Give Me A Break… - Polly Symondson Recruitment
Polly Symondson Recruitment, PSR, Specialist Regional Recruitment for the Charity Sector, Cheltenham, UK
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Give Me A Break…

How do you get your first break into the charity sector?

I am often asked for advice on how to land that first job in the charity sector and it is always one of those intriguing questions that requires a different answer every time.

A few weeks ago I was asked this by an unusually large and broad group of people, all at very different stages of their careers either in other sectors or just starting out.  They had all been seeking their first break for a while and were having doubts about their direction.

I found myself dwelling on the very different discussions this question had recently led to and decided to ask my contacts in the wider charity community if there was some cast iron method for success out there. I asked:

“Anyone care to share some advice on how you got your first charity sector break (without having to do an unpaid internship for months?)” 

The responses I received provide a really interesting insight into the opinions of professionals within the charity sector on the best way to get that first break.

I specifically included the comment about unpaid internship as so few of the people I deal with are in a position to do this or complete lengthy stints of volunteering.

Some really great advice came back from Katie Beck (Cancer Research UK) and Kevin Taylor-McKnight (RNLI) who recognised internships were not always possible but attending events, following the charity via social media platforms (including using Google alerts) and crucially seeking out and speaking to staff were all key in getting that break. For Katie it took only a short time of doing this for her to become known and therefore be in a position to know what was coming up and quickly apply for the job. It is worth noting that Katie was awarded Fundraiser Of The Year 2017/18 at CRUK so hers is an approach worth emulating!

Perhaps due to personal experience the most common recommendation I received from those in the sector was still  intern or lengthy stints of volunteering – with a number of people saying this was the only or best route to a job in the sector.

There is another counterpoint to the view that internships are essential which was well articulated by John Abbey (Director of ASI). John pointed out that internships, unless they provide a liveable wage create elitism in the sector. It also means the sector may not attract the best talent. John believes this results in a sector that isn’t a true representation of society which for the not-for-profit sector should be a major issue.

This is certainly worth considering and is neatly highlighted by the 2018 top 25 most influential fundraisers poll that drew positive comment for containing a high number of women but critique too as the members had precious little in terms of diversity of background.

Some commented that while volunteering is seen as a common method to break into the third sector it has never found widespread traction in the private sector beyond entry level positions. Those moving from one established field to another are judged on their track record and are subject to a rigorous selection process. Experienced applicants are seldom asked to volunteer in order to impress.  Personally I have often felt that this path can use up, rather than build upon, an individuals initial enthusiasm and drive for a new venture.

Several responses suggested finding a charity whose purpose you are passionate about. Leesa Harwood (By The Waves) made the point that having passion and energy for the cause will get you through the steep learning curve of a first charity role – its hard to give 100% if you don’t believe in what you’re doing.

Building on this Jen Hall (Macmillan Cancer Support) suggests skill sharing through mentorship or coaching sessions.  With particular reference to corporate fundraising this can provide a mutually beneficial platform for both parties.

Becoming a charity trustee was also sited as a good way in. Being a trustee can give real insight into the whole workings of a charity and not just fundraising.

Looking at roles with larger charities can provide better breakthrough options simply because of a wider range of functions. It may be that your out of sector skills will perfectly fit a less conventional role within a large charity organisation – so while the right cause can be key don’t necessarily block out other options.

Much practical advice was also offered, such as matching your current skills to appropriate roles within the sector and ensuring your CV and any covering letter clearly demonstrates this.

As Jen Hall put it “Take the time to read the job description and show me how your skills are transferable. I know I could work it out, but you taking that time shows you really want this job and understand that our sector is different.”

I have always been surprised that more applicants do not do this and the responses show I am not alone – as one responder stated that over 25 years of recruiting into the sector she can count on one hand the number of candidates who contextualised their application with information about the charity. Definitely a lesson there!

Speaking to people who are already in the sector is vital. Particularly seeking out those who are doing the job you think is for you – this can only lead to a better understanding so you can either pursue your goal or reassess your direction.

I would add one thing here. I agree that speaking to people is key – far better than an impersonal email – but do not underestimate the value added by networking via LinkedIn. Hardly anyone mentioned the importance of having a really top class profile on LinkedIn prior to starting job hunting and growing your network as you go. There are fantastic groups that can be joined and as this blog shows a vibrant, engaged and incredibly helpful community all looking to help the next great candidate take their first steps in the sector.

As many people echoed – Determination counts for everything… that and being really well prepared! One respondent told me that she never thought she would be able to break in to the sector but eventually found a role that matched her skills and was able to take that first step. Now Chief Executive she told me “I’ve never looked back”