Thoughts in Development: Where has all the talent gone?

Adam O'Boyle2 Apr 2015Sector Debates


Thanks to my colleagues Sara Fernandez and Robbie Semple especially for comments on this. Its errors and length remain of course my own fault.

The social sectors – by which I mean those that explicitly aim to make a positive difference in the world around them – should have a lock down on good talent. But they don’t. And when I say ‘should’, I don’t say that normatively in that ‘it would be better if they did’, I mean this should already be a description of the world we operate in. The key factors to attract talent to the social sectors are already in place, but something is holding us back. People have a huge desire to make a difference with their careers; charities are often overwhelmed with volunteer resources and people wanting to make careers in the sector. And although it’s often harder to get a good career in the social sectors, you can be well remunerated if you’re successful – as successful as if you were a doctor or a teacher. So where are we going wrong?

At Hub Ventures, particularly through our ventures Student Hubs and Worthwhile this is a particularly pressing question. We are built on the belief that if society is ever to tackle its biggest challenges then the leaders, thinkers, consumers and decision makers of tomorrow need to care, deeply, about social change, and be equipped with the tools to make a difference. That, in essence, tomorrow’s people need to be working to bring about social change in some way. The point is so obvious it’s almost banal, but often neglected we think.

However, this isn’t the case today. Too little talent is directed towards the ambition of social change. As a former Vice President of Facebook, is quoted as saying “the best minds of my generation are working out how to make people click on more adverts, and that sucks”. I don’t think necessarily all the best minds do work at Facebook, but it’s certainly true that a good number of them do, and if that’s what a lot of them are doing then that’s a waste. Given a lack of talent directed to social sector problems, what explains this?

Arguments around social sector talent typically fall into discussions about why it can’t attract the right talent – that all the best minds, are going to work elsewhere. This is certainly important. We created the Worthwhile graduate scheme because we think that the nonprofit sectors aren’t sufficiently attractive to many of today’s graduates, that too many end up in corporate graduate schemes for which they have no passion, and end up perpetuating the status quo by extension. As a final year student said to me the other day, he was surprised by “how many of his close friends had suddenly developed a deep passion for corporate law”.

However, though this is a part of the solution, we actually created the Worthwhile graduate scheme not because the social sectors are generally that unattractive to talented individuals. But because, and this is the bigger issue, the talent that is attracted, as good as talent elsewhere, is so poorly supported that too often it is wasted. Worthwhile is designed to be a structured scheme for the social sectors, that ensures that good talent is given the resources it needs to thrive and the opportunity to actually take action. We have people looking to apply to Worthwhile with 5-6 years charity sector experience because they lament how little structured training they have received in their careers to date. No doubt this compounds the issue of attractiveness of the sector, but for the talent that does reach the sector this is the more pressing issue.

We therefore argue that the primary issue for the social sector is not one of attraction. The social sector attracts enough good talent through its own merits. The huge energy for getting involved with social issues and making a difference brings hope that perhaps there is hope in what is often a hopeless world. However, the sector then wastes that talent – volunteers and staff – the final consequence of this might be that the talent leaves the sector alltogether or at the very least fails to fulfil anything like its potential. Because as true as it that you need a great team to succeed, it’s true that even the best team, if starved of resources will achieve very little.

This wouldn’t be the place to rehearse arguments about the importance of talent in achieving your goal, how you can only succeed with killer teams etc. There is plenty of literature and commentary out there, covering all sectors and in the discourse about the health of a nation that shows that making good use of the resources at your disposal is essential and you need good resources to succeed.

But I think it is the place to discuss the peculiarities of talent in the social sector and one reason that so many social change efforts are held back.

To deepen the analysis, let’s dispatch the point which claims that all the best talent goes to the private sectors:

  • It is often said that the ‘best’ talent in society goes into other sectors – particularly the private sector. That the brightest, most hard working, most entrepreneurial of us go to work in for-profit enterprises. And that later in life it’s right that this talent then goes to do its bit for society (the old Learn, Earn, Return formula).
  • There is likely a deep framing issue going on here – if the private sector convinces everyone that all the cleverest people go to work in private enterprise where they go to make money for the good of society, it helps support the idea that the aim of us all should be solely to make money (as of course, all the cleverest people have decided that.)

However, much as debates around inequality are bounded by flawed, tired and broken conversations that claim that being wealthy is a sign of great talent/intellect, this argument is entirely wrong for the social sectors. Elementary correlation/causation analysis tells you that just because the social sector has seemingly less impactful individuals (in the other example, less wealthy), the explanation isn’t that they are inherently less talented (intelligent).

Poor performance is not just a factor of talent, but also a factor of the resources offered to that talent. This should be obvious. The diversity agenda is predicated on that argument – that if you offered the same resources/opportunities to good talent, regardless of location, then it would succeed. As Danny Dorling has pointed out, in recent years there has been a strong push to suggest that isn’t the case, especially in the debate over inequality – that those of a certain ‘class’ (the 1%, or, in our argument, those that worked in the private sector) are inherently more talented. But there is no evidence to suggest that is the case.

Yet this argument is endemic and dangerous – clearly in the inequality debate, but in an argument about social sector talent. It perpetuates the myth that everyone in the social sectors is untalented for starters. It is then perpetuated that we need ‘business sector’ expertise to come to ‘professionalise’ the charitable sectors; that on their own we will never cope, never succeed, never fulfil our potential. Jim Collins’ opening line from his excellent book Good to Great and the Social Sectors knocks that one on the head: “We must reject the idea—well intentioned but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’”

I was told of a charity receiving mentoring, through a well known programme, by a team of four bankers (all very intelligent, insightful people). Through no fault of their own (because the programme thrives off this) they had been led to believe that they were going to find a charity sector complete basket case. However, after a number of meetings the arrangement came to an end because the advisors said ‘but you don’t operate at all like a charity’ ‘your team is full of so much talent’ and ‘we don’t have the skillset to help’.


