Working for a small charity

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
February, 2016

There are thousands of small charities in the UK, representing and promoting a wide variety of important causes

Small charities comprise 97% of the overall charity and voluntary work sector, meaning that graduates working in this area are very likely to be employed by such an organisation. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of working for a small charity, and some expert tips on how to stand out to third-sector employers.

Advantages of working for a small charity

Perhaps the biggest difference compared with working for a larger charity is the broader level of involvement that employees of smaller organisations enjoy. You'll be expected to perform a greater number of different tasks. Getting stuck in to diverse areas of work can greatly boost your CV and broaden your career horizons, but there are other more poignant advantages as well.

Alex Hayes is head of projects and fund development at the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI), a charity that provides free support and training to small third-sector organisations. 'Working for a small charity gives a much greater sense of satisfaction that you're making a real impact,' he explains. Alex highlights one graduate colleague who says she 'loves the great learning experience' of taking on numerous tasks like organising events, writing funding applications and managing social media accounts.

This approach means that employees can quickly gain first-hand experience of their work - something that you wouldn't necessarily be able to access at a larger organisation. Victoria Burrows is chief executive of Hand on Heart, an award-winning small charity that helps to fund defibrillators for schools and raise youngsters' awareness of sudden cardiac arrest. She argues that assuming a variety of tasks and projects on the frontline allows employees to see that they're making a huge difference. This gives them the opportunity to forge a close connection to the organisation's grassroots.

'There's immense satisfaction in knowing that you've helped someone,' she adds. 'Things are more personable than at a larger charity. You work as a close team, and have to be able to do a bit of everything as there usually aren't many of you on hand.'

Disadvantages of working for a small charity

The varied workload isn't a positive for everyone, however. While many graduates will love this aspect of working for a small charity, others may dislike the distinct lack of focus. You may also have to perform tasks that you don't particularly enjoy.

'You may feel like you have a lot of responsibility but in a less structured environment,' cautions Aidan Warner, senior external relations officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). 'Some people will really enjoy it; others may find it quite difficult.'

Employment in the charity and voluntary work sector can be challenging at the best of times. Working for a small charity is particularly demanding - regardless of how much you love the job. Funds are usually limited, with budgets often extremely tight. 'You have to be resourceful,' says Alex. 'But again, this enables people to be both more resilient and creative.'

Improving your employability

First and foremost, your enjoyment of the charity sector is largely dependent on the cause that you're supporting, so it must be one that you're passionate about. Because of this - and the fact that many employers are as interested in your extra-curricular activities as your academic achievements - it's vital that you undertake voluntary work before considering a job application. 'This will give you some experience and understanding of how charities operate,' explains Victoria.

You can gain experience by volunteering for a local charity or, if you're still a student, becoming involved in one of your university's charitable societies. Aidan suggests that you look for a role that matches your interests and undertake different responsibilities if you can, as graduate employers value a good all-rounder.

'Charities want to take on people who can demonstrate initiative and good judgment,' he says. 'Your volunteering experiences while at university will be really helpful in showing that you can make a strong contribution.'

The limited financial resources available to small charities mean that organisations rely on the support of businesses and volunteers. It's therefore important that you can build strong relationships. 'There's a lot of competition from other charities for funding, so you must be creative,' advises Victoria.