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Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Charity Sector and Me - A short story

As a quick disclaimer, this is a blog on 8 months of unemployment in Cardiff, looking for work in the charity sector. I have been umming and aahing about writing a piece on my unemployment for a long long time. I am of several minds about my position on it, would I potentially jeopardize future job opportunities? Would it sound like sour grapes? Or could this writing be vaguely useful to other graduates, young people, looking to get into the charity sector? 
The last point has eventually won out, but don't deafen me with "he's just bitter", cause I'm not. 
So there.

I'll tell a potentially familiar narrative to get me to the crux of this blog, of how I got to unemployment in the first place.

I got involved with youth politics in my first year of university really, joining social action group UpRising, meeting amazing people and learning about what I thought. Second year fell into place, and I was successful in applying for a position as the UK Ambassador for Wales, with the amazing Arooj Khan. We killed it, had a lot of fun, represented a lot of young people. I started to slowly integrate myself into the Welsh Charity Sector, working out the assembly, and the key players. I networked hard, and made a few brilliant friends. Third year saw the continuation of the Ambassadorship, then a successful bid to become a trustee for the British Youth Council, and a chairmanship of Student Representatives in Cardiff University. I worked with Google, I went to international summits, I was in my absolute element.
I organised an internship in one of my favourite Welsh charities for the summer holiday after my graduation, and applied for a lot of student coordinator roles, a position often filled by early 20-somethings from a similar educational position as myself.

Then slowly the interview rejections came through.

By the end of the summer, I had had five interviews, and not got one. That feeling was to become a common one, but I didn't know it yet. I moved into friends' spare room in Cardiff, (to both I will be eternally grateful), and began unemployment.
I was devoted to finding a job in the charity sector, after enjoying it so much. I have worked a job since I was 12, it was an unusual feeling for me, not having one any more. Anyone who talked to me in those months, I pity. Because I talked about the application process, and interview techniques, and how much I was enjoying the work I was doing in the Welsh charity sector. I threw myself into whatever volunteering I could find, and I got up at 8am every day, and applied for jobs, and went to interviews, and failed in interviews.
This continued for eight months.

I have checked through my laptop storage, and I wrote over 60 job applications, and sent off many more CVs.
I attended 27 charity sector interviews.
I volunteered.
I failed 27 charity sector interviews.

On the whole, I was treated to a terrible recruitment process, one characterised by archaic Microsoft Word forms, bad salaries, bad hours, and a lack of any care for the candidate.

That was the thing that I think stood out to me.

I have not ever been under any illusion that the charity sector I have fallen in love with in Wales is 'kinder' than a normal sector of industry. It cannot be, or it would not exist. It is not charitable in nature, and nor should it be. If I didn't have the skills, then I didn't deserve the job. If I was not what they were looking for, then I was not what they were looking for. That wasn't my fault, the job simply wasn't a good fit for me.
But the lack of care I was shown as an individual baffled me at first, and then angered me.

Some gave feedback, most did not.
Some respected me, one rushed me through the interview because they clearly had an internal candidate in the works and the 2 hour journey on public transport I had made to get there for a 15 hour a week contract was in vain.
One rang me up, accidentally told me I had obtained the highest score in interview, and then informed me that I hadn't got the job. I later found out that it went to a returning to work parent, who wanted a bit of part-time work to keep them busy.

Two recurrent, interconnected themes came through in the feedback that some recruiters were kind enough to give me.

1) I was too young
They wouldn't say this. It was heavily implied over a drink afterwards, it was within the lines of the email, it was thought that I had no appetite to stick around and learn and work. My age worked against me, they wanted a mid-40s parent, no risk.
I understand this, to an extent. I know they largely didn't care that I cared about the industry, about the importance of charity, that I was a bloody hard worker with a good amount of experience. And the second interconnected theme;

2) I was a risk
I was told several times in feedback that I should be more ambitious in my job search, that their admin job wasn't up my street, and that they wished me the best. I get that they were trying to be kind, but honestly, telling someone that they're not ambitious enough when failing them in a bog-standard admin job is some cruel poetry.  
Again, part of me understands this. I know the oft-crippling pressure that charities can be put under, I know how tight money is. Hiring a graduate to a 15 hour a week contract and giving them any training at all would surely result in wasted money, when they upped sticks and left for a full-time job. But I have worked for several years now to get young people into volunteering, into non-executive roles, into trusteeships, to give free work, essentially, ever the idealistic student. When I finished my degree and actually began job hunting, I realised why people in their mid-twenties never aspired to the charity sector.

I aspired for the charity sector, and I still do. I strongly believe I'm taking the right steps to get back there in several years' time, and make my mark.
I have lost my naivety/innocence about it though.

I most of all want to go back, and shake up what I see as wrong. Leon Ward mentions in an old blog that young people are the next Chief Executives, Philanthropists, Guardians of the sector. But until the charity sector is bold enough to recruit them, then the experience that young people can gain is always going to be limited. The 'home-grown talent' goes to London, and stays there.

But I'm not going to end on that, because that's just a big old moan. Here's what I learned, from unemployment in the charity sector.

What did I learn about aspiring to work in the charity sector?
  • Get some thick skin, quick. You're going to be told you're not quite up to scratch for all sorts of jobs. 
  • Whatever skills you think you have, if you don't have basic admin skills, minutes taking, that sort of thing, don't bother. Charities are stretched for money, they don't have the funds to give you Excel training. Get that from a big company, and go from there. 
  • This is more of a general point on work after university, but the sun does not shine from your nether regions. You are almost certainly not all that. It doesn't matter what title you have had. Demonstrate not that you can talk the most impressively or have a selfie with the most important person, demonstrate that you can work hard, demonstrate that you can master simple things.
  • The charity sector will surprise you in its ability to not give a hoot about you. Focus on the individuals who do, and get their feedback, learn from them. Get a mentor. Listen. 
  • Don't be disheartened. The sector is still bubbling away, there's more opportunity than ever to get involved with non-executive roles, young people are more than ever listened to. Volunteering is constructed better than it ever has been, so many charities are getting on board with the volunteering journey. 
My final recommendation would be: Never stop trying to expand your experience. The charity sector is better than any other for diversity of experience and learning scope, but it can be a hell of a lonely place. Get in there, get learning.


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