  • Firstly, there is a problem of training. When we mean resources, we don’t just mean “here’s some money go and play with it” we mean all the other resources that come with trying to support talent to reach its potential. As in schools and university education, as in the workplace, if talent is poorly resourced and supported it will slip behind. Social sector employees have their training needs stunted from day one, so it’s no surprise that after five years in the sector they don’t look as impressive as their private sector counterparts.
  • Secondly, a problem of support for innovation. Even the very best talent in the social sectors struggles to get a leg up. Referring to a large funder, a well known sector guru said to me recently, “well if they won’t invest in a social entrepreneur like Andy (name changed) then what hope is there for us”. There is, however, LOADS of money washing around the social sectors. It is just often very poorly allocated. It would be an interesting experiment to really back the most talented social entrepreneurs out there, Silicon Valley style and see what happened.
  • Thirdly, but related, it’s impossible to work out in the sectors where good talent should be targeted (ie, where talented individuals should concentrate their time), because the sector operates with such broken resourcing mechanisms. It’s not even a question of that talent being wasted on ideas that the sector cumulatively decides is not worthy, it’s that it’s not clear at all where that talent can get highest return for its human capital. Or maybe it’s just never in the nonprofit sector?
  • Fourthly, talent spends so much time just trying to get on the job ladder. If, at the start of your career, you have to spend a year or two doing endless rounds of internships, perhaps working second or third jobs on the side. The reason someone with five year’s experience in the social sector is ‘less talented’ than their private sector counterpart is both because of training shortfalls, but also because they haven’t had half as long on the job.
  • Fifthly, talent spends so much time begging for money – which isn’t the best way to make an impact. If I am to compare the journey of a social entrepreneur to their peers in the tech world or smoother functioning talent markets, our impact is severely limited because we spend so much time begging for money, which is not necessarily allocated in any objective or measurable way. (More on the lottery of philanthropic fundraising in other posts).


  • People get bored and leave the social sectors (this is as true for staff and volunteers alike)
  • People burnout
  • There is more limited impact than their could be
  • People spend all their time worrying about how to attract future resources, especially funding, rather than just getting on with the job
  • Inevitable anxiety, stress, despair


  • Rise up and have confidence in our own abilities. There is a tonne of talent in the social sectors and for those of you who look at the masters of the university you went to school/university with and think ‘wow, they are so impressive’, just remember that could be you if you’d had as much money, time, resource thrown at you as them. Perhaps an MBA doesn’t teach you much, but at the very least it helps you play the system better.
  • Work hard and push yourself to learn. It’s going to be an uphill struggle to overcome this challenge, which puts the onus on all of us to work out how we can maximise our potential.
  • Have faith. It might be hard out there, but ultimately working in the social sectors is going to give you a lot more life satisfaction than not.
  • The social sector needs to get a collective grip on its own talent development. Rather than assuming that good talent will appear like manna from heaven, the social sectors need to work out collectively how to get better talent through the doors. I am amazed by how little investment some of the largest social sector organisations put into talent development programmes.
  • We need to find a way to be elitist about talent perhaps whilst still living our values?

There are some notably worthy interventions to increase levels of talent in the sector from On Purpose to the Clore Social Leadership Awards. And there are are some excellent initiatives attempting to encourage graduate talent into the social sectors, from our very own Worthwhile scheme, to Charity Works and Year Here.

Yet, this is far too little and too often such interventions are seen as ‘second tier’, rather than the essential ingredients for future success.

A good friend of mine said to me once ‘if you want to do something different, you have to actually be different’. Talented individuals in the social sectors need to get a grip on their own talent development and break themselves out of the status quo. Current levels of talent in the social sectors are more than enough to carry us much much further, if only we could resource it better. As in debates about educational inequality, it’s so often not about the quality of the talent at your disposal, but about what you do with it.

My conclusion is that it will either take the efforts of a small elite to develop themselves or the social sector needs to take a very hard look at the level of talent it needs to succeed in coming years and collectively. Or should we rely on the private sectors to train our talent in the hope that we will benefit from the crumbs that fall from the table later on.

As a statement of fact, the talent across the whole of the social sectors, from CEOs to volunteers, achieves much much less than it could. Resourcing is the core of the issue. That is the problem the social sector faces, not that it is an unattractive proposition or is full of well-meaning, yet incompetent people. For all these reasons, however, perhaps good talent does foresee that it will be wasted, and so isn’t attracted in the first place.

Encouraging ‘more talent’ into a broken sector won’t do much good. Hence why social sector organisations need to work doubly hard to break themselves from the shackles of social sector failures and allow that talent to thrive.

A chicken and egg problem perhaps. But a problem that cannot be ignored.

Question: What are the real reasons that the social sector fails to develop its talent?

Author: Adam O'Boyle

Adam O'Boyle is Executive Director of Hub Ventures. Adam co-founded Student Hubs in September 2007 during a sabbatical from his History and Economics degree and rejoined as Executive Director upon graduating in July 2009. During that time Adam also worked as a part-time analyst for New Philanthropy Capital where he co-authored a research report entitled: ‘Critical masses: Social campaigning, a guide for donors and funders’.