Want more socially responsible work? Top tips on how to make a successful career move into the charity and voluntary sectors

A third of private-sector workers say they are searching for more worthwhile work. Meanwhile, increasing redundancies are likely to result in more private-sector employees changing their career direction. But how do you make a successful transition into the charity and voluntary sector? Mary Chadwick, director of third sector skills supplier PrimeTimers, answers some frequently asked questions.

1)  Having had a successful career in the private sector, I would now like to  work in an environment where I could feel that I was making a difference, maybe in a charity or not for profit organisation.  I imagine that they would welcome someone like me with open arms?

Charities and not for profit organisations are like any company in the private sector, they only need the people they need.  They all have specific tasks and projects they have to deliver on, not a bottomless capacity to take on anyone who offers, especially in today's market. Business people may often approach charities with the view that they have lots to impart and teach; not all charities respond well to this and a degree of humility is helpful.

2)  How do I find the sector that really interests me?

You need to identify a passion more than a passing interest. Ask yourself what areas you enjoyed when you were younger, before you took the low risk decision to become a lawyer, banker, accountant, management consultant, and so on.  If you can get in touch with your real interests it will show itself in your body language and tone of voice and make more of an impact with interviewers.

3)  Where do I start?

Internet-based research is the way to discover what sort of organisations are out there, their size and where your skills are most likely to fit in.  Different skills are needed for different sized organisations and the majority in the third sector are small and micro employing on average less than 10 people.

4)  I can see from jobs advertised that my skills are valued and needed but apparently experience in this sector is also a requirement - how do I get over this hurdle?

This is a common problem and the answer is intelligent volunteering - that is volunteering in organisations that are similar to those you would like to work in and doing tasks that showcase your skills. Consider this as a way to not just acquire experience but also to build your cv and gain potential referees.   

5)  Where and how can I find short-term pro bono work to give me this experience?  

Every local authority has a CVS - a community and voluntary service organisation - which are local agencies that deal with volunteering.  At a national level consider contacting Reach www.reach-online.org.uk  Timebank www.timebank.org.uk and Do It www.do-it.org.uk  - all sources of
volunteering opportunities.

6)  Do people in the third sector speak the same business language as the private sector and will there be a lot to learn?

The answer here is no and yes!  The key difference to remember is that the third sector is driven by values not money, therefore there is a completely different focus.  There is a need to understand the way money moves around the sector. In business, the first question is "who's the customer?" and in the third sector it's "who's the beneficiary?"  The customer pays and beneficiaries don't so money doesn't flow in the same way.  There is a lot to learn but it should be viewed as part of your personal development.  
7)  I'm expecting to take a drop in salary by moving into this sector, am I right in thinking this and are there compensatory factors?

It is true that salaries are lower than in the public and private sector, bearing in mind that for every paid role there are six volunteers, which has a direct influence on pay.  Understandably, there is also a focus on charitable donations being spent on beneficiaries not infrastructure.  Seeing the impact of your work and the learning about the culture of the not-for-profit sector are the key compensatory factors sited by those who have changed sectors.
 8)  Having left an industry that has been badly hit by recession, is the not for profit sector a more secure environment?

The majority of funding for charities comes from government so as long as government continues to invest in the third sector, which it appears to be doing, it will offer more security. Funding is also likely to be for more than a year therefore the impact of cutbacks will be less immediate. However, there is inevitably a link with what is going on in industry and commerce and the recession will impact on charities but in a less immediate way.

9)  How long should it take me to make this transition?

If you are completely new to the sector, be structured in the way you approach it: look for volunteering opportunities that will build your cv, start to read charity sector journals, attend conferences that will build your knowledge - it should be take a matter of months rather than weeks or years.

10) I don't want to work full time, how will charities react to this?

Over a third of roles in this sector are flexible in some way and there is a larger percentage of part-time opportunities than in the private sector. Smaller charities can be more flexible offering a mix of part-time, consultancy, project management, permanent and temporary positions.

11) I have consultancy skills to offer so what are the chances of me being able to use them with charities?

There are opportunities, however there are plenty of private sector consultancies such as McKinseys who offer pro bono support to third sector organisations.  It is also relatively common for people who have had a successful career with charities to become consultants with the advantage that they are really well networked.

12) I don't think I can afford to work with charities right now but are there ways in which I can use my skills that fits with my busy business schedule?

You could become a trustee which will give you a high level view of the organisation and help you acquire knowledge and skills about the sector.  Or, you could become a mentor to a senior charity manager. Neither involves more than six to eight meetings a year, which usually take place at the end of the day or in the evenings.

13) Are there ways in which I can enhance my business skills by working with charities?

Because charities tend to be small they are also surprisingly innovative and entrepreneurial.  You can also learn a lot about campaigning, pr and influencing stakeholders as charities often do this much better than companies. 

14) I want to put something back, to do something ‘good', but is this the best way of selling myself to charities?

No, charities are there to do a job.  The first question they will ask is can you provide us with the experience and skills that we need? So start by demonstrating that you can deliver a solution before you explain your motives for wanting to work with charities.