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A graduate's guide to careers in the community sector

Team Prosple

Passionate about social justice & community challenges? Here's an overview of why you might consider starting your graduate career in the community sector.

Overview of the community sector

The Australian community sector – sometimes referred to as the not-for-profit sector, third sector or social sector – encompasses a variety of organisations that are neither commercial nor governmental. These organisations pursue a range of charitable purposes through service delivery, grant-making and other activities, which advance health, justice, education, social welfare and religion.

In Australia, the community sector is highly fragmented. Indeed, there are almost 55,000 registered charities according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). These can range from global charities such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, ChildFund or Amnesty International to Australia-specific organisations such as Starlight Children’s Foundation and The Smith Family to much smaller and less well-known organisations.

All of these organisations essentially have the requirements of a typical business. While they may have a core service, such as community outreach, they still need the usual support functions such as marketing, accounting, operations and supply chain. As such, the community sector is always looking for talented individuals with business skills.

Entering the community sector as a graduate

Given the breadth of the community sector and the issues with which the community sector deals, the first step to finding an entry point is figuring out which social challenges you’re most passionate about.

For example, if you are interested in international development and aid, you may gravitate toward working for an organisation such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank. If you are passionate about addressing homelessness, disadvantaged youth or violence against women, you may find it more fulfilling to work for an advocacy group.

The competitiveness in entering the community sector very much depends on the type of organisation.

International development organisations such as the IMF or World Bank are considered highly prestigious organisations with high-impact. As such, these are usually very competitive organisations to get into and typically prefer experienced hires instead of graduates.
Other community organisations do not typically have the scale – or funds – to run official graduate programs. However, this does not mean they are not interested in hiring graduates. If you are interested in a specific organisation, it is worth reaching out to them and asking about job availabilities.

Another way to get experience in the community sector is by volunteering and getting to know the people involved in the organisation so that you are ‘front of mind’ when they are looking to hire. Often entry into the community sector is via word of mouth, although jobs can be advertised through more official means. Again, this more likely in larger community organisations than smaller ones.

Alternatively, if you would like to contribute to the community sector without necessarily committing to it, you might research organisations that have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. There may also be some professional services or advisory firms that run official pro-bono programs or at least have pro-bono clients.

There are also some pockets of more commercial organisations with a social purpose focus. For example, Social Ventures Australia (SVA) is a management consulting firm, which focuses on solving social challenges. SVA is known for hiring experienced consultants from top-tier organisations such as McKinsey who want to use their skills for good.

While not prevalent yet, we are also seeing the rise of investment funds, often known as ‘green funds’, which focus on investing in companies that are deemed socially responsible. This may be another non-traditional way of becoming involved in the community sector.

What’s involved in a community sector career

Your day-to-day work at a community organisation will very much depend on your specialisation. For example, if you are a marketer, you will focus on promoting your organisation and developing and managing fundraising campaigns. If you are in the accounting and finance team, you will focus on managing the money raised from these fundraising campaigns and implementing budgets.

To a large degree, if you have a business specialisation and are working at a community organisation, you are more likely to be working at the head office rather than ‘in the field’. This is not to say however there won’t be opportunities to see your organisation ‘in action’.

For example, if your organisation fundraises in Australia but uses the money to help individuals in other countries, you may have the opportunity to visit and see the impact of the organisation’s work. Or if your organisation does a lot of outreach work in specific communities, for example, with at-risk youth, you may have the opportunity to spend some time learning about and helping these individuals or communities.

Furthermore, if your specialisation is in consulting, whether in strategy, technology, process or operations, you may be required to spend more time ‘in the field’ to better understand frontline operations.

The best and worst of the community sector

The community sector is often perceived as offering lower average pay than other sectors, and there is some truth to this, with salaries in the community sector generally lower than those offered by corporate or professional service organisations.

The good news is that community sector jobs often offer increased flexibility, as well as tax benefits through competitive salary packaging. They also offer other rewards including a sense that one’s work is making a meaningful and positive difference to the lives of socio-economically or otherwise disadvantaged individuals or communities. Indeed, knowing that you’re making a difference – and seeing your impact – can be a powerful motivator.

Career progression in the community sector

Your career progression in the community sector will depend on the organisation you choose to work for. Given the relatively smaller size of these organisations compared to larger corporations or professional services firms, there may be some limitations to progression.
Restricted funds may make it difficult to be promoted or argue for an increased salary, particularly as community organisations are highly conscious of being responsible and accountable for how funds are spent. At times, this may be frustrating and progression may come by joining another organisation.

Typically, you will find that it is easier to cross over from the commercial sector to the community sector, rather than the other way around. Some organisations highly value commercial experience and as such, you may find it faster to move into a more senior role as an experienced hire than through internal promotion. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, for example, if you work at an organisation such as the IMF, the transition back to the corporate or professional services sector is likely to be much easier.

As some community organisations are international, or at the very least, may do international work, there is also scope for some travel and being more ‘in the field’.

Choose this if you:

  • Feel strongly about a specific social challenge
  • Wish to contribute to your community
  • Are passionate about social justice.