Careers in the Third Sector
The third sector, which includes charities, community organisations and voluntary bodies, offers a huge range of jobs and careers. Some of these are generic, including administration and management jobs. Others are very similar to work in other sectors. For example, third sector organisations provide a lot of services in the social care and healthcare sectors. They may therefore employ nurses, care assistants and social workers. Others, however, are specific to the third sector, including fundraising and campaigning work.
This page describes some of the jobs and careers available, and explains what skills are needed in each.
Understanding the Third Sector
The third sector is the part of the economy that is neither public sector nor private sector.
It therefore consists of non-governmental organisations (NGO's) and non-profit-making organisations. The sector includes charities, voluntary organisations, cooperatives and community groups. These groups have a lot of different functions in society. They may, for example, deliver essential services, such as providing nursing care or children’s services. They may also campaign for a cause or causes, or simply provide an umbrella for a community group to come together for a purpose such as sharing food.
In England and Wales, there are around 200,000 third sector organisations, with a combined income of over £48 million, and an estimated expenditure of around £46 million. Of these, 34% are considered to be ‘micro-organisations’, with incomes of under £10,000 per year (0.6% of total third sector income in the two countries). Just 5.2% of organisations are considered ‘big’, with incomes of over £1 million, but these organisations control 71.5% of the income in the sector.
The third sector in England and Wales employs around 1.1 million people, and is therefore similar in size to the construction industry. However, the sector’s employees are supplemented by a staggering 4.3 million regular volunteers across the region, equivalent to another 190,000 full-time employees.
Jobs in the Third Sector
There are three main types of jobs in the third sector. These are:
1. Jobs related to the internal management of these organisations
These include administrative work, project management, and human resource management. Like any other organisations, third sector bodies need management, especially when they grow larger. These are very much generic jobs. The types of tasks, and the skills needed to do these jobs, will be very similar to those in any other organisation, whether public sector or private sector.
You may also be interested to read our guest post on how to start a non-profit organisation.
2. Jobs related to the provision of client services or specific forms of fundraising
Charities and other third sector organisations that deliver services to clients may need people with several different skill sets. These skills are not specific to charities, and should be considered more ‘sector-specific’.
Charities that run care homes for older people may employ nurses and care assistants (and you can find out more about these careers in our page on Careers in Healthcare);
Charities that provide services for vulnerable young people may employ social workers and youth workers (and you can find out more in our page on Careers in Social Work and Youth Work);
Charities associated with the outdoors may employ landscape designers, conservationists and gardeners (and you can find out more about these careers in our page on Careers involving Animals, Farming and the Natural World).
A Career in a Sector—or a Type of Career?
Many of the jobs and careers in the third sector are also available in private sector and public sector organisations. For example, social workers may be employed by local government organisations or by charities who provide services to vulnerable people. Some care homes and children’s homes may be run by public sector, private sector or third sector organisations, who will therefore all employ nurses, youth workers, and care workers.
It is therefore fair to say that many people working in these jobs in the third sector have not specifically chosen a ‘third sector career’.
Instead, they chose that job—and then picked the employer that best met their values or offered what they wanted from a job. It is therefore entirely possible that they may move between sectors in the course of their working lives, or that they may stay within one sector.
Many charities also run shops as part of their fundraising. These are largely staffed by volunteers, but usually with a paid shop manager. You can find out more about the skills required by these shop managers in our page on Careers in Retail.
3. Jobs related to the nature of charity work
The final group of jobs are those that are specific to the nature of charity work. There are two in particular that stand out: fundraising and campaigning work.
Fundraisers may work in the organisation itself, seeking grants and donations from supporters, and organising fundraising drives. These people are employed directly by the charity, and often work full-time. Their skills include:
Good communication skills, and particularly good writing skills, for composing letters to potential supporters, sponsors and grant providers, and preparing grant applications;
An ability to accept criticism and rejection without taking it personally: essentially, resilience.
Good organisational skills to allow them to organise both grant applications and the work of enthusiastic but not necessarily highly skilled volunteers;
Strong self-motivation, because third sector organisations tend to work on tight budgets with limited staff, and there are few people to cheer you on except yourself; and
Good financial management skills to understand grant applications and budgets; and
Strong commercial awareness to enable working with businesses and other potential project sponsors.
Some fundraisers are employed to walk around cities and talk to people to persuade them to make donations, and particularly to set up direct debits to the charity. These people are often known as ‘chuggers’, portmanteau word for ‘charity muggers’, because of their reputation for using aggressive sales tactics.
Chuggers are not necessarily employed by the charity itself. Instead, they are often employed by third party organisations who have a contract with the charity to raise a certain amount of money via donations and direct debits.
Many fundraisers employed by charities have volunteered for the charity (or a related one) for some time before they seek employment. You are certainly more likely to be considered in a very competitive job market if you can show a commitment to the organisation or sector.
You may be interested in reading our guest post on the skills required by fundraisers.
The second area of work that is specific to third sector organisations is campaigning and lobbying.
Our page on Careers in Government and Politics explains that lobbyists are people who try to influence politicians to act on their behalf. They may be employed by professional lobbying firms, who will take money to lobby on other people’s behalf. However, they may also be employed directly by a campaigning charity to build relationships with politicians against the need for support in future. Charity officers may also build close relationships with officials working on particular policies or issues, and have considerable influence over the development of policies for their client groups.
Case study: Lobbying in action
When the 2004 Children Act was going through the UK Parliament, officers from campaigning charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) regularly met with ministers and officials from the lead government department.
The charity officers often raised questions about particular clauses of the Bill, to understand the purpose of these clauses. Both they and officials wanted to ensure that there were no unforeseen consequences. The aim of these meetings was to ensure that the Bill passed smoothly through Parliament—but also that any difficulties were resolved ahead of time, and did not disrupt the sector or make life more difficult for any client groups.
Campaigners and charity officers responsible for lobbying need:
The ability to build rapport rapidly with civil servants, ministers and other politicians;
Excellent analytical skills to analyse policies and identify potential issues;
Strong persuasion and influencing skills to get their point across, and persuade those in power of its merit; and
Strong writing skills, to prepare reports and letters to ministers or officials.
Making a Difference in the World
The key fact about working in the third sector is the feeling that you are making a difference in the world.
The lack of profit motivation means that these organisations are generally driven by the need to improve lives—and that often means considerable job satisfaction for those within the organisation. The flip side is that salaries are often fairly low, especially at lower levels of the organisation. However, at high levels of larger third sector organisations, the salaries can be comparable with private sector organisations.