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Opinion: In the era of burn-out, it’s time to listen to what’s really engaging third sector employees

3 min read

Achieving sustainable, long-term growth has long been the holy grail for third sector organisations. Profits are fundamental in ensuring that third sector bodies can achieve their societal or community goals, but they aren’t necessarily the only key to growth. Considerations like how an organisation impacts and engages with its employees need to form part of the plan – and this is perhaps truer in our post-COVID world than ever before.

Like all industries, the third sector has been struggling with talent retention and burnout since the pandemic. Many employees have reassessed what is truly important to them and reimagined their approach to work, alongside their expectations of employers. The result is increasing pressure on organisations to double down on their best asset and the key to success – their people.

Within the context of this – during a time of global volatility and local uncertainty – The Access Group undertook a research piece to benchmark Australian workplaces today and establish if there was a way in which organisations could better deliver across societal, environmental and personal well-being markers in the name of long-term prosperity. The outcome was our Powering Profits and Prosperity report, which revealed that third sector employees are – as one would expect – clearer on their organisation’s purpose when compared to all other industries, with 65% of staff fully understanding their workplace’s central mission. It’s no surprise that many people attracted to the third sector have a driving purpose beyond the paycheck. Be it working for a cause that is close to their heart, or wanting to give something back to the wider community, third sector employees are a special breed.

While 31% of third sector staff are very willing to go above and beyond at work, only 39% feel engaged in their profession, with 9% admitting they are disengaged.

As a provider of business software solutions that deliver better ways of working, we are always seeking to understand how people work, how they want to work, and how organisations can better enable their people. So, what can third sector bodies do to engage and retain their staff at a time when financial concerns are top of mind, and corporates – who are competing for the same talent – have much deeper pockets to dig into?

Employee experience is key

Salary will always be important, but our research shows that provided your people are paid fairly, employee experience is the primary driver to keeping third sector staff engaged.

When asked about the workplace factors that would encourage third sector employees to go above and beyond, respondents highlighted three interesting areas for consideration – a more positive workplace culture (66%); additional workplace perks (66%) and strong leadership (53%).

As a sector where salaries are less competitive, building other initiatives that increase attraction and retention is even more important for third sector organisations, such as paid volunteer days or collective fundraising events across your teams.

Having employees who don’t feel empowered to make a difference is a recipe for disengagement and should be considered a warning to look beyond the balance sheets.

Autonomous organisations perform best

Within the not-for-profit and government sectors, a command and control management style dominates (53%), but a third (30%) of those surveyed presented a strong desire to shift towards more autonomous ways of working.

By moving towards a more autonomous working style, organisations can enable people to shape their work and work environment to not only achieve the goals they set but to create deeper and more enduring value.

Here, our research shows that businesses that support greater autonomy deliver on average 13% better across critical outcomes like financial performance, retaining talent, strong reputation among the community, and a thriving partner network, versus command and control style organisations. Autonomous workers are also more likely to be engaged (45% vs 31%), willing to go above and beyond at work (45% vs 30%) and stay at their workplace longer (54% vs 38%).

An essential part of moving towards the autonomy Australian third sector workers and organisations want is of course through effective processes and technology, which enable teams and give individuals the freedom to do more.

This is how we unlock true passion and discretionary effort, and ensures that our people are engaged and working with a sense of purpose that is required to deliver the long-term prosperity every organisation strives to achieve.

As a new generation of workers emerge, autonomy, societal responsibility and personal well-being are fast becoming top priorities. Our research shows organisations that deliver here will clearly benefit from a more connected and engaged workforce. This is what drives not only profits but true prosperity in the long run – which ultimately enables third sector bodies to achieve the positive social impact they set out to.


Kerry has more than 25 years of senior leadership, business management, sales and consulting experience - gained primarily within the Technology and Financial Services Industries. Kerry has amassed his experience through various leadership roles at Siebel Systems, Travelex and Western Union, as well as his own consultancy practice serving SMEs. Recently, Kerry was Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Sage Asia Pacific, before taking on the role of President APAC for The Access Group when it acquired the Sage business and products in 2021. Kerry drives The Access Group growth ambitions in the region, working closely with global counterparts to deliver on the group's ambition to give clients the freedom to do more.


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