As a business analyst I spend most of my time sitting in meetings or staring at Visio diagrams and Excel spreadsheets. The images conjured up by the phrase ‘the charity sector’ don’t normally feature us back office bods that make any organisation – even charities – tick, and so for those new graduates entering the sector full of enthusiasm to make a tangible difference, the reality of finding yourself in a back office role so far removed from the frontline can involve some readjustment.
I was under no illusions that somehow my 12 months on the Charityworks leadership development programme would be spent solely attending community centres launches, helping out at older people tea parties, and running beneficiary focus groups. In fact, I was looking forward to gaining an insight into how non-profit organisations were run.
I wanted to gain experience in the third sector rather than through the private because, like so many millennials, I care about the cause that my organisation is working towards. I’m motivated by the thought of my work contributing positively to society, and more tangibly, helping individual beneficiaries or customers that are in need. But the closest my business analysing has brought me to such people is in the form of a swim lane labelled, rather ambiguously ‘customer’, in one of my process maps!
It’s not just me. Several other graduates on the Charityworks programme felt the same, as did some of my colleagues. Others frame their social benefit differently as one member of our finance team said that she thinks about the organisation’s values in all her work, and is motivated by the idea that a financially healthy organisation is better placed to provide more and better services to its customers, including the most vulnerable.
But whether or not you feel that disconnect from the frontline is a barrier to your ambition to make social change or not I would urge non-profit organisations to do their part to engage and utilise the interest that many staff, across all corporate departments, may have. But what can organisations do, and indeed why bother you might ask?
Well one charity made shadowing a member of frontline staff a compulsory part of induction, something which the trainees said gave them a much greater understanding of the challenges that those staff and their customers face. Crucially, what they learnt has had a subsequent impact on their own work, motivating them to better support frontline staff.
Another trainee has learnt the most about her organisation through monthly ‘lunch-and-learn’-s whereby a different team or individual gives an informal presentation on what they do, or a project they are working on. Sound challenging considering many of us have tight budgets and limited resources?The former charity was the smallest one I spoke to, having only around 30 staff.
The range of benefits of such engagement that I found included a greater mutual understanding between staff of each other’s work, increased job satisfaction through staff seeing the impact of their work (however indirect) and greater pride in knowing that their jobs counts. And I will continue to encourage those entering the third sector to look at the corporate roles as, even for the most enthusiastic ‘newbie’, there are great advantages.
At a time when people are increasingly moving between jobs and sectors and third sector organisations are evolving to survive in tougher economic and political circumstances, having skills that are universal to, and directly transferable, across sectors is a valuable asset. Simultaneously, employers are likely to benefit from staff that have a greater understanding of the organisation, their colleagues, and where they personally sit in the bigger picture, and will retain staff that get satisfaction from their job.
So for the enthusiastic graduate wanting to make a difference, third sector corporate roles are a great place to develop your skills. To the sector as a whole, such simple steps can be all it takes to bridge that gap to the frontline and keep that prized new hire on board.