200+ charity people told me how they got their first job in the sector. Here’s what I learnt.

Howard Lake | 18 February 2021 | Blogs

I was expecting a couple of replies at most. I’d put out a tweet asking how people got started in the charity sector – just something to while away a quiet Wednesday evening.

But days later, I was still responding to more than 200 people who shared their charity origin story, and were excited to read other people’s.
Aside from feeling like a social media influencer for a couple of days, I felt I gained a perspective into how people get into the sector which was different from what I was expecting.

So what did I learn?

There many routes into working for a charity.
Everyone has a unique story to tell, but I felt there were a few common routes into charity work:

1. Planned it from the beginning

There are plenty of people who always knew they would work in a charity. Many people volunteered for charities to gain experience, and others
applied for charity grad schemes after going to university.


2. Fell into it

By far the most common route was really a happy accident. People gained experience from the public and private sectors, and then took up an opportunity that presented itself in a charity.


3. Student fundraising

Some people got involved with fundraising at university, working in a RAG committee and then maybe as a sabbatical officer.


4. Reacting against an unfulfilling career

Many people reported how they felt bored or unfulfilled in the private or public sector, and decided to make a leap into the charity sector to feel passionate about their job again. As clichéd as it might sound, people do genuinely want to make a difference in the work they do – and where better to do that than in a charity?


5. Introduced to charities after using services

Some people talked about how their first interaction with charities was through using their services or receiving support. This inspired them to work in a charity, bringing their lived experience to benefit the organisation.


6. Starting a charity to provide the support they lacked

A few people started their own charities to provide the kind of support or services they felt they could have benefited from but couldn’t find.


Few people knew the charity sector was even a career option

Many people spoke of how they weren’t aware people even worked in charities, never mind that you could have a fulfilling career. They spoke of careers advisers in schools and universities who never mentioned ‘charity worker’ or ‘fundraiser’ as a potential job title.

I don’t know how much things have changed over the years, though I was glad to be invited to my old university to talk to students about careers in the charity sector a couple of years ago.

Some got a lucky break

Many people felt they got a ‘lucky break’ with a charity or a specific person that enabled them to get their first job. There were plenty of mutual love-ins and virtual high-fives and hugs. However, I worry about the people who don’t already have connections in the sector, and whether they are being inadvertently excluded from charity work.

Unpaid internships are an ongoing issue

Several people mentioned that they had done unpaid internships to get experience to work in the sector, and how they felt uneasy about it. While I’m sure many unpaid internships do provide great opportunities, the concern about them is that not everyone is in a position to work for free, and so that the practice might negatively affect the diversity of people who can enter the sector. I don’t know whether unpaid internships are becoming more or less common, though I’m sure it’s an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

People are really fond of face-to-face fundraising

Some people’s first experience of the charity sector was in face-to-face fundraising, and spoke very fondly of their job. They felt it gave them determination and resilience, the ability to connect with the public while talking about a great cause, and work with some great people.


Charity folks are here for good

Finally, phrases like “I can’t imagine working anywhere else”, “I never looked back”, “…and the rest is history” came up a lot in people’s tweets. Many people spoke of their desire to make a difference in their jobs, and working with brilliant people, as key reasons why. It’s heart-warming to know that so many people see the rest of their working life in charities.
Dr Richard Berks is a freelance science writer specialising in helping medical research charities talk to supporters, patients, and the public about the research they fund. He spends too much time on Twitter (@DrRichardBerks), and can also be found at richardberks.co.uk

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