There are different ways to be part of the non profit sector. Perhaps you want to become a volunteer - donating some of your spare time to a cause in a very hands on way. Perhaps you want to be more involved with the running of the organisation, in which case the role of the trustee would be of interest. Or maybe you want to work full or part-time in the sector, in which case involving yourself as a volunteer or trustee will certainly strengthen your application.
There are lots of different types of volunteering opportunities. Common ones include patrons, trustees, fundraisers, front-line roles and support roles. These may be domestic, or based in another country. Some volunteering opportunities could be ‘virtual’ – not based in any physical place.
Contact the experts in your local Volunteer Centre if you want to find out more about volunteer roles, or the types of organisation that you might volunteer with.
Websites such as Do-it and LEAP are also good places to start. See our guide to websites listing volunteering vacancies.
Most non-profit organisations also advertise for volunteers on their own websites, local press and in local libraries.
How to decide what you want to do
What type of organisation?
The best way to start is to list down the sort of organisation you would like to help; for example, working with children, the elderly, homeless people, animals, disabled people, refugees and so on.
What skills can you offer?
Then list what it is you have to offer, do you have IT skills, housekeeping, driving, teaching, nursing, creative, caring therapeutic, fundraising, promotional. Probably the most important attributes are commitment, common sense and the ability to work as a team member.
How much time can you give?
Be clear about how much time you want/are able to volunteer from the outset. Also be clear about other roles and responsibilities you have, so that from the outset expectations are set appropriately.
Identify organisations which operate in your chosen area, check out their websites and see what sort of volunteer roles they are looking to fill.
It is important to approach a volunteer role as carefully as a remunerated role from both parties point of view, so getting references from others who have or still volunteer for a particular organisation is always a good idea.
Research the organisation
Check out how well organised the organisation is in terms of running a volunteer programme, how well is the role defined, who will it report to, are the health and safety policies and procedure in place, how are volunteers viewed in relation to paid staff, acknowledged, etc.
Larger organisations will often have highly sophisticated and well-developed volunteering programmes; smaller organisations may tend to be less defined in their use of volunteers and generally more resource light in terms of support of volunteer programmes but often provide great flexibility.
Both can be rewarding and worthwhile but it is important to match your abilities and aspirations with the organisation’s; if these are mismatched, the volunteering role is unlikely to be a satisfactory experience for either party.
It can be beneficial to agree a short trial or shadowing period both to ensure a good match between the needs of both volunteer and the organisation but also to see how you enjoy working with the other people involved. As there is no remuneration involved, really enjoying both the work and the people you work with is of primary importance.
Volunteers will likely be subjected to the same close scrutiny as paid staff in terms of criminal records (DBS checks) and sometimes health checks, particularly where their role will bring them into contact with children and other vulnerable groups, handling money, physical demands etc. Frequently this is a legal requirement imposed on the organisation as well as good practice and not done out of a wish to be invasive. A criminal record is not an automatic exclusion from volunteering and you cna discuss this with .
Internships are a particular form of volunteering and usually involve a contractual arrangement whereby the volunteer undertakes to commit their time and talents in return for the opportunity to work on/gain experience of particular projects and responsibilities. It is important to check out what the employment prospects could be at the end of the internship period if you are interested in an internship as a potential entry point for longer term employment.
Be clear about renumeration
It is good to be clear whether or not the role is remunerated at all and whether lunch/travel costs are taken care of. The terms and conditions vary enormously throughout the sector and need to be checked out at an early stage to manage both parties' expectations appropriately.
What is the difference between a volunteer role and an unpaid internship?
Volunteer roles tend to be ongoing indefinitely whereas unpaid internships tend to be time bound. Internships tend to be designed for and undertaken by younger people who are either trying out an area of work to establish if that is where they would like to build their career or as a type of prolonged interview/trial period in the hopes of securing a permanent paid position at the end of it.
In most cases, trustee roles are unremunerated and are therefore voluntary roles. Reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses is usually offered.
The role of trustee is a formal role within the organisation and carries legal and financial responsibilities for both the delivery of mission and the running of the organisation.
It frequently requires a considerable amount of personal time and mental commitment, as well as a need for specific talents and expertise to contribute.
Finding a position as a trustee
The sector, national and local press regularly carry advertisements for trustee roles and, where they still exist, Voluntary Community Services hold details of vacancies and those seeking to become trustees. Many trustee vacancies are still filled through networking.
Visit our Governance section for detailed and practical guidance on effective trusteeship and governance.
The Charity Commission which is responsible for the regulation of formal non profit organisations also publishes comprehensive information regarding the role and responsibilities of trustees on line and in printed form.
Increasingly, the recruitment of trustees is becoming more formal with a thorough application/interview process and trustee roles and responsibilities are becoming formally defined.
For those starting out in their careers, gaining some experience as an intern or on a volunteer basis is a good way of getting to understand what it would be like to work there. It can also be helpful when applying for a job.
For those with an established career outside the sector, experience and exposure gained as a volunteer is similarly valuable and therefore particularly helpful in deciding whether or not to make the move to switch sectors.
Finding a job
There are lots of websites which advertise non profit jobs. Here is a list of the main ones:
- Charity Job
- Jobs in charities
- Third Sector jobs
- Guardian newspaper
- nfp job
- Charity Sector jobs
- Civil Society jobs
There are also sites which specialise in recruiting in certain professions:
and recruitment agencies which specialise in nonprofit jobs:
Many charities also advertise jobs on their own websites.
For those starting out in their careers it may be helpful to go to a charity career event.
The career path
One of the characteristics of many non profit organisations is a relatively flat career structure with little or no formalised career path. It is often down to the individual’s determination and initiative to create their own pathway.
Generally speaking if you have a general professional qualification and role, such as finance, marketing, HR or service delivery such as nursing or social work, there is more likely to be a structure through which you can progress, in larger organisations at least.
In smaller organisations and in sector-specific roles such as fundraising, campaigning or volunteer management there may be less headroom and you may need to move to another non profit to find your next job.
Find out more
- Our FREE StudyZone course Career reboot: getting a voluntary sector job in tough times.
- If you are a trustee or work with a governance board you may be interested in the NCVO/BWB Trustee Conference 2016: Governance in the spotlight on Monday 7 November. It is the leading annual event for charity trustees, and provides essential legal and regulatory updates on governance as well as practical tools and guidance in a range of expert-led workshops.