Alliance Breakfast Club 24 September 2014 – Talent for philanthropy


Alliance magazine and Holly Steell


Alliance magazine’s September 2014 special feature focused on Talent for Philanthropy, and this was the topic of the Alliance breakfast club, held in association with the Association of Charitable Foundations and hosted by the Baring Foundation.

There is a lot of discussion about foundations’ and philanthropists’ financial resources, and how they can best be used, but very much less about the people in the philanthropy sector. Yet these people – operations staff, programme staff, leaders – are arguably the sector’s most important asset. So the questions focused on were: do we think enough about what sort of people the sector needs? And do we do enough to attract and retain them?

Panellists were David Emerson (chief executive, Association of Charitable Foundations), Elisabeth Marx (partner at Stonehaven Search London), Paul Ramsbottom (chief executive, Wolfson Foundation) and Sandra Schwarzer (Global Director of Human Resources, Open Society Foundations).

The first question for the panel was: ‘what talent do we need and how do we find it?’ Should foundations be looking for generalists or specialists? Permanent staff or consultants? People from outside the sector or from within? For the Open Society Foundations (OSF), said Schwarzer, a culture fit is extremely important. ‘You can be a star, you can be the best expert, but if you don’t share our values it’s not going to work out.’ In the last two years their HR department has transformed from simply ‘paying their staff on time’ to recruiting new staff with the right skills and ethos and developing the talent within the organization. For example, all staff who have been with them for over five years can apply for a sabbatical to refresh their skills in the field.

The Baring Foundation’s David Cutler made a salient point in his opening remarks: that often the issue for foundations is not how to retain staff but how to get rid of them. It is a small field with few opportunities and jobs in it are highly desirable. This was a point that came up again and again during the meeting. Trusts and foundations are rich organizations that can offer good salaries in ‘jobs for life’ doing things that can ‘make a difference’. Why would anyone want to leave such a job? asked Emerson. OSF’s promise to new staff is that they will be a ‘skills academy’: an employer who will train staff and enable them to move on to jobs in other organizations.

Paul Ramsbottom rose through the ranks to become CEO of the Wolfson Foundation. So what did he think about employing people from outside the sector or from within? Traditionally, he said, Wolfson CEOs tended, like much of the leadership within the sector, to be retired military people (in the 1960s and 1970s) or civil servants (more recently); he was the first Wolfson CEO to be appointed from within the foundation sector. Now they recruit on the basis of the required skills for each role rather than experience, said Ramsbottom, but ideally they want a mixture of employees with sector and non-charity sector experience to prevent them becoming inward-looking.

Marx echoed the need to recruit on the basis of skills rather than experience: not only does this allow you to open up your possible candidate list but it also prevents you from continuously hiring your mirror image. Staff must support your core values, and complementary personalities are important, but you should not recruit carbon copies of yourself.

As Ramsbottom pointed out, diversity in the foundation sector is a real challenge, from board to junior staff; too much recruiting takes place from among those with a shared cultural background. A number of suggestions came from the floor for addressing this, for example: foundations creating openings for volunteers so more people become familiar with them; job swaps between foundations and charities; and foundation staff going into schools, as big charities do. Allowing foundation staff at all levels time to volunteer in a grassroots organization was also suggested as a way not only to renew their enthusiasm but also to give them a greater understanding of frontline work. Foundations could learn much from the corporate sector about valuing staff and fostering their skills, Marx suggested, while Emerson outlined the role a member association like ACF can play in training foundation professionals.

The sticking point here is time. UK foundations are mostly small organizations, Emerson pointed out, certainly too small to have a dedicated HR person. Allowing a staff member to be away for a decent length of time on a job swap would be a serious drain on resources for most foundations, said Ramsbottom.

Discussion focused on trustees as well as staff. Trustee recruitment should be a formal process, with candidates appointed on the basis of their skills, rather than following a friend’s recommendation, suggested Marx. The issue of appraisal for trustees also came up – not an easy thing to do, especially if you have family members on the board.

Most panellists agreed that salaries are important in attracting talented staff, especially those from outside the sector, but they are by no means the only factor. OSF offers training and a generous benefit package, but not all organizations have the resources to do this, so what can they do? Salaries are particularly important for foundations with staff based across the world, said Schwarzer. Another issue is: hoq do you benchmark salaries for roles that are often highly individualized?

For Ramsbottom, the key question raised by the breakfast club was how foundations can adopt the highest-level approaches to recruitment and staff development with their limited resources. Yes, foundations are rich organizations, but trustees like to keep them ‘lean’ and admin costs at a minimum.

Read the September 2014 issue, here (£)>

Holly Steell is communications officer at Alliance magazine.

The Alliance Breakfast Clubs are free to attend. The next Breakfast Club will be held in December, focusing on Philanthropy in transitions: What role for foundations in post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions? If you are interested in attending please email us at

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