How to get your first job in the voluntary sector

Given how tough the jobs market is right now, it is perhaps unsurprising that NCVO received hundreds of applications for two trainee positions recently. In the process of sifting applications and doing interviews, I met many great candidates, often looking for their first break into the voluntary sector. Almost everyone told us how hard it is to find paid, entry-level roles in the sector – so here are a few tips for anyone in this position.

Before you apply for roles

1. Think beyond the “household name” charities

When people first think about working in the voluntary sector, it’s often the big charities which spring to mind. But most voluntary organisations are smaller, focussed on their particular communities and keen to recruit great staff and volunteers.

2. Get to know the sector

Most charities will be glad to tell you a bit about what they do, so check out their websites or give them a quick call. This should be exploratory, getting ideas about the types of organisation you might apply to and the work they do.

Remember that many charities rely on volunteers or will have very busy staff, so don’t take up too much of their time with questions or send them your CV without doing your homework first – see below.

To get an overview, you might also like to look around our website and UK Civil Society almanac, read voluntary sector news websites like Third Sector and Civil Society, and you can check out individual charities on the Charity Commission or Guidestar websites.

When you apply for roles

3. Do your homework – what does this charity need?

If you’re applying to work for an organisation, do your homework first. You should know about what this organisations does, it’s aims and anything else you can find out. You should think about what type of staff the organisation needs to do its work and how this particular role fits in. This will give you the basis for a much more compelling application.

4. Write about the charity in your covering letter or application

Based on your research, you should demonstrate your understanding of the organisation’s needs in your application.

For example, you might be applying for an admin role, but should still demonstrate that you know about the organisation’s overall aims…

‘The ABC Charity already supports 220 local people to develop their skills, and aspires to reach 150 more people over the next year. The ABC Administrator must therefore support the organisation’s staff to work as efficiently as possible and have good systems in place to support expansion.’

5. Communicate what you have to offer, that will meet their needs

You can then go on to talk about your story and what you can contribute. Give examples of what you’ve done, to match what it is the charity needs from this role.

Beware a common pitfall: talking too much about your longer-term personal ambitions. While it’s great to know where you’re going in life, it can make employers nervous about your commitment to the role. For example, if you’re applying for an entry-level role, say in a charity’s fundraising team, but saying that your long-term plans are to do research abroad.

When you interview for roles

6. Be positive about the charity and what they do

One of the best ways to distinguish yourself from other candidates is to demonstrate real knowledge and enthusiasm for the charity’s work. It really shows when someone has done their homework and cares about supporting the charity, not just their own personal goals.

7. Use examples, not assertions

Another common pitfall to watch out for. Interviewers often ask questions like, ‘How would you manage your time?’ This can make it sound like you should answer with an assertion ‘I would develop a to-do list and…’

Whereas, it’s often better to give examples of what you’ve done before, as this will distinguish your answer from other candidates’ answers. For example, ‘I’ve managed my time effectively on previous projects, such as recently when I helped arrange a fundraising event at the local school. I developed a to-do list and…’

Using an example also gives you the opportunity to explain the result: ‘Because of all the planning that went into the event, it ran like clockwork on the day and the Headteacher thanked me personally.’

8. Follow-up

The jury is out on whether it’s a good idea to send a follow-up letter or email, after an interview. Some people think this is a good opportunity to restate your interest and key points. My own view is that writing afterwards won’t affect your chances of getting the job – this is decided in the interview – but that it is good manners to thank your interviewers for their time and consideration.

For more information, check out ‘Your future career’ and ‘How to’ pages on the KnowHowNonProfit website. If you want to get a head-start on learning about the voluntary sector and applying for jobs, then you could attend our Working for a Charity course.

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at the Big Lottery Fund and the Department for Education.

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