Age and skills – How They’re Treated by The Charity Sector

7 minute read

Back in July 2017, we asked our candidates and recruiters for some help.

We wanted to know what they thought of diversity in the charity sector – when trying to move jobs, break into the sector, or if responsible for hiring.

So, we conducted two surveys: one to candidates, one to recruiters.

The biggest surprise to emerge was just how much candidates believe age is held against them during the selection process, and when in work.

It took us aback. 38% of candidates felt they’d suffered age discrimination. That’s more than felt they’d experienced ethnic (25%) or gender (26%) discrimination.

The table below highlights some of the other issues candidates have experienced when it comes to transferable skills:

How old?

For most, it’s being “too old” rather than “too young” that’s the problem.

Still, 31% of candidates in the 20-29 age group believe they’ve experienced age discrimination. And that can only be for being too young:

“Managers don’t think younger people can or should have management or leadership positions.”

“I have felt patronised by managers who are much older than I am that wouldn’t have acted in the way they did had I been older.”

“… as I’m young and a new graduate, I feel I have been given menial tasks that are beneath me.”

Young and a woman.. the double whammy

And being younger and a woman leaves some feeling even more vulnerable. As shown by the 62% of women in the 20 to 29 age group who complained of age and/or sex discrimination:

“Can’t help feeling that being young and female contributes to being taken for granted and patronised by more senior members of staff.”

“I was told by a boss that if I dressed more feminine I’d have more chance of promotion.”

Feeling past your sell-by date

By and large however, candidates are saying that it’s being “older” that’s the problem.

And generally that means over 40, with 41% of candidates over 40 saying they’ve been discriminated against on account of their age in the charity sector.

We never expected age discrimination to be the candidates’ biggest complaint.

Recruiters seem unaware

Not least because our recruiters seem unaware of it. When you say “diversity” to them, ethnicity comes to mind first, followed by gender. Age is right down at 8.8%.

And when asked to talk about diversity within their organisation, they generally focused on its ethnic or gender mix. Age barely featured.  

Asked what they’re doing to improve diversity in their organisation, their answers varied from “not a huge amount”, “We have an equal opportunities policy”, to some which evidenced a more thorough approach.  

“We have diversity champions at every level of recruitment, advertise across several platforms, welcome applications from BAME applicants and those with disability, attend job and recruitment fairs.”

That there isn’t a better focus on diversity generally may be in part because most of the recruiters aren’t in HR roles; only 17% of recruiters who responded to the survey work in HR, whilst 62% are managers or senior managers in non-HR roles. 60% of recruiters work for smaller charities (with fewer than 30 employees), so this could also be a factor here.

Nevertheless, not one recruiter talked about measures to encourage age diversity.

But it’s happening, all the same.

And age diversity is clearly an issue for candidates:

“I work in an organisation which clearly considers those over 40 as past it and not worthy of investment. This is demonstrated in appraisal and promotion statistics and also applies to those with disabilities.”

“Older individuals have a wealth of expertise and excellent transferable skills especially when moving from a director/senior position in a corporate setting. But age can be a barrier with less experienced younger charity staff at all levels.”

If truth be told, the age profile of the charity sector is relatively mature.

The 2017 edition of the NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac has the age profile of the not-for-profit sector as higher than the public and private sectors with 39% of employees being 50 or above (compared to 35% for the public sector and 29% for the private sector).

Maybe that’s why addressing age discrimination isn’t a priority in recruiters’ minds; they don’t see post-40 as an under-represented group.

Not as simple as “too old”

But when you dig deeper into the candidates’ comments, you can see where they’re coming from. It’s not simply age.

It’s age plus feeling that previous experience, if not directly related to the job, isn’t an advantage when trying to move up, move jobs or move into the sector.

“The notion that older employees are not able to learn or that we don’t like being managed by younger managers, both of which are not true. 50 is not old considering we have to work till 67 ish.”

“I down-scaled into this job and it has become more limited as time has moved on.”

Their experience is that charities are not making the most of transferable skills.


I am 56. I have genuine hands-on experience, knowledge and skills, excellent references, recommendations etc. Yet people fail to understand the full value and benefit that I can bring”

Candidates want to know that past experience and transferable skills will be welcomed.

They want to know that adding dates and experience to their application, doesn’t preclude them from being taken seriously as someone with a future in an organisation.

An ambition to move on and build upon transferable skills doesn’t stop when candidates turn 40, or after they’ve had children. And it doesn’t only apply to people with established management-level careers in the sector.

Cursed if you do, cursed if you don’t (but might)

61% of those surveyed who have children under the age of 18 are currently in middle or intermediate management roles and appear to be struggling with transferable skills.

