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Creative incentives and motivation strategies for the third sector

Third sector organisations have fewer resources to play with when it comes to motivating staff, so here are some innovative strategies they can use to their advantage

Age Concern

The strategy: Creating bespoke benefits – including dealing direct with external providers – to reflect the fact a high proportion of its staff are older workers (68% are over 40 and 15% are over 60).

The result: “Longevity is one of the most pressing concerns so our approach is living this internally – giving staff the resources to plan for their future now, and making sure they have choices about whether they want to retire or carry on,” says Caroline Bendelow, Age Concern’s director of people and performance, who this March launched the charity’s ‘Extending working life and planning for retirement’ plan.

“We now offer staff mid-career reviews – which can be asked for at any age – to prepare them for what their savings or retirement plans might be. There are also lifestyle seminars about what their health goals might be,” she says. “The first sessions have only just run but we’ve already seen employees decide to increase their pension contributions. All of our seminars were tested by our in-house ‘Older Workers Group’ [who give input into what older people’s needs are] and we also allow staff to bring their spouse, as retirement or continuing working impacts them too.”

Age Concern advocates getting suppliers to help craft a bespoke approach: “We’ve had a staff cash plan developed for us bespoke from BUPA, based on requirements workers told us they faced – like a need for nutritional advice and homeopathy. We don’t think they did it just because we’re a charity, we simply explained what we wanted for staff. We can also negotiate money off insurance products – around 5% to 10%.”


“I think the commercial world can learn a lot from us,” says Bendelow. “It’s not just about throwing money at things, but devising something that’s developed for the specific needs of employees. We actually have M&S and Sainsbury’s asking if we can explain how we’re doing what we’re doing.”


The strategy: A flexible approach to annual leave that supports the different needs and lifestyles of staff while managing financial exposure.

The result: “Buying and selling holiday leave has been part of our flexible benefits for a while,” says Louise Smethurst, CLIC Sargent’s head of reward. “Our work supporting children and young people with cancer can be emotionally demanding and it is really important staff have enough annual leave to recharge. So we give employees 27 days off but enable them to buy up to five days more each year. Staff can sell leave too, but when they do there is a direct cost impact on the charity so we limit the sale of leave to two days’ per year to help us manage our costs.

“To make it as easy as possible, we have one flex window per year when people can choose to buy or sell holiday so that leave is either added to or subtracted from their annual leave entitlement. That way they take their extra days throughout the year whenever they like.” According to Smethurst, at the last flex window 12% of employees chose to either buy or sell holiday.

To address the two day limit it also has an innovative policy for carers. It offers five days paid leave for emergencies plus a shared-cost model for further planned leave: “Our entire ethos is being a caring organisation; it’s fundamental to our culture,” says Smethurst.

“If staff have caring responsibilities outside of work, for instance for seriously sick, elderly or disabled relatives, whatever leave they book from their annual leave entitlement we will match with paid carer leave. We also support career breaks through this policy. In the last year we’ve helped 17 of our employees with carer’s leave.”


“It’s important we keep costs down but we feel we can do this and incentivise staff at the same time,” says Smethurst.

“Small things make a difference,” she adds. “Employees can buy holiday through salary sacrifice – allowing national insurance savings on both sides. Moreover, if someone has a long-term caring commitment that pulls them from their job we guarantee to keep their role open for up to a year.”

Education charity NCFE

The strategy: Helping staff deal with a headquarters move by allowing greater levels of flexible working, compressed working, and working from home (which allows greater time for self-development too).

The result: “After moving from the centre of Newcastle to an out-of-town business park in 2013 we decided to make flexible working the norm culturally, rather than something people feel embarrassed about asking for,” says HR leader Michelle Sharman. “Four-day weeks, nine-day fortnights, or condensed weeks are now the norm – I do a 30-hour week myself. Of our 225 colleagues 35 (15.5%) have non-standard working patterns, with 22 of these working less than the standard 37 hours a week. In addition to this 50 people regularly work remotely.”

She adds: “Flexi-time might ‘cost’ us some inconvenience every so often, but what we get back from the workforce in terms of engagement and productivity more than outweighs this. We have a whole host of good benefits, from health insurance to a pension scheme where we contribute 9% if staff give 3%, but employees tell us that giving them ‘time’ and choice about when they work is by far what motivates them most – especially now we’re a bit further out of town.”

Sharman says other small – but inexpensive – add-ons make staff feel doubly valued. Each year employees get £200 to put towards any form of self development (people have used this to study massage, reflexology, and even a skippering course). And there’s always a cupboard stocked with chocolates and cards that any member of staff can buy (and claim up to £10 on expenses), to give as praise for a job well done.


“We’re trying to differentiate in a way that we can afford,” says Sharman. “We’re an educational charity, so the aim is to create incentives and benefits that live up to these ideals. Trust is part of this – we don’t limit how often staff can buy each other a card or gift.”