Working for a charity is better paid than you'd think but the benefits aren't just financial

Ask anyone to describe their "best moment" at work, and you'll soon tell apart those who work in the charity sector. Kate Thomas will certainly never forget the day she arrived at work to see a woman waiting apprehensively with her son. Without warning, the woman started crying, then raced to the door and hugged a man so hard that they both fell to the ground. "Most of us didn't know what was going on until she said to the boy: 'This is your father'.

"She had been separated from her husband since the boy was born. We were all trying not to cry, but failing miserably," recalls Thomas, who explains that among the many services offered by the Red Cross is a tracing and message service so that when people are separated by war or disaster there is a greater chance of them being reunited. Such reunions usually happen privately, but no other location was available that day.

Like most people joining the charity sector, Thomas's main motivation was to help people. In Pakistan, where she is currently a systems support delegate, she is part of a team responsible for getting items from air or sea ports to where they are needed. The sheer scale of people she manages to help every day has been overwhelming, she says.

Little wonder that many charity workers are personally affected by their jobs in ways that others only dream of. "I can honestly say that working with service users has taught me more about myself and my capabilities than any other time," says Lilly Crick, grants, trusts and tender officer at Penrose Housing Association. "I used to consider myself quite worldly, but the service users taught me a lot and totally altered my perceptions about a lot of things, and so I decided to try and make even more of a difference in a head-office role. It's the best opportunity I have had in my working life so far."

The bad news is that the charity sector has been no more immune to the economic downturn than the private and public sectors. In fact, there has been more competition for jobs than ever, due to people becoming increasingly disillusioned by issues such as the MPs' expenses scandal and the banking crisis. But the good news is that recruitment appears to be recovering. "I'd say we've reached the bottom of the dip and are on the up again," says Paul Sais, managing director of the charity recruitment agency People Unlimited, whose August figures show a rise in job numbers for the first time in 18 months.

Deborah Hockham, director of the charity recruitment specialists forum3, is also optimistic, albeit slightly more cautiously. "The charity sector has become increasingly reliant on providing services to the public sector, and we still don't know the exact repercussions of the Government's budget cuts," she points out. "Also, many charities are still looking extra carefully at real needs before they even think about recruitment, just as other sectors. That said, front-line jobs seem to be holding up well, and, even in charities that have had recruitment freezes, there has been some movement when it comes to strategic roles – jobs like finance directors and fundraisers. Moreover, there are examples of pretty much every job opportunity somewhere in the sector."

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, forum3 is running a recruitment, volunteering and careers event from 24-25 September at the Business Design Centre, London. It will promote the opportunities within the sector – ranging from IT and admin to more niche roles such as animal welfare officer – and assist people in breaking into it. "This sector is huge, and this is a meeting place for people to find out more," Hockham explains.

She points out that, unlike other sectors, graduate training schemes are fewer in number. "It's not that they don't exist – in fact, there are many new ones – but, because there is such enormous competition, it's important to think about a range of ways to enter this sector." Her advice for graduates and career changers is to identify transferable skills, to network and to get some charity experience, whether that's through an internship, more general volunteering or through temping or interim work.

SallyAnn Evans, business development manager at the not-for-profit arm of recruitment agency Reed, says job hunters need to be patient. "We've had lots of charities asking us to source candidates – from large national ones to small, local niche ones, but there is more red tape involved, so expect the recruitment process to take longer. Also be prepared for a very different recruitment process. Charities are much more interested in the whole person. They see their opportunities as more of a vocation than just a job."

Don't assume charities are a soft touch, adds Zoe Perrott, associate director at charity recruitment experts Eden Brown. "With the introduction of the Charities Bill, charities have been forced to change the way they operate, and as such there is greater accountability in all decision-making."

A further myth about charities is that they pay poorly, she says. "With roles like major donor fundraisers and good direct marketing managers, there is a lot of demand; so, if professionals such as these are looking to move into the sector, there may be opportunities to increase their salaries. It's also worth remembering that charity benefits are considerably more attractive, with 25 days' holiday as standard."

Think about the size of charity you want to work for – remembering that the big household names only form one part of the sector. "Be realistic," adds Perrott. "Graduates should think of this sector like the TV sector, when you have to start as a runner and make your networks. Think about application forms, too. Most charities expect an application for the job, and it's a mistake to just use the same standard examples for each one. The people that get shortlisted always tailor their form specifically for the role."

Dori Kirchmair, a community garden volunteer co-ordinator in Nottingham, worked for many years in the private sector before she moved over. "I've never looked back," she says. "It was the biggest and most refreshing thing I could have done. I found my skills were highly transferable, and suddenly it was about people, community, well-being and making a difference right at the grass roots – rather than about profit, power and feeling like just a number in some rat race."

Dawn Cox agrees. Having worked for 17 years in a commercial finance environment, she is now fundraising manager at Wood Green Animal Shelters. "My best moments happen all the time, but one that stands out is a particularly sad case of a dog that came to us in a horrific state with no fur and excessively underweight. We were uncertain if he'd survive, but, following dedicated care from our veterinary team, Rusty looks fantastic and is now in a loving home."

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