The Eastside Primetimers Foundation has launched a new programme of events on the changing nature of work in the social sector, drawing on the knowledge of expert speakers and helping organisations shape their thinking as “megatrends” transform the way we all operate. These are huge questions, but I came away from our first panel event on January 21st with five key reflections.

Young workers are socially conscious, but the sector doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue anymore

Generations Y and Z are looking for a sense of social purpose in their jobs, but NCVO’s chief executive Karl Wilding observes that while not-for-profits were once first port of call for this, that may no longer be true in an age where a giant like Nike can fashion itself as a “campaigning company” with social credentials. And with living costs and graduate debt an increasing worry for many young people, the private sector can also combine social branding with a better pay offer. This means not-for-profits must do more than just “tug at the heartstrings” as they compete for bright new employees, speakers suggested.

Data and digital technology can be transformative, but uptake is slow

Rolled out and used well, technology can be transformative. Tracy Gyateng of DataKind explained that just as Netflix uses algorithms to suggest what you’ll watch, a Huddersfield foodbank harnessed client data to predict patterns of individual use and mount effective crisis interventions. Similarly, a guest from the Association of Anaesthetists shared how they ensure their data collection is impact-driven, to help their organisation understand “what works” and shape their services for members. And delivering better services for beneficiaries in turn convinces staff and volunteers of the meaning of their roles, boosting job satisfaction.

There are also powerful examples where the cloud, video links, collaboration platforms and other technologies are digitising workspaces, allowing people to work from anywhere on any device and share knowledge more effectively while they do it. However, Lesley Giles of the Work Foundation notes that only 54% of managers feel their organisations are “forward-thinking” about tech and many miss opportunities to increase flexible working through digital tools, despite potential benefits this could unlock in terms of staff engagement and productivity. And bringing in new systems requires patience, effective change management and a level of investment that often provokes caution from charity boards, Karl Wilding noted – while a factor in DataKind’s success in Huddersfield was the presence of an IT-savvy trustee at the foodbank, this is not yet the norm.

Think hard about the right conditions for “Good Jobs”

There is much discussion about what a “Good Job” looks like, but it was felt that along with social purpose, managers must also offer the right conditions and genuine career development. Many managers do not engage in an ongoing conversation with employees about how they are doing, how they can help or longer-term career development. Under half promote flexible work, training, task discretion or use effective reward processes. And Lesley Giles also warned we must guard against the encroachment of zero-hours contracts into the charity sector under the guise of flexible work, as “Good Jobs” must include a good balance between employee and employer.

Skills and development re the key to a satisfied workforce and an effective sector

Underinvestment and shortages in skills affect 22% of vacancies, holding back organisations and society more broadly. And it also hampers individual progression – developing high-level cognitive skills and a knack for communication, leadership and tech is increasingly the only way for employees to succeed in the “hourglass” economy, where jobs proliferate at the top and bottom of the pay scale. Tracy Gyateng commented that the basic data skills she learned early in her education soon became obsolete as technology marched on, so it is essential that employers and education institutions support continual, lifelong learning.

Social organisations must promote diversity and wellbeing

Finally, workplaces are increasingly diverse, and not only in terms of gender and ethnicity (though these are still great challenges for the social sector). We now have five generations working side-by-side, with different needs that employers must be responsive to. And while it may be more acute in older workers, employers must be sensitive to wellbeing challenges at all stages of life. Absenteeism and presenteeism alike cost the economy £100bn a year and with mental health awareness rising, charities especially must practice what they preach on overwork, stress and anxiety.

Ruth Cane is Manager of the Eastside Primetimers Foundation and has spent 25 years in HR and organisational development roles in the voluntary and public sectors. If you would like to know more about the Foundation’s programme of events, contact her on

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