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August 26, 2015

Recruitment consultants are a waste of money

Recruitment consultants can be a valuable piece of the staff attraction jigsaw, but, only where they are used properly. Without a recruitment partner that 'gets' your charity - you are wasting your money!

With over 6 years recruitment experience I don't genuinely believe the subject of this post is true. I do genuinely believe that recruitment consultants can be a valuable piece of the staff attraction jigsaw, but, only where they are used properly! For a large number of charities, you are wasting your money and unfortunately, it's your fault.

A large number of charities view recruitment consultants with suspicion, hold them at arms length and are then surprised when the results aren't as good as they had hoped. Now I know that some recruitment consultants have done quite a bit to engender this, but like fundraisers, HR professionals and marketers alike, there are good people and bad people in every profession. Part of the challenge is to find a recruitment partner that 'gets' you and then build on that relationship as you build your team by working as a genuine partnership.

For instance, if you were rebranding your charity it would be insanity to think that you could get the results you wanted by writing a one page brief, sending it out to all the marketing agencies you could think of, not allowing said agencies to speak with your brand marketing team and asking them to submit their designs by a set date. But this is effectively how a lot of charities engage with recruitment consultants. It's an approach that only serves to lower the standard of the service that recruitment consultants are able to provide and, in turn, further diminish faith in the value that they can add to the recruitment process.

If people really are your best asset and you have a sector that has the capability to improve the calibre and 'fit' of the people you hire, then it's in everyone's interest to make sure that we're all working together in the most fruitful way possible.

The Problem (as I see it)

Fundamentally, I don't think that people's perception of how recruitment works has kept pace with changes within the sector. Combine this with a highly competitive market in which we are constantly fighting for a small portion of the market and you have a situation where charities engage recruitment consultants in an outdated manner and recruitment consultants don't push back for fear of rocking the boat and losing business.

There are basically two main areas where the charity - recruitment consultancy partnership can get a bit wobbly:

1. Getting Started

While recruitment companies have been around in a recognisable form since the 40's, the industry in it's contemporary form really got going in the 70's / 80's and their strength in this era was the vast treasure trove of CV's that they collected into neatly categorised filing cabinets. Print advertising obviously has limitations, namely the number of people your advert will reach, and so it was invaluable to have someone that could quickly reach candidates who were completely off your radar.

Online advertising, platforms such as LinkedIn and associated technological advances have completely eroded the advantage recruitment consultants had in the number of candidates they could reach out to; research carried out by yours truly shows that 7 out of 10 fundraisers (for that is my particular area of specialism) have a cursory glance at job boards a few times a month and any line manager worth their salt could quickly track down a plethora of candidates who would be suitable for a role on social media.

The role of a Recruitment Consultant has had to change from being that of a telemarketer to being an ambassador for our clients; we help our clients rise above the white noise of the job market by learning as much as we can about them & the role and then painting a vivid picture for our candidates in order to give them a three dimensional sense of the role, in turn inspiring them to apply.

And this is the crux of it, the disharmony of understanding that so sullies the image of a recruitment consultant's work. The reason that sending us a job specification, not providing additional information, not allowing us to visit the office and giving us three days to work on the role doesn't work is because it's an approach predicated on the erroneous idea that we have unique access to a pool of unreachable, mysterious candidates who would have applied for the role had they only known about it. Chances are that they've already seen the advert and just didn't see anything in there that made them want to apply, without any additional information all I can do is replicate that process.

