Careers Guide: What I wish I had known then...

Managing upwards, money worries, qualifications: 10 experienced sector professionals tell Alex Blyth what people starting a charity career should know

How the funding system works

Claire Jones, youth volunteering development manager at Oxfordshire Children and Voluntary Youth Services

It’s vital to know how the funding system works – how charities are funded, for what length of time and what, if anything, they have to give funders in return. I also wish I had known how funding can affect jobs and charities so significantly, and how with the fall of an axe a charity can go under, losing the service, staff and everything. Having been in this position on more than one occasion, I know it can be tough and is something to be mindful of. When I apply for jobs now, I ask about funding and check the contract. I find out how the charity has been doing recently and where it is in relation to targets.

See your boss as part of a team

Ruth Greenberg, chief officer of the Partnership Council, a Nottingham charity that helps people in the area improve their lives and neighbourhoods

I wish I had known what managing upwards meant. Basically, it means working with your manager as part of a team, rather than seeing them as an adversary or someone to avoid. It’s much better to be honest and communicate with your boss, even when there’s a problem. A good manager will understand if you can’t meet a deadline, for instance, and will work with you to resolve issues.

Also, when I began managing, I followed all the sector ‘good practice’ guidelines, such as having monthly support and supervision sessions with staff. I wish I’d known this wouldn’t work. It’s far more important to tailor how you manage to individual members of staff. Now I meet some staff every week, because they need a confidence boost or support with a complex project, while I meet others every six weeks. Don’t rigidly apply ‘good practice’. Adapt and refine it to suit your particular needs.

Finally, I wish I’d known that ‘game players’ do get found out. Throughout my working life I’ve encountered people who, for example, claim credit for work they haven’t done. It can be frustrating to see these people prospering, particularly if their good fortune isn’t backed up by work. But they get found out in the end. Partnership working is key to the sector and is built on mutual trust and reliability, so genuine individuals will always triumph eventually.

All employers want qualifications

Dawn Stott, managing director of the Association for Perioperative Practice, a Harrogate-based charity enhancing skills in hospital operating theatres

You need qualifications to support any knowledge and experience you may have. Not everyone went to university when I was a girl and, having taken eight years out to start a family, I came back into a marketplace that was much more competitive and in which every employer was looking for a qualification. I began to reinvent myself in the healthcare sector, but it soon became obvious to me that if I was going to enhance my career I would need to invest time in obtaining a business qualification, which I did through the Open University. This gave me the knowledge to underpin the experience I had, enabling me to make progress up the career ladder.

Be flexible, whatever your role

Jan O’Connor, manager of the Wood Street Mission, a children’s charity based in central Manchester

Flexibility is vital. My 10 years in the third sector have shown me that no matter what your job is meant to be, you need to be a jack of all trades. In a typical day I do HR management, financial control, administration and fundraising. It is a job where you learn as you go, and before I began working at Wood Street I did not realise the many skills I would develop. I also wish I had known how much I would care about the people we help. It can be hard at times not to become emotionally involved.

Money worries stop you sleeping

Lizzie Gillett, global campaign director at the climate-change charity 10:10

I would have liked to know how much time you spend raising money and worrying about money. When working on funding for our climate-change documentary The Age of Stupid, we raised almost £1m through our crowd-funding model, so I was pretty confident about finding the money to run the 10:10 campaign. However, it’s been much, much harder than I ever imagined, and I’ve had many more sleepless nights over funding this year than last. I have heard that non-governmental organisations spend one-third of their time and resources raising money to keep their organisations going, which doesn’t surprise me.

The sector offers many rewards

Jasbir Rai, corporate services and finance director at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council

I stumbled into working in the third sector, and I wish I’d realised sooner how many opportunities and rewards it offers. Coming from the private sector, where I trained as an accountant, there was a perception that there was a lack of professionalism in the third sector and voluntary organisations. I quickly discovered how wrong this is. The sector employs many highly trained and motivational people from whom you can learn a lot.

Volunteering helps to land a job

Harpreet Jutila, marketing and fundraising manager at the National Memorial Arboretum

The competition for jobs is fierce. Fortunately, I was advised from the outset that experience is essential, so at 17 I volunteered for one day a week at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, working in various departments. This helped to demonstrate my dedication and provided me with invaluable experience to get into the sector.

Campaigns influence government

Beth Reid, policy manager at the National Autistic Society

Initially, I didn’t realise the influence that the third sector can have. When I worked for the Daycare Trust, our campaigning was crucial in achieving the government’s 10-year childcare strategy, leading to the Childcare Act 2006. And now at the National Autistic Society, our private member’s bill has just become the Autism Act 2009, the first law on a specific disability. In fact, last year, autism was second only to climate change for issues that had made it onto MPs’ agendas, which is not bad for a condition that relatively few people had heard of a few years ago.

Eclectic expertise

Caroline Ledger, marketing manager at Parkinson’s UK

I wish I’d known how quickly I would become knowledgeable in such an eclectic range of subjects, including drugs to treat Parkinson’s, UK immigration, paperweights and Pantone references. The ability to learn about new topics and to pick up specialist language has enabled me to move between sectors. I’m also now able to translate a lot of jargon and acronyms into plain English.

A unique selling point is vital

Karenate Invang-Songhnron, communications assistant graduate intern at the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust

I have discovered that it is hugely important for a charity to have a unique selling point: there are so many charities out there offering similar services. The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust is the only charity that works with world-class athletes to help mentor young people into sport, employment and training. Working here has been a real joy and the experience of seeing the positive changes in the young people has been second to none.

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