Charity work: who's doing who a favour?

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The Independent Online
The voluntary sector attracts many graduates wanting to work for a good cause, but with unrealistic expectations. As Meg Carter finds out, two agencies are attempting to change all that.

A career in the voluntary sector seems an ideal move for idealistic graduates eager to put their experience and enthusiasm to work for a good cause. Yet widespread ignorance about "not for profit" organisations and the realities of the Nineties workplace can lead to disappointment and frustration, recruitment specialists Charity People warn.

"There are many misconceptions about the sector and so many people with false expectations," Charity People's career development services manager, Honey Melville-Brown, explains. Too many people assume the charity environment is a utopia with no in-fighting, internal politics or rigid structures to conform to.

"Most people working in not-for-profit organisations, however, have very fixed ideas and passions about what they are doing and why," she adds. "Increasingly, work in the voluntary sector involves wearing suits to speak to big banks and presenting a competitive, businesslike image not only to your funders but also to your beneficiaries."

In an attempt to narrow this perception gap, Charity People last week launched the first in a series of monthly courses designed to educate potential applicants about the voluntary sector and career opportunities that exist within it.

Meanwhile another agency, Charity Recruitment, is planning to launch a similar initiative early in the new year - "to talk about expectations and advise on how to make applications and CVs more relevant," Charity Recruitment's senior consultant, Jane Cresswell, explains.

Such initiatives are welcomed by voluntary organisations, most of which are unable to afford the luxury of graduate recruitment schemes because of budgetary constraints. One of the few exceptions is the NSPCC, which runs a one-year fundraising traineeship for two people each year.

While there are many ways in which graduates can move into the voluntary sector, fundraising is a specialist area which charities must invest in. "Our scheme gives participants an overview of all aspects of fundraising before they are forced to specialise," NSPCC's appeals administrator, Alison Burton, explains.

The charity offers a 12-month contract on approximately pounds 15,000, with structured training including project-based work. Successful applicants have both relevant qualifications and experience plus a demonstrable commitment to the voluntary sector.

"It's not just about shaking a tin during rag week, it's about getting a grip on committees and knowing how to get the best out of volunteers," she says. Although the NSPCC cannot offer jobs to all those it trains, its scheme does act as a springboard for fundraising work for other voluntary organisations.

A more usual route into the sector, however, is on the administrative side - "even for someone with an MA in peace studies," according to Ms Melville-Brown. "There are as many professional disciplines in the voluntary sector as there are in any for-profit business - from finance and personnel to media relations and marketing. However, as budgets are tight, new recruits must start "paying their way" from day one.

While the most popular jobs remain at the more glamorous end - fundraising and marketing - many opportunities exist in information services, personnel as well as information technology and database management, the fastest- growing disciplines.

Those wanting to be desk officers for Third World projects usually require experience in the field, she adds. Two to three years' experience in the commercial sector is becoming a prerequisite for working in charity marketing.

Competition for openings, however, is fierce. Around 400,000 people are in paid employment in Britain's voluntary organisations and college leavers must compete against the growing numbers of professionals looking to move from the commercial sector into charity work.

"We get a number of letters each week from people wanting to work for us," says Anne Hardy, personnel policy and operations manager for Age Concern. "They are mostly either those whose personal experiences have brought them into contact with the issues we deal with daily, or they simply want to give something back to society in return."

But the rewards for perseverance are improving.

Contrary to popular opinion, salaries are increasingly competitive - especially among the larger charities. Although they will never match those offered in the commercial sector, in the most competitive roles - such as marketing and fund-raising - the gap is less than pounds 5,000 per annum.

Successful applicants combine relevant experience with high levels of motivation and self-sufficiency. "Many of these organisations are run by a small staff. Not all graduates naturally have this degree of self- sufficiency," Ms Melville-Brown explains. Initiatives like her company's awareness courses should produce better-informed applicants - and put others off, she hopes.

"While it can be a highly rewarding environment in which to work, it is not the right career option for everyone."