COVID-19 has represented an unprecedented challenge for charities and social enterprises across the scope of their operations, and in particular has thrown the recruitment market into flux. Many charities have had to redeploy, reskill, furlough or lay off workers, and those that are still recruiting have had to learn how to hire and induct people in a virtual world.

To find out more, in September and October Eastside Primetimers ran an online survey of our contacts and followers. We also surveyed some of our member consultants alongside, to get their impressions of the state of the sector and their advice for organisations considering how to adapt – these insights can only be more crucial for not-for-profit organisations as the now adjust to the reality of a second lockdown. I write today to share with you some of our findings, and what it may mean for your organisation.

Our respondents

76 charity managers responded to our call, while a panel of our own consultants answered a separate set of questions. In terms of their causes and services, the largest shares of charity managers identified their organisations as working in mental health (40%), community (34%), employment and training (26%), social care (26%) and education (25%) – this somewhat mirrors the sector as a whole. 36% were small organisations with incomes of less than £1m, and a further 32% had incomes between £1m and £5m. 38% were local or community-level organisations from various corners of the country – from Dorset to Southend, from Sussex to the Wirral and Monmouthshire. A further 26% operated regionally, while 5% were international in their scope.

Pre-pandemic snapshot: types of staff and recruitment approaches

Historically, 93% of responding organisations had full-time staff and 82% had part-time permanent staff. 63% also made use of interim managers or staff on shorter contracts, likely the latter in most cases. And as we have seen more than ever in the pandemic, clear majorities of charities cannot run without volunteers too (72% of our sample).

When going out to advertise jobs, nine out of ten made use of their web presence and of online jobs boards – 47% also rely on referrals and word of mouth. Only 43% reported using external recruitment consultants though, and this tended to skew towards larger organisations – 26% of organisations turning over less than £1m used consultants, compared with 53% above that line and 64% of those with incomes above £10m. This suggests that while organisations find professional support helpful, smaller not-for-profits need help evaluating its potential benefit to their hiring processes and finding affordable options for them.

When assessing candidates’ suitability for roles, a majority of managers reported relying on professional references (51%) – this is despite much of the HR world being divided on their ultimate value for assessing applicants. 36% used practical interview tasks such as in-trays and case studies, while several volunteered that they valued service user panels as a way to introduce candidates to those that their organisation serves before making a decision. We found only 21% used professional assessment centres or psychometric tests – these organisations tended to be larger and national or international in their posture, but there were examples of small local charities making use of them too, such as a YMCA in Essex and a domestic violence charity in Berkshire.

How has recruitment changed since March 2020?

We asked respondents about a variety of ways their recruitment may have been impacted in the past eight months, with an eye to capturing the overlapping possibilities and complexities managers have no doubt grappled with. 20% had put recruitment entirely on hold, a further 23% had reduced it and 9% had been forced to withdraw jobs they were already advertising. 13% reported that their practices were returning to normal in September-October after a previous slowdown, though it remains to be seen how such organisations will now react to the new national lockdown.

However, not all had felt a squeeze – 25% of our respondents actually reported no immediate change and 23% found that recruitment had increased, likely in order to address demand for their services. Those reporting minimal impact tended to be local or regional charities turning over less than £5m, particularly those in mental health. This may reflect how smaller and health organisations have found their funding bases relatively resilient, due to agreements with funders and commissioners and continued demand for their services during the crisis.

Those that had been recruiting for new vacancies reported making roles more flexible (21%) or utilising short-term contracts when they hadn’t before (13%). Our member consultants similarly suggested that greater flexibility and use of short-term contracts were significant trends, based on their perceptions and conversations in the sector.

How do charities see the next 12 months unfolding?

Pluralities of organisations forecast they would be needing more part-time or flexible staff on permanent contracts (39%) and more volunteers (34%). However, fewer felt they would increase full-time roles (30%). 29% suggested they would recruit more contract staff, though an equal number said this would stay static in their organisation. This paints a picture of charities preparing for a somewhat lighter, more flexible and more part-time workforce.

Among their existing staff, managers saw a range of steps they might have to take as they continue to adjust to a COVID-19 world. The need for reorganisation and redistribution of work was overwhelming (66%), and 38% suggested they would need to redeploy current employees to another role within the company as they reshape their team. 33% said that terms and conditions would change, such as shifts to flexible working, while 30% were having to contemplate redundancies.

In terms of roles that will need to be filled in the next year, many managers foresaw frontline service delivery (57%) and volunteer roles (33%) as day-to-day recruitment priorities. 41% also believed they would need to recruit trustees – this reflects the regular churn on charity boards, but in the current environment it can also be viewed as a vital opportunity for charities to strengthen skills in their governance teams. Looking at the infrastructural side of staff teams, project management (27%), digital communications (22%) and fundraising (18%) stood out as particular priorities for the charities surveyed, reflecting the sudden need to oversee retooled services, shift them online and ensure continuity of funding. Our consultant pool similarly suggested that digital skills and particularly fundraising would be priorities for charities they work with.

Finally, we asked about the challenges that managers anticipated about attempting to recruit in this environment. Alongside navigating newfound expectations such as flexible working (38%), remote induction and onboarding jumped out as a worry for 37% of charity managers – I recently blogged on this topic, exploring 9 ways managers can make the experience work for both sides. Instability also lingered on the minds of hiring managers – 35% of those surveyed felt predicting funder and client needs (and thus the sustainability of particular roles) would be difficult, while 29% worried about how to assuage candidate concerns about job security. But while incorporating new hires into a team and reassuring them are issues, we were encouraged to find that virtual interviewing was a concern for only one in five, suggesting many charities have already grown more comfortable with this widespread practice.

Can we help you?

If you are thinking about starting a new recruitment process, how you can improve or adapt your existing process to the impact of COVID, or if you simply want to know more about the market, we would be happy to have a conversation with you. Contact me at

Bernice Rook is Director of Membership & Recruitment at Eastside Primetimers


Eastside Primetimers

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