We take a look at the many professional opportunities available in the charity sector and how you can make a difference to worthwhile causes and your career.
The voluntary – or charity – sector is a strong area of growth both as a service provider and an employer. If you are interested in working for an organisation that makes a direct impact to a cause or group of people that are valuable to you, then charity work could be the ideal career option. However, the competition for jobs in the area remains high – particularly in the larger charities – meaning that if you are looking to gain paid work within a not-for-profit organisation, you need to realise the number of vacancies available can be far from charitable. Charities ranging from the well-known national organisations to the many local charities provide 634,000 paid positions in the UK, with over one quarter of those part-time. There are also currently an additional 13.2 million unpaid volunteers within the sector. The majority of those employed in the charity sector work in professional roles and are highly qualified.
Opportunities, then, typically require a combination of degree-level study and substantial experience. For those already working within the charity sector or hoping to enter at a managerial level, business education may prove beneficial to career progression. This does not mean studying for an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) necessarily but rather an MVA (Master’s in Voluntary Administration), which is a managerial qualification aimed specifically at those who work within the charity sector. It builds upon the foundation of the MBA but incorporates topics such as charity law, accounting and not-for-profit sector strategy. Similarly to an MBA, it is expected that you will have significant experience (three to five years) in the area and a first degree or qualification from which to build upon.
Another degree qualification that is tailored to the charity sector is that of a postgraduate diploma or certificate in Voluntary & Community Sector Studies or an MSc in Voluntary Sector Management. Further qualifications are available to those interested specifically in working in charity accounts – for example the Certificate in Charity Finance & Accountancy which is open to employees who have at least one year’s experience in charity finance. Similarly to the MVA, it is a professionally recognised qualification that imparts knowledge distinctively related to the charity sector.
Opportunities in the charity sector
You need not have direct experience in order to work within the charity sector however, with many employers interested in recruiting people that demonstrate transferable skills and the ability to adapt and learn rapidly in a new environment. Current gaps within charities are to be found in the areas of legal knowledge, marketing and health and safety, which means gaining a position in occupations related to these divisions may be more accessible. Fundamentally, some charities have a similar organisational structure to for-profit businesses and thus thrive on the same expertise located in many regular organisations’ HR, IT and finance divisions for example.
If you wish to get involved in more specialist charity roles, then the two main areas of interest will be social care and fundraising, both of which require specific expertise and experience. With social care, you will need to have the relevant experience to work with the charity’s client group, as you provide the care that is the direct objective of the organisation. This is only made possible by those behind the services – the fundraising team – that is the parallel of a Marketing & Sales division in a business, demanding high-level communication and marketing skills. It is usually expected that you will have a qualification related to the field, even if it is not in fundraising itself. As a fundraiser, your responsibility is to encourage donors to give through offering them benefits, as in comparison to profit-making businesses, in the charity sector; the people that provide money are not those gaining direct benefit from their investment. Therefore, excellent communication, alongside database and research skills, is vital so that you can act quickly and attract donors. Interpersonal skills are also crucial in this area of charity work, as you will need to manage and work well with others, both in professional and public capacities. Charities receive funding from the government in addition to their own corporate and direct marketing and events, so there is a wide range of specialised fundraising roles to get involved in.
Starting in the charity sector
As previously mentioned, finding jobs in charities is very competitive so it may be of benefit to begin volunteering for the charity which you wish to work for. You will need to research the type of organisation that you want to volunteer and eventually work for so that you fully understand the charity’s objectives. Volunteering is also a good way to decide whether you are suited to the way charities function and whether you have the skills necessary to work in the sector.
Gaining experience and advice is also beneficial when volunteering as it provides you with first-hand information about charities. To add, you will find that many openings are only advertised internally, so by becoming involved with an organisation in a volunteer capacity it provides you with direct contacts within that charity. This does not mean that jobs in the charity sector are not advertised externally whatsoever, with a range of publications and websites that publicise such roles; for example, if you have a specialised occupation, it may prove helpful to look at your trade publications for posts. The majority of organisations tend to list their vacancies on their own websites as well as on recruitment sites, although there are recruitment agencies that specialise in the charity sector, offering advice to job-hunters who are searching for work in the area. For the majority of charity job vacancies, you will be asked to complete an application form or pack. With these it is important to tailor each of your responses and experience to the particular organisation you are applying for rather than using customary examples.
As might be expected, employers within the charity sector do tend to pay less than profitable organisations. A recent survey of Chief Executive salaries stated that charity CEOs were paid 20% less than those of similar-sized businesses. In 2007, a study of average salary expectations in the sector showed that a Head of Fundraising earned approximately £43,500. Even though you may not benefit in a monetary sense working for a charity, employers often are fairer and provide better working conditions. The benefit packages offered by many charitable organisations consist of reward strategies, pensions and childcare allowances.
Although rare, there are graduate schemes available at a number of the leading UK charities, including Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK and the Red Cross. The Barnardo’s scheme takes the form of a 12-week voluntary placement with opportunities available at the head office. To apply for the internship you can be a graduate or have just finished your A Levels and positions are available in Fundraising, Digital and Social Media and Events Management as well as other areas. The Red Cross offer 8–12 week part-time voluntary internships, with a variety of departments to choose from. These placements are on offer not only to school leavers or graduates, but also to those looking to return to work or change career. Cancer Research UK provides twenty 12-week summer science internships each year at the London Research Institute. It offers the opportunity to work with a postdoctoral supervisor and laboratory experience, as well as a salary of £200 per week. There are also other 12-week internships available in areas such as charity fundraising.
There are opportunities available in social enterprises too. These are businesses with philanthropic purpose and a focus on social or environmental benefits that are not directly classified as charities. The profits that these organisations make are re-invested in the aims of the company rather than the monetary gain going to shareholders. According to data from the Annual Survey of Small Business UK from 2005-7, there were 62,000 social enterprises at the time, examples of which include the Eden Project and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen (a chain of restaurants that offer an apprentice programme for people aged 18-24 to gain experience within the field).
With a 25% increase in paid positions in the charity sector over the last ten years, it is an area that continues to offer opportunities to those interested in making a difference. The majority of positions demand experience in relevant areas or degree-level qualifications, which make it an exciting professional environment. If you are looking to gain experience or understanding within charities then volunteering for an organisation of interest may be the most suitable direction. With the prospect of greater job satisfaction, becoming part of the charity sector is a great opportunity to begin a career in a rewarding and dynamic setting.