The Truth About Working For A Charity

Many people want to work for a charity. Reasons include giving back to the world, working for a personally relevant cause, or a wish to work with a particular culture or in a particular location.

Timing and career stage also contribute.  Anne Murray,  is a freelance communications expert who found herself between assignments. ‘Suddenly I realized that I could ask myself -what do I want to do?’ Having always been a strong feminist and supporter of women’s rights, Anne found herself drawn towards organizations working in what she calls the ‘gender space.’ She now contributes Playful Rebellion, working to break down gender stereotypes using humour and playfulness.

Getting involved in charity work

Getting involved in charity work starts with finding the right people. Attend events sponsored by groups that interest you. Meet some of the people. Offer to help out at an event. This is a great place to use your networking skills. Start conversations with what you really care about and the change you would like to bring. Ask others what they care about. Learn what causes they work on, then ask for introductions and suggestions.

Use your networking skills to find the right place for you

Anne herself became involved with The Gender Lab this way. ‘I used my network to find someone in the gender space. An invitation to an organizing meeting led me to the exactly the people I needed to meet.’ New people joining an organization not only bring their time and expertise, they bring a fresh perspective, which many groups welcome.

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What to expect

Whether you are volunteering or taking a paid position, you should know what to expect from work at a non-profit. In many ways, it’s similar to corporate life: you may have to fight for a budget, deal with a hierarchy, and manage your interactions with different type of coworkers.  Anne warns that charity work revolves heavily around the funding cycle, creating its own challenges. ‘Funders are more fickle than the media. Hot issues change from one year to the next, so make sure you know how long your group’s funding will last.’ Be prepared to wear many hats. Lean budgets mean you need a startup mentality. You have to work more collaboratively because of the scarce resources.

The work isn’t always exciting, either. While most people working for the non-profit may work directly on the cause for at least part of the time, someone must do the bookkeeping, filing and administrative work. Don’t want to be stuck in front of a computer? Make it clear before you start.

Funding is the charity’s lifeblood. 

Keeping perspective

It’s easy to become caught up in the cause. You start devoting all your free time, and some that isn’t free, to your organization. Just like at work, that can be the fast track to burnout and compassion fatigue. The more important the cause is to you, the easier it is to let your boundaries slip. Doctors without Borders, the world-famous medical charity, is also world famous for its burnout rate.  ‘Sometimes people gravitate to what they need’ Anne says. ‘They can lose track of the difference between themselves and the cause.‘

Treat yourself as well when working for a charity as you do when working for a company and you will last longer and do more good.

change your career

Look after yourself; burnout happens in the non-profit world too

Leveraging corporate experience

Many people come to non-profit work like Anne did, bringing valuable corporate experience. First and foremost, Anne says, is a level of professionalism. ‘Setting goals, managing projects and budgets and self-discipline are invaluable and often missing in people who have not worked in a corporate environment.’ If you join a smaller organization, your ability to deliver on time and on budget can make a huge difference. Corporate life also teaches you to get along with different types of people and to respect different points of view. Those corporate trainings on project planning, cross-cultural interactions and change management will come in very handy!

Take the first step

If your path leads you towards a particular cause, take the first step. Meet people working in that space, find out what the options are and decide how you would like to contribute. Then go after the opportunity that feels right for you. Learn, grow, and be proud of making a difference!

Marne Platt

Dr. Marne Platt is the President of Fundamental Capabilities and the author of 3 books (so far): Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way; Professional Presence; and PREP For Success. Originally a practicing veterinarian, she built a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. She founded Fundamental Capabilities to ‘pay it forward’ by providing career development workshops and coaching for women. ‘Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way’ is an ‘older sister in your pocket’ packed full of advice for young women on building their own independent and exciting life. 'Professional Presence' and PREP For Success' help you strengthen your spoken and unspoken communication and leadership presence.