Shifting into the Charity Sector: A Recruiter’s Perspective

7 minute read

Whether it’s a matter of policy or personal beliefs, our world is more polarised than we’ve seen in a long time. Politically, it can seem like we’re all closing doors and battening down the hatches. But if anything, these unpredictable times have just created more need for people and organisations that transcend politics and want to make a difference.

With a desire for social change comes an increased interest in careers that help find progressive solutions to the complex problems we face­—globally, nationally and locally. In the UK alone, there are over 168,000 registered charities (reaching a ten year high in 2018) and a proliferation of social enterprises and community interest companies.

So what does this mean? In short, the zeitgeist is restless. Candidates are seeking to create meaningful careers that fit alongside happy and fulfilled lives. And as there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore, they’re inspired to write their own career paths.

All of this feeds into the growing trend for career shifting. In particular, moving from the corporate world to the not-for-profit/charity sector. It’s the thinking behind CharityJob’s Find Your Why campaign which highlights the personal experiences of Preeya, Scott and Hannah who have taken that one bold step from corporate to charity and found it transformative.

“My reasons for joining the sector were for the most part a desire to feel a sense of impact and satisfaction, whilst broadly an idealistic aim—I do feel like it has been met in the organisation I now sit in. Regular exposure to our beneficiaries ensures that I never forget why I work as hard as I do.”



But what do charity recruiters really think?

It’s not always clear whether shifting to the charity sector is actually a positive step. Is there a “grass is greener” side to it that can mean you’re avoiding squaring up to bigger issues in your life? And what about recruiters? How do they feel about a person coming to them after years in a corporate job (and salary) with the ambition to now “make a difference”, “do good”, “start leaving on time”, or “escape office politics”?

So, we put it to our registered recruiters in a survey asking for their views on career shifting. Out of over 100 people that replied, 55% have worked in the charity sector for more than nine years and 27% are currently hiring more than ten people a year. 31% are senior management and a further 24% are either the CEO or owner of a charity.

Shifting into the Charity Sector: A Recruiter’s Perspective

If you’re a candidate thinking of making the shift but are worried you don’t have the right skills, the survey results are encouraging. Transferable skills like teamwork, project management, time management and prioritisation came up repeatedly in our recruiters’ answers as being important. It’s striking too how often qualities like compassion, empathy and kindness came up as well.

For one thing, we don’t often think of these as “skills” in the context of a job application—and would a corporate recruiter highlight them in the same way?

Business functions shared across sectors—like marketing, project management, finance, IT and communications—are most receptive to those looking to make the jump. Whilst more charity-specific functions like fundraising, bid-writing, legacy, volunteer management and policy are harder to fill from outside the sector.


So what are recruiters looking for?

Pretty much everyone surveyed has recruited from outside charities. They make it clear that it’s about the job and how the person presents themselves more than sector experience. But successful candidates will nearly always have had to demonstrate a passion for the cause as well as an understanding of how charities work. For them, the most important aspects of a candidate include:

“Their values and passion. You can train skills, but you can’t train someone to share our values and ethos.”

“A genuine desire to work in the voluntary sector and to make a difference to people’s lives and an understanding that they have lots to learn.”

One of the best ways to demonstrate that passion is through volunteer work. Just over 50% of our recruiters are with charities that typically recruit from their volunteer network. It’s generally seen as a real positive, showing you’re serious about wanting to make a difference and that you have hands-on experience.

“Experience, whether voluntary or paid, is often the most useful indicator of a candidate’s dedication to a cause.”

“… they might have volunteered in a charity to understand the sector better and shown commitment/gained experience. Or shown that they have researched and understand the sector and how this might differ from the corporate sector.”


Can skills gained in the corporate sector make you a more attractive candidate?

Passion along with volunteering experience absolutely make a difference. But there are occasions where recruiters will actively look for skills developed in the corporate world.

“Charities need to run at a professional level and be up to date with best practice in business and commercial areas in order to compete optimally for funding and resources. Scant resources also mean they need to run as efficiently and effectively as possible, this is where corporate experience can really be useful by working out the methodologies that will enable this.”

Cuts to social care funding also have an impact here. Recruiters talk of charities picking up the slack, so candidates with specific experience and skills developed first in public and social care roles can be a real bonus. And knowing how corporates work and think is useful for many roles in charities.

“I think my experience has been a great asset, I worked in an established company that had a lot of processes, when I moved to a developing charity I was able to use my experience of these processes to help implement new ones and generally I think my skills working with clients in the corporate work helped me with building supporter relationships.”



