Umbrella bodies and infrastructure organisations in the voluntary sector offer advice and support to charities on a wide range of matters such as advocacy, fundraising, management and service delivery. Some work with charities in a specific cause area, others focus on organisations in a particular region.
Because of their often diverse membership, it is essential for their staff to have a broad understanding of the sector. "You need to be knowledgeable in a range of different areas and have a good understanding of organisational and political issues," says Brian Carr, chief executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council.
As well as running the Birmingham Volunteer Centre, BVSC helps local charities to find volunteers and advises them on how they can become more influential in advocacy and strategic partnerships. "You need to take an empowering and enabling approach to the sector, champion the interests of the sector and understand what organisations want to achieve," says Carr.
Joni Hillman, a donor advocacy officer at Bond, the umbrella body for international development non-governmental organisations, agrees. "Working for an umbrella body means thinking about the sector as a whole, as well as the needs and interests of individual organisations, or groups of organisations," she says. "So you constantly have to look at issues from multiple perspectives, rather than just taking into account the interests of one organisation."
Because of this, employees of umbrella organisations need good influencing skills. "An ability to balance the interests of an incredibly diverse number of stakeholders, to see things from everyone’s point of view and work around that
accordingly is very important," says Hillman. "Facilitation and listening are key skills, as is being able to communicate all things to all people."
Working for such organisations can be rewarding, according to Hillman. "To be able to look out on the whole sector and see how it changes and adapts over time is always really interesting," she says. "Seeing the diversity of civil society and the extent of its achievements can be really inspiring."
Another advantage is that many umbrella organisations offer more comprehensive and transferable training than individual charities. Kathy Faulks, a small groups development worker at Voluntary Action Leeds, says that infrastructure organisations need to set an example of good practice because charities look to them for guidance. "They are supportive in terms of the training and development of staff," she says. "They are often bigger than the charities they help, so they can afford to set an example."
However, the broad approach to the sector does have its downsides. People who enjoy seeing the results of their work might find the more hands-off approach of umbrella bodies less rewarding, particularly in areas such as policy and advocacy, where it can take a long time for changes to take effect.
"In front-line organisations you work with the public, with people who need your service," says Pauline Kimantas, local commissioning and procurement unit manager at Navca, the umbrella body for local community groups. "In an umbrella organisation, your clients are other organisations. At a charity, when someone walks through the door and they’re upset, you give them a cup of tea, sit down and talk to them. It’s more direct. When you’re working behind the scenes, the process is slower and often you don’t get thanked."
According to Carr, it is important to have experience working for charities before applying for a job at an umbrella body. "You can move between the two," he says. "I would encourage that. People from charities bring a real understanding of charities and what they’re going through. Don’t think of infrastructure organisations as a separate career path – you can do both."
If you want to work for an umbrella body, it can be useful to specialise in a transferable skill such as management or research. Kimantas did an MA in sociological research at the University of Sheffield before joining Navca. "You tend to find people with those skills in umbrella organisations, rather than front-line organisations," she says.But the best thing to do is volunteering – and lots of it. "Volunteer at an umbrella body, become a trustee or join a committee," says Kimantas. "It can be hard to see what an umbrella organisation does – volunteering will give you a good idea of what’s involved."