Sector culture: flexible working and the challenges for charities

While many of the perceived barriers to flexible working in the voluntary sector are similar to the private and public sectors, there are also some unique cultures and challenges. The very nature of our work – which is often about lives, livelihoods and the hopes and fears of people and communities – goes beyond a financial transaction for doing a job. We are a sector where overwork is often normalised and flexibility is seen as more challenging.

Charities run on donated labour, people work more than they should and that needs to be considered by leaders.

Andrew Bazeley, Policy, Insight and Public Affairs Manager, Fawcett Society

Many charities are facing a moment where the need for their work is greater than ever before but their resources and funds are increasingly stretched. Our passionate, committed and mission-driven workforce often 'lean in' themselves, working long hours in service of the cause and not wanting to 'let anyone down'. Jobs are often designed to cover far more work than is reasonable in a single role as the funds aren't there for the multiple roles that are really required.

Our incredible volunteer workforce mean that unpaid service is baked into our psyche, which can make it harder for paid staff to set boundaries. Many of our staff are motivated by lived experience of the cause, making it even harder to switch off. In this specific context creating truly flexible, part-time, manageable roles where people can thrive becomes even harder. But in a sector that values social justice, fairness, care, compassion and inclusion, it is even more important.

Cause-led organisations

  • A world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation
  • A world free of multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Our vision is that fewer people die by suicide

These are just a few vision statements from UK charities. Each reflects an urgent need in society. The complex emotional transactions at the heart of our work – between ourselves and our jobs, between our donors and beneficiaries – can make incredible things happen and can bring out the best in us all. Yet aspirational visions, coupled with a workforce driven by a passion for the cause, can also create a stumbling block to building flexible and inclusive workplaces. For some people with lived experience of the cause their organisation supports, there can be another layer of blurred work and life boundaries.

Covid-19 has intensified this. Voluntary organisations, where overwork was already normalised, went into overdrive. More need equals more work, or so the logic went. But this was often without adequate thought as to how that additional work would be resourced.

Size and funding

Looking back a couple of years to when I was CEO of a small charity, I can see how much of our level of ambition was totally out of sync with our level of resource. I can see now what an ableist culture this created.

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive, NCVO

According to the Office for National Statistics, almost three fifths of us working in the voluntary sector work in organisations with fewer than 50 employees. Many organisations are entirely volunteer led and every charity is led by a volunteer trustee board. Many working in the sector will be the sole employee for their organisation. Approaches to flexible working in voluntary organisations therefore need to take account of both paid staff and volunteers, and the relationship between these two groups in a blended workforce.

The nature of funding can add another layer of pressure to overwork in the voluntary sector. Short-term funding awards and few opportunities for full cost recovery can create pressure to reduce core or staff costs and piecing together roles from different funding sources can lead to jobs being too big. Needing to deliver specific outputs and outcomes within a specific timeframe can also mean people work long hours to deliver.

A lack of diversity

Supporting flexible working just makes sense; job share, flexible working hours and flexibility on location will mean that the widest pool of people will be reached in recruitment, hopefully leading to a more diverse organisation.

Julie Bentley, CEO, Samaritans

A lack of diversity in the voluntary sector, in terms of ethnicity, disability and sexuality, is both a symptom and a cause of a lack of flexible working. It is from a position of privilege that individuals can stay late with no notice, afford to live in London, be able to commute into an office on a daily basis, or do a 70-hour week to get a project finished.

Organisations such as Charity So White, Charity So Straight, #NonGraduatesWelcome, #ShowTheSalary and others lead vital campaigns for the voluntary sector to be more inclusive. Much of our work in the sector is about social justice, so it follows that we must become a more diverse, inclusive and equitable sector if we are to stay relevant and deliver for the communities we serve.

Enabling flexibility is an important action to address one of the causes of a lack of diversity. It is also important to remember that for traditionally marginalised groups, structural disadvantage and discrimination in the voluntary sector may present an additional barrier to having conversations about flexible working.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 10 February 2022