Mention charity fundraising and images of tins rattling outside Sainsbury's spring to mind. Back at the office, meanwhile, someone, you imagine, is shooting off letters to local companies begging for a few quid.

Mention charity fundraising and images of tins rattling outside Sainsbury's spring to mind. Back at the office, meanwhile, someone, you imagine, is shooting off letters to local companies begging for a few quid.

But this is a perception that the voluntary sector is now declaring war on. Fundraising, it claims, is an ambitious, challenging career, with pay and training to match. And increasing numbers of high-flyers are leaving the corporate world to sign up.

"Five years ago, most people coming into fundraising from the private sector were in their 50s. Today, they're in their 30s and 40s," says Adele Bird, director of Charity Recruitment. "The reasons are simple. First, people are becoming fed up working to line the pockets of shareholders. Second, charities are under pressure to operate more like businesses, with commercial efficiency, tough PR and marketing to attract donors."

"Fundraising has had to become more creative, aggressive and competitive," says Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers. "It used to have that 'Ooh, aren't you marvellous' factor. Now charities are as involved in the war on talent as the private sector. Many charity fundraisers are recruited straight from the marketing departments of big commercial organisations."

People with sales, event management, finance and customer focus experience are, he says, increasingly sought.

Even the pay gap is shrinking. The latest Annual Voluntary Sector Salary Survey reveals that 62 per cent of organisations now undertake an annual salary comparisons exercise and adopt a market-driven approach to pay. And in the biggest charities, a director's salary is only 4 per cent lower than that of a business director.

Likewise, training in transferable skills is a reality in many larger charities, with some running mentoring schemes and on-site accredited courses in anything from forward planning to volunteer management.

Michael Nation, fundraising manager for The National Kidney Research Fund, says: "Information technology is becoming an essential tool in fundraising and so our recent efforts have been improvements in that area."

Shelter also offers on-the-job training with courses designed to improve all-round skills. "No one fits a job description 100 per cent," explains Liz Monks, deputy director of fundraising. "So we look at where people's gaps are, and tailor-make the courses. We can't afford to pay the salaries that the private sector offers and this is one way we can add value to the job."

The NSPCC annually runs a one-year fundraising traineeship for two people. "It gives participants an overview of every aspect of the role before they have to think about specialising," says a spokesperson.

There are significant differences among charities. The smaller ones often offer minimum wages and opportunities to learn outside the office, since staff energy is otherwise fully engaged. "It can be a thankless task so you need a true passion for the cause," confirms a fundraiser of a small charity. "But being a do-gooder isn't enough, you needstrength of character. You need to be a brilliant sales person. That is, after all, what your job is - selling."

Even in some larger charities, it is the employers who need to learn, according to Compass Partnership's survey of 18 national charities, People Count. It found the annual staff turnover rate was 20 per cent, costing a typical, larger group £340,000 a year, irrespective of the investment in recruits.

A spokesperson from the Charity Commission, the voluntary sector watchdog, says: "Apart from the long hours and the unrelenting pressure, fundraisers are aware of increasing numbers of complaints against the content of some of the campaigns and methods of raising money."

The rise in fixed-term contracts and poor service in, for instance, insurance cover for long-term ill heath, don't help. Nor does the blur between what is governmental responsibility and what we expect of charities. Andrew Passey, head of research at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, says people "wonder why they should give money for the elderly when they see that as the government's job".

However, judging by a follow-up on the charities surveyed, the trend seems to be towards improving employment conditions. Keith Smith, co-author of the report, says fundraisers don't always leave because of "push" factors. "There is the adventurous spirit, too - of wanting a challenge once you feel you have done all you can for one charity."

The Advertising Standards Authority, in fact, gives charities much more leeway than it gives the commercial sector. Taking advantage of this, many smaller charities are now merging with larger ones, creating further opportunities for fundraisers.