How to attract and retain private sector talent to help grow your social enterprise – 6 Tips!

One way to create a more commercially focused social enterprise is to attract (and retain!) talented employees from the private sector - here are a few pointers!

How to attract and retain private sector talent to help grow your social enterprise – 6 Tips!  

Social enterprises often operate in very competitive markets and in order to survive have to work as efficiently as possible due to their limited resources. For many social enterprises, to maximise their social impact and fulfil their mission they need to generate sufficient income and at times this requires them to be ultra competitive in a private sector market place.  

One way to create a more commercially focused social enterprise is to attract (and retain!) talented employees from the private sector. However, this is easier said than done, due to lower levels of remuneration and on occasion, the perception, or should I say misconception of the working environment which is sometimes associated with the sector.  

However, if you adopt an intelligent approach towards your recruitment and retention strategies and take advantage of current market trends, you could increase the skillset of your workforce and gain a significant competitive advantage for your social enterprise.

Firstly, is recruiting from the private sector the right decision for your organisation?
For many this has definitely been the best strategy, for others it has not been the right decision or time for their organisation. Some social enterprises have not actually been ready to open up to new commercial ideas or ways of working, which have resulted in failed recruitment and retention strategies.  

However, more and more social enterprise start ups are being created and they continue to grow at a faster pace than their private sector SME counterparts (Social Enterprise UK, 2017). Therefore, competing with the private sector for staff is likely to be a consideration for many social enterprises, either now or in the future.  

So, how do you to attract and retain commercial staff to your social enterprise?  

We know that most social enterprises are unlikely to compete with salaries offered by the private sector and we also know that the culture and organisation fit is paramount, but how do you offer a financially viable option to those who have a “strong social ethos” and an appreciation of the value led culture commonly associated with the sector?  

Number 1 – Fish in the right pool!


During my MBA research I interviewed people who had made the transfer from the private sector into a social enterprise. It soon became apparent that everyone interviewed had either been a trustee or volunteer in the charitable sector prior to joining a social enterprise for the first time.  

It may seem obvious but have you factored this target area into your recruitment attraction strategy? Actions speak louder than words in this sector, surely those who have a social conscience and feel strongly about “giving back,” are likely to be able to demonstrate this through their actions.  

Number 2 – Appeal to their intrinsic motivation!  

During my research, participants were asked if they considered their work to be a “career,” “job,” or “calling.” Unsurprisingly, very few claimed to viewing it as just a job! However, the majority tussled between “career” and “calling,” with most settling on it being a “conscious career move, influenced by a strong feeling towards a calling into more meaningful work.”  

Several people also discussed their frustration with their previous private sector employers, who had weak CSR policies and a primary concern for rewarding the shareholders. This “push factor” was clearly evident, with one participant claiming that this move away from the private sector towards social enterprises should be seen as a “call to action to those in the private sector.”

Do you market your opportunities as a “career calling” and successfully promote your social impact to potential employees?  

Number 3 – Use your networking skills and sell the autonomy, flexibility and variety in your role profile; allow them to be creative and see the impact they are having.  

Whilst it is by no means exclusive to the social enterprise sector, most of the social enterprise leaders who I have met talked about the amount of networking they do and see this as an essential requirement of their role. Without exception, they have all talked about the need for autonomy, flexibility and variety in their role, allowing time and space to be creative. Here we again consider a person’s intrinsic motivation as they are fuelled by their genuine interest in their role and purpose, which often lead to tangible actions and a relentless drive towards achieving a real impact in their work.    

Do you use your networking skills to attract future employees into your organisation? And do you promote autonomy, flexibility and variety in your opportunities?  

Okay, so you have attracted someone with commercial talent, a social conscience and passion for your organisation. You have promoted your social impact and tempted them to move from a more financially favourable role in the private sector. So, how do you enhance that intrinsic motivation and ensure you retain your staff?  

Number 4 -  Reinforce your social purpose in your induction program and be prepared to listen to new commercial ideas.  

Several themes emerged throughout my research, most social enterprises appeared to be grappling with their marketing and articulation of their social impact. However, several employees discussed how there was a gap between the perception and reality when they joined the organisation. A number of social enterprises failed to reinforce their “social ethos” and missed the opportunity to get further buy in from their new staff member. Yes, health and safely policies are important, as well as accessing and operating a new computer system, but please don’t forget the real reason why people joined your organisation! Early re-enforcement can only enhance their motivation and goes a long way in showing your true values and culture.  

Number 5 - As previously mentioned, bringing in talent from the private sector may not be right for your organisation; or perhaps you just may not yet be ready to take on new ideas from the private sector. Frustration was felt both by employers who were reluctant to change and new employees who felt their opinions and commercial skills were not valued or utilised. This led to new recruits leaving within their first 6 months.  

So ask yourself the difficult question as an employer - is it the right time for you? and if so, are you prepared to take on new ideas and make changes?  

If it is right for your organisation be ready to transform the way you think and operate to achieve your full potential as a highly commercial, socially conscious organisation who maximises its social impact on society!  

Number 6 - Organisation FIT is an important consideration and can have a significant influence on how you attract and retain the right employees. There are an increasing number of organisations across the public and private sector who conduct “value led” recruitment processes. This is a move I would urge social enterprises to look into.  

Whilst people are often attracted to work for a social enterprise because they are people orientated and wanting to work in a caring culture. Essentially they are “intrinsically motivated” and this feeling often enhances staff loyalty in this area. Therefore, care needs to be taken when introducing private sector ideas and practices.  

By introducing extrinsic motivators that are often associated with private sector companies, such as KPI targets, profit/revenue focus or even an increase of salaries, evidence suggests that this may harm the intrinsic motivation of employees; leading to an unhealthy challenge to existing values and organisational culture. Take great care as this may harm the very essence of what makes your social enterprise so special!  

Remember that the private sector way is not always the right way; take small steps and never forget your core social purpose!  

Jamie Houlders conducted an Executive MBA research project through Leeds University Business School, based on ‘The attraction and retention of commercial skills into social enterprises; What factors influence an individual to leave the private sector to join a social enterprise.’  Jamie has worked in a market leading professional services recruitment company for over 20 years, with more recent years focused on supporting social enterprises as an executive search specialist. This has led to an increased interest in the sector and a desire to offer further support, advice and guidance to social enterprises, whether it relates to recruitment and retention strategies or wider business challenges that you face. Contact: Tel: 07460 038537