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Working in the voluntary sector

Updated 19/9/11

Follow the trail

Those of you already working in charities, community organisations, campaigning groups etc. need read no further. Otherwise.....

Organisations

Our thoughts

The first thing to point out is the massive diversity here. Large household name charities have employees in the thousands, while a self-help group may just have a part-time admin worker, with all the possibilities in between. Terms and conditions can range from close to the average for that type of job (perhaps even above in terms of maternity leave, pensions or total leave entitlement) to the very minimum allowed (and if you are unlucky, below). Many organisations expect their staff to be committed to the cause to the extent of being self-exploiting - the sector incurs an above average number of industrial tribunal cases which may well be due to employees burning out or no longer being willing to do this. On the other hand, job satisfaction can be massive and in smaller organisations learning opportunities many and frequent.

Changing (or getting) a job normally requires careful thought if it is to be successful - changing to the voluntary sector even more so. Be clear why you want to make the move, what terms and conditions you would be happy with, how much commitment you are prepared to give. The latter is usually quite obvious at interview, but there will be friction if you accept a job which takes too much out of you. It can be tricky finding out in advance what the work ethos of an organisation is, and senior staff can live in a different world from everybody else, but be suspicious if you aren't given an opportunity to look round at some point in the recruitment process.

Trade Unions are even less in evidence in the sector than the commercial world. There is also often not an obvious career structure - to progress you may need to move organisations fairly frequently, and for many this will mean across to the public sector (local authority, government quangos and the like) and back. In smaller organisations, moving on every 3 to 4 years is pretty normal.

Particular parts of the sector have their own characteristics. For instance, conservation organisations often expect you to have experience as a volunteer in a similar organisation before you get your first paid job, community groups are likely to mark you down for being too nicely dressed, and campaigning groups will fairly obviously prefer it if you can show an existing interest in the subject they campaign on. Some of this is common sense, but not all. Get an idea of the style of an organisation from its reports, web site, media coverage, contacts, whatever.

Don't expect a job in the voluntary sector to be less demanding than one in the commercial world, even if it pays less. There are some jobs where this holds true, but pressures are increasing to do more for less, here as elsewhere. The better employers recognise the effort being put in, and reward it as best they can - maybe more flexibility in working hours or tolerance of odd habits and enthusiasms, chances to get involved in 'fun' events - but very rarely extra pay. 'Professionalism' is increasing, which sometimes just means appointing the person with the flashiest qualifications, but more positively is about recognising that employees are there to develop their professional skills as well as graft hard.

Other thoughts

Prospects, the graduate career advice web site, has some pages on whats involved in various fields. Look under Explore Types of Job, and then for example: Social and Pastoral Care - Community Work for advice worker, community worker, youth worker, etc.