89% of them said they prioritise jobs that maximise transferable skills when looking for work, and many mention feeling over-looked or underestimated after having children.

“The assumption that I will leave to have a child..”

“Through maternity leave I have lost career opportunities, a big chunk of pension contributions and all of my savings. Whatever my job, I fell I will never earn the same as a man.”

“Consider better paid part time for experienced mums returning to work rather than starters salaries for college leavers.”

“I have found that employers sometimes view that if you are a single parent you are not as committed to your job, because if your child is unwell you may have to leave early or come in late. I have even had the question posed to me ‘How would you cope when your child is on school holiday?’

Transferable skills

For 43% of candidates surveyed, it’s very important that an organisation accepts those without charity job experience.

And for an astounding 89% it’s very important  that a job allows them to maximise on their transferable skills.

So clearly, we need to show candidates they’re welcome to apply from outside the charity sector; we need to demonstrate that we’re open to transferable skills.

But only 11% of recruiters prioritised encouraging candidates from the private/public sector when writing job descriptions.  Candidates can tell and it’s putting them off.

The words that crop up from the candidates time and again are “flexible”, “open”, “transferable”, “open-minded”. Our candidates’ overwhelming request is that we encourage a diverse mix of skills, age, background and skills.

Advertise that they are willing to accept transferable skills and train employees if necessary.”

“Be more open to different skills sets and adaptable to the challenges diversity might bring.”

“Truly diversify and offer over 50s jobs as well.”

“Consider better paid part time work for experienced mums returning to work rather than starters salaries for college leavers.”

“Think creatively about applicants. Most people can learn to do most jobs, not everyone is right for an organisation.”

“Advertise that they are willing to accept transferable skills and train employees if needed.”

“Focus on transferable skills from other sectors rather than on specific industry experience. Maybe the outsider will bring new ideas.”

“Focus on advertising, testing and interviewing in a way that identifies people with transferable skills rather than directly relevant experience.”

“Look at the benefits someone can bring – with a large skill set and a variety of experience this will help the charity grow, reach a wider audience…”

The thing is, recruiters know it too.

They may not prioritise it, but 72% of recruiters still say they look outside of the charity sector; which makes it so disappointing that candidates are getting the opposite impression.

The key transferable skills our recruiters say they’re looking for are: good communication skills, people skills (including empathy and listening), team-work and resilience.

It’s interesting that empathy and listening skills are a focus. Perhaps this is where more mature candidates looking to transfer across from the public sector are missing a trick.

As well as citing their hard skills and experience, more experienced candidates shouldn’t overlook the importance of showing evidence of voluntary work or of the causes they support – things that show they’re empathic, and put effort into supporting things they care about.

Younger candidates and college leavers are possibly better at doing this. If you’re older and more experienced, it’s important to show recruiters that you’re more than your employment history.  They need to get a sense of the full person and why you want to work in this sector.

Roles that transfer well

There are some roles in charities that recruiters see as more open to transferable skills from outside the sector. Namely, the top three given in their answers: Admin, Retail and IT. To be honest, it’s a bit depressing to hear this. Of course, these non-charity specific roles do transfer well, but the roles they say transfer least well (advocacy, fundraising, volunteer management, campaigning) – can also be open to candidates outside of the sector, with great success.

It takes a bit of creative thinking and for employers to be prepared to invest in some training and career development. Look at fundraising. So many of the key skills required equate with a sales function outside of the charity sector – we could do with more go-ahead sales talents wanting to move over.

So, it seems from our two diversity surveys that how we treat age and how we treat transferable skills in the charity sector isn’t good enough, and that they’re inextricably linked.

It’s clear that candidates believe being older and having too much experience, is working against them when really it should be the opposite. Everyone will need to be working longer and it’s a candidates’ market – we need good people.

40% of our registered candidates want to move into the sector. Many of them are older and have accumulated a wealth of experience.

Let’s make sure that our selection processes (for both internal and external candidates) allow older candidates to feel welcome – and that their previous experience will be treated positively.

It makes sense to be pro-active about transferable skills and be prepared to invest in training (and time) so that capable people have a chance of moving into the sector or moving jobs within it – without worrying that age and experience will be levelled against them.  

Our recruiters are clearly aware of the need to look outside of the sector and to look at transferable skills, but it seems there’s a delay between the ambition to do that – and it actually happening often enough.



ACEVO 2017 Pay and Equalities Survey

NCVO: UK Civil Society Almanac 2017

Third Sector Diversity Survey 2017

Green Park: Thinking Differently About Difference; The Value of Diversity in the Social Sector

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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