What are the top skills charities look for?

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If you look at a selection of charity sector job ads, you’ll find the same skills keep coming up.

  • Good communicator
  • Proactive
  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Team player
  • Flexible
  • Motivated

It’s no coincidence that many of these are not job-specific skills. That’s because a special kind of person flourishes in this sector – and that’s what makes it such a rewarding, inspiring and fulfilling career choice.

So, beyond the specific requirements of a role, what are the more general skills shaping the charity sector and why do you need them?

Good communicator

Good communicators are warm, empathic people who can engage with others and express themselves clearly, in person or in writing.

In many roles in our sector, these skills have specific importance.

Fundraising roles require people who can communicate the message, can persuade potential donors, who can think on their feet and can adapt their approach to suit a range of situations and personalities. They also need to come over as sincere and committed – and that’s generally something that can’t be faked.

In helpline roles or in jobs where you’re working directly with the public, good communication means being able to empathise, to speak clearly and calmly in sometimes difficult and emotionally-charged situations. This could be on the phone or in person.  It could also be in writing when providing follow-up support or information by email or letter.

Written communication skills are important for everyone.  It’s essential that all written comms – whether internal or external – express thoughts clearly and in a tone of voice that’s appropriate to the charity.

An extension of this is that most charities will require that you can communicate confidently in the digital space. Social media is an important tool for charities and it’s something everyone needs to understand and be comfortable with.

You also need to appreciate how easy it is to post something (either from the charity or on your own personal profile), that could be contentious or damage the charity in some way.

Charities flourish with a diverse workforce and that includes different personality types – extroverts and introverts are needed in equal measure. But whichever you are, empathy for others coupled with a willingness to communicate is the lifeblood of a successful charity.

Dedication/commitment to the cause/motivation/the desire to make a difference

If you choose to work for a charity, it’s expected that you will take an active interest in the cause.

It’s what gives charities the edge over other organisations and makes this sector a unique working environment.

It’s not necessarily included in the job ad or description, but reading up on the charity and understanding what it does and why, is pretty much a minimum requirement for all candidates.

In nearly all cases, you’ll find that the people who make a name for themselves have become motivated by the cause in their day-to-day life.

You will move to the top of the pile if your CV and application show evidence that you’re the kind of person who tries to make a difference. It could be volunteering, helping in the community, being politically active or campaigning.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not allied to the charity, it matters more that it shows you put your own time and effort into things you feel passionate about.

Flexibility

One of the things attracting people to this sector is a belief that charities offer more flexible working opportunities.  Also, that there are more part-time jobs.

In all honesty, that’s not necessarily the case (certainly for part-time jobs), but it’s generally true that many charities offer flexible working hours as one of their employee benefits. There’s an understanding that employees have caring responsibilities and so it’s sensible there’s a mix of flexible working that includes working from home.

The flipside to this is that you’re expected to be flexible too. It’s not always a 9-5 job and at particularly busy times – the run-up to fundraising events or at year-end, are examples – you’ll need a flexible approach. That means staying late or helping at weekends, now and then. It can also mean a willingness to give your own time to help at a fundraiser, or even take part in an event.

Also, no one likes a “jobs-worth” and you may need to help another team – even if it’s not officially your role.

That’s why “flexible” crops up in so many ads.

Creative or Innovative

Prospects, a site specialising in graduate recruitment, asked senior representatives from three major charities (Cancer Research UK, Wellcome Trust and IntoUniversity) for the key skills they looked for from candidates.

Right up in their top three was creativity/innovation.

It can mean different things to different people. But in this context, it’s about ideas generation.

When faced with a problem, or with something huge to achieve on a shoestring budget, it’s the original and disruptive ideas that save the day. The ideas that at first seem risky, but frequently provide the break-through moments.

For example, Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life had humble beginnings. It’s now a huge national event raising £500 million each year. So good, it’s been copied far and wide.

Another example is Diabetes UK’s viral campaign #DAN/#STOP THE FINES. It started as a small, dirt-cheap idea. It resulted in an almost immediate turnaround by the Government on prescription charges for people with diabetes; the viral campaign was quickly adopted and persuaded the Health Minister at the time, Dan Poulter, to make the Government change its rules.

Similarly, the Ice Bucket Challenge. An unlikely fundraising idea, but its success at both raising money and raising awareness, has been a global phenomenon.

It’s not only fundraising ideas. In every part of a charity (yes, even Accounts and IT), they’re after people who can come up with ideas to make things work better, to do things better, or save money.

Charities often don’t have extra money to hand over to agencies or external management consultancies, so instead depend on their staff being creative and innovative types who will find new ways to solve problems, or improve the way things are done.

Team-working/good team-player

Good teamwork and people skills are critical to a charity’s success. It’s the ability to get on with colleagues, work well in a team and interact with people right across the organisation.

The charity sector encourages diversity. That means it’s essential that people can communicate naturally and easily with all ages, cultures, sexes and with people with disabilities.

All sorts of people work in charities for all sorts of reasons. Through dedication to the cause or because of personal connection to the cause, many will be happy to work for a long time in the same role and aren’t looking to change or move elsewhere.

There’s still absolutely a place for that kind of commitment and that kind of person in some roles.  So that means it’s important that however innovative and ambitious you are, you need to be able to pitch in with existing teams and develop successful working relations with all sorts of people.

About 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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