It's the most high-profile charity appointment for years and has focused attention on an area of employment that has evolved considerably in recent years. The voluntary sector has always offered job satisfaction, but is now coupling that with structured career paths, serious training programmes and rates of pay which, if never lavish, are at least adequate.
"The voluntary sector has had to get more businesslike," explains Shelter's director of resources, Henny Baxter, "and the myth has certainly been dispelled that charities are staffed by Women's Institute enthusiasts with absolutely no business experience. People here tend, if anything, to be over-qualified for the jobs they do, and we only really take people with at least a year's relevant experience."
Shelter, in common with other big charities, also offers on-the-job training, and courses designed to improve all-round skills. But there are some skills that the private sector finds easiest to train. Currently the demand is strongest for support staff with financial or IT qualifications. But there are often opportunities for staff with marketing backgrounds or with transferable skills in areas such as database management.
It's a wide-ranging industry and staff are often expected to be competent across several disciplines, but then the voluntary sector does cover a considerable amount of ground. According to the most recent Office of National Statistics Survey, there are around 120,000 registered charities in the UK. And that excludes the universities, trade unions, clubs, societies and churches that enjoy charitable status. But the ONS survey dates from 1994-95, and can struggle to keep pace with the explosive growth in the voluntary sector. The Charity Commission Register, which keeps more up- to-the minute information, reckons the number is now nearer 160,000 - and it has had to add nearly 10,000 charities to its register in the past 12 months alone. The total annual income of all these registered charities now stands at around pounds 18.3bn.
And, importantly for employment opportunities, while all charities may be equal in the eyes of the Charity Commission Register, they are emphatically not so as far as funding is concerned. Around 70 per cent of all charities have an income of just pounds 10,000 or less each year, representing less than 2 per cent of the total annual income, while just 5 per cent of charities receive over 85 per cent of the total annual income recorded. The disparity is concentrated even further in the case of the very largest charity organisations. The largest 248 charities in fact represent fully 40 per cent of the total charity pound.
"It's only the very biggest charities that can afford to invest in those really serious and costly training programmes that are comparable with the private sector," explains Olga Johnson, chief executive of the specialist recruitment consultant Charity Recruitment.
Certainly the job market is healthy enough at the moment. Consultancies report a steady stream of inquiries, and one, Charity Appointments, now actually organises monthly seminars to educate managers and executives wanting to make the big switch from the rough and tumble of the free market to the more satisfying, if still less well remunerated, world of charities.
"What we find happens is that the difference in salary between the private and voluntary sectors tends to be negligible in secretarial jobs and most non-management positions," explains Johnson. "It's above that level where the real differences start. Managers and chief executives can still expect around a 20 per cent drop in salary when they move to a charity job."
But that doesn't seem to stop them. The recruitment consultancies report that the traffic to the voluntary sector is still mostly one way, and remains relatively straightforward - especially for those people with the appropriately transferable financial and IT skills. For people who want to start their careers in charity work, the choices are not as varied as in other sectors, but the biggest charities, such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the NSPCC, do from time to time run suitable training schemes.
"Charity jobs are very varied, which means that you have to use a wide range of skills," points out Janet Cummins, chief executive of Charity Appointments, "which is after all one of the things that makes careers in the voluntary sector so rewarding. But because there are so few really large charitable organisations it does mean that employers prefer someone with experience. At the moment fundraisers are in short supply and we are offering courses to enable charities to "Grow their Own Fundraisers" from scratch, but there will always be opportunities for sales staff with just a little experience to come into the sector."
Charity Appointments has produced a booklet about the challenges of working in the voluntary sector, available at a cost of pounds 5; tel: 0171 623 9292.Reuse content