The pitfalls of career shifting

Nevertheless, whilst nearly all recruiters have looked outside the sector, 54% of them think there can be disadvantages (compared with the 30% who think that’s not the case).

The kind of things they offer as pitfalls include arriving with a too ballsy “nothing happened before I turned up” attitude, unrealistic salary and promotion expectations—and an idealism that this move will sort their whole life out in one fell swoop.

“Some people from the corporate sector enter charities believing that they have much to teach us but not aware that they have much to learn. I have worked with people who failed to understand that a more relaxed working environment didn’t mean that we didn’t expect very hard work form them and sometimes more work that they are used to.”

“Getting used to different levels of pay can be difficult. Enthusiasm does not buy shoes!”

Many of our recruiters highlight that charities constitutionally have to be risk averse – and that can be a hard adjustment for people moving over from the private sector. It’s not only because they’re more cautious (so getting used to strapped resources can be a problem), but also because of the specific regulations that govern our sector.

“I think one of the main things is getting your head around the legalities involved when it comes to charities and fundraising. UK Charity Law has stringent rules and regulations (as there should be!) which was one of the first things I had to consider and learn.”



Are candidates changing careers for the right reasons?

We asked our recruiters to rate the different reasons people most often give on their application form (or in interview), for wanting to make the move.

Favourable reasons

  • Wanting to work for a charity because you like what they do and they’ve helped someone close to you is thought to be a good reason by 78% of our recruiters.
  • Wanting to do good and/or change the world is looked on favourably by 77% of our recruiters.
  • Wanting to give something back because you can now afford to earn less, or wanting to use your years of experience for good are also well received generally

Unfavourable reasons

  • Wanting to move because you’re sick of working late/fed up having no life out of hours is viewed with suspicion by 66% of our recruiters.
  • Wanting to move so that you can work part-time or flexibly, is thought to be OK by about half of all recruiters, but a significant number (30%) think it’s not the right reason to do it.

So candidates should beware of saying they want a better work/life balance. In fact, thinking a move to a charity will necessarily mean better hours is given as one of the pitfalls career shifters typically fall for.

“Some may think that it will be an easier job and less cut-throat than the private sector, but charity workers generally work over and above their hours, the job can be just as, if not more, stressful and the work/life balance can be just as bad. A lot of charities are small and do not have the finances to have all the resources required therefore jobs can be less defined with more expected of staff than having a very clearly defined role in the private sector. We cover a wide range of roles within our charity when a big company would have much more clearly defined positions without so much cross-over.”

It’s a view also shared by Preeya, Scott and Hannah. But whilst the hours aren’t necessarily easier and it’s not all pink and fluffy, it’s a move they’ll never regret.

“I think there is a tendency to think that because it’s the charity sector, everything is always positive, nothing is ever bad and every day you go home with a spring in your step because you know you’re doing something which makes the world a better place. Although to an extent that is true – you do have a sense that the hard work you’re putting in is really important and worthwhile – it’s also important to remember that it’s a job.



Are you thinking of making the switch? We say “go for it!”

Overall, our survey results show that charity recruiters are open to candidates wanting to move across. And their answers enforce the message of our Find Your Why campaign, that it can be a positive step forward in your career that has a knock-on effect on all areas of your life.

Our recruiters identified many transferable skills and whilst some functions can be harder to break into without experience, it still depends a lot on the individual organisation. Some recruiters are also actively looking to poach candidates with corporate or public sector experience to fill skills gaps. Volunteering—or at the very least taking the time to speak to people already working in the sector—is invaluable and can make up for a lack of paid experience.

So what’s the one piece of advice our recruiters would give someone looking to make the move? For most it comes down to getting hands-on experience or, failing that, talking to people working in the charity sector before you leap in. Oh, and come prepared to eat some humble pie.

“Come in with humility and a willingness to learn.”

“Do your research first to ensure you have some knowledge about the charity sector the job is in. Look at where your skills can match or support what the charity is doing.

“Be prepared to roll your sleeves up and help…it’s not all about you and a 9-to-5 job.”

So, starting over in the charity sector requires preparation, commitment, flexibility and a willingness to learn. You can’t assume your corporate experience will knock everyone for six. And you can’t bank on a better work/life balance without making other changes in your life.

But, if you’re prepared to work hard alongside others who want to make a difference, then do it. The reward of knowing that the job you do does good, rather than just fill shareholders’ pockets, is immeasurable. The charity sector is full of dedicated, talented people and if you think you’ve got what it takes to join them, then take the plunge. It could be best thing you do.

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.

Don't miss another post, sign up to our weekly newsletter

Thank you for subscribing, you're on the list for the next edition!