I've provided two excerpts (not verbatim, for I'm not the amazing memory man) from conversations I've had with candidates recently. The first was about a role with a charity I have worked with for many years, who always give me a thorough brief on the role and whose fundraising team I keep in regular contact with and meet for lunch once in a while. The second was about a role with a large charity who run their recruitment process through HR and where we aren't allowed contact with the wider organisation. You tell me which you would be more inclined to apply for:

**I've changed names and identifying information to stop myself getting in trouble for revealing too much**

Conversation #1:

Candidate:         "So what is the team like?"
Me:                        "They're absolutely lovely. Sandra leads the team and has ten years experience in corporate fundraising and used to head the CSR team for FTSE 100 company, she has a 100% commitment to staff development and puts in place a personal development plan for each of her team. You'll work alongside Julie and Mark who've both been in the team for about 3 years, they're both really nice - Julie is really conscientious and heads down, but easy to get on with, and Mark is really friendly and funny, I think you'll really like him."
Candidate:         "Have you ever seen their offices, what are they like?"
Me:                        "I was there the other day actually; the offices are great, all very modern with floor to ceiling windows & a minimalist design and they have some really funky furniture that was donated to them by a well known furniture company. The building is set in the middle of some absolutely beautiful gardens and the fundraising team's windows look out on to a small, ornate square where they can sit it and work when it's sunny."

Conversation #2:

Candidate:          "What is the team like?"
Me:                        "Unfortunately I haven't been able to speak with them, but I can tell you that there is a head of team with four managers below her and then an officer below each of them. I've looked them up on LinkedIn and can send over the profiles of those that I've been able to track down."
Candidate:         "Do you know what their offices are like?"
Me:                        " I haven't been able to visit their offices, but I did place someone in another team a few months ago and they told me that the offices are nice."
Candidate:         "Do you know how they split the donor portfolio across the team?"
Me:                        "Sorry, I'm not too sure about that, but if you were to apply I could certainly try and get the information ahead of an interview."

If we don't have the information we need to understand the specific things that make this role attractive, then it is simply impossible for us to credibly sell the role to candidates who might not actively be looking for roles or who have already dismissed the role based on their, possibly incorrect, pre-conceptions of the role and / or your organisation.

2. The Endgame

With a lot of charities our role in the selection process ends once we have submitted the CVs / covering letters / application forms to our client. We sit back and wait to hear which candidates have been shortlisted. This is despite the fact that we will often have known the candidates for a significant amount of time, have feedback from previous interviews they've had, taken references from their previous employers and had protracted conversations, both over the phone and face to face, where we got to understand their professional achievements and personal motivations.

Often when we push back on a particular candidate because we know that they are brilliant and much better than their experience makes them seem, this is not taken into account and they're omitted from the short list. As I pointed out to one of my clients recently, "recruitment consultants aren't cheap and if you don't think that I know my stuff enough to take my recommendations on board, then it's absolutely crazy that you've agreed to this fee."

Now I know that recruitment consultants aren't created equally, but I guess that's the point: you need to take the time to find someone that can be a true recruitment partner and who represents true value for money. You should be working with people who can provide an extra angle to candidate assessment and whose input and advice you find invaluable.

Take, for instance, the fundraising recruitment team at Charity People. The team has over 22 years charity recruitment experience, many of us were previously fundraisers, some of us are trustees, we all volunteer with the fundraising teams of charities close to our hearts and are committed to the continued development of our understanding of the emerging challenges and trends in fundraising through workshops, training and seminars. I'd like to think that our thoughts and general musings on the recruitment process would carry a little more weight than those of trainee, graduate recruitment consultants from more commercial consultancies.

The Solution

There is a simple two part solution with each party needing to do their bit:

Recruitment Consultants:

We need to intimately understand the sector we service and the disciplines we recruit for, then we need to fully realise what factors create the most successful recruitment campaigns and finally we need to stop a culture of over-promising and under-delivering: we need to be frank with our clients about the way our service works, what we can deliver and any limitations that are being imposed on the project either by them or market conditions.


You need to work with recruitment professionals in the same way that you would with consultants in other disciplines: find someone that you trust, build a mutually respectful relationship with them and give them the information they need to make them an effective part of your staff attraction arsenal.

Overall, I think the solution is a positive one. Charities need to raise their expectations of what agencies are able to deliver, alter the way that they engage with them to leverage maximum value from them and then refuse to work with consultancies who don't match these lofty expectations.

Until all of that happens it's a race to the bottom with everyone's expectations constantly tumbling, their level of engagement lowering, and the standard of service falling and thus we find ourselves in a doomed cycle.

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