Charity work: what’s it really like?

Geography graduate Jane Cotton discusses her move from public sector to charity

Name: Jane Cotton

Degree course: Geography

College: Girton

Graduation: 1979



Tell us a little about your career path…

After a Geography degree at Girton, I joined the fast stream Civil Service on the advice of my Cambridge career advisors and had 20 happy years there. I worked in policy roles in Departments of Transport and Environment and then in HR roles in those departments and in the Charity Commission. I joined Oxfam as HR director in 1999 and stayed for 15 years broadening my role as a Deputy CEO. Since 2015 I have had a non-executive career in the Charity sector including as a trustee of Canal and River Trust; WWF UK; Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust; and One YMCA.

Why should Cambridge students consider a career in the charity sector?

  • Great satisfaction – making a difference; helping to change the world.
  • Great people and teams to work with, expert and passionate about what they are doing (but remember they are human; there are bad managers in the charity sector too…)
  • Great empowerment to get on and deliver – with accountability too of course.
  • Great variety – in 15 years in Oxfam I always looked forward to going to work and could never entirely predict what would happen that day.

What type of jobs should graduates apply for – what’s a good starting point?

Think about the wants and needs of charities. They always need good fundraisers/marketing people and wouldn’t exist without them. They need communications skills; IT; Finance; HR…. Many of them need specialist expertise for their programmes – perhaps in medicine; social work; youth work; ecology… It is increasingly less likely that a British person will get a role overseas in International Development; rightly those role are mainly now filled by candidates from the Global South – so be realistic about where you can make most difference. Campaigning and advocacy role are also immensely competitive.

Some charities offer developmental postings in areas like fundraising. Another way in is to take a voluntary internship to build your experience – these are often part time or time limited so you can do them alongside other paid work. A smaller charity might employ you more for your enthusiasm than your experience so you can build your skills in that way. But be wary of taking a basic admin post solely as a foot in the door – you won’t excel in the role and be able to progress your career if you are doing a job that really doesn’t interest you.

How can corporate experience help prepare individuals for a charity sector career?

It can be a far better route in to build your skills in the private or public sectors and then transfer those skills into a charity. As indicated above marketing, communications (media, social media, PR etc), IT, Finance, HR are all good ways in. The private or public sectors will also often invest more thoroughly in your development in areas such as management and leadership. And don’t just regard your time there as a stepping stone. The private and public sectors need employees with values who want to make a difference – you can influence their policies and working practices for good too.

Is work in the not-for-profit sector as you had imagined it would be?

Much of my charity sector experience has been and continues to be in line with my high expectations – see above. It’s a mixture of passion and professionalism; endlessly fascinating though sometimes a little frustrating too – e.g when passionate people want to get involved and debate everything rather than just getting on with it…

The biggest surprise was and is the opposition that charities can face, especially those which are really trying to change the way the rules work, speaking truth to power. This can be very uncomfortable for “the establishment” and can result in a real backlash – the extreme attacks on Oxfam earlier this year were just one example of this. So don’t expect everyone to love you if you work for a charity.

Jane Cotton shares her top tips for getting into the sector in the video above

For more information on the charities sector and not-for-profit opportunities, see the Careers Service website.

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