Most people in the voluntary sector expect to move between different organisations as their careers progress. They usually expect, too, to move between different roles – and quite possibly to develop and use new skills. But how do you actually make that move, when the job you’d like next just isn’t being advertised; or it is advertised, but you don’t have the skills for it?
Whether you would like to progress by getting a promotion, by moving to a more senior job in a different organisation or by changing direction completely, it’s well worth thinking about how to build up the relevant skills and experience.
Unless you have an unusually supportive manager, the decision is up to you. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that most organisations expect employees to take responsibility for their careers and recommends talking to as wide a range of people as possible about your career, your skills and your options.
“Your boss is someone you can talk to about your career more formally,” says CIPD spokeswoman Emma Price. “Colleagues and friends are good at seeing the world of work from your perspective. Your HR or training department should have a broad overview of the work and development opportunities that are available – and they may also be the gatekeepers to events such as career workshops.”
There is also the vast area of formal training. Given the pressure of most jobs, it is tempting to look exclusively at distance or online training, but Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, feels that this can deprive you of some major advantages that come with going to training events.
“One of the things we say is ‘you will get as much, if not more, from listening to each other as you will from the training itself’,” she says. “You’ll have at least some technical expertise already, but other people have different ideas and approaches. And hearing you’re not the only person who has difficulty with something is very confidence boosting – in a way that has nothing to do with the actual topic in question.”
One obvious area for training is management; a number of bodies, including City University and the Open University, now offer management qualifications specifically for this sector. Even if you do not particularly want to move into management, most moves up the career ladder do involve a degree of management – and qualifications are a good way to get round a lack of experience.
“People are often happy working in their actual roles, but they want their careers to progress,” says Jan Cunningham, project manager at Cover, which supports the community and voluntary sector in the east of England, and which is sponsoring people to follow the OU’s 20-week introductory course in voluntary sector management.
Nick Nair, who undertook the OU’s longer certificate in management and is now in charge of a large charity press office, agrees that it was a crucial element in getting him into a more senior role.
He says: “I was not able to demonstrate that I’d managed people, but I could demonstrate that I’d worked at getting all the skills that I’d use, and that I’d also thought about all the associated issues – such as the commitment and engagement many people have with their jobs – that are particular to this sector.”
It is also worth looking at specialist courses that develop specific professional skills. This often takes quite a bit of work because you will probably have to find your own courses. You might be able to get your employer to fund them, however, and they should give you the opportunity to develop your skills in a way that is not possible on a lot of courses offered by more general training bodies.
Another route is to build up your experience doing unpaid work, especially if you are aiming to branch out into a different field. The 2007 National Survey of Volunteering and Charitable Giving found that 19 per cent of respondents took up volunteering as a way of learning new skills. However, the survey may have covered a number of people without a great number of employable skills in the first place.
There is no hard evidence that volunteering directly increases your employability, but it does clearly show that you have explored and made a commitment to it. As Mark Restall, head of information at Volunteering England, puts it: “It’s a very good way of investigating alternatives.”
However, he stresses, you do have to choose where you are volunteering and it is preferable to choose an organisation with an in-house volunteer manager.
“Think about what you want to volunteer doing, and for what sort of cause,” he says. “Be clear about why you want to do it and what you want to get out of it. And if the organisation doesn’t seem that interested in you, it probably isn’t the right one for you.”
A number of organisations give people time off for volunteering. Some, like the sustainable development organisation Forum for the Future, allows staff a full sabbatical to try something new.
Patti Whaley, the organisation’s director of resources, explains: “You have to have been with us for four years – we offer three months on half pay, with a longer period unpaid if people want it. People get the opportunity to try something different, whether that’s a project , travelling or just a break. I’ve taken two – one here, one at a previous job – and they let you start afresh.”
If it is on offer, taking a sabbatical could be just the opportunity you need to stop, think and consider what direction you want to go in next. If it is not, it may be worth considering some more radical courses of action – temporary work, for example.
Taking the plunge and applying for a maternity cover carries obvious risks – the chances are you will be out of a job in a year at the most – but the
likelihood of being offered the position is higher than if it were permanent.
“It is taking a risk in terms of job security, but that’s balanced out by the development opportunities,” says Lena Maycroft, who took that plunge six months ago. “Your employer has to understand that they might be appointing someone who hasn’t experienced all the aspects of the full-time job, and that means you can be honest about the areas where you need support. You know it’s a learning experience, and you know what you’re there to get out of it, which makes it quite motivating as well. If you’re trying to get ahead, it’s a great way to get on.”
Alternatively, you could think about getting on by going abroad. VSO may sound rather drastic – you are likely to be looking at a two-year post, although there are some shorter ones. But it could boost your skills and experience a great deal, and you do get a living allowance.
“We’re increasingly working with voluntary sector partners, and we have a particularly desperate need for fundraisers at the moment,” says Neera Dhingra, a spokeswoman for the organisation. “You may well be working at a higher level than the one you’re operating at in the UK: you may well be leading on writing proposals for international donors, for instance, and you’re also getting international experience.”
Finally, good recruitment agencies offer much more than a summary of available jobs. “We do bring the jobs to you, but you also have someone who can advise you about things you might not necessarily have considered,” says Natasha Waas, director of the recruitment firm Charity People. “When we call in people, it’s like a full interview. The consultant will suggest the roles you could consider and talk to you about the sector in some more detail. If you want to move into a different field, we can do a skills map and show you the areas where you need to develop your skills, through volunteering or taking on extra responsibilities.”
There is no denying that on a grey Wednesday, with nothing in the jobs pages and no apparent chance to move on or move up, the idea of career progression can seem like a bad joke. But it is likely that there are options you have not explored. They might not all be for you, but they are all worth thinking about.