How to move from a commercial role to the third sector

Third Sector Promotion Harris Hill

Get tips on how to take the leap from the commercial to the third sector and understand the key differences of working culture, expectations and skills required.

Hayley Wilson, corporate partnerships specialist, Harris Hill

There are many transferable skills that can be equally applied to the third and commercial sector and charities welcome applicants from both. Candidates will be surprised at the calibre and quality of staff already working there and should be prepared to show a commitment to the causes they work for beyond the sentiment of ‘wanting to do something worthwhile.’

Third Sector Jobs talked to those in the charity sector and its specialist recruiters to find out how to land a job that offers a clear purpose and a supportive working environment.

How can you convince a third sector employer that you will be a good fit despite not having worked in a charity before?

Do your research: Rebecca Minter is head of talent acquisition at Cancer Research UK. She herself moved from a commercial role as a resourcing manager for drinks outfit, Britvic, to the charity, and says that candidates looking to make a similar move need to be aware that first impressions do count.

"When we are recruiting for roles at Cancer Research UK we do put a lot of time into reading covering letters and application answers, so if you do a great job of these, that will go a long way."

Part of this is doing your research and it’s a point that Hayley Wilson, corporate partnerships specialist at Harris Hill, the charity recruitment specialist, agrees with: "Lots of people come to us wanting do something more meaningful but haven’t thought beyond ‘something for a charity’ in terms of an actual role."

Wilson adds: "Being a nice person and wanting to help is great, but that’s true of all the other applicants too, plus they have charity experience – so why you?"

Wilson recommends getting involved with charities with events and corporate social responsibility projects. She adds: "If you can show you’ve been working for a cause over a period of time – so it’s not just a fleeting interest – you’ll have a much better chance."

Stick to your skill set: Minter encourages candidates to play to their strengths. She herself has been in the recruitment space for some time working as a recruitment manager at Kerry Foods before joining Britvic in their recruitment team in 2012. "Cancer Research UK approached me because of my skill set so whilst I hadn’t worked in the third sector before my previous experience meant that there wasn’t a hill to climb in terms of being able to do the job."

Wilson says that HR, finance and digital roles transfer relatively well because the same qualifications and skills apply in either sector: "Fundraising is probably the trickiest area to break into as there’s no direct commercial equivalent, but it’s all about building and maintaining relationships, engaging with supporters and attracting more to generate revenue, so candidates with a sale, business development or relationship management background are typically the ones that find it easiest, if they can accept the likely pay cut."

Understand how success is measured: Commercial organisations are clear that success is measured by profits. Mark Henderson, head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, says criteria is not as clear in the third sector.

"Advancing the business proposition is not always the way success is measured in the third sector." Those that work for a charity or voluntary sector need to be comfortable with the values and success criteria that they are going to be evaluated against. This is particularly true for charities where fundraising is not required, including the Wellcome Trust whose foundation is based on an endowment.

This can also impact on getting support for change initiatives. Henderson, who was previously the science editor for the Times newspaper, says sensitivity is required: "People in charities have great motivation to do good so when you ask them to do differently it can feel like a challenge to their personal integrity. This is very different to the commercial sector."

Are there common mistakes that candidates make when trying to get a job in the third sector that can be easily resolved?

Many candidates wrongly assume that working in the charity sector will be easier but the truth is most have become more commercial and do expect high standards of work and input. Wilson says: "You’ll probably work slightly shorter hours but it’s not just cups of tea and chatting. Charity resources tend to be stretched to the limit so there’s little space for slacking. Whatever the role you’ll have a lot to do and limited help to do it, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and really work hard."

Budgets can be an issue, however, Henderson says that this can be a good thing as the result is greater creativity: "There often isn’t the option to bring in a creative agency as they do in the commercial sector, so you need to be able to improvise."

Candidates shouldn’t assume that the third sector is crying out for those that have worked in the commercial sector either. Wilson says: "It’s not the case, and however brilliant you are in your current role, you’ll have a lot to learn. Recognising this will go down well with charities; but giving the impression you’re doing them a favour by gracing them with your superior skills will definitely not."

Minter agrees and says: "It has surprised me the calibre of people in the third sector, they are some of the brightest I know."

What challenges should someone expect when making the transition?

Wilson says that the biggest challenge is likely to be salary: "Be prepared for a pay cut, and where jobs are advertised with a salary range, don’t assume that being a well-qualified commercial candidate automatically puts you at the upper end; you’d normally need extensive, relevant and recent charity experience."

What are the key differences between the sectors that people should be aware of?

One of the pay offs for earnings is an improved working culture. Wilson says: "You won’t earn as much, but you’ll almost certainly find a better work/life balance, and charities are often more open to things like flexible working, in lieu of higher pay."

Minter says that the approachability of senior leaders has been noticeable. "Culturally I have found that there isn’t a hierarchy in place and it is easier to engage with senior leaders which is great." She adds: "I feel so much better because it’s just not political in the charity sector and everyone is friendlier. That whole layer of stress that I felt in the commercial sector has been removed."

Wilson agrees with this sentiment: "For one thing it’s much smaller so lots of people know each other, and while people naturally want to raise maximum funds for their own cause, they’re working for common goals – for example cancer charities won’t see each other as competitors; more likely they’ll support each other to try and raise more."

Minter and Henderson both agree that the move has been the best thing they have done and feeling aligned with the charities they work for is their key motivator. If you want to join the sector, then start your search with Harris Hill on Third Sector Jobs.


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