Case Study: ACF

two coworkers in the field
Karen Kershaw is People & Culture Specialist - Employee Experience at Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), an independent not-for-profit national environment organisation.
Like many organisations, ACF believes salary is a vital component of staff attraction and retention, but it’s not the whole. 
According to our Hays Salary Guide, 95% of employers intend to increase salaries in their next review. ACF is among them. 
ACF positions their salaries in the top 25% of not-for-profit organisations operating in the same space and is committed to improving compensation by increasing salaries from July as part of their EBA agreement. While the increase will be a minimum of 2.8%, they have committed to meeting the average annualised wage increase offered in other approved EBA’s, if higher. 
Even so, most not-for-profits cannot compete with the salaries offered by commercial organisations. Therefore, ACF have distinguished their organisation as an employer of choice in other ways.

Benefits as a key differentiator: “We are people first”

To stand apart, ACF has designed a culture and flexible working conditions that recognise employees as individuals with complex lives and needs outside the workplace. They acknowledge that work is just one aspect of their employees’ lives. As Karen says, “We are people first.”
It’s an approach that has positively impacted ACF’s employment brand. In the past year, ACF has seen an increase in the number of candidates who cite their reputation for flexibility and their culture as their reason for applying.
ACF offers several flexible arrangements, such as swapping out all public holidays for another day and covering working days between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, so staff do not need to deduct annual leave. Staff can also purchase an additional four weeks leave each year. 
While these measures were easy to resolve, others proved more of a challenge. “Personal leave was something we wanted to get right, and it felt like the individual buckets of sick leave, compassionate leave, carers leave and so on weren’t working for us,” admits Karen. 
“So, we looked at why people may not be able to work, such as a child is sick, they have an emergency, they are grieving, they want to celebrate an important cultural day. Then we looked at what we could change to support our current staff and to demonstrate to future staff that they needn’t be concerned about leaving a large personal leave balance behind when coming to work for us, which was a concern we were hearing early in the pandemic. 
“We decided to offer 30 personal days a year, which people can access from the day they start working with us. We see that people do use it during times they are unable to work because of the challenges that life can throw up, and they’re grateful for it. They want to perform and show they are committed but know they can take the time when they need to.”
Karen believes that these benefits demonstrate a commitment to working authentically with employees to balance the needs of ACF with the needs of the individual. “They (our employees) know we are excited about their skillset but also that we understand they are human and can tailor their work. We pushed back on the idea that we own you from nine to five and moved more towards owning a conversation on how to meet the objectives of their role while being able to duck out and pick up kids from school. Providing clarity on expectations and the thinking that has informed those expectations has paid off for us in terms of attraction and retention.”

The return to office: “We would never mandate a return”

ACF provides opportunities for staff to come together in person in a considered way that makes sense to their employees.
“Thinking about how we bring people back together, we knew we would never mandate a return to pre-Covid working,” explains Karen.
“We see other organisations pulling employees back into the office, without providing any reason or motivation that makes sense to staff. We were thoughtful in how we wanted to spend time together, but we also respect that the world has changed. People are used to flexibility and do not want to give it up.
“We spoke to our people about what works, what's ideal. There’s an understanding that to collaborate we need face time in the working week, but we must be flexible in what that looks like team by team. We also wanted to bring the whole organisation together at times. 
“So last year we had a ‘Reviver’, where the whole organisation came together for mini-training sessions, nature retreats, strategic planning days, lunches and an end of year party. It was really nice to be together again with our people.”

Candidates believe in their bargaining power: “Candidates (are) explicitly asking why they should choose ACF”

While ACF is not experiencing a skills shortage, Karen acknowledges that candidates’ expectations have changed. “They are more interested in what ACF can offer them and can sometimes be deciding between more than one offer, so our EVP needs to be clear. 
“ACF is seeing lower numbers of applications for key roles, but those that are applying are putting together competitive applications because they have decided they are interested in what we do,” says Karen. 
“The biggest change we see in the interview process is candidates explicitly asking why they should choose ACF as their next employer.”
In addition to communicating what employees receive in all touchpoints, including vacancy advertisements, phone screening and interviews, ACF offers candidates a reverse reference, or in other words, the opportunity to speak with people who work with the manager they would report into.
It’s an innovative and rare approach that helps potential employees determine if the leadership style is right for them.

Staying ahead: “Respond to market feedback”

ACF has an enviable attraction and retention strategy, however Karen recognises that in a competitive talent market with evolving candidate expectations, she can’t sit still and must continually improve. 
“We are constantly thinking about how we can do better and evolve our process to make ACF as attractive to candidates as possible and respond to market feedback. 
“Finding niche skills in a tight market is tricky, but our award-winning culture, thoughtful conditions, flexibility and the opportunity to work for a national organisation that walks our values has meant we have done okay during a time when we have seen others struggle.” 
Part of her continuous improvement focus includes considering how to respond to emerging recruitment and workforce challenges. Regardless of the challenges faced and approaches taken, ACF’s ability to adapt quickly and evolve strategy will no doubt see it remain an employer of choice for years to come.

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