All change: Why the voluntary sector means business

Fundraising has become an increasingly popular career choice, but it requires a special flair to do this job well.

Fundraising is anything but fluffy. "The qualities that make people good at business are the same as those needed for a fundraiser – the only difference is the business person wants to keep the money," explains Dame Hilary Blume, director of the Charities Advisory Trust, who has been involved in the sector for 40 years.

The problem is, she says, a lot of people still approach it as a nice, do-gooding, cushy little job.

It's no wonder, then, that employers in charities, NGOs, the not-for-profit sector and the arts have identified fundraising as one of the hardest-to-fill vacancies. A fifth of employers expect the recruitment of fundraisers to become even more difficult. And yet, as a career, it's never been more popular – not just among career changers who've had enough of lining shareholders pockets, but graduates too. Indeed, 85 per cent of today's fundraisers entered the profession fresh out of university. So how do you stand out enough not only to land your dream role, but make your mark on the sector?

The first step is to get a grasp of what's actually involved. "A lot of people think fundraising is one thing. But it's a bit like engineering, in that a structural engineer isn't the same as a mechanical engineer. Within fundraising, strands include trust, corporate, direct marketing, legacy, events and major donors and they're all quite different," says Kieran McGorrian, account director at the charity recruitment consultancy Acquilas, which reports a particular scarcity of talent in the areas of direct marketing, corporate and trusts.

Admittedly, fundraisers in smaller charities might find themselves responsible for more than one area, but you'll still be expected to specialise. Even if you pick one type of fundraising – say, events – don't assume it has the same meaning as in the private sector, cautions Natasha Waas, director of the recruitment consultancy People Unlimited. "Whereas people working in events in the corporate world tend to focus on conferences and exhibitions, those in the charity world are more likely to find themselves arranging high-profile dinners or challenge events. Even the word marketing means something different in this sector – while people in companies use the term in its traditional sense, those within charities use the term as synonymous with fundraising," she says.

Your best bet is to find out for yourself, she says – and with charities crying out for volunteers, it should be no problem gaining first-hand fundraising experience and shadowing those who get paid for it. The reality is, says Waas, most employers won't even give you a second look without some fundraising experience.

Corporate experience – whether as a graduate or career changer – can be equally valuable, says Waas. "Over the years, charities have become far more interested in those with strong business skills, which is fantastic news. There's no doubt it's happened largely because charities themselves have had to become more business-focused."

Audrey Cornelius, fundraising manager at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), worked her way up WHSmith for 14 years before she entered the charity sector. "I started as a management trainee and worked my way up to the senior ranks. When they restructured, I felt ready for something different. I hadn't really done any volunteering, though, so I looked around and joined my local WWF group and did some fundraising. The two things together opened the door for me to work in the area of telephone and face-to-face fundraising. I worked as an account director for an organisation that only had charity clients such as Amnesty International, Save the Children and Oxfam."

Although competition for fundraising jobs is stiff, Cornelius believes it's essential to be honest about what you can and can't do. "If you're a strategic thinker but not good at something else, it's important to say so. That honesty and openness translates into the relationships you have with bosses and allows you to be given the jobs you excel in."

Having moved into consultancy work, helping small charities with fundraising, Cornelius' next step was BAAF. "I've got a personal connection to adoption because I'm an adoptive mum. In fact, we were part-way through our home study when I saw the job advertised. It sounds clichéd, but it's fantastic working with people who are passionate about the same cause as you and really care about what they do. Whenever you find yourself wading through your inbox or writing long application forms, it's worthwhile because the end result if finding families for children who need them."

Richard Turner – whose fundraising skills at university led him to be headhunted as a graduate by Oxfam – believes a strong affiliation with the organisation you work for is a must. "I went to work for a conservation charity for a few years and it made me realise charities will only get the best out of me if I'm fundraising for something I feel passionate about."

Now head of fundraising at ActionAid, Turner is constantly inspired by the work that the money he helps raise goes into. "The few occasions I've been to Ethiopia and India, I came back completely humbled. While we're complaining about a commute to work, these people walk miles to collect water before they even start walking to school."

Alex Hildrew, community fundraising assistant at Great Ormond Street Hospital, believes people shouldn't worry if they have no affiliation to a charity, however. "To be honest, although I'd heard of Great Ormond Street, I didn't know anyone who had used them. I just joined because I thought the organisation would have great opportunities. I was right and now that I'm here, and have met so many people on the receiving end of the charity, that I've become more passionate."

