Is the charity sector scaring off good candidates?


When it comes to attracting the best people, the charity sector wields a double-edged sword. There are brilliant candidates out there who want to work for you, but there are others who just won’t consider you because of their preconceptions regarding salary, career development and the professionalism of the sector.

Let’s focus on the first group. The talented, motivated people who want to work for you because of what you are and what you do. These are the people who tell us, in overwhelming numbers, that they’re specifically looking at the charity sector because they want to “make a difference”.

Are your job ads grabbing their attention? And if so, how many then go on to apply? It’s all very well attracting initial interest, but if you don’t capture that interest and keep the right ones with you through to a completed application, then you’re not choosing from the best.

Losing good candidates before they’ve completed an application is a problem for all of those recruiting. But it’s a problem we can’t afford to have in the charity sector. Increased demands at a time of reduced funding, negative press about the professionalism of charities in a national picture or low unemployment, make it essential that the application process attracts the right people and keeps hold of them.

The solution lies in keeping things simple. It needs to be easy for those talented, motivated people to apply without redirection and without asking them to reproduce information already available in their CV or their LinkedIn profile. So here’s some advice on what you can do to make sure you’re holding onto the good ones from the very beginning…

Is the charity sector scaring off good candidates?

CV/cover letter, form or on-line application?

A recent article in HR News revealed that 60-75% of job seekers (across all sectors) quit in the middle of filling out on-line applications because of their length or complexity.

From our own candidates, we have floods of comments around form filling and the endless duplication of information that’s already available to recruiters on their CV. Frequent gripes include: 

“… tedious filling of boxes with standard information – no scope for creative, interesting applications.”

“… I usually give up when a website starts to redirect me to other sites and wants heaps of info that is already on my CV, drives me nuts.”

“I’m from the Netherlands. My masters degree is difficult to translate.”

That means losing good people from the get-go and not having the option to truly pick one of the best candidates. It could also damage your own reputation by creating poor word of mouth for your charity. One bad application experience spreads like a head cold on a commuter train.

If you don’t want people to quit, then you should try:

  • Asking candidates to apply with a CV plus a cover letter (rather than application form or redirection)


  • Ask candidates to apply through the recruitment site (without redirection)

If neither of those options are possible within your organisation, then we recommend you:

  • Limit the number of screens to navigate
  • Reduce the time it takes to complete the application
  • Don’t ask applicants to re-enter work histories into fields in an applicant tracking system
  • Don’t make candidates lie or guess by having inappropriate Required Fields (i.e. requiring an exact month or even day date for the start of a job that may have been several years ago)
  • Make sure applications are mobile-friendly
  • Ditch nice-to-have questions not needed at this first stage

If you’re using a specialist recruitment site, then find out what services they offer to reduce the application process and stop applicants having to repeat information. Our team here have found that organisations that let candidates apply direct through CharityJob receive on average eight more applications than with any other method.

It’s simple really. Imagine you’re a candidate who has found two good-looking jobs and you have a couple of hours to apply for one of them, at home after a full day’s work. One job requires a CV/cover letter which addresses the job description, the other redirects you to an on-line application form on another site that kicks off by asking for day and dates of your GCSEs. You have no idea how long the form is or how long it will take to complete. Which job would you go for?  It really is that simple.

Is the charity sector scaring off good candidates?

Let them shine

Endless box-filling can prevent good people from demonstrating just how good they are. On-line application forms with restricted fields, don’t allow candidates to bring to the surface all their interesting and distinct qualities.

It’s a frequent complaint from our candidates that an application process doesn’t allow them to stand out from the crowd; they can’t show what it is that makes them special. They complain of:

“… mechanistic filling of boxes with standard information – leaving no scope for creative, interesting applications”

So, while your selection process clearly needs to eliminate people without the right skills or experience, equally it needs to have sufficient flex in to allow for an interesting application that lets the good ones shine.

Spell it out – The Job Ad and the Job Description

Is it immediately obvious what you’re after and is it a recognisable role?

The job title needs to be mainstream to ensure you’re attracting the most talented people from all sectors. If you make it too charity-specific you are putting off a lot of people with transferable skills.

When we asked our candidates what difficulties they’d encountered applying for jobs, by far the most common complaint was that either the title or the job description implied the job required specific charity experience.

