Getting it right: why researching charity staff matters

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Getting it right: why researching charity staff matters

This blog follows our report which asks - 'Why survey (charity) staff?'. We highlight why, in the wake of reports on toxic work cultures and #NotJustNCVO, understanding (and acting on) the views and experiences of charity staff and volunteers is so important.
Joe Saxton and Eva Spencer

The benefits of better employee1 engagement are increasingly being recognised by all kinds of organisations.2 Within the charity sector, this issue has become particularly relevant in the wake of revelations that some charities’ cultures have not been all that might have been expected. We think this is just one of a number of reasons why researching the views of staff matters so much (all the same arguments apply to volunteers too). We cover all this in our new free report released today which you can download from this link: Why survey (charity) staff?

Uncovering poor cultures or discrimination

In early 2021, an independent report into NCVO’s culture on equality, diversity and inclusion brought to light a deep-rooted toxic work culture. Its release sparked revelations of similar behaviour across the sector with many taking to Twitter to share their stories of racism, ableism, homophobia, sexism and bullying in the sector under #NotJustNCVO.

Prior to this, in October 2020, Versus Arthritis filed a serious incident report with the Charity Commission following multiple employee accounts of ‘systemic racism, racially motivated microaggressions and bullying’. A few months later, former employees of St Johns Ambulance came forward with allegations of ‘a culture of bullying’ and ‘sweeping complaints under the rug’.

Having an in-depth employee survey in place would or should have given all staff a platform to feel heard, not only to report bullying or microaggressions but also to address wider organisational interventions, such as lack of diversity or lack of representation.

Understanding reactions to a changed world

It isn’t just to understand toxic cultures that it’s important to research staff views. With the pandemic leading to changes in working practices and challenges such as lack of funding and/or increased demand for service delivery, it continues to be as important as ever that charities prioritise their understanding of employee engagement. How is home working? Who likes it and who doesn’t? How have internal communications been about pandemic (or any other) issues?

Good research is just the first step -  management need to respond

Conducted well, engagement surveys have the potential to be an important measurement tool. Whilst running a survey is an important first step, it is then crucial that the leadership team feeds back findings to staff and that evidence-based changes are made. For this process to happen effectively, the senior leadership of a charity need to understand why employee engagement matters and to seek to establish the culture, behaviours and practices that foster engagement.

It is for all of these reasons we have found ourselves at nfpSynergy doing increasing numbers of staff surveys and research over the last few years. As the synthesis of the academic and research literature in our report shows, best practice includes using an external agency to guarantee anonymity (biased as we are), and repeating surveys on a regular basis.

We don’t pretend for a moment that doing a survey of a charity’s staff is a fool proof way of uncovering any cultural or discrimination issues. However, it’s a really important starting place. Put another way, if an organisation doesn’t ask its staff what they think through systematic research, how on earth can it expect to know. We also would recommend that a survey is followed up with interviews with a limited number of staff who self-select (as opposed to being chosen by management) to be interviewed. People may tell an interviewer things in conversation that they wouldn’t write in a survey.

All of the evidence of the last 24 months, from the #metoo movement to the Covid pandemic shows that understanding what staff think and feel is really important. It’s a critical tool of good management. We encourage every organisation to research the views of their staff. We hope you find our new report useful and inspiring.

If you are interested in researching the views of your staff (or volunteers), please contact Joe Saxton on

1 All the arguments in this report about the importance of research apply to volunteers as well. The report talks about staff, but if you are a volunteer manager, the arguments are just as valid.

2 Please see the report for all references.

Submitted by Daryl Upsall (not verified) on 1 Jul 2021


Hi Joe and Eva, you are absolutely right about the need for regular, annual and tracked staff surveys over time not only to pick up the hidden negative issue and those of abuse, bullying, discrimination at all levels, but also to identify positive trends and opportunities for new ways of working and staff lead innovation.

Our telephone fundraising call centre and all other companies and functions, with 200 plus staff had to move offices last March-May due to our current offices being converted into apartments. Suddenly, we were locked down and moved to 100% home working in 48 hours. We planned to rent two floors of the building next door. A few months into lockdown we surveyed the call center staff and so many preferred long term homeworking, with regular visits to the office for training and interaction. The result was we rented only one floor and redesigned the workspaces accordingly. We have also tracked workplace "happiness" and empowered the call center staff to design and decorate as they want the offices to look and feel. Listen and respond to you staff...they are on the frontline and their well being massively impacts on your organisation's wellbeing,resilience and success.

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