How to spot your skills gaps and retrain in the third sector

Third Sector Promotion Cancer Research UK

Third Sector Jobs spoke to leading charities, recruiters and training providers for top tips to help you identify and close your skills gaps.

Sarah Jepson-Jones, head of talent & leadership development, Cancer Research UK
Sarah Jepson-Jones, head of talent & leadership development, Cancer Research UK

Charities play a vital role in society and the people at their helm are crucial to their success, therefore having the right skills to achieve the goals of the cause is paramount. If you are able to identify your own development pathways and are willing to take ownership over your own learning, you are likely to be well supported in the third sector, as it’s typically an environment where spotting weaknesses is a strength.

The first thing to note is the difference between training and development. Training relates to skills gaps which are often technical and ‘quick fixes’ such as help with how to run a budget or turn your hand to manipulating a spreadsheet. Often these easily identifiable skills gaps can be quickly rectified with appropriate training. Development, however, is a very different being and as well as skills it includes behaviour and knowledge. Changes in these areas take time and personal investment.

What methods can you use to identify your own strengths and weaknesses and spot your skills gaps?

360 feedback: "Asking others remains the best way to get feedback", says Sarah Jepson-Jones, head of talent and leadership development at Cancer Research UK. She emphasises that asking for real honesty is the best to start: "Ask your peers, direct reports and manager to rate you on key skills you feel you need to improve on or simply ask for ‘what you do best’, ‘what you could improve’ and ‘what they most value from you’."

Self-reflection: Louise Drake, director of programmes and leadership innovation at Clore Social Leadership, an organisation that develops leaders with a social purpose, says she has spent much time on developing options that have a ‘low or no cost’: "We encourage leaders to take time out to reflect on where they are going and how they are getting there." says Drake.

It’s a notion that Mark Henderson, head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, agrees with: "Being honest with yourself is the best way of developing. You shouldn’t fear weakness, it is actually a sign of strength to want to get better and if you don’t identify your own weaknesses you don’t have a chance."

Career lifeline: Jepson-Jones suggests considering a career lifeline for a visual representation of your career to give you an insight into when you’re at your best and when you’re not: "Jot on a piece of paper the highs and lows of your career to date as a graph. Then ask yourself what made them highs/lows and what skills you displayed in each."

Personality preference: Understanding your own preferences is crucial for those that truly wish to develop. Drake says: "There is a real difference between preference and ability." Too often the two get muddled up and when an employee fails to move forward in their career they often fail to see it is not to do with a lack of ability but more to do with their own personal and innate preferences either to work for example, in an unstructured way, which might be at odds with the way the charity or voluntary organisation operates.

There are many tests on the market aimed at profiling personalities. Sometimes referred to as psychometric testing or psychological profiling – it is a means of measuring an individual’s personality in a situation. In this way it offers a great indication of how an employee behaves as opposed to what their ability or intelligence indicates that they can achieve.

Online assessment tools: There is a wealth of online assessment tools you can use to assess your strengths and areas for development. Jepson-Jones suggests googling ‘online strengths assessments’ which she acknowledges are "not as fully robust as paying for a coach to do a formal assessment but can give you a great mini insight". She also recommends the Digital Marketing Institute’s free online test to assess your digital skills.

Looking for a charity job? Browse the latest vacancies at Cancer Research UK on Third Sector Jobs, the specialist charity job board

What skills are becoming increasingly important that third sector professionals tend to lack?

Drake says the skills that are required in the third sector can relate to the size of the charity. Larger charities, for example, might require more specialist roles as opposed to more generalist skills needed in smaller ones, whereas good leadership and management skills are important no matter the size of the charity.

"What the third sector is really good at, is being agile and responsive because situations and external conditions are always changing so anyone working for a charity must be able to work in that kind of changing environment," she adds.

Numerical confidence and commercial decision making: These are gaps Cancer Research UK is seeing. As Jepson-Jones explains: "People may think that if you’re working for a charity you don’t need to think about the costs/risks versus benefits and financial parameters, but actually these are increasingly vital in a world where funds are hard to raise and proving value for money is critical."

