Could you work in the charity sector?

It feels good to give something back


hands holding letters spelling words

The appeal of working in the charity sector is obvious. Who wouldn't want to feel that lovely warm glow from doing good to the world, rather than existing as part of the corporate machine?

Many people decide to give something back by working on a volunteer basis. But there's also an enormous range of paid charity jobs out there. While the number of people working in the sector fell between 2010 and 2011, according to the 2013 UK Voluntary Sector Workforce Almanac, they still account for around 2.6 percent of the UK workforce. That's about 583,000 full-time equivalent paid staff.

If you're set on working for a charity, there are a number of things to bear in mind. As with any job, it's a big advantage to be able to demonstrate keenness, and a stint working as a volunteer will undoubtedly help. But charities don't just need fundraisers and aid workers - and when they're looking for accounts staff, for instance, their requirements are similar to anyone else's.

"Someone who works for us as an administrator, in finance, as an accountant, needs exactly the same skills as in the private sector," says Catherine Layton, an HR advisor at Oxfam. "I think what would be different is the values we'd expect. In the commercial sector you're thinking about shareholders; at Oxfam, at the back of our mind we always have the idea that it's all for our beneficiaries."

Similarly, charities tend to be less authoritarian than private sector organisations, Layton believes. "I think culturally, there's a tradition of treating people with respect," she says. "I think we are likely to take more account of people's feelings."

This can sometimes be frustrating for those used to a more hierarchical structure where decisions are made more quickly.

"It took me a while to get used to the culture, and I still sometimes find myself getting very impatient indeed," says one senior health charity administrator who prefers not to be named. "Nothing ever happens until a consensus has been reached, and sometimes you feel as if you're going round in circles. We have a hell of a lot of meetings."

There's a much more significant shock in store for anyone that comes to the charity sector expecting an easy life. It's not unusual for people to see the move as a downshift, when it's generally nothing of the sort.

"I have noticed in some exit interview data that there are some roles where that is the case. For example, people go to work as a shop manager and think that will be easier than what they were doing before - but it's actually quite a difficult job to do," says Layton.

"We don't expect people to do 60 or 70 hour weeks, so there's not that pressure, but there are jobs that are still very hard."

On the upside, charities have a reputation for being very considerate employers: around 40 percent of jobs are part-time, and flexible working is often encouraged. As a result, perhaps, around two-thirds of charity staff are women.

And pay levels are generally not as bad as widely supposed. According to specialist recruitment consultancy TPP Not for Profit, average pay for assistant or admin staff averages nearly £19,000, rising to £34,600 for a manager.

What's missing, though, is sky-high pay at the top. According to the University of Birmingham's Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) fewer than three percent of people who work in charitable or voluntary organisations are paid £60,000 or more. This compares with 4.5 percent in the public sector and over 6 percent in the private sector.

"I think it's definitely true that at the more senior levels you do get a big pay differentiation," says Layton. "At lower grades, the pay is broadly similar to what people could get elsewhere, but at senior level we see a lot of people taking big pay cuts - so we're clearly not paying as well as, say, Shell."

For those keen to work in the charity sector, the good news is that it couldn't be easier to get relevant experience through volunteering - which can mean anything from helping out at a charity shop to taking part in a graduate internship. Volunteers are also likely to hear about paid vacancies before anyone else.

Most of the larger charities have formal internship programmes, and many have graduate recruitment programmes similar to those in the private sector.

For those hoping to go in at a higher level, best advice is to emphasise transferable experience. Marketing work, for example, is an excellent background for campaigning of any sort. And, as we've seen, many roles at charities are identical to those elsewhere: an accountant is an accountant is an accountant.

"Some roles here are very specific to Oxfam - for example humanitarian workers setting up a camp need a completely different skill set. But with a lot of jobs, it's mainly just having the usual qualifications," says Layton. "I'd just say we'd have problems hiring someone that didn't share our values."