But having worked within the sector is rarely given as a requirement, so candidates are getting this impression from either the job title or the description.

“… the job description is too specific allowing no opportunity for an outside person.”

“… the job description has too much specific, organisation jargon.”

“I am transferring from the private sector and many jobs in which I can make a real contribution require non-profit specific experience.”

Is the description clear and focused? They should be “goldilocks-length” which is neither too short or too long. Between 250 and 2,000 words is the sweet spot.

Again, keep transferable skills in mind and don’t make it an exhaustive list of specific tasks. Ideally, you’ll want to write a job description that is impact focused and gives candidates an idea of what your organisation needs them to achieve.

Avoid charity sector jargon, acronyms and the names of specific or bespoke systems used by your organisation. These are things that they can learn in the moment and don’t have to be pointed out in the job description.

Introduce Yourself

Make it easy for candidates to know who you are and what you do.

Providing a positive impression of the charity, its ethos and its culture can make a massive difference when it comes to getting the attention of the people you’d want to work for you.

Perception of fit is one of the strongest influences on an application outcome. All it really means is whether a candidate can see themselves working for you. So, if you’re to attract the kind of person who could fit and shape the future of your organisation, you need to sell the organisation in a way that’s both positive and accurate.

Consider including a mission statement or a short description of the aims of your charity.

It can also help to provide stats, quotes or pictures to demonstrate the difference you’re making.

Exploit any opportunity offered by your recruitment site to inform candidates about the organisation. If they have a recruiter profile section, then use it and make sure that the advert is branded.

Is the charity sector scaring off good candidates?

At CharityJob we offer all our recruiters the option of completing a Recruiter Profile page providing candidates with everything they need to know about the organisation, including its mission, values and vision.

It can be illustrated with pictures or collaterals from recent events and can include quotes – from staff and from those who’ve benefitted from the organisation’s work – as well as links to social media accounts.

We recently conducted a case study to test the difference a completed Recruiter Profile page made to a recruitment outcome for the White Ribbon Campaign. The positive effect surprised even us: a 62% increase in job views, a 77% increase in clicks. Even better, completed applications for White Ribbon Campaign’s advertised vacancy increased by 47%.

As well as providing information about your organisation, our candidate feedback stresses the importance of the recruiter being responsive to any enquiries the candidate may have about either the job or the organisation.

“… telephone number for a contact person to ask for clarifications or just for a quick chat.”

“… responsiveness of the organisation to enquiries regarding the position, interviews, feedback.”

So, if possible, include a named person with email address or direct line for further information.

At all stages, it’s important to be courteous and to treat candidates well in terms of both being responsive, but also in terms of sticking to a closing date and informing candidates of outcomes quickly and appropriately.

Talk money

There’s little point in placing an ad for a job anywhere if you don’t include at least the salary range.

When we asked our candidates, salary came second (after a “clear job description”) as a prompt to complete an application.

Yes, there are reasons why there may be some sensitivity about the salary – and at both ends of the pay spectrum:

  • it’s “too much for a charity”
  • you may not want it known within your organisation (particularly if it’s an increase on the person leaving)
  • you can’t afford to pay what you’d like

And we know that candidates searching within the charity sector expect salaries to be lower than the private sector, but the range of pay is still huge – reflective of the variation in size and wealth of charities.

This variation makes it more important that you give a salary so that prospective candidates can make an informed decision – saving both them and you from wasting time later.

No indication of salary or just putting “competitive” is seen negatively by candidates – as is asking a candidate for their previous or current salary. These days that is a complete no-no.

Both of these things create a bad impression in terms of intent, professionalism and the seriousness with which you’re taking the role and employees. It is always better to at least include a scale or range.

If you can’t offer a competitive salary, then there’s more reason to promote clearly what your charity does and what else you can offer – from flexible working or other in-work benefits, to career development opportunities, training or invaluable on-job experience.


Flex your muscle

Bend over backwards to provide flexible working opportunities or consider properly whether a job could be offered part-time or as a job share.

Our candidates tell us that mention of flexible working or part-time hours is a significant prompt to complete an application.

Of those candidates who use job type as a search criteria on our site, “permanent” is the most popular criterion, with “part-time” a close second. Currently only 6.14% of jobs advertised with us are part-time, despite 29.9% of our candidates having created an alert for this job type.

