The general definition of a charity is an organisation that is independent of both government and business, provides assistance for a wider public benefit and is non-profit making. There are voluntary organisations dealing with every imaginable section of society.
The voluntary sector is also commonly referred to as the not-for-profit sector. Internationally voluntary sector organisations may be known as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). About 15-20% of positions in the UK's estimated 180,000 registered charities are paid, with the remainder being voluntary positions.
Working life takes a large slice of people's whole life so there can be compelling arguments for spending that time doing something both appealing and worthwhile. For anyone who is concerned about ethical issues, working for a charity could be ideal.
There are some 180,000 charities in total with over 600,000 employees turning over £28 billion or so annually. Although most charities are small there are also substantial organisations that are becoming increasingly businesslike in the way they are run.
On the face of it such a significant sector ought to contain plenty of opportunities for new graduates and the possibilities would seem to be emphasised by a report from the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation stating that 70% of voluntary organisations experience problems in recruitment. The paradox is that in reality entering a career with charities is not straightforward. Graduates starting out will have to give generously of their time and effort.
The not-for-profit sector is a growing sector and is big business with an annual turnover of over £28 billion each year. This expansion in the voluntary sector has meant increased opportunities for graduates. Not-for-profit organisations are now recognised as providers of services that are vital to a wide range of groups in society. The European Commission recently described the third sector (i.e. the voluntary sector) as contributing to employment creation as well as active citizenship, democracy, social services and in promoting and safeguarding human rights. The not-for-profit sector has an increasing ability to influence.
The sector is so diverse that most interests can be catered for and opportunities are available in both the smaller and larger organisations for those who are able to demonstrate the right level of commitment. Each sector has routes available to help those who want to volunteer and a good idea would be to start using the Charity Commission website, as all charities must register with this governmental organisation.
Many volunteer organisations work towards improving the social fabric of society and often provide opportunities who are often excluded from it such as the homeless and people with special needs. Voluntary and community organisations are active in a broad range of fields such as:
- Social care - Health - Guidance - Housing - The environment - Education - Youth work - Disability - Cultural heritage - Support activities - Childcare - The arts - Advice and counselling
Unlike blue-chip businesses, charities have not tended to have clear graduate entry schemes. They want to make best use of donors' money, so they prefer to employ people who already have skills and experience that can enable them to contribute fully right from the start.
Many charities will at some stage need extra help, and the main areas of paid work are in administration and fundraising. Peripheral jobs also come up occasionally in finance, catering and management support. Smaller charities may expect their graduate staff to be multi-skilled taking on a full range of responsibilities from administration through to public relations. Permanent paid positions are few and far between but if you are lucky enough to secure some work experience it can give you valuable experience. However bear in mind that even voluntary work can be difficult to obtain in more specialised fields.
Volunteering can be a part-time, full-time or gap year commitment involving activities in the field or in head office for a charity. It is something that you can do in your own time alongside studying and working, which gives you an added area of experience. It's important for a lot of employers because it shows your commitment to the sector and it also helps you get an understanding of charities' work.
Internships are a more organised form of full-time volunteering in which graduates will receive expenses or a very small salary. You can do internships for anything from three months up to two years, depending on what you're able to offer. More and more organisations appear to be offering this.
For anyone who is prepared to enter charities by an indirect course there is also the possibility of getting experience in other sorts of businesses first, perhaps to the extent of becoming skilled and qualified in marketing or financial management. Lots of charities are looking at recruiting in this way now because skills are transferable and the charity sector is a professional business. A further way of getting a foot in the door is by temping. This requires a reasonable standard of office and administration skills.
In many voluntary and charity organisations there is real commitment to providing development and training to staff with many having IIP (Investors in People) accredited status. The particular kind of training you might receive would depend largely on the size of organisation and the resources they might have for formal training opportunities. Some larger national organisations place a significant emphasis on training, and invest a lot in their trainees.
You must expect to work long hours although some organisations can be flexible with your work pattern. However for most graduates the cause is motivation enough. Charity work provides excellent training opportunities and the experience definitely counts on your CV. Many commercial employers regard work experience in the not-for-profit sector very highly so wherever your chosen career path lies working in this sector can be a rewarding experience with the potential to lead on to a very challenging career.
Qualifications and skills needed
Over 20 million people volunteer each year in the UK alone, and to work successfully for a charity you must empathise with its cause. Any degree is considered but a background in finance, business, management, marketing, PR or fundraising maybe helpful. Strong communication, interpersonal and literacy skills are required and the ability to speak a second language can be useful. Jobs may require applicants to be persuasive and resourceful whilst possessing excellent negotiation abilities.
Dedication, enthusiasm and lots of motivation is essential. Charities are run with the fundamental aim of being successful. By hiring graduates that have good business sense and the ability to commit to the organisations' objectives this can only add real value to their work in the long term.