Attracting and Keeping the Best Talent in the Not-for-Profit Sector

(15 Nov 2017)


L-R: In conversation; Lisa-Nicole Dunne, Chief Executive, CMRF Crumlin and Dennis O'Connor, Director, 2into3


A Conversation with Lisa-Nicole Dunne, Chief Executive, CMRF Crumlin and Dennis O'Connor, Director, 2into3.

Following on from your comments at the 2into3 Irish Not-for-Profit Sector Fundraising Performance Report 2017 Launch at the RDS regarding attracting talent into the not-for-profit sector, can you share your thoughts on the talent acquisition challenge that is facing the not-for-profit sector currently? 

Lisa-Nicole Dunne: I think with so many more charities now needing to fundraise, there is a massive increase in the need for staff, and a significant challenge is now posed across all levels of the not-for-profit sector from entry level to management and leadership. It is possible that not enough people out there see themselves as having the right skillsets. They perhaps don’t understand fundraising as a job title in the way they do sales and marketing in the private sector. I also feel that it is getting harder to keep talent in the sector. It might have improved somewhat in the last year or two, but I feel like that previous to this that we were losing significant numbers of people to the private sector and there is a danger of that increasing again.

With the recent pick up in the broader labour market, we are increasingly competing with the private sector, which is obviously difficult in terms of compensation.  The pressure from what is required of people in the not-for-profit sector could also be a factor. Roles in the not-for-profit sector are multi-faceted and not in one strict area like in a private organisation where roles are quite focused. I think the sector needs a huge number of entrepreneurs, go-getters and multi-faceted project managers.

How is CMRF addressing the current talent acquisition challenge and what is the organisation doing in order to retain its staff?

Lisa-Nicole Dunne: Firstly, we think it is important to have clear and ambitious goals that everybody understands as well as a vision so that people know what they are signing up to. For that reason, I think we are quite clear and set the bar quite high. People want to be part of something that’s very ambitious and want to do the best they can to make the greatest impact for sick children. We look for people that are hardworking, driven and have multiple skills. We have a good mix of people who have been in this sphere for 20 years to very new to people who are from very different commercial backgrounds.

From a retention perspective we have a very clear development and review process. This is a critical part of showing people that you are committed to their performance, talent and development. We also ensure that the individual plays a role in shaping what their learning would be, what path do they want. We ask them all not just to bring their personality and their skills but also to become area specialists. For example, somebody that’s in an assistant role or in a finance role can engage with the cause as well as doing their job and become the go-to for a particular area. Connecting our staff to the cause in one of the biggest value propositions we can have. Whether that means dressing up as an elf at Christmas time or meeting the research team or a consultant, or hearing from a parent.  

We try to get the whole team involved in understanding the vision and the mission so that they can buy into it and we have an internal engagement committee that looks at things like ensuring that we have enough get togethers, that there are enough communication exchanges etc. so that everyone is aware of what’s going on. We have recently moved into a very open space in response to our employee satisfaction survey. We make sure that people are enjoying what they do, enjoying their job, that they are getting enough information and vitally enough cake!

What does the not-for-profit sector need to do to address the challenge of staff retention and acquiring talent? 

Lisa-Nicole Dunne: There is a couple of things that I feel the sector needs to do more in. We need to work to increase the value of the sector, to communicate that it is an incredible space to work in and that individuals that are outside the sector with transferable skillsets are needed.

Secondly, greater awareness needs to be raised about the sector with universities, IT’s, other third level institutes and so on to show how diverse and attractive the sector is. CMRF Crumlin and Focus Ireland were both participants in the DIT pitch process and I think that that is a really good example of how people in third level education can learn about applied marketing in a context of a brand that they may not have thought about before. More can certainly be done on a leadership level to engage with these third level institutions.

On another level, I think we could be a bit more open minded about roles and titles, it may be quite pigeon-holed calling people fundraisers. I think we could consider promoting roles with more of an emphasis on business development and project managers instead of fundraising or corporate fundraising, trust fundraising etc.

Finally, I want to touch on something that Dennis and I share a lot of belief in, the need for graduates in the sector. If it is going to remain tricky to attract and keep talent, training people within the sector from a graduate level is a logical step to take. It is a proven way to bring in talent, to train and develop people and to give them that the necessary level of support. This is something that the sector not only would really benefit from but needs to do.  

What way should organisations approach their talent acquisition needs?

Dennis O'Connor: To touch on something Lisa-Nicole spoke about earlier, I feel that we need to speak more about the reason that people join the sector, and that is the sense of purpose. We need to communicate this more effectively, particularly at the senior level and graduate ends, because this is where it resonates the most.
This sense of purpose is often attractive to people at the later stage of their career in the private sector with transferable skillsets. If the sector and the available roles are presented in the right way, we can attract the best talent at the senior end.

There is a significant number of people at the younger end, about to embark on their careers who are motivated to work in the sector. 2into3 were recently involved at the Grad Ireland career fair and it is clear from the reception that our seminar received that there is a huge appetite amongst graduates. The sector needs to start talking more at the graduate end because there are people there who want purpose, so once you present that there is a pathway, graduates will come.

We are now moving from an employer’s to and employee’s marketplace and things that have worked in the recent past just won’t work in the future. We know that organisations are struggling to make the right appointments on their own without working with a recruiter. In recessionary times, organisations got used to posting an ad and expected a good response. In a marketplace like this a recruiter is best placed to market roles and the use of credible recruiters is of great value.

Working in the sector offers a genuine work life balance, which is very important to people in the midpoint of their careers, I think we need to talk more about that. This middle group are often going through their ‘family years’ and at this stage, the work life balance is very important.

Lisa-Nicole Dunne: In terms of mid and senior roles, we in the sector are going to have to budget to do what it takes to find and attract people at this level, using recruiters for key roles. I have had some incredible recruitment successes bringing in people that had UK or international experience as well, and I wonder if Brexit presents a specific opportunity.

Dennis O'Connor: There has been a tendency to underinvest in training and development during the downturn and I think a new emphasis should be in place on these areas again to ensure that those employed in the sector are supported. A talent management plan, through the CEO or a HR specialist should be drawn up. As we can see at CMRF it can take a bit of time, but it works.

Lisa-Nicole Dunne: Our HR manager makes sure that we have a matrix that logs all training and development that is done, and we make sure that our budget is therefore distributed in a way that is appropriate to a person’s development and fair across the team. This helps them on their own pathway and we tie into CMRF’s performance and secession planning. Having a plan and a structure that ties your training and development practices together is vital, whether it is done in house or externally. People development is vital for retention.

Ultimately for our sector with targets so extreme, a personnel gap of any amount of time could mean a service not fully delivered, a new product not started or completed on time where its benefiting people. It is up to us as leaders in the space to be putting time into these areas, and helping attract more people to support the sector in meaningful ways.
2into3 delivers a consultative full life cycle recruitment service as well as talent strategy development process aimed at establishing a long-term partnership with our clients and candidates. The 2into3 Not-for-Profit Graduate Programme is designed to attract talented graduates into the not-for-profit sector.

For further information on 2into3’s recruitment services and talent strategy development process please feel free to contact Dennis O’Connor at or on 01 2343184. For more info on 2into3’s Not-for-Profit Graduate Programme please feel free to contact 2into3’s Recruitment Coordinator, Adrian McCarthy at or on 01 2343135.

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