Balancing the Art and Science of Writing a Great CV

5 minute read

There’s a fine art to writing a great CV for the non-profit sector. On one hand, you need to show a human recruiter your passion for the role and charity. They want to see the soft skills that make you right for the team and know that your priorities are compatible with theirs. On the other hand, you also need to show the ATS robots that you have the right experience and knowledge. The software will want to see the right keywords on your CV, emphasising your accomplishments and proving your qualifications. It’s all about finding the right balance. When you combine the art of impressing a recruiter with the science of impressing an ATS, you’ll hit CV perfection and significantly increase your chance of securing your dream job.


So what’s an ATS?

An ATS, or applicant tracking system, is used by almost every large employer – and many medium-sized ones – to conduct the initial sift of CVs. Yes, you read that right: In the first instance, your CV is likely to be selected or rejected by a computer, not a human. The ATS works by scanning the CV and comparing it to a list of requirements specified by the recruiter. The more similarities between your CV and the list, the higher your CV will rank and the greater the chance it will have of being selected to progress to the next stage. Understanding how to make your CV rank high will enable you to produce a more successful application. That said, what do you need to bear in mind?

Balancing the Art and Science of Writing a Great CV

First, the science…

There are many different applicant tracking systems on the market, and they are becoming more sophisticated all the time. However, there are still general guidelines that will always be in play.



These are the most important element of your CV, from an ATS point of view. Ask yourself: What will be on a recruiter’s wish-list for this role? A good place to start is to make sure you include the title of the job you’re applying to. If you have no previous experience as, for example, a fundraiser, you can always include a line like ‘keen to secure a challenging role as a fundraiser’.

Other keywords can be pulled from the job description – analyse it to find exactly what they’re looking for and make sure those words are included. It’s likely that your charity CV will already have many of the keywords you spot in the job spec, particularly if you have previous experience in the same type of role, but spend some time making sure that your terminology matches what they want.



Save your CV as a Word file (.doc or .docx), as this is compatible with most ATS systems. While PDFs aren’t always rejected, they are not universally compatible like Word files. Plus, in a PDF, the layout doesn’t always convert well ‒ mistakes can creep up in the document that you’ve spent so much time perfecting.



For the same reason, we recommend avoiding text boxes, graphics, tables and special characters such as ©, ™, ½, superscript and subscript. Headers and footers should be taken into consideration as well. They can be useful for page numbers, and even for repeating your name in case printed pages are separated, but they shouldn’t contain any critical information as they are usually ignored by an ATS.

Balancing the Art and Science of Writing a Great CV

…and now the art

Now that you know how to pass the first hurdle of the application process ‒ the ATS ‒ your CV can be examined by the beady eye of a recruiter. What should you bear in mind if you want to impress them enough to invite you for an interview? Well, it’s important to remember that there are as many opinions on this as there are recruiters in the world – everyone will be looking for something different, influenced by their own opinions, the vision of the charity they’re recruiting for and the precise demands of the role. But there are some basic guidelines to remember that will stand you in good stead.



Keep things looking professional. You can’t go wrong with black and white, Arial or Calibri and 10-point font. Be creative with your use of italics, underlines and bolding ‒ these are actually excellent ways for you to draw attention to specific points. Just approach this conservatively. The important thing to remember is that this is a formal document and shouldn’t look like a child’s first encounter with the formatting tools on Word.



The recruiter wants to know about YOU, not about the company or charity you work for. There’s no need to waste valuable space deeply explaining the mission, values and finances of previous employers, or (cringe) including their logos. You have an average of two pages to really sell yourself, so think about what you’ve achieved, how your values align with those of the charity you’re applying to and what experience you have that would benefit that charity.


Voluntary work

If you don’t have much experience in the non-profit sector, fear not! ALL experience counts when writing your charity CV, and it’s up to you to decide how much weight to give to paid and unpaid work. If it’s more relevant to summarise your professional career and dedicate a longer section to your voluntary work, it’s perfectly fine to do so. As well as demonstrating your commitment to working for charity, this approach also enables you to highlight additional skills and experience which may not come through as strongly (or at all) in your professional work.  



Don’t forget to introduce your CV with a high-impact professional profile. This is the part of the CV where you can let your passion for charity work, or even a particular charity, shine through. You’ll need to balance this with persuasive reasons convincing the recruiter why you’re the right person for the role, so try to identify your unique selling point. Why should a charity employ you, rather than any other applicant? Avoid the clichés – hardworking team players are 10 a penny.

Find a concrete reason that sets you above the other candidates. A bit of research into the charity and the vacancy will pay dividends here. This is the hardest part of the CV to write and get right, but a well-crafted profile can make sure the recruiter is viewing your application positively from the very start.



With a CV that will an impress both a computer and a human, you’re ready to stride into your job hunt with confidence and find a career with meaning in the charity sector. Good luck!

Finding this balance isn’t easy. TopCV offers a free CV critique that will objectively review your CV and tell you where you stand. Submit yours today. Need a bit more help understanding how a charity CV is different from a corporate one? Download our free Charity CV template.

Jen David is the founder of CV Shed and a regular contributor to TopCV, the largest CV-writing service in the world. TopCV provides a range of professional services including expertly written and keyword-optimised resumes, CVs and LinkedIn profiles.

Top CV

TopCV is the largest CV-writing service in the world and offers a range of professional services including expertly written and keyword-optimised resumes, CVs and LinkedIn profiles. Job seekers work directly with professional writers and industry experts to redefine their personal brand and stand out from the crowd during the job-search process. Request a free CV review today to learn more.

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