Graduate training: Building bridges from university to charity

There is little clear guidance for students who want careers in the sector, but some universities are starting to fill the gap, as Annette Rawstrone finds out

Working in the charity sector is a popular career ambition for students. But there is no set pathway for graduates to follow, so more universities are stepping in to help students to get the skills they will need.

Lancaster University, for example, has recently created the role of NGO in residence to strengthen links between higher education and the third sector. Lisa Atkinson, fundraising officer and volunteer coordinator at the international child rights charity Safe Child Africa, has taken on the role for a pilot year and developed a workshop for students to give them an insight into the third sector.

"When I was a student, I felt I was being pushed to go on corporate graduate schemes, even though I said I wanted to work in the third sector," says Atkinson. "So now I tell students that any job in the corporate sector can also be done in the third sector, but with more passion. I aim to open their eyes to the range of different careers that exist in the voluntary sector."

She advises students to capitalise on their time at university by building as many skills as they can, and she helps those interested in entering the sector to seek out contacts and make their CVs more attractive to charities. "Passion is great, but they also need real transferable skills," she says.

Lancaster University is also working with charities in the north west to provide internships for students. During last year the university spent £20,000 from the Higher Education Innovation Fund to work with 13 charities and this year plans to have more placements. Interns receive the national minimum wage and a travel bursary.

Kate Dunbavan, the university's placement officer, says: "Third sector organisations are popular among the type of students found in the faculties of arts, social sciences and humanities. But a lot of the students I speak to cannot afford to volunteer for extended periods, and many organisations can't afford to pay for internships."

Learning agreement

Each placement is different: students are recruited to meet specific needs in each organisation and a learning agreement is drawn up to ensure that each student gains the required skills. The university will fund up to 140 hours, which works out at about one month of full-time working, but hours can be flexible to fit with the needs of students and organisations.

Similar schemes are run by the University of Leeds and the University of Essex. Essex organises paid internships for students and recent graduates in local charities, including the charity for torture survivors, the Redress Trust, and Vibrance, which works with disabled people. The university has a small budget for distribution to not-for-profit organisations if they cannot afford to pay interns. Susan Stedman, employment services manager, says: "If they need to run a small project, but can't afford a permanent member of staff, internship is the ideal solution. The organisation gets the project done and the student gains valuable experience – it is win-win.

"We don't accept unpaid internships because students are providing a valuable service and many can't afford to work for free." Stedman has also started to approach staff at local charities to provide mentoring to students who are interested in working in the sector.

The University of Exeter has recently launched its Aspirational Educators project, in partnership with the British Red Cross. This project has been set up to help students gain practical teaching experience and an insight into working for a charity by delivering humanitarian education in schools and the community.

Networking opportunities

Staff at the charity run three sessions to train students in humanitarian issues and teaching techniques – how to engage learners, how to maintain professionalism and how to manage behaviour.

The students then go on to deliver three sessions on humanitarian issues: one at a secondary school near the university's campus in Penryn, Cornwall, another with a local community group and a third at a public event that is being planned for June. One aim of the project is to give the students experience of managing events, teamwork, creativity and teaching. Another is to provide them with networking opportunities with people who work for charities.

The eight students in the pilot year, which is costing the university about £1,500, will also gain experience in campaigning and fundraising as they engage the public in the charity's work. Antonia Coppen, curriculum and work- related officer at the university, says: "It is important that students have experiential learning so they can develop skills and get an insight into what it is like to work in the field."

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