Nearly 70% of respondents to a recent CharityJob survey were women, with the biggest group being the 45-59 age group, followed next by the 30-44 age group.

Given the prevalence of more mature and experienced women looking for work in the charity sector, there’s every reason to include consideration of flexible working arrangements. They are more likely to have family or caring responsibilities which would benefit from some flexibility around hours, or working from home.

It may well be something you can afford to accommodate for the right candidate, so you lose nothing by including a mention that flexible working could be considered.

Be seen in all the right places

There are more good jobs than there are good people. Candidates have a choice so, as well as making the application process straightforward and relatively quick, you need to make sure your jobs stand out and reach the right audience.

This is even more true for charities where you often can’t pay as much as organisations in the private sector. There isn’t the money or the time to waste on expensive ads or recruiter fees, so you need to make sure your jobs are seen in all the right places.

At CharityJob, 76% of our registered candidates put the cause above salary in their priorities when applying for a job. And we have an average of 107,000 job applications made each month from these motivated candidates who are actively searching for roles in this sector.

The broader point is, that in a busy market-place you need to make sure you’re meeting the right candidates and not over-paying on a campaign that’s too broad and fails to attract the best fit for you.

At a time when good candidates can pick and choose, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the purpose of the application process. And reminding ourselves of what it’s not. It’s not about ticking boxes, analytics reporting, or solely about the number of applicants. It’s about encouraging the skilled, motivated candidates who have sought out your organisation and your job opening, to complete. And to provide them with a means to show you how good they are that doesn’t reduce them to tears of frustration or, even worse, makes them give up on the application.

  • Dr Ben Gichuhi

    You got it there. Loud and clear. Make it simple. A cover letter and CV are ample enough. Spread the word to other Dev jobs recruiters out there. Marks you got here 10/10.

    • Jade Phillips

      Thank you, Ben! We’re doing our best to spread the word at the moment.

  • Msc C

    I have lost count of uncompleted application forms for the reasons given by respondents to this survey. When employers describe their organisation as being young and trendy, I am discouraged and hope for wordings which welcomes all ages. Recruiters giving false hope is another depressing trend.

    • Jade Phillips

      We really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to share this with us. It’s really important to us that recruiters are fair and offer candidates a real insight into their organisation. So we’re working hard to make sure this message is spread far and wide.

  • kashmiri

    All are valid points. However, this in no way addresses the two root causes of “tick-box” application forms: (1) the Equal Opportunities legislation, which discourages CV+cover letter applications in favour of forms easier to compare side by side, and (2) the fact that charities do not always require staff with outstanding writing and creative skills, and sometimes just a tick on qualifiaction box is more crucial for the role than a beautifully written creative piece. What about offering the readers a solution how to address these two considerations?

  • Michael Arlington

    Spot on. I had to spend hours and hours filling in an application form and that was for a charity I am involved in .

    • Jade Phillips

      Thanks for sharing, Michael! That comment has come up quite a lot since we’ve conducted this research so hopefully recruiters will see the benefit of changing their processes 🙂

  • Clare Bamberger

    Great research, thank you for sharing. Are you planning to do something similar on job interviews? The number of good candidates who feel that a prescribed HR-driven process is unproductive and daunting must be high (and includes me!). A few years ago I decided not to work for any organisation that had an HR person at interview (or decline the interview if I knew in advance) because I found it sclerotic and the organisation too process driven rather than based on trust.

    • Jade Phillips

      Thanks for sharing, Clare! That’s really interesting. This is something that we might be able to look into in the future so we really appreciate the valuable feedback.

      • Clare Bamberger

        I hope you are able to disseminate the findings of this piece of research on applications far and wide – charities need to hear it. The sector needs to recruit and retain talent and not get bogged down so much in process.

  • Jem Houghton

    Such incredible work CharityJob. Thank you! Please let us know what the response is from charities. I’d be really interested to know how many change their recruitment methods as a result of this. The ones that do – those are the forward thinking ones!

    • Jade Phillips

      Hi Jem! Thanks so much for the positive feedback. We’re doing our best to share this with as many charity recruiters as possible and we’ll definitely look into writing a before/after piece to see the impact of this piece of research.