People seeking a formal on-the-job training scheme may be disappointed. Just three charities – Barnardo's, NSPCC and Cancer Research UK – offer such a graduate recruitment programme. "We take on between four to eight graduates a year, for which we get around 1,000 applications," says Robert Farrache, resourcing manager at Cancer Research UK. You'll need a 2.1 in any discipline, as well as drive, resilience and evidence of added value during your university years. "We don't want people who went to university and did nothing else. It might be a gap year, a work placement, experience of fundraising – anything that shows you've stuck your neck out and taken responsibility."

Those who make it benefit from four six-month placements in a variety of functions. "It's partly so graduates can make up their mind about which one they enjoy most and partly because they have a continued awareness of what others in the organisation do," says Farrache.

While there are a limited number of formal graduate training schemes, many other charities have excellent development schemes for their fundraisers, many of whom are graduates.

Carrick Allison, director of professional development at the Institute of Fundraising, points to the growing range of fundraising courses available, many of which can be studied via distance learning through the Open University, and face to face through the Fundraising Programme (run in partnership with the Institute and Directory of Social Change).

"It covers not just fundraising management but a whole range of other areas such as grant fundraising and winning major gifts, from which people can cherry pick the most relevant," he says.

Among the key attributes you'll need to be a good fundraiser include creativity, imagination and an entrepreneurial, proactive and positive attitude. In addition, you'll need an ability to influence others, to work under pressure and good organisational skills. "Resilience, planning and IT skills help too," adds Allison.

Be prepared to earn less than in the corporate sector, cautions Pippa Jones, chief executive of the neonatal baby charity the Winnicott Foundation. "That said, charities do not pay exceptionally below market rates anymore, simply because they need good people."

Jones switched her marketing career to work in charities because she wanted more meaning and impact to her daily job. While working for a national charity, she fell pregnant and when her baby was born prematurely, she became a beneficiary of Winnicott. When she came back to work, it was them she wanted to work for. "To be able to say that I spend my working life trying to raise money to save the lives of babies is pretty amazing, especially since I know only too well how positive the impact is on people's lives."

'I'd fundraised in my private life so it seemed obvious to do it professionally'

Jenny Edwards is head of fundraising at CHASE Hospice Care For Children, a local charity in Guildford, Surrey

"I used to work in marketing for national and international companies, but when I was made redundant 13 years ago it gave me the inspiration to try something different. I'd done fundraising in my personal life for years, so it seemed an obvious choice, especially as I would be able to carry over my commercial skills.

When I sought advice from people in the sector, I was amazed at the ideas and recommendations I was given. It meant that when I applied for jobs, I sounded more realistic than idealistic.

I was offered two really good jobs quite quickly and decided on Macmillan Cancer Support, where I worked first as an account management role, trying to get organisations to fundraise for us, and then I became head of events.

Although the job was amazing and the charity was pertinent to people, I wanted to work in a smaller charity where the decision making process was quicker and where I'd be closer to the actual cause. The regular contact I have with the CHASE families who have a life limited child is much greater here. My role is much wider too, which I enjoy.

The downside of a smaller charity is that you don't have the same money to invest, but that challenge is all part of the fun."

'There's always a reaction of respect when I tell people what I do'

Allie Preiss is regional events manager for The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

"All I knew about my career after studying German at university was that I wanted to do something that would have a positive effect, and fundraising appealed. It wasn't as easy as I thought. I went to a few agencies and they sent me away to do some voluntary work. I did that for six months.

After that, I got the first job I applied for. It was in the events field at Mencap. My role was challenge event assistant, where I supported people doing things such as overseas bike challenges, which suited my outdoors personality. I managed to progress in the four-and-a-half years I was there, but then decided on a change.

I'd always felt passionate about the RNLI. Now my role has new challenges, such as trying to get more young people involved. One example of what we're doing this year is putting on a reindeer run to attract young families.

I love working for such a well-known charity. There's always a reaction of respect when I tell people what I do. There's always a lifeboat station somewhere that's near to most people."

'You're only as good as the money you raise'

Jonathan Forrest is development director at the Royal Veterinary Hospital

"I moved into the charity sector in 1992 after working in a bank. Because I had skills in relationship management and finance, they were very complementary to fundraising.

I don't think anyone goes to work in the charity sector for money and I was no exception. I suppose I just realised I was doing a lot of voluntary work in my personal life because I wanted to make a difference, and I thought why not do it as a job.

Getting a job was straightforward and any preconceptions I had about charities not having excellent management were instantly dispelled. ActionAid, where I started out, has excellent people. I think it helped being in a big charity because I learned a huge amount about major donors, trusts, community, legacy and more. Getting that breadth of experience within one organisation is much better, in my opinion, than having to switch organisations. From a CV point of view, it doesn't look good if you don't stay in one company at least two years.

