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We can make you feel good – moving to the charity sector

14 February 2014

The charity sector offers the chance to ‘make a difference’ with workers generally said to have higher job satisfaction than elsewhere. However, moving into the voluntary sector can be daunting, and it can be difficult to know what to expect. Just how big are the differences between the sectors?

We spoke to nine people who’ve already made the move from the private sector to the charity sector – some recently, some further back – and asked them for their experiences: the key differences, their view of the sector itself, their satisfactions and frustrations. The responses were pretty varied, although nearly all positive, but a few themes did appear. So, here are eight things worth bearing in mind if you’re considering a move into the charity sector:

The feel good factor

It’s true that most people decide to move into the charity sector in order to do a job they feel is rewarding and worthwhile. However, it’s important to choose an organisation and role that fits in with your values and interests. As Sho Konno, PR and media manager at Restless Development put it, you won’t get a “warm fuzzy feeling” simply by working in the charity sector. Use the internet and social media to research potential areas and specific charities that appeal to you. It could be a good idea to follow a few people on Twitter who do a role that you’re interested in, to get a feel for what their day is like.

Different sector, same skills

The communication skills that apply in a business setting are still relevant in the charity sector. You won’t need to forget everything you know and start again, although you may have to learn new skills. As charities generally have smaller budgets and therefore smaller teams than in the private sector your role might have a wider remit, which could mean having to develop new technical skills, learning about different areas of work or dealing with a different groups of. One of the main differences we heard about was in the language and vocabulary used: getting to know jargon around fundraising and engagement, for example, that doesn’t appear in the corporate world.

Missing the profit motive

One obvious difference in the charity sector is that the focus is not on profit-making. The profit-motive can provide corporates with clear direction, which sometimes lends itself to taking a few more risks in return for long-term benefit. In contrast, the charity sector is more risk-averse by nature and is more focused on the short term. One respondent said they were used to having everything planned to the nth degree in the private sector, whereas the charity sector can be a little more haphazard, sometimes meaning having to run around putting out fires. The way you see your spending is also different – when funding comes from donors you will have to justify every penny. The sense of a moral obligation to stakeholders can be a stronger force than the financial obligation to shareholders.

The status of comms

Communications is sometimes seen as less of a priority in the charity sector. In the private sector, marketing and communications are seen as an important part of driving sales, but in the third sector they are sadly not always recognised as critical to services. This can lead to  investment in communications being less of a priority, meaning it isn’t always as highly valued or as well-understood as in the private sector – although a couple of respondents told us they thought this was changing.

The wage differential

Unfortunately, you’re probably going to earn less. “Across all roles, employees in the charity sector can expect to be paid around 20% less than in the commercial sector,” says Kate Maunder, senior consultant at TPP Not For Profit.  “There are two main reasons for this: charities don’t want to be seen to be spending money raised from the public on salaries instead of directly on services, and charity comms professionals are usually extremely passionate about their organisation’s cause and are willing to accept lower salaries in exchange for greater job satisfaction.” On the other hand, the charity sector can sometimes offer better benefits packages in terms of things such as maternity/paternity leave or flexible working.

New blood welcome

Charities are happy to bring people in from the private sector. Victoria Peckett, of the Canal & River Trust, told us she thought that charities “are waking up to the benefits they can get from the commercial sector.” Indeed, a number of people believed charities are now increasingly keen to tap into the skills of people from outside the sector, feeling new people can bring in fresh ideas. However, it’s not just about your skills – one person told us that when they’re hiring new staff the passion for the charity’s cause and ‘getting’ the ethos was very important. Don’t expect it to be any easier – Mel Hide, who has previously headed up a comms team at a large supermarket and was head of communications at the National Archives, told us she has never worked so hard as in her current role as head of communications with the RNLI.

Volunteering: helpful but not necessary

Volunteering can be useful for showing your interest in the sector, especially if you have no prior charity experience, but it’s a difficult thing to fit around other commitments. It can give you a better idea of a charity but none of our interviewees thought it was essential, unless you were specifically looking for a role that focused on it, such as volunteer coordinator. Furthermore, as Sho Konno pointed out, volunteering can sometimes only show you the workings of a charity from the outside, whereas the real differences are often found on the inside.

Rewarding work

Many of those we spoke to told us they find their work really rewarding and that you do get to make a difference. Katherine Jacques, head of marketing at Marie Curie Cancer Care, said “I love that I’m proud of what I do and talk about it way too much,” while Ishani Bechoo from RNIB said: “It’s very rewarding to know that we can make a positive difference in people’s lives.” Neil Gunn of WWF told us that even if the work itself is sometimes similar to that in his previous commercial employers, the subject matter is significantly more interesting and so the work is a lot more rewarding. Katie Brewin, freelancer and communications and marketing manager at Red Rose Forest, summed it up: “Working in the charity sector can inspire you and offer some incredible opportunities.”

Thanks to our interviewees:

Emma Parsons
Ishani Bechoo
Kate Maunder
Katherine Jacques
Katie Brewin
Mel Hide
Neil Gunn
Sho Konno
Victoria Peckett
Thinking of moving to the charity sector? Becoming a CharityComms member is a great place to start.

Tom Worley

membership and marketing officer, Clinks

Tom completed his MA in History at Leiden University in Holland before joining CharityComms as comms assistant in August 2013. In November 2015, he joined Clinks as membership and marketing officer, responsible for developing and promoting Clinks’ membership offer.