      • Jem Houghton

        That would be wonderful Jade. If it could include a list of those that are committed to improving their recruitment practices, that would be brilliant?! Maybe an added incentive for them as well! I’d love to target them for work 🙂 There really should be a standardised charity form for the basic details like name, address, education, previous job history. As it takes so long to enter all of these details. It’s not so bad if you’re in a permanent job and looking for another, as you might only do the odd application. However for people like me who have taken a couple of years out to be a carer, because of unforeseen life-threatening family health issues, or for those people who have been stay at home Mums or Dads and are now looking to get back into the sector, we’re obviously going to be looking at lots of different jobs, and working on a lot more applications. The option to include your CV for this basic info would also work. The current process just isn’t time or energy efficient. Another bug bear of mine is when charities ask you to only write one page in evidence of why you’d be suitable for the position, yet their list of requirements is longer i.e. one and a half, 2 or even 3 pages, I’ve experienced! How you’re supposed to provide the level of details they are asking for, but in only a page makes no sense, when their essential and desirable criteria is longer than a page. If you could feed that back to them as well, I’d be so appreciative!

        • Jade Phillips

          Not a problem, Jem! We really appreciate all of your suggestions and completely understand where you’re coming from. I’ll bring these points to light with our team!

          • Jem Houghton

            Thank you! Great work 🙂

  • Nicki Goddard

    A great piece, agree totally! The thing that is worse than filling in the lengthy questions, is not hearing anything back after submitting it.

  • James Gale

    This is a really useful article and I agree with all of the points made. However there’s one more thing that recruiters can do to make things better for applicants – be approachable. Regardless of the numbers of applicants per vacancy it really helps applicants and recruiters if a conversation could be had prior to applying. It’s surprising how impersonal the charitable sector is with its recruitment and how impenetrable the sector is for new entrants. I often wonder if charities are short-sighted / open-minded about potential employees and question daily my decision to try and break into the sector.

  • Pingback: Is the charity sector scaring off good candidates? | CAUSE4()

  • Phillip Sparks Sentamu

    Recruiters who do not give feed back whether positive or negative are a no-no. It is like sitting examinations and you do not get any results back. It’s always professional to inform a candidate of the processes to be undertaken after the interview and when they should hear back from the recruiters.

  • Chris Guyon

    I so totally agree! I hate it when I start an application form and have to go through pages and pages of boxes when everything that needs to be known is in my cv/covering letter. I have quite often given up! Also, I’m so glad you address the problem of no mention of pay. I just pass those applications. I actually have had some interesting conversations with prospective employers. My view is it is a huge waste of everyone’s time if called for interview and then find the pay doesn’t cover what you need. I was told that the reason a pay scale is not given is so that the employer can decide what to pay you on what they see at the interview! Well done on your research and trying to put the applicant’s point of view 🙂

About Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

Read more articles

Continue the conversation on charityconnect

Meet others
a difference

Connect with people in the charity sector
to share ideas and discover opportunities.

Join us

Right now on Charity Connect

  • Richard Sved

    Richard Sved


    3rd Sector Mission Control

    Five charity interview tips

    “ My very first interview for a paid job in the charity sector was 21 years ago. My first successful charity job interview was around 6 months later. And since then... ”
  • Lizzi Hollis

    Lizzi Hollis

    Corporate Account Manager

    Independent Age

    5 things I learnt from ‘Equality in the Workplace’

    “ This month Fundraising magazine has published its first ever Equality in The Workplace report and as CharityConnect’s resident feminist writer I want to share with you 5 things I learnt from it... ”
  • Meredith Niles

    Meredith Niles

    Fundraising Director

    Marie Currie

    Time to come off the list?

    “ It's that time of year when each trip to the postbox reveals a fresh pile of warm wishes from friends and family. I am not especially disciplined about getting... ”
  • Clare Lucas

    Clare Lucas

    Activism Manager


    Time to rally, not to wallow

    “ So, I woke up this morning and for a moment I had forgotten that it was inauguration day; the day that Donald Trump would become the 45th President of the United States. Then I remembered... ”
  • Dawn Newton

    Dawn Newton


    Morello Marketing

    5 Ways Charities Can Benefit from Collaboration

    “ When organisations with a common aim work together, they can cut costs, improve outcomes and reduce duplication... ”

Join our Newsletter

Get the latest career tips sent directly to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter!