How to break into the charity sector

Written by Lucy Gibb, Charity Fast-Track Support Assistant

Lucy studied at Cardiff University, where she completed a degree in adult nursing. She practised as a nurse before moving into the charity sector. She has worked in events, fundraising and student support and is now working for Charity Fast-Track in a support role.

I never really thought of charity as a career option when I graduated. I trained as a nurse and naturally fell into a nursing role post-university. After a couple of sludgy years working in the NHS, I started looking round for a career move. I wanted to help solve the world’s most pressing problems, as well as have a more rewarding, interesting life.

This is how I ended up in a job where I help people to get into the charity sector. What surprises me most is that so many people think that ‘charity’ is a job. It isn’t; it’s a sector with thousands of different types of organisations and jobs. But it’s also the best sector to work in. I love the camaraderie, the amazing people you meet, the moving stories you hear and tell, and the impact you have on the world.

Charity jobs can be notoriously difficult to apply for. People doing Charity Fast-Track often tell me they were confused about what charity jobs are available, where to apply for them and how to gain relevant experience. Many people find it impossible to get their foot on the career ladder without having to work for free in unpaid internships for months on end.

At the same time, charities often find recent graduates lack knowledge of how charities operate and simple skills in fundraising and communications. Our team on Charity Fast-Track are passionate about bridging these gaps. So how do we do it? Here’s some condensed advice.

Girl focused on writing in her notebook.

Locate what the organisation wants

Here at Utopy, we work very closely with a small International Development charity called Child.org. When Child.org ask us to recommend a Charity Fast-Tracker for a job, they need someone who is going to work well in their small team. It is important that anyone we put forward is able to think on their feet, managing varying workloads and multiple projects simultaneously. We, therefore, recommend candidates who can demonstrate the ability to manage projects and display good time management. Larger charities have different priorities for their graduate recruits. They might want someone with a more specific area of expertise or interest, like supporter care, sports or corporate partnerships.

Find out what the organisation wants in an employee. Ask questions of people in positions which you aspire to: what do they spend their days doing? Is it a prerequisite to have regional knowledge or practical skills (such as Excel or accounting skills) more important? This approach will enable you to focus on getting across what really matters in the job application.

Become acquainted with how charities operate

Given that charities often have lower budgets for advertising jobs than the private sector and fewer resources for running graduate programmes, the structure of charitable organisations is often hidden behind the scenes. As a result, people often underestimate how much is invested in departments other than campaigning or policy.

Find out what kinds of roles exist in each organisation and examine which roles would suit you.

Don’t just rely on job boards

Advertising jobs costs money so charities will tend to avoid extensive advertising on job boards. Instead, they will recruit ‘just-in-time’ using short timescales on job listings and will often recruit from a pool of volunteers or interns that they already have experience working with (at Charity Fast-Track, we’re frequently asked to recommend someone from the course for a job that has not been publicly advertised yet!) Explore offline as well as online – go to events, network, reach out to people you find inspiring, and talk with friends to find out what opportunities you can find.

Get experience and hone your passion 

Once you’ve narrowed down what you want to do, you’ll need to acquire the necessary experience. Make sure you look at a few job specifications which will go into more detail than job adverts as to the essential and/or desired qualities. Then think about the ways you can accumulate that experience.

For many roles, you won’t necessarily have to have worked in a charity to get the experience. For example, you could get good project management experience by running a society at university, or you could demonstrate your fundraising prowess by setting up your own initiative as part of RAG.

You should also think about the type of causes that you will want to champion. Whilst these might not be directly related to your future employment, it might be a useful way to focus your job search and gradually develop expertise within a subset of the charity sector.

What else can I do?

Yes, I’m going to plug our course, because, if you’re reading this, Charity Fast-Track is for you. We’ve spent four years working with experts from across the sector to develop Charity Fast-Track. It’s a ten-month course that anyone can do in their spare time to gain entry-level charity skills.

Charity Fast-Track aims to give anyone a route into learning about charity, and a way to gain the experience they need to start a rewarding career in the sector. It’s a combination of online learning and fun, real-life challenges, created by charity professionals and designed to hone your charity knowledge and build the most useful experience.

Up to 200 places a year on Charity Fast-Track are sponsored by Child.org. If you’re successful in your application, Child.org will cover the full cost of you taking the course, which means you take part for free.

Here is what Charity Fast-Track alumna Heather had to say about the course:

“Charity work and volunteering was always a huge part of my university experience, whether it was one-off fundraisers, being college RAG-representative, or volunteering for our college charity, it was the most rewarding, excited and enjoyable part of university for me. Charity Apprentice was the perfect stepping-stone for me; my university experience made me dream of working in the charity sector in fundraising and marketing. Charity Fast-Track has been hugely enjoyable; allowing me to follow my dreams and have amazing experiences from weekend bootcamps away, to managing a team of fundraisers at V-Festival. Not only this, but it has allowed me to understand the ins and outs of the sector; getting a deeper knowledge of legislation, public opinion, using data and insight, and how best to contact the media, amongst many, many other things!“

Female speaker presenting in front of an unseen audience.

The course features expert advice and content from across many large UK charities and is delivered by Utopy. Fast-Trackers also have the opportunity to apply for exclusive work placements at Child.org projects in Africa and in the UK. Full details can be found at utopy.uk/services/charity-fast-track. If you have further questions, feel free to call the Utopy office on 07751768207.

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