Attract and retain: Surviving a recruitment crisis

The charity sector is in the midst of a recruitment crisis. So how can leaders seek to reach and hold onto the right people for the job?


With a ‘new year, new me’ mentality usually comes a spike in new job applications. In fact, figures from job site suggest 90% of the site’s busiest days for job applications are often in January, with a significant spike towards the end of the month, when the number of job applications can grow by around 75% above the daily average.

But 2022 could be slightly different; for 2021 witnessed the birth of a nationwide recruitment crisis. A combination of factors stemming from both the pandemic and Brexit meant many industries were faced with a huge decline in the number of job applications – and the charity sector was no exception.

According to online job board CV-Library, job applications dived towards the latter half of 2021, dropping by 12% from June to September. Furthermore, the number of applications for roles in the sector dropped by 36.6% in July-September 2021 on the same period in 2020. By October 2021, applications were down by almost 50% on October the year before.

Moving on

As lockdowns began to ease and Covid-19 vaccinations began, a large number of charities across the UK reported a wave of employees moving on to new roles, but a lack of available applicants has meant recruiting to fill these roles has been particularly tough. When Charity Times spoke to some of the affected charities about this issue in September 2021, one charity, Learning with Parents, said that it has only had one application for three roles it had advertised at the time.

“Since the end of lockdown – during which we retained 100% of staff – we have had three people leave for entirely understandable reasons. One to have a baby, one to join the police and one to relocate to Belfast,” the charity’s CEO, Tom Harbour says.

“For one role we advertised and got a handful of responses and were able to promote the deputy into the manager’s role. The vacancy left at deputy level attracted one response [in September], while the two other posts have attracted no response at all.”

Harbour explains that the roles had been advertised on industry jobsites, its own websites and across social media. “Agencies approached us but it’s difficult to justify the fees asked for,” he says.

The Brunel Museum has also been affected by the crisis. The organisation’s director, Katherine McApline explains that during the pandemic, the museum restructured and advertised for two part time, short-term contract roles and received over 70 applications each. Since the end of lockdown, they have renewed the contracts but are looking for a new member of staff, which has proved difficult.

“Although the roles were part time, we received over 70 applications for each of them. We shortlisted but when it came time for interview, a number of the candidates didn’t turn up for interview (this was during the lockdown so the interviews took place online).

“We recruited two new roles focused on income generation, but because of the museums finances were only able to offer part-time short-term contracts. Our new recruits were brilliant, but we’re having to recruit once more as one of our new members of staff has just got a full-time position elsewhere.

“As the future is so unknown; it’s difficult to offer staff the security they would like, and flexibility is going to be key to our post-Covid recovery. However, we recognise that flexibility is a two-way street, so we definitely want to hear from people who meet our criteria and share our values, but maybe need something slightly different in terms of their working pattern. We’re really open to that.”

The issues with recruitment aren’t just found in the charity sector; Ashgate Hospice Care has reported difficulty recruiting nurses. “Nurse recruitment has been a significant challenge for some time at Ashgate and across the wider health and social care sector. This has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, which has placed untold pressure on healthcare professionals,” its director of quality and patient care, Haley Wardle says.

In fact, the crisis is present across all sectors. Mark Wilson, director of accountancy & finance and investment & risk suggests the number of vacancies and demand for new employees across the board "outweighs the number of viable candidates".

Vulnerable positions

So what is causing the crisis? Wilson highlights how the pandemic caused a 'recruitment freeze', and, now that the economy is recovering "many businesses have been completing 18 months of recruitment compressed into a much smaller window".

"There are also many potential contributing factors to consider. For example, during the Covid-19 crisis, people have re-evaluated their prospects and their priorities as they seek new challenges, with some in pursuit of monetising their hobbies, as well as Brexit implications on available seasonal workers."

Stuart Bell, CEO and founder of recruitment firm, Robertson Bell adds that many candidates are simply “unwilling to move”, which is perceiving uncertainty within the jobs market. For the charity sector specifically, financial struggles caused by the pandemic have also highlighted the vulnerable position charity employees can end up in. “Charities made a huge number of cuts, which can impact candidate’s trust and perception of the organisation,” Bell explains.

