By Jane Spillman

Published: 14 August 2017

As they develop and grow, charity organisations become increasingly sophisticated, and often operate, in principle, very much like commercial businesses.  Good governance and accountability are critical if these organisations are to properly help the people they exist to serve, so the integrity and capability of employees is clearly a fundamental part of this.  It follows, therefore, that the charity sector requires and deserves to employ the very best talent available, in order to help it achieve its objectives. 

What makes a successful charity employee?

If you are currently employed in the corporate world and are considering applying for a position in the charity environment, it may be worthwhile reflecting on the type of profile that often suits a position in a non-profit environment, and which may be more likely to help ensure success:

  • First and foremost a deep empathy with, and compassion for, the cause of the charity.  Often, people drawn to work in a medical research charity have close, personal experience of the particular condition or disease, and have developed a passionate desire to help in the search for treatments and/or cures.   Others have simply found that they are drawn to a specific cause and want to put their skills and talent to work, in order to help achieve the goals of the charity – this might be a scientist who is interested in a specific disease area focus.
  • Charity roles tend to suit people who are happy to roll up their sleeves and get involved, even those at a senior level.  This results in the development of beneficial relationships with the team and other stakeholders in the organisation, and which can only serve to enhance success.
  • The ability to persuade and influence are often important qualities for a career in the charity sector.  Potential employees will, in the first instance, need to convince management that they are sufficiently flexible and adaptable.  Not only will they need to demonstrate that they possess the technical skills required to undertake the role, but also that they understand the differences between industry and not-for-profits, e.g. income is generated through fundraising in a non-profit, but in a for-profit, revenue is generated through sales of a product or service.
  • As the charity management will likely be looking for authenticity, evidence of sustained volunteering in a relevant organisation can only be an advantage.  Experience of this nature will also help potential employees to understand whether this environment is one in which they truly wish to work.  Embedding themselves in this way, and by getting to know the culture of such organisations will help them come to a decision as to whether this is right for them.
  • Non-profit organisations are usually collaborative in culture. They need to be: working with volunteers and ‘customers’ (i.e. those living with the particular condition and their families) requires the ability to listen, in order to gain their support. 

If you are considering a move into the charity sector, it’s important to be aware of a number of factors that might determine the success or otherwise of such a move.  Not only should you think things through very carefully, but you should conduct proper due diligence, to ensure you make the right decision for yourself, your family and your potential new employer.

Financial consideration

Inevitably, in most cases, total remuneration is likely to be lower than that awarded in an equivalent role industry, even at senior/board level.  Many studies have shown, however, that money is often not the prime motivator when it comes to accepting a new role; certainly, the moral, ethical and social values that underpin a non-profit role are often worth considerably more than financial reward to those in the sector.  Those thinking of moving into a not-for-profit organisation do need to ensure, however, that their desired lifestyle, and those of their dependents, can be sustained by the remuneration package that is being offered.

Budgetary restrictions

Management level individuals in a for-profit organisation understand that financial resources come from within the company.  It is important to remember that in a charity, income generally comes mainly from donations and fund-raising, so pressure always exists to ensure that expenditure is kept to a minimum.  Working in an atmosphere of austerity requires creative thinking to save money at every possible opportunity, and a requirement to adhere strictly to budget.  Individuals who are able to deliver impressive results with limited resources are considered an asset.

Measurement of success

One of the biggest differences between industry and charity is in the way success is measured.  In industry, success is understood to be achieved when financial targets are met; in charities, success is impact or mission driven.  This is to ensure that every pound they invest in, for example, medical research, really counts.

Required effort

It may be that some people perceive that working for a charity may not require the same level of time and commitment that is usually expected in a for-profit environment, given that salaries cannot match those in industry.  This is a misconception …. the hard work and ‘going above and beyond’ attitude generally found in this sector reflects the dedication that is expected; for example, employees are often expected to support fundraising events which take place at weekends, so a degree of flexibility is required.

If you are seriously considering a transition from industry to charity, do your research, ask questions, and think about the implications – for those with the right skills, and with a determination to play a part in improving the lives of people with life-limiting conditions, a career in the non-profit sector can be extremely gratifying and rewarding.

Jane Spillman

Jane is an Executive Search Consultant at Horton International.  Her particular expertise lies in the research and management of assignments within the pharmaceutical, biotech and life sciences sector.  She has considerable experience working with large, multi-national pharmaceutical companies, as well as with small to medium-sized biotech businesses, and her client portfolio also includes a variety of not-for-profit organisations.  She works across a variety of functions including research and development (discovery, clinical development, regulatory), manufacturing, sales and technology.

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Horton International

Horton International Global Healthcare is a UK based, specialist Executive Search consultancy, focusing solely on pharmaceutical and Life Sciences organisations.  Founded in 1992 (as Ruston Poole International), the company has been active in the UK and European biotech arena since its inception, and has become one of Europe’s leading recruitment organisations.  We count top ten global pharmaceutical companies amongst our clients, as well as many other organisations in the bioscience sector.  We also have a portfolio of not-for-profit clients (including charities and government agencies), as well as strong relationships with the private equity and venture capital community.  We are able to source candidates globally through our presence in the UK and mainland Europe, as well as through our affiliates in North America and the Pacific Rim.

By Jane Spillman