The charity sector is tempting to graduates for lots of reasons. Young people are well engaged with the sector; in 2017, the National Youth Social Action survey found that 58% of young people had taken part in some form of social action, and 81% felt volunteering opportunities improved their job prospects. For many people, volunteering around a cause they are passionate about is an ideal progression into a career they will love.
I knew I wanted to work in the charity sector for around two years before I left university. I had volunteered for years in lots of different roles and co-founded an organisation that I now lead, Sing Inside. My first avenue was the Charityworks scheme – I successfully got through the assessment centre, and over the summer of 2018 was waiting to be placed with a suitable organisation. This can take a while, and as I was requesting a part-time placement, I knew it might be tricky. After leaving uni in August I decided to keep applying for other roles myself, thinking this would give me some options – but it actually made things much trickier.
During September and October 2018, I unsuccessfully applied for 68 jobs in charities. I had interviews for around three-quarters of the positions I applied for, which I felt went well. However, I got the same response every time: we liked you, but we’ve chosen someone with more experience of the issue/sector/team structure. In my preparations, I read numerous strategies speaking of looking to the future, building diverse teams, and being dynamic and forward-thinking, but I never met, or even saw, anyone close to my age. It felt like the sector was completely disengaged with new people, and just moved familiar staff from place to place.
When I got the call from Charityworks asking me to go and meet Kristiana from ACEVO, I had almost given up on charities and was about to accept a permanent offer of a painfully boring temp role. But I am so glad that I didn’t. Being a Charityworks graduate has been an incredibly rewarding experience, from the training, conferences and research to my placement itself. ACEVO has approached graduate employment in an open-minded and supportive way. My colleagues are friendly, warm and open to questions. They are patient in explaining the complexities of the sector and forgiving when I get my annual leave wrong (sorry all…). They give me honest feedback and ask me for my thoughts. I genuinely feel that they want me to do well and that they value the work I deliver – something I had forgotten during months of fruitless interviews.
Graduates can clearly be incredibly valuable additions to teams – 96% of Charityworks employers retain their graduate after their year on the scheme. They are obviously hugely passionate about the sector; for my second piece of Charityworks impact research, I explored graduate perspectives on leadership. I collated 32 responses from people who have been working in the sector for under five years in their first role. 81% of them wanted to work in the sector to help others; 72% selected ‘creating change’. 84% want to stay in the sector after their first job.
However, when entering the sector is so challenging for young people, we need to make sure individuals experience great support in their role to keep them. Some new employees I heard from haven’t experienced that. 61% of respondents had experienced insufficient induction, and 61% also experienced a lack of ongoing guidance and support. 54% had an unclear job description and lacked constructive feedback from managers. 46% had an unrealistic workload, and 36% felt provision for staff well-being was poor. Graduates described patterns of aggressive leadership and blame cultures. When asked about values in their organisation, 75% of respondents felt they knew what those values were, but when asked if leadership reflected these values the figure dropped to 31%. Respondents also noticed the lack of diversity, identifying women and people of colour in leadership and diverse perspectives as qualities that their organisations were lacking.
While this is a small sample and so making generalisations is difficult, the findings still indicate a problem that needs to be addressed. We all remember our first role, wanting to impress, feeling nervous to ask questions that may sound daft or for help on a task. Professional and inspiring doesn’t always mean well-versed in systems and structures, or understanding the history of the sector in huge depth. Leaders and managers must support and build the skills of young staff who are new to this in order to secure a future workforce. People with ambitious visions for the sector may not already be in our ranks.
Charityworks gave me access to a sector that, from where I sat, wasn’t showing much interest in supporting and hearing new voices, never mind employing young people at all. But once I was in, I was quickly committed to staying. First-time sector employees can offer so much to an organisation, contributing to diversity of thought and strengthening a vision for the future. If you are open to taking on a graduate and giving them the support they need, do get in touch with the Charityworks team. Think too about whether you really need to exclude first-time applicants to the sector when you’re recruiting for anything. By building people up from the start of the careers, we can secure leaders for the future.