Careers Guide: The job or the cause?

People who work in the voluntary sector often have to move to a charity in a different cause area in order to develop their careers. Vivienne Riddoch talks to people who've done it

You work for a fantastic charity, but you’re ready for the next move – and it’s in a field entirely new to you. What happens when you decide to take that giant leap across the third sector? How do you get to grips with a new subject area – and can you really convince a potential employer that you’re committed to their cause?

In certain kinds of jobs – including fundraising, communications and IT – moving across causes is not unusual.

"You can only go so far with one organisation," says Carrick Allison, director of professional development at the Institute of Fundraising. "There does come a time when you need to think about making a change because you want to develop your skills, knowledge and competence."

Elaine Smethurst, manager of the NCVO’s Working For A Charity project, points out that, in a sector dominated by small and medium-sized organisations, moving on is often the only way of moving up. "An organisation might be too small to have room for a fundraiser, for example, to take on increased responsibilities," she says.

Shifting causes is not always about career progression, however. For Laura Luxton, communications manager at education charity ContinYou, staying fresh is the key. "I’ve been in the business for so long now that it’s really important it’s a cause that inspires me," says Luxton, who has previously worked for disability, children’s and cancer charities.

So how do you persuade an interview panel that you are the ideal candidate? You don’t necessarily need to be an expert in the field to be the right person for the job, says Paul Amadi, group director of fundraising at sight-loss charity the RNIB and chair of the Institute of Fundraising. "What people appreciate is the enthusiasm and the freshness of thinking that you’re able to bring when you come from outside the immediate cause."

When Lucy Macnamara moved from Amnesty International UK to a large cancer charity, her lack of knowledge of the area was less important than the skills she brought with her. "The interviewers were more interested in having someone with good management and relationship-building skills," she says.

Cultural awareness

Even more important than understanding the cause is knowing the organisation, according to Michael Newsome, who worked for Cafod, Sense and Farm-Africa before becoming assistant director of fundraising at Action For Children. "You’ve got to know their strengths, difficulties and culture and decide if you want to be part of that," he says. "If you don’t, it’s going to shine through."

Interviewers may still have reservations, though. When Keith Wimbles was interviewed for his current post as chief executive of Scottish charity Voluntary Action Fund, the trustees needed some convincing about his experience in developing and bursing grants and development programmes. "They were probably a little bit wary," he says. "How much grants experience did I have? Did I really know what the issues were?"

Likewise, project coordinator Libi Hutchin felt she needed to sell herself to the Brightside Trust – an e-mentoring
organisation for disadvantaged young people. She had previously worked for a charity that campaigns to stop violence against women and children. "They cared a lot about whether I could engage with the cause," she says. "It was a deal-breaker."

If conviction is missing, can you still get by? Not in Esther Freeman’s lengthy and diverse experience. She is now media
manager at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, and she says that when she has been in a job where she hasn’t engaged with the cause, she’s soon moved on.

"When you’re selling stories to the media, you have to feel quite passionate," she says. "In some jobs I haven’t
particularly agreed with what the charity was doing. Then it becomes really quite difficult."

Equally, too much passion can get in the way of being an effective worker, says Smethurst. "You could believe so strongly in a cause that you might not be able to distance yourself sufficiently to make the right decisions professionally," he says. "The perfect balance is somebody who’s got the transferable skills and has a very strong empathy with the cause."

Even the most unlikely partnerships can prove fruitful, such as Luxton’s time with the Salvation Army. She is not a Christian and thinks that her absence of faith may have been an advantage. "I could translate the messages they wanted to get across to the ordinary reader without alienating them. It was probably one of my most enjoyable jobs."

Maintaining motivation is bound to be harder if you are new to a field. Amadi urges new recruits to immerse themselves in the cause, talk to colleagues in different departments and, if possible, "engage with the people that your organisation is
working for". Newsome, meanwhile, says that keeping in mind a story or case study relating to the cause "helps you through all those moments when you’re trying to find your way".

Ultimately, taking the plunge can be deeply rewarding. Wimbles’ current post has brought him full circle, back to his first love – working with grass-roots organisations – while at the same time developing his career. "I’ve gone into a chief executive’s position from a senior manager’s, so I’ve moved forward professionally," he says. "I’ve been incredibly fortunate."


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