As Christmas approaches, working in an office next to Sheffield's glitzy Meadowhall Shopping Centre could be rather distracting. But Julie Wilkes, the new chief executive of Skills – Third Sector, has plenty to focus her mind on.
She not only has to establish the government-funded sector skills body, which aims to address skills gaps and shortages among charities, but also has to find a way of securing her organisation's long-term future.
The Office of the Third Sector and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which has since been merged into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, last year pledged £2.5m to set up Skills – Third Sector. Slow progress since then means that Wilkes, who was previously chief executive of Wakefield Council for Voluntary Service, has just 16 months before the original funding expires in April 2011.
Now isn't the easiest time to secure more revenue. "Clearly, we've got to put together an income generation strategy," she says. "The only way we are going to be secure is by establishing a really significant role for ourselves with government and other agencies."
So why is the skills body, which has been registered as charity, necessary? "A lot of the learning that goes on in the third sector is informal," says Wilkes. "It can be very high quality, flexible and useful to employers, but the fact that it isn't recognised can be a barrier to third sector staff developing."
The organisation has been developing national occupational standards for fundraising, volunteer managers and trustees. The standards describe what people need to know and do in order to do their jobs.
Wilkes says developing the standards and getting them recognised by the sector skills councils will make third sector qualifications more credible and transferable to other sectors.
Skills – Third Sector, which has six staff, will also be the focal point for "all of the knowledge, access and influence on skills and workforce development" relating to the third sector, says Wilkes, who lives in Leeds.
Another of the organisation's tasks, she says, is to "work with third sector employers to impress on them the importance of developing their staff".
Wilkes, whose voluntary sector experience also includes a spell as coordinator of strategic performance at children's charity Barnardo's, has experience of skills development in social care. She describes her new role as her "dream job" because it enables her to combine her passion for skills and the third sector.
She is confident that, despite the harsh funding environment, it will be a long-lasting appointment. "We don't under-estimate the challenge," she said. "Everyone is aware that there are going to be public sector cuts across the board. Nevertheless, the third sector is increasingly being seen as a solution."