Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Charity sector HR: where the real action is!

I suspect that the air turned blue in many of the UK’s charities this week when the sector’s HR community read an article in this month’s People Management magazine in which an (alleged) careers guidance expert gave the advice that experience in the charity sector was probably a factor which may have limited an individual’s ability to progress into a senior level HR role.

“Our three experts show People Management readers how to get their working lives back on track” claimed the article, which then posed the question of “Is my charity career putting people off?” asked by  a Regional HR Business Partner who felt that his career had stalled, but was looking to become a Head of HR or HRD, ideally within the private sector. 

"I don’t think your age is a factor ... It’s more likely to be your charity experience" was the supposedly helpful advice given to the above individual, who voiced concern that “common misconceptions about charities are leading to my applications not being shortlisted.”

If there are any common misconceptions about the validity of HR experience gained within the charity sector, it’s time they were consigned to the dustbin of history, not only so that the solid professionalism of the sector’s HR community is recognised, but also so that those recruiting into critical roles outside this sector don’t overlook a talent pool filled with some of the most highly qualified, able, committed and inspiring individuals you could ever have the pleasure of meeting.

Let’s have a brief look at why far from providing limiting HR experience, a career in the charity sector can give an HR professional exposure to challenges which will develop skills in a way that the private sector will not be able to.

Working alongside HR colleagues in the international development provokes me into asking the following questions:

  • How many HR professionals in commercial organisations can claim to have experience of managing life-threatening negotiations with rebels who have kidnapped a number of their company’s staff? 
  • How many have been part of the rapid deployment team mobilising the response to one of the recent global disasters such as the Haitian earthquake or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines?
  • Hands up all those who have managed the people implications of transforming their organisation from one based in the UK to one based in South Africa with regional hubs spread across the continents? 
  • How many private sector HR professionals not only do an amazing job during the week, but also are actively involved in campaigning on behalf of their organisation during their spare time?

It also needs pointing out that particularly within campaigning charities, and especially those involved in international development, the competition for roles across the organisation as a whole is overwhelmingly intense. As was pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian, 98 out of 100 applications for an internship position (in my current organisation) having either a Masters, a PhD or a Law Degree was nothing out of the ordinary. Far from getting OUT of the sector being an issue, it’s getting INTO it that is difficult for the thousands of people who want to carve out a career in a meaningful and high impact role.

Many individuals within the charity sector have made a conscious decision to move into an organisation that is in alignment with their personal values, often leaving behind a successful (and frequently more lucrative!) role in the private sector in order to genuinely make a difference in their chosen field. I’ve personally worked with fantastic HR colleagues who have earned their stripes in organisations such as BBC and IBM, as well as some of the most prestigious management consultancies, financial services organisations, political bodies and High Street supermarkets. 

On a personal note, prior to a move into the international development sector, I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding HR colleagues in not only the fast-paced world of manufacturing but also the high technology environment of aerospace and defence; I wouldn’t for one moment wish to downplay any of their skills, impact and achievements, but I will have to say that for professionalism, capability, enthusiasm, hard work, inspiration, engagement, and recognition from managers of the provision of a strategic and operational high quality HR service, you don’t need to look any further than my current HR team.

There's a lesson to be learned from the article in People Management magazine for all those seeking career development advice: make sure that the expert you turn to for guidance knows what he or she is talking about. Sadly the one referred to above clearly doesn't.