How to get a job in the charity/voluntary sector
Advice for graduates on getting a job in the charity, voluntary and not-for-profit sector.
There isn’t a standard entry route into the charity sector and, while a relevant qualification and practical skills can be very useful, work experience counts for a lot.
The process of getting a job will depend on whether you are looking for paid or unpaid employment and on the size of the organisation. Large charitable organisations are more likely to recruit through formal advertisements and are more likely to have paid employment opportunities, whereas smaller organisations will operate on a more informal recruitment basis and often have few paid staff.
Getting a job in this sector is less straightforward than in some other areas, so you will need to use a more creative, personal and research driven approach.
Networking and research
Getting a job in this sector, particularly paid work, requires commitment. Often, you will need to identify the organisations that interest you and contact them directly. You need to be resourceful, using any contacts you have and networking in places like your university and at public events, eg meeting guest speakers.
Keep note of all the people you meet; use any contacts you have and constantly strengthen your links with people. Very often it can be a case of ‘who you know’, so keep your ear to the ground.
Certain charities may recruit extra staff if they receive increased government funding, so it is a good idea to research which areas are being given a priority by the government (eg homelessness, educational disadvantage, health information, North-South relations).
Routes into the charity sector
Paid jobs are usually advertised formally in the press but organisations will also recruit for contract positions on a more informal basis. It is rare for charitable organisations in Ireland to use recruitment agencies, although there are several specialist agencies in the UK.
Most entry-level opportunities for graduates are within the head offices of larger charitable organisations, usually in a major city. Graduate training programmes do exist but are mainly in the UK and in very large charities such as Barnardos and Save the Children.
It is extremely competitive to get paid employment and most people who do so have some previous voluntary or unpaid experience and possibly a relevant qualification.
One option to consider immediately after graduation is a long-term voluntary work placement, either at home or overseas. Residential voluntary work provides accommodation, food and travel expenses. Often you get pocket money or local wages if working abroad.
An alternative to finding work directly in a charitable organisation is to develop applicable skills elsewhere and then move into the not-for-profit area when you have some experience. This is particularly relevant if you want to work in areas such as fundraising, public relations, marketing, finance and administration.
Job applications and interviews
Applying for jobs in this sector usually involves a CV and cover letter. Application forms are not common except in the case of large, international organisations. In Ireland, organisations in this sector are very unlikely to use a recruitment agency to hire staff, although there are specialist recruitment agencies in the UK.
You will need an excellent, up-to-date CV emphasising the transferable skills that you have. Entry requirements are not set in stone in the not-for-profit sector, but graduates must always demonstrate that they have relevant, practical skills which can add value quickly and that they are committed to the organisation's ethos and goals.
It is quite common to find that charities do not respond to speculative applications as they have limited resources, so you should always follow up any applications.
You should apply early for work overseas (paid or unpaid) as medicals, reference checking etc can make the process quite lengthy. If you are trying to fit some volunteer work into a gap year and have limited availability, apply early and to a number of potential organisations.
At interview, you want to come across as focused, clear thinking and practical with excellent interpersonal skills. You may be required to deliver a presentation as part of the interview.
Work experience is highly relevant for graduates trying to gain entry to the charity and voluntary sector, and this experience does not necessarily have to be paid. Voluntary experience is just as relevant and it is usually easier to get than paid employment. Volunteering demonstrates understanding and commitment and you will get an insight into how a charity operates. There are opportunities for students to volunteer in a myriad of organisations and events, so it should be quite feasible for most students or graduates to gain relevant experience for their CV.
As a first step, you should research potential charities, considering aspects such as location, the type of services offered, the organisation’s focus and the opportunities to volunteer. Send speculative applications and follow them up quickly.
It is realistic to accept any experience initially and then, as your CV improves, try to get more targeted, specific experience. While internships do exist in the larger charities, they are predominantly located in mainland UK and they are not the norm in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
Information and networking websites
- Community Northern Ireland. Networking and information site for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland
- Activelink: Online network for non-profit organisation in Ireland.
- Comhlámh's jobs noticeboard