I believe that the charity sector is the best place to work for two key reasons.
Firstly, the obvious: every day, whatever your role, you are personally making a real difference and changing the world for the better.
Secondly, and one that’s often missed: the third sector is unique in the opportunities you have for taking charge of your own development. Most significant is the openness for skills sharing, often with others who work for organisations who are technically competitors. If you don’t take advantage of this fact, you’re missing out on one of the most valuable features of this incredible sector.
Training budgets will never be huge and for most people, there aren’t unlimited opportunities for promotion, but these are only two small parts of your development journey.
If you want to constantly improve your skills and be the most effective charity employee you can be, there are a number of steps that you can take that will make a big difference.
Engage with colleagues in other teams
This is absolutely achievable at any level but before you do this, try and work out what you and your team are best at and can offer to others.
For example, if you work in individual giving you will know which ways of wording a cold direct mail piece have tested as most successful in terms of response rate. You could share this information with a colleague in the trust fundraising team who could use it to adapt the wording of cold trust applications and potentially increase their success ratios. In return, your colleague in trusts could share the minute detail of the outcomes of upcoming projects as well as case studies they have used to back up their applications.
You may be able to use this information to enrich the content of your upcoming campaigns.
Each team is expert in its particular field and has a huge amount to offer other teams. Although this should be a part of the overall strategy, two people sharing knowledge over coffee can be enormously effective too.
By doing this, even the most junior team member can work to actively break down silos in their organisation. This will help you build up direct practical understanding of other teams and departments which will make you a more effective employee and improve the working of the wider charity. If you ever plan to be a director or CEO, this cross-departmental working will stand you in very good stead indeed.
Find a mentor
Having a mentor can be incalculably valuable. A mentor will often be someone working in the same sector but with more experience than you, someone you can meet with in person or virtually at regular intervals throughout the year who can provide support based on having ‘been there and done it’ and can be a trusted adviser and sounding board.
You can find a mentor by asking your network or your employer, who may be able to recommend someone.
Be a mentor
If you have experience under your belt, you can be a mentor yourself. As well as making a huge difference to the individual you mentor, you will also benefit a great deal yourself - from becoming aware of new developments and innovations in the sector to having a different perspective on your own issues, you will gain as much value as the person you mentor.
Stay in touch with peers at other charities
Whether you meet at a conference, have collaborated on a piece of work or connect online, it can be very useful to have a contact at a similar level and in a similar role to you.
Someone who is meeting the same challenges, but who is solving them in a different organisation, can make for a relationship that is beneficial to you both. There’s no need to formalise the relationship but being able to pick up the phone when you need to can make for a great resource.
Target someone in the commercial sector as an advisor
This is something you can’t do in other sectors. As you work for a charity, you have a unique chance to ask anyone for help and advice. Being able to make a difference to a charity by sharing their expertise over the phone or a cup of coffee is of great appeal to a lot of knowledge-rich/time-poor professionals.
LinkedIn is a perfect way to research and contact people, so think about your wish-list of who could advise you and drop them a line. For example, if you’re a corporate fundraiser, why not target some of the best new business practitioners from a sales-focused sector and see if they might be able to help you. The worst case scenario is simply receiving no reply. The best case is that you find an invaluable adviser with a whole other sector’s worth of knowledge to share with you.
Consider taking on a trustee role
A trustee role can give you a whole new perspective on how a charity works. Many small to medium charities are very keen to take on new trustees, particularly trustees with sector experience (many trustee boards have no members who have ever worked in a charity) so you may have more to offer than you think, regardless of your level of seniority.
Make a start by targeting charities you are passionate about with head offices close to home or to work. Contact the CEO with a brief explanation of your background and ask if there are any openings coming up on the board.
It doesn’t matter if you are at officer or director level, you can use all of the methods above. Developing your career by broadening your experience and understanding of charities and the wider sector is the most effective way to make you the best you can be.
Of course, you can’t always get everything you need where you are. Once you feel that you have got as much as you can, then it may be the time to look further afield. At this point take the advice of your mentor and consider engaging with a recruiter or two who will take the time to listen to what your long term aspirations are and help you put plans in place to help make them a reality.