Employer profile: Cancer Research UK

Charity Cancer Research UK uses total reward to make the most of what it has to offer in the war for talent, says Amanda Wilkinson

Working for a worthy cause certainly has its appeal. However, charities are unable to rely solely on the desire of people to give something back to society in order to attract and retain the best talent. In the recruitment stakes, they are having to battle against the lure of the private sector, where salaries often tend to be higher, as well as mistaken and unfair perceptions that charities lack professionalism and fail to provide a challenging working environment.

This is the case even for the UK’s largest charity in terms of voluntary income, Cancer Research UK, which requires the services of talented scientists, retail staff, communication specialists and fundraisers to help it carry out world-class research into the prevention and treatment of cancer.

Tom Russell, director of strategic resourcing and reward, says the reality of working for a charity “is quite the opposite” of the stereotypical image of “an easy job”. It comes with its own set of challenges, such as lobbying and fundraising, and requires a high degree of professionalism especially in relation to the management of large sums of money, often donated by the public.

Projecting the right image of the charity to potential job applicants is part of Russell’s remit, having been placed in charge of recruitment, and reward and recognition at the charity almost two years ago. However, he has had to be creative in developing a benefits package that not only helps to woo the right talent, but also engages existing staff.

“We are a charity so we have to be careful about using our funds responsibly and that includes what we spend on benefits and benefits communication. That is an overriding issue for us. Balanced against that, however, there is a need to try and use what we have as creatively as possible to try and attract talent into the organisation and retain it.

On taking up his new role, a staff opinion survey revealed that employees lacked knowledge about their benefits. “When I came into the job there was very little in terms of a reward and benefits brand if you like. It wasn’t particularly clear to people where to go for their benefits and what their benefits were. In addition, I don’t think we were being very effective about positioning the benefits to [potential job applicants] in an holistic sense,” adds Russell.

He decided that the organisation could make much more of what it had to offer, both externally and internally. Using the concept of total reward, the benefits package was restructured and communicated to staff under the strapline ‘It all adds up’.

Russell explains: “Being a charity, we focus very much on the softer elements such as culture, and learning and development, as much as the more tangible things like pensions and life assurance, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and holiday.”

The package offered by many charities is modest, says Jon Bryant, head of flexible benefits at Jardine Lloyd Thompson Benefit Solutions, with little room for bonuses or variable pay. “There’s a lot more focus on non-financial benefits such as development and the training aspects. Charities also tend to give adequate pension schemes and the usual type of voluntary benefits.”

Creative communication of perks is therefore crucial. At Cancer Research UK, Russell focused first on communicating the breadth of the package to new recruits, using a swatch book in the charity’s colours, with pink slips explaining each of the softer elements and blue for the more traditional perks. This was used to gauge feedback from staff representatives which was then fed into the design of a rewards portal or ‘hub’ for the charity’s intranet and a benefits microsite for the jobs section of its external website.

“We decided to do [the swatch] for new staff only. We didn’t do a big desk-top splash. One of the reasons was funding. To put this on everyone’s desk would have been open to some criticism and we knew the hub was coming, which presented an opportunity to reach all current staff and was much more sophisticated,” explains Russell.

Like many employers, Cancer Research UK has a diverse workforce, both in terms of job function and employees’ lifestyles. So in order to cater for varying interests, the benefits were placed into seven categories or channels: work-life balance, learning and development, health, finances, communications and involvement, travel, and discounts and savings. An additional element of personalisation was also added to the site. Staff can select three categories that they are most interested in and messages about relevant perks are then fed to them through the site. The messages change each month for each category allowing new perks to be flagged up at launch and existing ones at relevant times of the year, for example, product discounts in the run up to Christmas.

“The site is designed to be as easy as possible. It’s seamless access through to the different providers and you don’t have to put in extra passwords which you would have had to have done before. If somebody goes to the reward hub and it strikes them as an administrative nightmare they are probably not going to go back again,” adds Russell.

A campaign was also created to alert employees to the new-look benefits site. In order to keep costs to a minimum, the charity used existing internal communication channels of e-bulletins and, for its retail chain, paper newsletters, as well as posters and an A5 flyer. “It’s [a case of] trying to be responsible in terms of paper and also trying to do something that looks professional but not too glitzy,” adds Russell.

So far, 10% of permanent and fixed-term staff, of which there are just over 3,500, have registered online. “It may not seem such a huge figure, but culturally at Cancer Research UK you tend not to get a huge rush. It will build up over a period of time and it’s steadily increasing,” says Russell.

He puts the take-up rate partly down to the geographical spread of staff and online access. The charity has about 1,400 paid staff in retail serving the organisation’s 600-strong store network and most of these do not have internet access at work. Booklets are to be sent out to staff that can’t access the internet at work giving details of the benefits and phone numbers to ring to speak to providers.

“One of the key learnings for us is that different people have different ways of accessing information,” explains Russell.

An analysis of selected personal preferences for those who have registered online has shown that the benefits areas staff are most interested in are discounts and savings, work-life balance and finance. This last category includes one of the most attractive perks at Cancer Research UK – the pension. Staff can sign up to a stakeholder scheme at any time and the charity will match employee contributions up to a maximum of 4% of pensionable salary and pay an age-related supplement of up to 10% The charity also offers staff a one-off opportunity to join its final salary pension once they have clocked up two years’ service. Contribution rates for the scheme stand at 6% for employees and 18.9% for the charity.

