Attracting Talent

October 5, 2017


This post is part of a talent project led by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN, founded by UnLtd) and supported by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The project aims to shed light on challenges and solutions related to the attraction, development and retention of talent within entrepreneur support organisations. Follow along with #talentsummer

Author bio

Naomi Ryland is co-founder and director of tbd* (formerly, Germany’s largest platform for purpose-driven careers. Having spent eight years working in the development and social-enterprise sectors in the UK and Germany, she was frustrated at the lack of transparency around impact careers and decided to create a one-stop online destination for identifying opportunities and talent that delivers high-quality service at an affordable price.

“Talent:” a term used regularly to refer to the “high potentials” that every employer is desperately trying to attract, the social sector included. But who and what are we really talking about when referring to this ambiguous group and how does one go about getting hold of them? These are the questions that my cofounders and I have been asking ourselves since we started The Changer—a career platform designed to help nonprofits and mission-driven businesses attract and keep the kind of people that they were missing, those that were going to be able to help take these organisations to the next level, to help them live up to their lofty ambitions of changing the world and even turn around an entire economic system on a crash course for collision.

We started with what we knew: ourselves and our very own demands and expectations when it came to a fulfilling career. OK, none of us are Harvard graduates, but with respectable master’s degrees from respectable red-brick universities in our back pockets, we modestly counted ourselves amongst the kind of people who potentially had a thing or two to offer in the department of world-changing.

We had a whole lot of drive and ambition, and sometimes that counts for more than the right qualifications (although certainly not always; more on that later). So what did we want out of a career and why hadn’t we been able to find it in our previous jobs? The list is endless, but here is a rough breakdown:

  • Social impact
  • Autonomy
  • Flexible working hours and place
  • Shared values
  • Challenging tasks
  • Visible outcomes

Money. To be or not to be?

Much to our own amazement, we realised one huge missing thing. Salary! Did we want to work for free? No, absolutely not. But somehow our salary expectations still didn’t feature very high on the list. Was that because we never really had to go without? Probably. But we also agreed that the salary that we had become used to so far in social-impact jobs had allowed us to live comfortably with the potential for the occasional holiday, and we were fairly happy. So ambitions of earning much more than that had less impact on our (forecasted) motivation.

Our list is reflected by studies across the board. Over the last couple of decades, salary has considerably dropped down the priority list and factors like flexibility, purpose and autonomy have shot up. But for the social sector that can be deceptive—if salary isn’t important then we can afford to scrimp and save on that, right? Wrong. Two reasons: First, the job-satisfaction surveys where salaries are classed as less important than other factors are often based on a broad section of society, taking into account people who earn a lot more than the average wage in the social sector. People need a basic minimum income to continue to feel motivated; just because we are doing good, it doesn’t mean that we should not earn accordingly. People will start to lose motivation when they compare themselves to others who earn more. A recent survey that we did for tbd* produced an average salary in the social sector at 36.000 EUR, not enough to attract top talent and keep them.

It is crucial as a managing director to establish a salary baseline; try talking to your employees to establish what is appropriate. This should be the guiding principle when applying for funding or recruiting new employees and not the minimum common denominator, as is often the case.[1] Even more importantly, funders need to do the same, to recognise the importance of allowing—and even encouraging—their portfolio organisations to pay generous wages in order to attract the best staff. Give them room to breathe. Enabling portfolio organisations the freedom to pay their staff more than a baseline minimum will have a huge impact on their efficacy.

Second, when these work-satisfaction surveys are made amongst millennials, you can assume that these are 20-somethings answering those questions. That’s because most millennials are still in their 20s and only a relatively small proportion are just starting to have children and take on responsibilities like aging parents. And boom. That is when the idealism ends and the realism begins. Talking to a middle-manager at one of Germany’s largest foundations recently, I was moved by her agonising about whether to move into the for-profit sector has recently had her second child. She loved her job but no longer felt that it was fair to her family to be bringing home so little cash. Not cool. There seems to be an exodus out of the sector at just the moment when people are becoming real experts and the investment made so far into them is coming to fruition. This exodus needs to be stopped. And a small pay rise can make all the difference.


OK, so we are agreed that we will at least pay our employees what they need to work and live relatively free from intense money worries. Phew. But it’s not over yet. We can still agree that high potentials at nonprofits are unlikely to be earning anywhere near what they could be earning at McKinsey & Co. and that most nonprofits will be paying within a pretty narrow range between “what we need to pay” and “what we can justify to our board/funders/donors.” So how to differentiate yourself from the competition when salary isn’t an option? This is where we return to those lists. The soft stuff. The stuff you care about just as much as we do. Flexibility, purpose, shared values, recognition, autonomy.  Yet mission-driven organisations and companies rarely talk about these things. Think hard. Before starting your current job, did you really have any idea what it would be like to work there? Probably not. Employer branding has been a trend in the corporate sector for decades, but hasn’t really caught on in the social sector as yet. Wanting to “do good” or “make a difference” was enough to set apart a mission-driven employer for a while. But how HR managers now groan when they read those words, “I want to work for your organisation because I want to do good.” The sector has diversified and professionalized; now there are multiple criteria that need to be matched up between employee and employer in order to ensure a lasting match.

To reach the right kind of people, it is crucial that social-sector organisations learn the art of storytelling, transparency and critical reflection—with potential employees in mind—in the same way that they have mastered all of these things for their donors and funders over the last few years. Only then can they truly ensure that they reach and appeal to the right kind of person who is going to be able to help take their organisations to the next level, to help them live up to their lofty ambitions of changing the world and even turn around an entire economic system on a crash course for collision.


[1] In fact, forward thinkers like Laloux advocate employees being able to define their own salaries between themselves—no doubt a step too far for many—but a proven concept in terms of producing happy and satisfied workers (in Berlin, social businesses Betterplace Lab and Einhorn are trialing this concept).