected in a charity’s employers liability insurance. Always check with your broker or insurer before putting new ways of working in place, such as overseas recruitment. 


  1. https://charitycommission.blog.gov.uk/2021/10/28/what-new-research-tells-us-about-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-charities/
  2. https://charitydigital.org.uk/topics/topics/does-the-charity-sector-have-an-employment-problem-9443
  3. https://www.businessleader.co.uk/labour-turnover-in-2021-highest-in-not-for-profit-sector/
  4. https://www.beapplied.com/post/high-staff-turnover-how-to-reduce-employee-turnover
  5. https://recruiternews.charityjob.co.uk/how-to-create-a-work-culture-that-attracts-and-retains-top-talent/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=blog
  6. https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/charities-advertise-roles-flexible-report-recommends/article/1739837
  7. https://www.beapplied.com/post/high-staff-turnover-how-to-reduce-employee-turnover
  8. https://www.breathehr.com/en-gb/blog/topic/employee-engagement/employee-retention-strategies-to-help-reduce-staff-turnover

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