Fundraising, once the preserve of old ladies in village halls, has become big business

They are the charity muggers who buttonhole you outside Tesco. They are also, technically, the retired colonels and little old ladies who organise cream teas for the animal sanctuary. But they are more likely to be slick, professional men and women with marketing and accountancy skills, working alongside big corporations, government departments and wealthy trusts. Fundraisers today come in all shapes and sizes.

Professional fundraising – the business of politely squeezing money out of businesses, wealthy donors, you and me – is an expanding sector. Where once it might have been the task mainly of an army of volunteers, today more and more fundraisers are paid. There are thought to be around 30,000 in the UK, working for every conceivable charity.

Like most people working in the voluntary sector, they are not in it for the money. Or to be more accurate, it is other people's they are interested in. Fundraising is only modestly paid, but the benefits and job satisfaction can easily outweigh the financial and other perks of working in the commercial sector.

The bottom line is that a junior fundraiser for a small charity can start on a salary of less than £10,000, although a fundraiser with several years experience working for one of the top 100 charities could earn £25,000 to £35,000. However, charities are regarded as responsible employers and there can be substantial social and family benefits instead.

"Of course fundraisers still go in for the job for altruistic reasons," says David Parker, head of professional development at the Institute of Fundraising, the body that regulates professional conduct. "Perhaps not as much as they used to – some say fundraisers today are more like chartered accountants. But the cause still counts.

"However, it can be ruthless in the voluntary sector and commitment alone isn't everything – you have to be effective as well. Charities count on getting the best possible performance from everybody because they have to keep donations coming in. If you're not up to the job, they don't want you."

So what does the job involve? New fundraisers entering the field for the first time often cut their teeth as volunteer event organisers – running flag days or benefit concerts – before becoming full-time fundraisers. But whilst a traditional jumping-off point, flag days are no longer the sole concern of fundraisers, or the most lucrative.

Instead, fundraisers increasingly spend their time dealing with grant-giving trusts and foundations, wealthy individuals, the statutory sector (such as the health service or town halls) and advertising agencies. The most lucrative, creative and glamorous branch of fundraising today, according to Parker, is working with the corporate sector – large companies that sponsor and finance good causes.

"It's a job with plenty of career opportunities and variety, and higher job satisfaction than most others. There are no professional qualifications except perseverance, honesty and above all, great interpersonal skills. There's a saying that people don't give to a cause, they give to other people," Parker says.

It is also a varied workforce of men, women, young and old. Almost uniquely, charity fundraising is one profession that welcomes older people with professional experience and transferable skills – typically, a highly qualified manager or marketing director from industry made redundant in middle age. In fact, there is a shortage of such highly qualified people – but only a small proportion actually succeeds in making the leap.

However well-qualified, idealistic and eager to return something to society, few highly-skilled business managers find it easy to adapt to the way charities operate – they are often financed and run on a different business model from the commercial sector, making it tough for experienced marketing managers to walk into the job.

There are plenty of college leavers looking for jobs in fundraising and a degree is an advantage, although almost none are available in fundraising itself: University College Northampton's BA degree in social welfare is one of the few that offers students the opportunity to study contemporary social welfare theory and practice, along with a range of vocational skills.

There are no professional or vocational qualifications – anybody can be a fundraiser. Employers considering new recruits in fundraising look for enthusiasm and motivation – although voluntary work fundraising is an advantage. Cream tea organisers need not apply.

The Institute of Fundraising: