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The opportunity for HR in the third sector

Third sector HR roles offer huge breadth and depth, writes head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association Peter Reeve

When someone first rang me about a job in the third sector my first reaction was (I’m slightly ashamed to admit) not entirely positive.

Five years on however, I’m pleased to report that there is definitely life in the third sector for HR professionals. Now more than ever, HR roles in the third sector offer a breadth and depth that is often impossible to find elsewhere.

The next few years are going to be particularly interesting. Government policy has increasingly been for employers to be far more involved in social policy issues. So for example: how does a charity whose aim is to support older people, manage its own older workforce after the abolition of the default retirement age?

That space between philanthropy and charitable aims, and making robust commercial decisions about our people, is very difficult. And that is exactly the space that needs to be occupied by HR.

That balance can also be played out in employee relations. Passionate identification with the cause can lead to incredibly high staff engagement, but also to some less than ideal behaviour towards colleagues.

I’m always struck, at Charities HR Network meetings, by the complex and nuanced nature of the issues HRDs in the sector wrestle with. For many there is the ongoing challenge of differentiating ourselves, as the third sector has often been seen as indivisible from the public sector.

In particular, the need to ask difficult ethical questions such as ‘how much paid sick leave should we as a health charity give to our own staff?’ can prove a dilemma.

Many organisations, including my own, have also been looking to move away from outdated pay and reward systems. Long-established features of public sector life such as incremental pay are being scrutinised in the context of ‘what do we as an organisation want to reward’?

For HR professionals there are few more fundamental questions or more technical challenges.

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One key challenge is the death of the HR generalist.

We have a range of tools available to us to make sure that the HR advice we are giving is up-to-date, and we definitely get our money’s worth. So for staff coming into the sector the need to be all things to all people can be a bit of a rude awakening.

However, it can also be a real opportunity because at some point in our careers as HR professionals many of us want to be in the hot seat for an organisation as a whole.

Seeing that whole picture earlier on can be invaluable, at the very least because you might come out of that experience knowing which parts of the role you don’t want to do – for me it’s definitely pay and reward.

However, one word of caution. I didn’t come into the sector caring about the cause; that came later.
For some senior professionals (not just HR) wanting to do something other than drive shareholder value, coming into the sector can be a way of giving back, or almost ‘paid volunteering’.

But the size and complexity of many of the roles in the sector are every bit as, if not more, demanding than their equivalents in other sectors. While that sense of purpose is definitely needed, so too is the drive to deliver and perform.

This is all being played out at a time when the reputation of the sector is at an all-time low. High-profile issues relating to historic fundraising practice have undermined public confidence, particularly in larger charities.

In a recent radio interview, I heard a representative from the sector have to explain to a rather bullish interviewer that managing large complex organisations is no easier as a charity. And those management skills unfortunately cost money.

So the next time someone rings you up and asks if you’d consider working in the third sector don’t rule it out. Chances are that role could be every bit as challenging, and a great deal more rewarding, than a higher-paid role in that big corporate.

Peter Reeve is head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association and chair of the Charities HR Network