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Working for a Charity: 15 Points to Flourish Not Flounder

Escapee Louise talks about her transition to non-profit work. Here are her fifteen points on how working for a charitable organisation.

Here are my top fifteen things you need to know when considering working for a charity. I have been with a large London-based charity for 5 years and have previously worked in publishing, teaching and in a membership organisation for medical professionals.

I’m currently re-visiting my career options and – thanks to Escape the city – rather than lurching into another full time job, I’m experimenting with side projects that might one day pay dividends: blogging, writing a novel (or a novella, as it seems quite short), volunteering, networking and saying yes to random invitations. I’m so exhausted I’m often pale and incoherent, but I’m loving it.

As part of this process, I’ve been pondering what I adore about working in the not for profit sector and what makes me shudder. So here are my initial thoughts on charities: the ugly, the good and tips for researching your ideal place to work.

The ugly

1. Be wary of working on behalf of a cause you don’t believe in. Charities aren’t an amorphous blob that will always leave you with a golden glow. If your heart isn’t in saving the tow paths of Dudley or you don’t want doctors to get that pay rise, you could become de-motivated.

2. You can’t fight the culture and you might not be able to implement changes to processes that have been in place for years. Organisations can be like big lumbering cumbersome machines. Accept the way things are or grind your teeth in frustration daily. To the gum.

3. I’d like to introduce death by collaboration. Beware if you get frustrated by endless meetings and the constant question ‘are you comfortable with that?’. You need to be comfortable with that.

4. Strong leadership and strategic thinking isn’t always in place. Sometimes it can feel like everyone is frantically busy but no one is entirely sure what they are aiming for, and change on the ground can be hard to see. This can be frustrating if you want to ‘make a difference’.

5. The cause can affect your life. I’m more aware of what my old age is going to be like than is normal for a person still (relatively) youthful. I’m dreading the time I have to live in a care home and suck my mushed up spaghetti hoops through a straw.

The good

1. Try spending a day where a report you’ve written is on BBC news, a celebrity is supporting it (Angela Rippon for me, marvellous lady) and grassroots campaigners are fired up. And the small things: my name in the Daily Mail (my dad’s greatest day), a poem written for me by someone I helped and influencing the training that nurses get. Priceless.

2. Working late is 7pm not 10pm. We give it our all, but it’s a reasonable day. Lunch, flexi-time, part time – they are all possible. It’s family friendly, flexible and balanced.

3. Most people you will work with will be nurturing, thoughtful and well-meaning. You won’t be working in an impersonal environment. I recently met a girl who moved from the private sector to not for profit. The main reason? She was ill at work, fainted at her desk and awoke to find the keyboard imprinted on her face and her colleagues carrying on as normal. Noone had noticed her plight. Or even tried to prod her awake.

4. Pay is getting better as organisations start to recognise the importance of recruitment and retention and getting the right skills for the role.

5. There are a wide range of exciting areas to move into. It’s is not just about fundraising. Campaigns, media, communications, project management, change management, quality and evaluation, public affairs, policy, social media… endless choices.

First tips when researching what might be for you:

1. Volunteer. This might sound obvious but I don’t mean improving your CV by spending a lunch hour helping some hapless kid to read. I mean immerse yourself in the culture, experience meetings and meet frontline staff.

2. Research the chief executive. What is their background? Is there a clear strategy for the organisation? Someone new to the role and implementing a change programme might be more willing to recruit outside of the sector and be open to new ways of working.

3. Consider smaller charities or a cause that is not yet noticed or on the rise. This might mean the organisation is more enthusiastic and creative about what they do, more gung-ho about how they do it and the roles are more diverse. Avoid more traditional organisations that are committee-based or at least check how members are elected and the bureaucracy involved in decision–making.

4. Networking opportunities can be limited, except for areas such as public affairs. I would suggest finding and stalking key influencers and contacts by reading trade magazines, select committee reports and press releases. And check out events and reports from organisations like the RSA.

5. Look at how a charity defines itself in the public realm and its style of operation. Some will be more aggressive and take a more traditional campaigning route. Some are more established and work in a different way through reports and public relations. Explore what approach works for you and the type of organisation you want to be associated with.

Working for a charity is amazing. It has untold rewards, but also requires a willingness to embrace the culture and more quirky ways that will greet you there. I’m happy to answer questions and I would also love to interview people for my next project about their hopes, experiences and tactics when trying to move from private to not for profit. Please get in touch at publicsector1@outlook.com.

  • Christian

    This is over a year old- but I’m currently in the charity sector, and I love your summary!