I resisted the temptation to be promoted too soon and I think that's important because fundraisers are only as good as the money they raise. If you go into management too quickly, you can be too far away from actually fundraising.

I now work in the higher education sector, where my job is to raise voluntary income for this college. We get money from trading, research and the Government but in order to really stretch this organisation from being good to the best veterinary school we need to fundraise too. I have a team of four people and we raise about £1.5m a year and have plans to do quite a bit more.

I don't want to sound corny but the line I take is that I don't think there is anything more important in the world than education. If you think of everything that challenges us – world peace, global warming, dealing with the pension crisis or anything else – it requires our children to be both intelligent and have problem solving skills to tackle them."

'The longer I work for the charity, the more passionate I become about it'

Alex Hildrew is community fundraising assistant in the challenge events team at Great Ormond Street Hospital

"When I left university in 2005, I wasn't at all sure what I wanted to do, so I went travelling for six months. When I got back, I decided charity work would be something I could be proud of and use my skills. After all, during university, I'd got involved in our RAG (raising and giving) scheme as well as social events. Among the things I helped organise was a skydive and a university ball. Before university, I'd enjoyed volunteering too.

It took me longer than I expected to break into the sector. I spent four months looking for a job, but finally a couple came up and I got accepted as junior fundraising assistant at Great Ormond Street. I decided that if I got my foot in the door, I could work my way up. After a year, I was promoted to my current job.

There are three of us in the challenge events team and we're responsible for overseas treks – things such as runs and skydives. I'm the first stop, so if someone rings up interested in doing a trek or any other event, I'm the one that talks to them and sends them information.

I love the relationship side of the job, especially as I get to go away too. I took a team of 30 to the Great Wall of China in 2007 and we all became good friends. I'm hoping to do a Sahara trek next year.

The longer I work for the charity, the more parents I meet who have used it and the more passionate I become about it. They are so grateful to the hospital and that really helps me in my job.

I love it when I'm in a social situation and people ask what I do. Unlike if I said I work in a bank, people are always really interested."

'Knowing that my efforts are improving someone's life is very satisfying'

Matthew Patten is major donor fundraising manager at RNIB

"There's never been a day when I've thought, 'Damn, I've got to go to work'. There are no bonuses to look forward to and no commission. But for me, my commission is visiting one of our services and seeing the way my work has helped changed people's lives. You can't put a monetary value on that.

When I graduated in 2000 with a degree in performing arts, I moved to London and set up a theatre company. When I realised it wasn't stable enough, I took a position working in sales but after two years I got disillusioned. At the time I was doing some voluntary work for a theatre company that worked with young children from East London and I found the three hours a week I spent there was my three favourite hours every week. I realised that was because I was good at it and I enjoyed giving something back.

I looked around the charity sector for a position that suited my skills and experience and the RNIB was offering the position of fundraising co-ordinator. I have since worked my way up, mainly in community fundraising roles.

When I moved into major donor fundraising I really wasn't sure I'd made the right move at first, because I wasn't seeing the fruits of my labour as quickly as in community fundraising. But since doing an Open University course that helped build up the theory and business skills behind what I was doing, I've enjoyed it a lot more and have progressed into management.

Now I'm responsible for a £1.5m budget and my team of five is charged with revenue of funds from high net worth individuals. We also work with the event and research team.

Knowing that my efforts are improving someone's life who has been less fortunate than me is incredibly satisfying."

'There's a real dynamic feel to what you do'

Marian Rose is director of innovation and individual giving at Save the Children

"My first jobs after university were in marketing and publishing, but then I decided I wanted to do something more value based. I worked in marketing for a disability charity and soon realised that when people talk about marketing within a charity, they really mean fundraising.

The peak of my career was heading up a campaign for the NSPCC, which was the biggest campaign in the sector.

I've been in my current role since November and three of those months have been spent in Sierra Leone as part of my induction. It was my choice to go for so long, but Save the Children is keen for its fundraising people to have some understanding of what's going on in the field. It was my first trip to Africa and was very inspiring to see the difference our work does. It's important too because it helps me inspire our supporters.

My specialist area is individual giving, which means looking after a mass of 200,000 people who give us money on a monthly basis. That is the single biggest source of income for Save the Children and it's my job to think up new ways of raising money, entering new markets, introducing new products and finding new audiences.

I find that because people who work in charities are so motivated and energised by what they do, they work very co-operatively. There is very little politics or backbiting. There's a really dynamic feel to what you do."

Interviews by Kate Hilpern

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