Switching to a career in the not-for-profit sector

Interested in working in the voluntary sector? The University of London International Programmes offers advice on making a career change
University of London graduate Ilona Otter at work in India
Considering a career change? Working in the not-for-profit sector can be challenging but rewarding
If you want to work in the developing world doing voluntary work, you need to have an open mind and a flexible mindset. What works in your home country won’t necessarily work in the new context

Do you sometimes get frustrated that your time spent at work is not on issues that really matter to you?  Are you considering working overseas to use your skills to improve the quality of other people’s lives? Working in the not-for-profit or charity sector, where your work will contribute to a cause that you are passionate about, might be an option for you.

The not-for-profit sector may not be the best paid, but it can offer you a greater sense of fulfilment and sense of purpose. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, in 2011 there were over 730,000 paid jobs in the voluntary sector in the UK, a 20% increase from 2008 and figure that has likely to have grown since.

However, there is a lot of competition for paid posts. If you're thinking of switching careers to the-not-for-profit or voluntary sector, here is some advice to consider:

Think about the skills you could contribute

Charities employ people in a wide range of roles – from frontline staff (these could be anything from counselors, engineers, to doctors and vets depending on the type of charity), to marketing and fundraising staff, to more supporting roles such as financial managers. Carefully consider your skillset and what you could offer to a charity. You also need to consider what you want out of the work – obviously, working with an aid agency in a developing country is a very different challenge from working at a charity in your home city.

Research the charity you want to join

If you’re switching to the charity sector to work in an area that inspires you, make sure that the values of the organisation align with what is important to you. Ensure that you understand the aims of any organisation before you apply for a job. If possible, chat to people already working at the organisation, or network with them online. This will also help you in the interview, as voluntary organisations, like any employer, want to know candidates really understand their mission and goals.

Laura Macfarlane in BangladeshLaura Macfarlane, a veterinarian who got a position in Bangladesh as an Australian Volunteer for International Development with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, offered the following advice:

“As for any prospective employee, it can be a good idea to do background research on the organisation you are planning to work for, including speaking to past or current staff to ensure that you share the organisation’s vision. In Australia, I had friends who had volunteered with the Australian Volunteers programme and spoken highly of it, and colleagues who had worked for the United Nations who had experiences that were unparalleled. Volunteering or working overseas for non-government or intergovernmental organisations was extremely rewarding for them, and has been for me.”

Consider voluntary work as a way into the sector

Voluntary experience is often a huge plus when moving into the charity sector. It’s even better if your voluntary work lines up with the sort of paid work you want to get. For example, volunteering to set up social media sites and assisting in fundraising for a small charity, may give you that extra edge over other candidates when applying for paid work at larger charities. If you want to work overseas in aid and development work, volunteering is even more important. Taking a voluntary role at an aid agency in a developing country will give you the crucial field experience that NGO recruiters look for when hiring for paid positions.

If you have management experience you could also volunteer to be a trustee of a charity and participate on its board of trustees. Many charities are looking for those with robust financial management and strategic skills to support their work. This will give you a good insight into the relevant operational and strategic issues.

Ilona Otter with local vets in IndiaIlona Otter, a veterinarian from Finland, worked as a volunteer with a small charity in India before getting a role with the Worldwide Veterinary Service, providing training to Indian vets and local charity workers in best practice techniques in animal welfare. She says:

“I had a long-term interest in development issues and had been thinking for some time about volunteering in a less developed country. I had worked in Finland for seven months when I first came to volunteer in India at the India Project for Animals and Nature. Over the next five years I continued to work 3-5 months a year in Finland – in between volunteering with IPAN in India. Since 2010, I am employed (paid) by Worldwide Veterinary Service (a UK-based charity) to run the International Training Center in the Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu.”

Be flexible and willing to adapt

Depending on your role and the type of organisation you join, you may be expected to work long hours in difficult conditions. This is especially true if you’re working in a developing country, where living conditions can be primitive and often somewhat dangerous. Even in charities based in large cities, you may be expected to cover a lot of different job roles due to funding shortages and work on weekends and nights.

Ilona offers the following advice:

“If you want to work in the developing world doing voluntary work, you need to have an open mind and a flexible mindset. What works in your home country won’t necessarily work in the new context."

Enhance your skillset with further study

Charities often need people with certain skills, so if you don’t have these, look at what you can do to develop them. Taking a Masters degree in a relevant subject may help convert your volunteer position in a charity into a paid position. Not only can it improve your future career prospects, it should also improve your ability to carry out your job by giving you a deeper understanding of relevant issues. If you’re in a remote area, you should consider distance learning courses as these are much more flexible than on-campus courses, and mean you do not need to take time out of your career to study.

Lucy O’Donoghue, an MSc Public Health student with the University of London International Programmes, who is also a student blogger, says:

“I made the decision to head back to graduate study actually largely thanks to the nudging of my supervisors during a recent consultancy with UNICEF – and after umming and aahing I finally settled on Public Health.”

MSc Public Health graduate, Dina Khan, currently for the World Health Organisation in Lebanon, credits her studies with helping her to set up a new programme to help Palestinian refugee girls.

“The module that I took on health promotion and practice helped me a lot. It gave me the idea that if I can somehow educate girls or provide them with some kind of training or education, then they can promote health in the community, and they could be the link between the healthcare providers and the community.”

Ilona, who studied an MSc Livestock Health and Production with the University of London says: “I wanted to keep up to date professionally while living in India, and was looking for a course that I could study by distance learning. The MSc gave me a lot of flexibility in relation to the time you could take to study, as I had to balance my job with bringing up two children.”