‘My confidence has been transformed’: what’s it like to become a charity sector professional?

<span>Working for a charity scores highly for happiness and job satisfaction</span><span>Photograph: CRUK</span>
Working for a charity scores highly for happiness and job satisfactionPhotograph: CRUK

Raj Khera has spent most of her professional life working in the charity sector but says she is still surprised by misconceptions about what it’s like. “When I first joined, some of my family members asked if I was going to be paid for the job – like many people, they assumed charities only hired volunteers, or perhaps that I would be street fundraising or working in a shop,” she says. “But even I was oblivious at first to the kinds of career paths there are within the charity sector, how large an operation it is, and how many different functions and specialisms there are.”

Myths about limited career opportunities, below average salaries, and a poor work-life balance, means senior professionals may write off the charity sector without due consideration. But a survey last year of 2,500 professionals from 29 different sectors, commissioned by the tech firm Reboot Online, found that those working for charities were among the happiest, scoring higher than advertising, law, engineering and accountancy. Charity employees have the second highest rating of any sector for good working relationships, positive impact on others, and say their job has had a positive impact on their mental health.

Khera, who is now the HR change manager at Cancer Research UK, took a BA in politics at the University of Warwick before completing a master’s degree in communications at Leicester. Her first job in the charity sector was at the Alzheimer’s Society in a fundraising research role, before she joined Cancer Research UK as a research manager more than 11 years ago. It’s one of the 10 biggest charities in the UK, with an annual income of over £718m and more than 4,000 employees working with the same mission in mind: to reduce the impact of cancer on people’s day-to-day lives through its research, influence and information.

“Everybody’s really dedicated to the cause and there for the right reasons,” says Khera about why she likes working for Cancer Research UK, referencing the charity’s values of being bold, credible, human and together. She also appreciates the flexibility and work-life balance she’s able to maintain. “It’s a nice, supportive environment to be in and I’ve made lifelong friends. I was only planning to be here for a couple of years but I’m still here, 11 and a half years later.”

That length of tenure is also thanks to the opportunities Khera has had to progress. Within a couple of years of joining, Khera took a secondment to the policy team and was quickly at the Houses of Parliament meeting with MPs and joining roundtable discussions at the Department of Health. Back on the research team, she was promoted to senior manager, and was supported to shift into technology project management. Her current role is another 18 month secondment, this time within the HR team. She has also recently taken part in the Ignite programme – personal development and leadership training for those from underrepresented backgrounds – and has been appointed co-chair of the charity’s race equality and equity network.

“I’ve learned that every couple of years I need something new to challenge me. I’m constantly wanting to learn and take on new things,” she says of her career path. “I love the job I’m doing now because it combines a lot of what I enjoy from project management and gives me lots of new stuff around people,” she says. “No two days are the same. I could be helping to shape a project, working with the leadership team to develop a vision for a transformation initiative, or putting a roadmap together, working with lots of different stakeholders.”

James Loosley, Cancer Research UK’s leadership development manager, has also been impressed by the opportunities he’s had to develop over his decade with the charity. He started his career working for a high street retail company but says he ultimately found it frustrating. “Retail is an environment I find exciting, but career progression can be really slow because the focus is on day-to-day delivery. It’s hard to find the time and space to think about longer term development. And the other frustration was being reminded I was working for shareholders and profit. In those difficult moments, you wonder what you’re doing it for.”

When looking for a new role in events, he applied for a number of different jobs – including one at Cancer Research UK. “I knew they were a credible organisation having a positive impact, so that felt exciting,” he says. “Like most people, my family has experienced the impact of cancer. I was intrigued by the chance to play a role in trying to address that.”

He’s since worked in five positions, across four levels of seniority and in three different departments and has been able to develop a diverse range of skills. “It’s a really great organisation for that – you’re trusted to move into areas you’re not expert in if you’ve got the drive and willingness to upskill,” he says. In his current role, Loosley oversees initiatives to help the senior leadership team work together more effectively and further progress the charity’s mission. “It’s put me on a rapid learning curve out of my comfort zone,” he says.

Loosley’s advice to other senior professionals looking for their next opportunity would be to not write off the charity sector. “It’s been life changing for me. My confidence and my self-belief have been transformed, and that’s a lot to do with the people who are around, how supportive they’ve been and how we work together. If you want to work somewhere that will challenge you in new ways but also offer fulfilment and real intrinsic reward, then it might be for you too.”

Khera agrees. “Go for it. You’re going to have to work hard, but you’ll be working with dedicated people, towards a cause that means something to you. When people ask me where I work, I’m happy and proud to say it’s Cancer Research UK because of what we’re striving for.”

Find out more about the jobs and career opportunities offered by Cancer Research UK