“It is particularly positive because, as a charity, we don’t necessarily offer the types of perks you might find in the private sector so the pension is a key benefit. It’s also particularly useful when we are attracting people from the academic sector or the NHS because there is the ability to transfer in from a select number of other [DB pension] schemes.”

To help generate interest in benefits generally, Russell has introduced a number of new perks in the last year including the mobile salary saver from Flexphone and Family Life Solutions from Accor, which provides users with practical help in finding carers for children, the disabled and the elderly. These sit alongside the existing benefits including a package of discounts and savings from Motivano, life assurance and an EAP.

Russell is hoping to sign up Taste London to offer staff a card that entitles them to discounts of up to 50% on food at various restaurants at an initial cost of £24.99 and to negotiate a discount for staff on nursery places with a network of providers.

“We were seeing a lot of requests for nursery facilities. However, due to the cost and the resources needed, we decided on-site facilities were not really what we were here to do as an organisation,” says Russell.

One on-site facility the charity does however supply to staff, based at key sites in London and Cambridge, is a subsidised canteen, which is extremely useful for those undertaking scientific experiments. A cashless system to buy food has recently been launched and Russell also hopes to use this mechanism to enable staff to save tax and national insurance through salary sacrifice.

“We are looking at health and wellbeing benefits as well. Obviously, because we are a health-biased organisation there is potential there for looking at some kind of [employee-paid] healthcare cash plan benefit, but we aren’t going down the route of private medical insurance because we are very supportive of the NHS,” he says.

Another project for the new year is the introduction of online total reward statements for those at a senior level in the organisation. “It’s a way of driving people to the hub as well as helping staff understand their total package. We would like to try and use it in recruitment as well.”

Going forward, Russell’s main New Year’s resolution is to maximise staff engagement with benefits so that take-up rates increase.

Cancer Research at a glance

Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. It was formed in 2002 following a merger of The Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Its work spans four key areas: understanding the biology of cancer, developing and improving cancer treatments, preventing cancer and improving the quality of life. It had a total income of £468m for the financial year 2006/7. 80p out of every £1it receives (excluding income from retail) is available to spend on beating cancer. The charity is funded almost entirely by donations from the public. It also has a network of around 600 shops and 1,000 local fundraising groups. The charity has 3,500 employees on permanent and fixed term-contracts, including fundraisers, scientists and retail staff. Women account for 71.9% of the workforce and the average length of service is 5.3 years.

Career profile

When Tom Russell joined Cancer Research UK, he not only moved into the charity sector for the first time, having previously worked for Volvo and Safeway, but also switched from practising general HR to reward soon after.

Having joined the charity in a general HR role as director of HR operations in 2004, Russell moved to his current role of director of strategic resourcing and reward, almost two years’ later. “It was a deliberate act on my part to step out of my comfort zone and do something different. It has been a challenge to design and build a reward philosophy and strategy which didn’t exist before in what is quite a complex organisation.”†

He has enjoyed the challenge of communicating benefits creatively and broadening the package without incurring any major costs.

“The benefits side of things has magnified an awareness that people have different needs, and interests and work is a big part of their lives. You have through benefits an opportunity to engage with people around things that have a personal interest for them whether that is eating out, keeping fit or looking after a family,” says Russell, who started his HR career in duty-free retail working for Allders International and then Alpha Retail, before switching to supermarket Safeway Stores, followed by Volvo Car UK.

Benefits checklist


  • Stakeholder pension for all permanent employees. Matched contributions up to a maximum of 4% of salary. After two years’ service, staff have a chance to join the defined benefit pension scheme into which they contribute 6% and the charity 18.9%.

Company cars

  • An allowance on a jobs-need basis.


  • All permanent staff are entitled to 25 days, excluding bank holidays and can accrue up to 30 days leave a year based on length of service or seniority of role.


  • Part-subsidised canteens or cafes at four sites in London and one in Cambridge.


  • Employee assistance programme for staff and their families, providing information and support in relation to stress and family, legal and financial issues.
  • Eyecare vouchers for visual display users.

Work-life balance and family-friendly

  • Childcare vouchers.Even if a member of staff has not joined the pension scheme they will still be covered by a lump sum death benefit of twice pensionable salary.
  • Informal arrangements around flexible working patterns.

Voluntary benefits

  • Discounts on insurance, cars, electrical goods, books and magazines, mobile phones, IT and technology products.


  • Bikes for work and season ticket loans.

Learning and development

  • Arranges and, in some cases, funds career development qualifications.

Case Study: Cancer Research UK

Final salary pension attractive
Catherine Meaden, head of external affairs and campaigning, has been with Cancer Research UK since July 2006 and values the season ticket loan offered by the charity.

“It is so much better than having to queue up each week.

“It saves me around £140 a year. Financially, it makes sense and it is one less thing to worry about,” she explains.

She also enjoys using the product discounts offered and has so far bought a couple of CDs.

“I might do a bit of Christmas shopping online now I have discovered it,” she adds.

Prior to joining the charity, Meaden worked for the National Health Service, so being able to transfer into the charity’s final salary pension was a bonus.

“I did not want to give it up and there are not many employers that will take on the NHS scheme,” she says.