I recently attended an online panel event about careers in charities and NGOs. There were five speakers within the sector who each spoke about their own personal experiences of their roles:
Josh Hale: Volunteer co-ordinator at the SU Bath
Eve Alcock: Analyst at the Clean Air Fund
Alex Whitton: Charity manager at Universify Education
Louisa Ayebare: Monitoring and analysis assistant for the UN in Geneva
Sam Nadel: Head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam
The varied backgrounds of the speakers immediately made clear that there is not one clear route to follow to get into this sector – past experiences varied from internships in refugee camps in Uganda, to 15 years working as a session drummer - and this was something that each speaker highlighted when sharing their personal career journey so far. However, despite the varied roles and experiences there were several common themes across the advice that was shared.
Be open minded and flexible
All the speakers were clear in saying that open mindedness and flexibility were key factors when looking for a role in the charity sector. This mindset had enabled each of them to take on roles that may not have fit their initial plans and expectations, and has given them valuable skills and experiences that they have taken forward with them into their current positions. Louise described how her internship with Impact Initiative gave her opportunities that she had not previously considered, and would not have known she was interested in until giving them a go. For Eve, moving into a 3-month fixed position at the Clean Air Fund after working as the SU president for 2 years did not fully align with her overall goals and ambitions, however once in the role she was able to apply successfully to a full time analyst position which was much more aligned to her previous experiences. This was a similar situation to Alex, who held a series of short-term contracts and part-time roles before securing his position as charity manager of Universify Education. A take home message was that no experience is bad experience, so be open to the possibility of learning new skills in unexpected ways.
Volunteer if you can
Each speaker discussed their own experiences of volunteering, and this was described as an overwhelmingly positive factor when looking for jobs in this field. The opportunity to become a trustee of a charity was also mentioned by several speakers as a valuable experience in influencing the policy and direction of the charity you are involved in. Showing that you have passion and enthusiasm for a cause is really important, and volunteering is an ideal way of doing this, whilst gaining skills that will help you further down the line. Even short term roles undertaken while at university are beneficial; Josh, Eve, and Alex all emphasized how their own experiences of volunteering as students has shaped their careers so far.
Consider whether you want a role in a large or small organisation
Josh and Alex both spoke about working and volunteering for small charities with a local focus, whereas Sam was able to share his experiences at larger organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. The key differences seemed to be that for roles in small, local charities and organisations, your role may well be less defined than in a larger organisation, so in a smaller organisation you may be expected to work across multiple tasks and develop multiple skillsets, whereas in a larger organisation you can choose a more specialised role. This can mean that a smaller charity is a bit more ‘in at the deep end’, because where the larger organisation is more likely to have experienced members of staff to turn to, the smaller ones may not. Smaller charities may also provide more of an opportunity to influence the culture and direction that the organisation is taking even when in a junior position, whereas in a larger organisation this could potentially be more limited.
Learn how to stand out
As for many graduate roles, this is a crowded and competitive field to get into, so it’s really important to sell yourself in a compelling way. When working for a charity, there is a reason why you want to do this rather than working in the private sector, so it is really important to demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm.
Overall this was a really interesting event, and it was great to hear from such a varied range of speakers about the different roles and routes available within this sector. Even though it could feel a bit daunting trying to break in to a competitive field, the experiences of the speakers demonstrated how taking an open minded approach to the process is vital, and that making the most of your personal experiences and motivations can lead to a really rewarding career pathway.