How do charities keep their top digital talent?

It hopefully goes with saying that people are absolutely crucial to the success of any organisation. Nowhere is this more true in the world of digital. We are in the early stages of an entire industry’s adoption of new channels, methods and tools, with huge opportunities for those charities that can realise them and significant risks for any that don’t. In this situation a single person can be the difference between an organisation’s excited leap into a new reality or its Emu-esque sand gazing.

We also know, that in hot-topic industries such as digital, it can be extremely difficult to keep people for the long term. Their heads are constantly being turned by exciting job roles and impressive titles. They know that they could be being paid more money elsewhere and there is a never ending stream of content published explaining just how green that grass is over the other.

So what can we do as leaders, to try and retain all of that knowledge, expertise and relationships which are built up by our best and brightest, given that we’re competing against agencies, startups and corporates?

I’ve asked around a here are a few of the thoughts from myself and others. None of them are magic bullets, but combined they might make a difference.

All quotes are from skilled, desirable people in digital teams that have been there for more than 2 years.

Give them responsibility

This came up ahead of all other suggestions from people happily working in the digital charity sector. If you are putting people on exciting projects in which they feel they’re being stretched, then the likelihood of them feeling fulfilled is drastically improved. As a leader you need to have the confidence to let people lead teams, products and initiatives that you might not done at their age, or level of experience. It doesn’t work for everyone and you need to be there to ensure they’re learning from their mistakes, but for many this is the key to staying in one place.

“We are accountable for our own work which is really important — no matter what level you’re at”

Let them work in a way that suits them

The best digital teams give people the freedom to make mistakes, the trust to back their own solutions and space to experiment. This is simply not a situation that happens in many agencies or startups, despite what they might put in their blog posts. If you are under a deadline for a client or running out of funding runway, you are only going to be focussed on one thing and it’s not likely to be in your control.

“Giving people the power to make decisions and not micro managing them is definitely one of the things that’s made me carry on working there!”

Let them try different things

For younger members of your team, they probably still haven’t worked out what it is that they want to do. They’ll be seeing analysts, UX designers, content strategists and developers and wondering if thats an area they want to develop into. You should be encouraging this and giving them space and resources to do so. You must also ensure that those in more specialised roles, understand that it is part of their responsibility to help develop others in their area of expertise. As i’ve said before, everyone should be a student and everyone should be a teacher.

“Really good personal development is making an effort to allow staff to try new things and develop skills that they are interested in, even if they are not experienced in that area or it is not directly related to the current role.”

Create a strong team culture

This goes without saying, but people will stay with a team longer if they feel a strong bond to those people who they work with. This isn’t something that happens overnight and it doesn’t just happen because everyone goes to the pub together every Friday (although that can help). It happens because leaders promote people looking out for each other and going the extra mile to support colleagues, regardless of whether it’ll benefit them personally. Ensure that every level has its own productive team meeting, shared actions and development plan and you’ll be well on the way.

“It’s like a little family or a group of friends more than being a formal work environment.”

Consider secondments

Work with an agency? Speak to them about whether they fancy some expert, client-centric, free (or cheap) help for 2 days a week. I would bet that they’ll bite your hand off (we certainly would). We’re also a small, highly collaborative industry — we could definitely be doing more to share talent around our own organisations. So pick up the phone to that head of digital you met at the last IOF conference and see if they fancy swapping some team members on a short term basis.

It can be a risky strategy — you’ll naturally be afraid that they’ll prefer the secondment to their permanent role, and you might be right. But if that’s the case then their current role isn’t the one for them and they’d have left anyway. At least this way, you stand a better chance of keeping the people who will realise that what they currently have is a better fit for them than alternatives.

Talk about career development and their options seriously

This is of course not limited to digital teams or roles but having honest and open conversations about individual’s careers helps both you and them. For the team member they know that they’ve got a manager who is interested in their development and wants to help them, even if they are limited by structures in terms of promotion. For the manager, it helps to define how you set out that person’s development plan to truly meet their needs rather than your own.

Invite people who have left, to come back and share their experiences

Again, a slightly risky strategy, but get members of your team who have left to come back and honestly talk about what’s better and what’s worse where they are now. It will give people a chance to understand what life is like outside your organisation without having to leave to find out. You shouldn’t present it as a propaganda exercise — people will see right through that — the honest truth needs to be that for most people, each role they have will have good bits and bad bits. If you can help individuals to explore what those could be then you’ll help them develop in ways that they didn’t know were possible.

This activity also means that you stay in touch with people who have left, which if they’re not enjoying their current role means you might be able to tempt them back…

NB: getting people to talk about what’s not so good in a new role can be difficult as it undermines the decision they have made. You’ll need to really carefully brief them and explain why you’re asking them back.

Promote and practice a good work / life balance

One of the perks of an in house job is that you’re not under deadlines in the same way you are at an agency. Help people to understand this and make sure they’re taking advantage of it. Many of our teams will be young and won’t haves families yet, so sometimes they need a nudge to make the most of the spare time that they do have.

Do anything you can to promote this. Give a small contribution to the team rock climbing club. Make sure you set an example and leave as close to on 5pm as you can manage. Lead a team outing to a meetup on mindfulness. Some of these can feel like putting yourself out there, but that’s what being a leader is all about.

“It’s especially noticeable for people who worked in agencies before — where they were working until 12am/1 in the morning several days a week. At charities you know you can switch off at 5.30 and go home and no one is going to complain. I think in 3 years I’ve stayed until 7.30 once”

Build empathy with the cause

It’s easy to forget — but we have an ace that no commercial company can ever hope to have — we are genuinely working towards a vision that will make the world better. It can’t be the only thing that we use to keep hold of people, interesting work will usually trump it, but we shouldn’t forget how powerful it can be. Ensure your teams are talking with your service users whenever possible and that they realise how rare it is to be able to interact with the people who actually benefit from your product.

“People work for charities because they want to put their talent towards a worthwhile cause, and charities shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

Get them working on the innovative stuff

It’s hardly surprising, but if you’re a skilled digital professional you want to be pushing the boundaries. Chances are that’s why you got into the industry in the first place. Don’t forget that all projects are not created equal, and putting your rising talent on the more high profile / creative ones will help to give them that satisfaction they’re looking for from their career.

“No one wants to work on stuffy info pages created in 2005 and be dictated to by the head of finance as to what to put in them. There’s also no point having an awesome digital team without putting them to good use.”

And after all this, you will still lose good people. It’s inevitable. Sometimes it’s also the right thing. But hopefully, with a few of these practices you can keep a couple of diamonds for a bit longer.

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