Caroline Bendelow, People and Performance Director at AGE UK talks to Reward about how to create an inclusive benefits strategy.


Balancing financial pressures with a valued reward programme can be tricky for any business, but more so if you’re a charity. When a company’s salaries are externally published, it can be difficult to balance the need to recruit and retain the right people with the perception of your organisation to donors. Caroline Bendelow, people and performance director at Age UK, explained that it’s these challenges that she’s trying to overcome in order to design a really inclusive benefits strategy that meets the needs of the charities ambitions.

With a salary increase not always being possible, great benefits are almost essential. “Employees at Age UK understand this and are [often] looking to compromise on the pay point but gain a good holistic benefits package. They really look at the holiday, flexible working, pension amount and more.

“The strategy we offer isn’t in my view revolutionary, we can’t pay commissions/bonuses, we can’t pay big ticket salaries - so we look at what really engages and motivates our staff. The four key elements I believe are essential when designing a strategy are wellbeing, engagement, brand and reputation and recruitment and retention,” Bendelow explains.

Those are the four elements a benefits strategy absolutely has to work alongside and if it doesn’t, then you have to ask yourself why you’re doing it?”

As a diverse charity, Age UK also have a big social enterprise and commercial side which means some jobs have to pay more commercial rates. The company pays Living Wage for shop assistants and more for shop managers as they are running an eclectic business. The pay strategy is geared around the sector – whether that be charity, financial services or retail. But making pay go further is imperative. To motivate employees and keep them happy, you need to really understand staffs’ personal needs, according to Bendelow.

“What makes us happy is the way that the organisation treats us and how it takes account of our family structures. The link for me between a reward strategy and wellbeing is essential when building a benefits package. It also links much more in terms of discretionary effort,” she adds.

Charities often require voluntary input from staff and this motivation can come from how well a company supports you. For example, older workers may not want huge CPD benefits whereas graduates and school leavers may want clearer career pathways, explains Bendelow. “Every population is different, and it’s about having something for everybody but not moving away from who you are, what you’re looking to do and how your brand and reputation sits beside that.”

One thing that Age UK offers is support for their older workers. With more than half the workforce being over 50, they recently reviewed their proposition around retirement. Discussing a common theme in the industry, she says: “A lot of people don’t like to use the word retirement because they feel that it’s dated. But actually I thought we need to reclaim and make it modern by offering something new alongside it. And we can’t advocate as a charity providing good retirement propositions – if as an employer, our own organisation doesn’t have that at the heart of what it does.”

To support this, Age UK set up an older workers’ group and asked them to help co-design the content and the general element. Focused around health and wellbeing, extending working life, financial planning, and volunteering, it took a holistic approach to aid employees in the different areas. They provide information on each, be it financial planning and pensions or a mid-life career review; it was designed to really consider employee input.

Following on from that, for the younger workforce, Age UK looked at what would appeal to various demographics: from working mothers and families to those of diverse religious backgrounds. Bendelow says: “It’s important to really embrace your diversity and we have developed our portfolio to do this. I believe our benefits are everything, from our policies and our procedures to our typical off the shelf benefits.”

But within these, communication is key. Having the benefits on offer is good but if staff are unaware then it is of no use. “Carers, disabled workers, older workers, working mothers and more – how you get information and advice across about supporting you in later life, or how you help your younger workers with their financial planning because they’ve just got out of university with bad debt? What is it you’re doing to communicate with and engage those populations? You’ve got to know your workforce!”

Being cost-efficient and communicating can be combined together quite quickly. At Age UK, benefit days are held in a conference area with market-like stalls. Bendelow says: “It doesn’t need to be in an expensive way: something we do is use the providers themselves to come in and do the hard work for us. It’s great as it gives employees a chance to learn first-hand about what is available to them.”

But a successful strategy or package never stands still and constantly evolves depending on your workforce. If you measure the impact through engagement surveys then you really can focus your attention and make decisions that deliver results for your people’s needs.

“If you want employees to engage them in your product, you’ve got to make it appealing, sell it to them, engage them with it, and you’ve got to help them understand the case studies of people who have bought in to them,” says Bendelow. “So that’s something that we’ve done but we’ve not done it well enough and is something that we’re really focusing on.

“Think of your employees as consumers and you’re half way there. Communicate it to them accurately and you’re actually there.”