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  • Writer's pictureVic Hancock Fell

Is your small charity ready to take on it's first paid member of staff?

Updated: Apr 4

The majority of charities begin life managed by a passionate founder and/or a group of dedicated Trustees and volunteers. In some cases charities continue like this for years or even decades. A question I see frequently is how can a small charity make the transition to taking on a first paid member of staff?

What's laid out in this blog is what I've learned from some research into this question and my own experiences at two small NGOs - it is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution, but I hope it gives you some useful insights.

The research

In 2015 I carried out some research for my Masters thesis. The question: 'how do small UK based INGOs transition from voluntarism to professionalism'. The use of the word 'profssionalism' is not to suggest that volunteer-run charities are not professional - it was just the word that best described charities who 'formalised' with paid staff.

I interviewed eleven founders and senior leaders in small UK based INGOs and found the following:

- Most of the charities lacked organisational capacity and were being run by well-meaning volunteers, friends and family of founders who didn't necessarily have charity sector or subject specific expertise.

- Many stated they were capitalising on a “spirit of volunteerism” within their

communities to keep the organisation running but that volunteers became a drain on the Board as they required heavy management.

- All eleven participants were prompted to grow and employ someone due to reaching their organisational capacity limit and being stretched too far.

We're all winging it...

All charities interviewed reported that they did not follow a particular plan, strategy or process when transitioning from being run by volunteers to employing their first member of staff.

“It just happened out of necessity. We did have a strategy, in the sense that we

planned to expand our work and we probably needed a UK employee to be able to do that, but it wasn’t planned at that time”

“It just happened naturally because we were growing and wanted to be sustainable”

“No, we didn’t have a plan or strategy, it just happened naturally because we were

under pressure to grow”

“It wasn’t really a conscious decision. Xxx was volunteering, then as the charity

started to earn more money they started paying him a small allowance and it grew from there”

In practice

Following this research I went on to facilitate the transition from volunteer-run to having paid staff at the charity I co-founded and had volunteered for for ten years. Years later I went on to be the first member of senior staff (and the second ever) paid member of staff at another small UK based NGO. Below is what I learned:

1. There will never be a perfect time to take on your first paid member of staff. There will rarely be enough money in the bank to pay for a full first year's salary or feel totally secure financially - it is a leap of faith. I've spoken to a handful charities in my 15 year career who have been lucky enough to have been granted a year's salary for a first staff member or who had managed to fundraise enough unrestricted income to ring fence a full year's salary. If this is not you - this doesn't mean you're not ready to take on your first paid member of staff.

2. What will the role be? Is there someone on your Board or within your key volunteers who has the capacity and expertise to manage your first member of staff? If the answer is no then my recommendation would be that you hire someone who can work well independently and make decisions without needing input from the Board. A lower level staff member such as an admin support or fundraising officer is likely to need a lot of support to achieve the outcomes you want to be able to move the charity forward. A higher level role such as a Development Manager or Executive Director/CEO will have more autonomy and responsibly and will (hopefully!) need much less direct support to achieve theirs and the charity's goals.

3. Your new member of staff will need a manager. Everyone needs and deserves a supportive line manager. Not only to report to in terms of progress towards meeting goals and expected outcomes but for professional and personal support. If there is only one paid member of staff in the charity, their line manager will have to be a member of the Board or a volunteer. Working in a small charity can be tough - it's really important to make sure your staff are supported.

4. You get what you pay for. Offering a low salary will not attract high quality candidates. I appreciate that it can be totally gut-wrenching to see precious pounds diverted from the coal-face of direct project delivery to be spent on a member of staff. However, offering the right salary and making the right hire can make or break an organisation. A low salary that doesn't attract a highly skilled and qualified person will be money down the drain. Offering a fair salary to attract the right person will pay off down the line. If money really is tight, think about what else you could offer to sweeten the package - flexible hours, an enhanced maternity/paternity package, additional annual leave or inclusive international travel.

5. Don't expect your new staff member to be as committed to the charity as the founder/founding Trustees. As a Co-Founder of a small NGO myself, I know how emotionally invested we become in our work. If you're looking for someone to replace your founder or a lifelong volunteer you're unlikely to find another person with this level of passion and commitment to your organisation. This is not to say they won't care - just manage your expectations of how much of their life you expect them to dedicate to their new role.

6. Allow 6 months or so as a settling in period. Don't expect too much too soon. I have been in the situation where you're expected to move mountains within weeks of starting a new role - it's very stressful. It takes time to learn the ropes and get to grips with new people and systems. Give your new team member the time they need to get to grips with your organisation and meet expected outcomes. Change can take months or even years to see - treat this as the first step in achieving the changes you want to achieve.

7. Employee or consultant/freelancer? An employee comes with additional expenses such as National Insurance and pension contributions and usually a longer term commitment. Using a freelancer or consultant can be a good way to experiment with a new paid team member until you feel ready to commit to employing someone.

8. Full or part time? A higher level part time member of staff may be more effective than a full time lower level member of staff and could cost a similar amount.

9. They are not the cavalry. If your organisation is struggling, whether strategically, programatically or financially, resist the temptation to see this new person as your magic bullet or you may face significant disappointment. The reality is that your Board and volunteers will still need to be quite heavily involved until the paid staff team grows further.

10. Are we ready? If your current team are stretched too thin, if volunteers are growing weary, if you've been asking this question for a while, you're probably ready to take on your first paid member of staff. Take things a few months at a time, experiment and reflect, learn and be flexible. Be prepared to change your mind if things aren't working. No one is expecting us to get this totally right first time.

Next steps...carry out a skills audit of your existing team, build a role and job description around your gaps and focus areas for the charity's development. Agree the technicalities (full or part time, employee or freelancer, salary etc), advertise your role using free platforms to begin with (your website and social media, relevant Facebook groups, personal networks). If you don't get the quality of candidates you want, try again, consider paid advertising. Shortlist, interview and fully induct your newest team member.

Good luck!

If you need support finding your perfect first paid team member get in touch to see how we can help.


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