How to start your career in the third sector

man and woman volunteering, working in the third sector

Article provided by Michelle Vickers, CEO, The Head & Neck Cancer Foundation (HNCF)

We spend so much of our lives at work, so doing a job where I can spend this time to make a real difference is amazing – I love it!

In previous roles outside of the sector, I often asked myself, “what is the point? If I stop what I am doing, what will happen? Am I having an impact?” This is something that I no longer have to ask myself.

The best thing about working for a charity is the overwhelming sense of making a real difference. There is a real sense of fulfilment. In a charity, the mission is always to do good by others, and generally, those you work with will have an ethical and moral code similar to yours. A good charity will always prioritise its ethics over profit. Working in the charity sector is a brilliant way to give back and make a difference.

Applying for a role within a charity is unlike other sectors. Most charities want to see how your skills, experience and knowledge relate to their needs. Whilst you need to be specific and tailor your application to the job specification, also make it clear that you are flexible and willing to take on other roles if required. I am always looking for how an individual might add value and I like to see evidence of that, so give examples.

Securing a job in the third sector is not as easy as you might think. It is important to persevere and learn from every interview. My top tip for interviews is, to be honest, do not exaggerate or make things up. Instead, talk about your experience which might be comparable to what the organisation is looking for. A combination of passion, perseverance and a can-do attitude goes a long way, especially in smaller charities where the budgets are tight. You will be expected to throw your hat into the ring for a variety of tasks.

I think lots of people want to work for a charity but I’m not sure that wanting is enough. In my experience, you must have a cause that you are really passionate about. So, do your research and find the right charity for you.

A great way to get into the charity sector is volunteering and it isn’t always what you think.  Now more than ever charities are looking for volunteers with specific skill sets such as IT, event planning, fundraising and marketing. You do not always have to make a massive commitment. Sometimes volunteers may only be required for a specific project or maybe just once a month so don’t let the thought of overcommitting put you off.

Giving your time to a charity provides you with great insight into an organisation. It also exposes you to new experiences that you otherwise might not have. If you apply for a permanent position, being able to demonstrate commitment and passion for charity work is invaluable. I would rather employ someone who has practical experience and skills rather than theoretical knowledge.

The third sector is not always an easy industry to be in. Funding streams dry up and making change happen can be a real uphill struggle, so passion alone is not enough. You must have evidence-based solutions, believe in your mission and know that you are making a difference.

Be confident, be fearless and never undersell yourself. Enjoy it when others underestimate you because you know what’s coming next.

Throughout my career in the charity sector, I’ve always benefited from the kindness, encouragement, advice and solidarity of more senior women. I believe we have a responsibility to do the same for younger colleagues and potential colleagues. Sharing our knowledge and experience is vital in encouraging more women into this sector.

Michelle VickersAbout the author

Michelle has dedicated her life to doing good and helping others. She has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over 20 years. In late 2017 she became the Chief Executive Officer of HNCF where she now remains. Michelle currently runs the day-to-day operations of HNCF, a charity dedicated to reducing the aesthetical impacts of head and neck cancer surgeries as well as improving surgical outcomes for patients by supporting and providing ground-breaking new technologies.


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