Challenges facing the charity sector

Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
December, 2015

Offering a rewarding career path and the chance to make a real difference, the charity sector has roles to suit everyone, but it isn't without its challenges

Three leading charities tell us what they think the key issues are, how graduates can help and what the outlook is for 2016…

Responding to legislation

Charities have to abide by lots of legislation to ensure that they are operating correctly and fairly, but it is the Lobbying Act that is the biggest challenge right now, says Niall Couper, head of media, PR and supporter care at Amnesty International UK.

Originally designed to stop lobbying companies exercising undue influence over politicians by restricting their spending, it has now been extended to include charities.

This means that if charities wish to campaign on any UK-based issue then they have to be wary about whether any politician might deem it to be influencing the political agenda ahead of an election. If they do then the charity has to record all of its costs.

The Act can only be enforced seven months before any election. But as it includes council, mayoral, European and General elections, there are very few months in any given year that are exempt. So what does this actually mean for charities?

'For organisations like Amnesty, it is an inconvenience and obviously plays on our minds whenever we want to work on a topic (although for some it has also hardened their resolve). But for smaller charities it has proven to be a massive burden - effectively hamstringing numerous local campaigning organisations,' says Niall.

The charity sector really needs graduates' help in supporting these smaller charities in whatever way possible. 'They need their talent and dedication more than ever before. And they need their voices. Otherwise the harsh reality is that we may lose the campaigning zeal that communities across the country need now more than ever,' explains Niall.

Staying relevant

With so many charities doing excellent work there is strong competition to stay relevant, meaningful and ahead of the game, explains Rachel Howard, resourcing business partner at Cancer Research UK.

'It's really important that we remain aware of the reputational risks that have affected the charity sector this year. We need to ensure that all of the work we do is of an excellent standard, credible and highly valued by our supporters and those that use our services.'

So how can graduates help to keep charities relevant? 'We recruit bright, innovative and creative graduates who work on key business critical projects for the organisation and therefore play an important role in challenging how and why we do things, ensuring that we are continually improving.'

Every organisation needs to move with the times and charities are no different, which is why technology will play a vital role in remaining competitive in 2016.

'With an increasing emphasis on digital and the trend of users accessing our services through mobile, we need to ensure that supporters can access our information, services and are able to donate in the easiest and most accessible way,' explains Rachel.

This is also particularly relevant for recruitment as increasing numbers of candidates are applying through mobile devices and it is important that charities are constantly updating their services to make the process easy and accessible.

In order to support this, Cancer Research UK have introduced a technology graduate stream, which focuses on new and emerging technology developments to help drive the charity's ambitions.

Being ethical

In 2015 charities have been under intense media scrutiny for their ethics and how they deliver their charitable purpose, and it's this that Brett Terry, director of people and organisational development at the Alzheimer's Society, thinks is one of the biggest challenges.

'A charity's accountability to its patrons and beneficiaries is, rightly, being challenged more frequently and scrutinised more closely than ever', he explains. 'Being under the media's microscope means charities need to get better at communicating their expenditure and ethics to grow public understanding and instil confidence, showing that they are using funds in the best way to support the people on whose behalf they operate.'

Some parties have expressed surprise that charities are run in a business-like way, viewing this as wrong and somehow distasteful. 'While charities are not corporate businesses - they are set up to do good and not to make profit - they absolutely have to function professionally and efficiently or they would not be using public money wisely, would not be sustainable and would be letting down the vulnerable people that they support,' says Brett.

This isn't to say that there aren't things that can be improved. 'Graduates, as employees or volunteers, can provide a new perspective,' explains Brett. 'With fresh minds and attitudes they can help question processes and contribute to charities striving to be as proficient and ethically driven as possible. Self-scrutiny and continual improvement are essential components of our ethos.'

'Transparency, enthusiasm and insight are essential to help charities to run effectively. The sector as a whole needs to come together to tackle the common misunderstandings about the way charities work and better develop strategies to build public confidence.'