Careers Guide: What traits do charities look for?

The hide of a rhino, tenacity, the ability to add up and even 'circus skills': Alex Blyth discovers what it takes to succeed in the various parts of the charity world

Communications and marketing

Dan Beety, head of external communications at care and support charity Sue Ryder Care, looks for a number of different qualities in potential employees. "They must be able to understand the organisation and the diverse audiences we seek to influence and who influence us," he says. "They must also have the ability to see opportunities and the initiative and confidence to pursue them. Writing ability, creativity and flair, tenacity and graft, and energy and passion are all essential attributes."

Some charities look for communications and marketing people who have worked in the private sector. David Martin, director of strategy and marketing at the Papworth Trust, says: "We like the dynamism of people who have worked for businesses. We also expect candidates to have a range of circus skills: juggling, because they might be doing marketing one day, public relations the next; lion taming, because one or two of our managers can be a bit fierce; and tightrope walking, because they have to get the communications balance right. But we certainly don’t want to hear from any clowns."

Others, such as World Horse Welfare, want people who have all the professional skills, but are madly passionate about the cause. Jo White, director of campaigns and communications at the charity, says: "Anyone interested in working for World Horse Welfare must first and foremost be passionate about the cause, the charity and their role."


"A successful fundraiser has the hide of a rhino, the tenacity of a terrier and a sense of humour to rival Billy Connolly," says Cherida Plumb, head of development at the Council for British Archaeology. "This enables them to deal with the inevitable fact that we can’t all be completely successful all of the time. A good fundraiser will be a good communicator – I have heard funders say they have given money because an application was so well communicated.

"And finally, a fundraiser should be a good planner and a bit of a number jockey. I have seen major shortfalls in project funding crop up because a budget wasn’t compiled properly and numbers were added up wrongly. Personally, I think a head for figures and genius-level use of spreadsheets is a must, but I know a lot of fundraisers would disagree. Perhaps that’s why their numbers don’t add up."

Paul Stein, head of fundraising and communications at World Jewish Relief, adds that fundraisers need to be willing to get involved.

"When I was at Macmillan Cancer Support, I had to dress up as a six-foot giant mouse called Miles to promote a sponsored walk event," he says. "I really enjoyed the experience, despite all the kids pulling my tail."

Campaigns and policy

In campaigns and policy, the key attributes are a grasp of the political landscape and an ability to relate to people. Louise Meinke, campaigns and policy manager at the Consortium for Street Children, says: "You are not going to win anyone over if you do not connect with them. You achieve this through persistence, patience and an ability to present convincing arguments."

She continues: "You need to be able to translate the same message to different audiences, and often this is about expressing the human interest in a complex policy issue. Good research and writing abilities are very useful."

Public speaking is another important skill, she adds. "I would say the sooner you start in public speaking, the better. It’s not as intimidating as it might seem, and as a campaigner it is useful because it helps you get your points across to many people at the same time, so you can have a bigger and quicker impact."


Liz Page, director of people and learning at Portsmouth-based social care charity You, has a clear checklist for would-be finance staff. "First and foremost, they must be able to add up," she says. "They must recognise that not-for-profit does not equal a licence to spend. We need people who can be robust with managers who do not necessarily have a commercial background. They need good knowledge of accounting, management information and financial legislation. Finally, they need to remain optimistic, even when there is little cause to."

Genny Jones has worked in charity finance for more than 15 years in a number of different roles, ranging from trainer, payroll manager and treasurer to assessor, consultant and auditor. She believes communication skills are vital. "You must be able to explain accounting information in a simple but informative way to the management committee or board members who may not have accounting knowledge," she says. "You must remember that you’re not just a book-keeper, but part of a team that is working for the good of the organisation."

Chief executive

If you want the top job in a charity, the ability to make tough decisions is crucial, says Helen Joy, chief executive of Brunelcare, which provides care and housing for older people in south-west England. "I have recently closed two
residential homes that were no longer financially viable," she says. "This was extremely difficult because it meant more than 30 people lost their homes, and all the staff had to apply for other jobs in the organisation."

The job requires a rare mix of qualities. "Passion and inspiration are requisite, but not enough," says Duncan Verry, managing director of executive recruitment at HR consultancy Penna. "A successful chief executive must be able to set and deliver strategies, and produce operational excellence from limited resources. In small and medium-sized charities, the lead role can be lonely, so it is crucial that a charity keeps innovating and continues to raise awareness."

On his first day as chief executive of Demelza Children’s Hospice in 2003, Ted Gladdish realised very quickly that he needed to show compassion, humility and a sense of humour. "On the first day in the job, there was a knock at my door and I was informed that a child had died in the hospice that morning," he recalls. "I sat at my desk and wondered what I was doing here. I didn’t feel I had the skill set to deal with situations like that."

By day three, he had made a list of the skills he had gained over the years in the business world. "I made the decision that the charity was a simple animal," he says. "It was a business, with a bank account, balance sheet, debtors, creditors, a payroll and all the problems that come with employing staff. My new challenge was to apply all my skills to make a difference for the charity."


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