Staff burnout within the sector has also been well-documented throughout the pandemic, highlighting the often high-stress/ low-pay nature of roles within charities. A report published by consultancy firm, Lark Owl, found overwhelm, overwork and burnout were a key theme among the 45 charities it surveyed during the summer of 2021. “We have to ask ourselves if this is sustainable, especially amidst a crisis in recruitment where too few charities are able to secure the talented fundraisers they so desperately need,” the report said.


Some charities are attempting to demonstrate to candidates that wellbeing is a key priority. Care charity, Nugent, says it, and other care charities like it, are demonstrating to staff that they care about wellbeing by allowing more flexibility post-pandemic, which, its CEO Normandie Wragg, says “in many cases will lead to a happier and healthier workforce and better retention rates”.

“At Nugent, our recruitment process is stringent and thorough as our care workers are employed to educate and protect the most vulnerable children, young people and at-risk adults in our society, and because of that no stone goes un-turned.”

“Nevertheless, we have an open door policy for those employing for vacancies and I believe especially with a shortage of candidates, it is important to keep an open mind when employment begins and remember that transferrable skills are a huge asset to have.”

Back to basics

While wellbeing and flexibility are likely to be essential for new candidates, staff attraction and retention consultant, Paul Nott, suggests feedback is also essential when attracting the best candidates.

“The sector is finding it harder than ever to attract talent, but time and again those who do attend interviews after hours of writing an application, preparing for an interview and giving up time for the interview itself don’t receive feedback to help them improve for next time. As a sector we need to get as used to thinking about candidate experience as we do about supporter experience,” he says.

Nott suggests that providing feedback to potential candidates is “not only the right thing to do morally, but for the sector an attractive prospect for talented employees and a big part of that is communicating with them and treating them with respect. It doesn’t have to be arduous or embarrassing, it just needs a little preparation,” he says.

He advises charity recruiters to ensure the panel know they will need to provide feedback and include a feedback section on their interview notes so it’s easy to create. “Don’t ghost them,” he says. “Let the candidate know if they have been unsuccessful as soon as you can and tell them they can have feedback when they are ready (not receiving an offer can be an emotional time, so may not be the best time for absorbing feedback),” he adds.

“Make sure feedback is factual, based on evidence from the interview and constructive ‘there were others with more experience’ isn’t very helpful.” Nott stresses that even if feedback isn’t a priority from a moral standpoint, it’s worth remembering that “every single applicant may be a current or future donor or a beneficiary”.

He also highlights the risks associated with bad experiences, which get shared among the sector and can have a detrimental impact on future recruitment campaigns. “I also know of more than one instance of candidates being treated badly during and after interviews whose relatives (who unbeknownst to the org were existing major donors) cancelled long held annual donations of tens of thousands of pounds because of that treatment,” he says.

Widening the net

Moving forward, charities must do more to widen the net in order to attract a larger and more diverse group of candidates. The charity sector has a long and difficult history with inclusivity, and recruitment processes within the sector have often been criticised for failing to be accessible to a wider pool of candidates.

The Chartered Institute of Fundraising began trying to assess this in 2020, when it launched a series of recruitment guides for the fundraising community. At the time, the guides sought to promote a more equal, diverse and inclusive profession which recruits for “culture add” not “culture fit”.

Bell suggests charities must explore new networks if they are to reach a broader range of candidates. “Think outside the box when it comes to your talent pools, and think about the skills you need now, rather than what might have been the ‘perfect candidate’ in the past,” he says.

“Of course, an already inclusive environment can also help to widen the net. Aside from the obvious moral imperative, competition for talent is too intense to allow any barriers to entry to exist in the third sector.”

So where do charities begin in recruiting mid-crisis? Bell suggests charities “seize the moment”. “Don’t wait for a hailed surge in applications, in fact don’t wait for applications at all,” he says. “The majority of successful placements now happen because an organisation attracts passive candidates. Charities need to go above and beyond to attract the right people, and this means actively reaching out to individual candidates.”

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