Digital engagement: Much has been made of the need for more investment in digital skills. "Charities have been investing a lot in their digital offerings, making it easier to donate online and engage supporters through social media, but they don’t always have the right skills unless they look outside the sector," comments Hayley Wilson, corporate partnerships specialist at charity recruitment specialist, Harris Hill.

"The ability to use and understand the power of social media and digital engagement tools is critical for people working to engage fundraisers, influence policy and connect with stakeholders internally and externally. It also makes it easier to get your own job done", asserts Jepson-Jones.

In May of this year, Dawn Austwick, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, told Third Sector’s Fundraising Conference that the sector has been 'quite late to the party' and should get more skilled. Last year the Charity Commission for England and Wales also reported that trustees reported a lack of digital skills. Drake adds: "Development of digital skills is a key third sector challenge, but also one faced by most sectors."

Added to this is the competition for those with outstanding digital skills. Henderson says: "Google struggles to get the right people so imagine what it is like for a charity, yet there are a lot of charities that are doing well and using social media to their advantage."

Understanding interconnections and programmes of activity: The third sector is becoming increasingly complex with change happening at multiple levels to respond to changes in legislation, public opinion and technology. And teams are having to work more closely together to make things happen at all levels. "The ability to look for how pieces of work interconnect, collaborate to achieve outcomes and not see projects in isolation is a key skill that is needed more and more", says Jepson-Jones.

Personal resilience and adaptability: As the not-for-profit world becomes more complex, Jepson-Jones emphasises the importance of resilience: "You need to be able to flex what you are doing, respond to new demands and be able to deal with change without ever losing focus on the cause that really matters to your charity".

How can third sector employees retrain to close their skills gaps?

The Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) has been at the forefront of a research-based, time-tested guideline for developing managers which suggests you need to have three types of experiences, using a 70-20-10 ratio: challenging assignments (70%), developmental relationships (20%) and coursework or training (10%).

Learn from experience: According to the CCL, the underlying assumption is that leadership is learned: "We believe that today, even more than before, a manager’s ability and willingness to learn from experience is the foundation for leading with impact."

The learning happens when leaders take time out to reflect upon it, says Drake. Talking is very important too, she says: "Getting honest feedback is crucial but people can only give it if you yourself understand what you want to achieve."

Drake emphasises the point that development is very much life-long and will only work if the candidate is invested themselves. "It needs to be constantly practised because the context is always changing. You might have a new team member, changes to fundraising or alterations in the external environment. Every time this happens you need to evaluate your personal preferences and your development goals."

Pay attention to financial information and data: Reading annual reports and making sense of them can help make you more commercially-savvy. Jepson-Jones advises: "Seek out opportunities to manage budgets and develop business cases grounded in financial data." You can also practise doing online numerical tests.

Keep abreast of digital technology: Jepson-Jones urges third sector professionals to attend conferences around the future of digital technology and keep abreast of changes in this area. "If you are a techno-phobe seek to embrace it as much as you can", she adds. "You can access online training to familiarise yourself with pretty much everything that is tech related these days!"

Programme management training: This is something Jepson-Jones says is worth considering but with the proviso that you "stop and think about how the work you are doing interconnects". She advises that you draw a stakeholder map and look for interdependencies and adds: "Spend time shadowing others in your workplace or in your stakeholders’ places of work to get a greater understanding of what they are thinking and doing. This really is a skill where practise is more important than ‘learning’."

Mindfulness and personal resilience training: There is a lot out there! "The School of Life is a great resource but there are many in the marketplace", says Jepson-Jones.

Find a coach / mentor: If your organisation has a coaching or mentoring scheme then taking advantage of this can provide you with a lot of insight and development. If you are female, Jepson-Jones recommends considering the Aspire Foundation which offers free access to a global pool of mentors for virtual sessions.

If you are willing to prioritise your own learning and take responsibility for it, the rewards can be high. It’s not a linear journey so if you wish to retrain in the third sector you should be aware that it is not always straightforward. Understanding yourself and your own preferences is a great starting point.


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