If you’ve built your career in commercial organisations and are looking to make a move into the not for profit sector – either through a paid role, a voluntary role, or both – you may have some questions about how to go about doing so.

We’re delighted that Phil Sanders, former Sales Director for a FTSE 250 company who is now Head of New Partnerships for Cancer Research UK and a Trustee for Elmbridge Mencap, agreed to share his story with us.

Tell us about your career in the commercial sector.

I spent thirty years in FMCG Sales roles working for the likes of Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Britvic Soft Drinks. I started on a graduate scheme as a Field Sales Rep selling to Wholesalers and Cash and Carry depots. My final role in FMCG was as Sales Director for a FTSE 250 company leading a team of 100 people. In between those, I’ve sold consumer goods to just about every type of customer, from the major supermarkets to pubs and fast food chains.

What prompted you to explore the charity sector?

I’d been thinking about moving sector for a couple of years, but I had been too busy to do anything about it. I’d made a lot of money for shareholders and CEO bonuses over the years, and I was looking for a job with greater purpose and meaning. I wanted to feel that I was helping people and giving something back to society. A restructuring at my last company allowed me to take a redundancy package and then have the time and headspace to explore opportunities in the charity sector.

What did you learn about the charity sector? Were there any surprises?

It’s more difficult to break into the charity sector than I had imagined. There are a lot of people in the charity world who have worked there for a long time, so they are clearly committed to the sector and have the relevant skills and experience. As someone coming in from the outside, people questioned why I wanted to make the change and whether I had the right values and would stay committed.

Despite those pushbacks, the more conversations I had, the more I became convinced that I had value to add and that a charity was where I wanted to work. I just had to keep looking for the right role in the right charity where my skills and experience would fit and be valued.

What skills from your commercial career do you expect will be valuable to you in your charity roles?

I’ve spent many years successfully leading big corporate relationships between branded FMCG suppliers and major retailers; these involve selling, negotiating, and agreeing joint business plans which achieve the objectives of both parties. Over time, I’ve built trust with my customers as I’ve delivered the results that they want as well as the results that I want. Corporate charity partnerships have moved from being based on ‘doing good’ to finding purposeful alignment between brands that deliver joint commercial benefits over the long term. There is a growing overlap between corporate partnerships in the FMCG world and the charity sector.

The other skill that I bring is leadership. I’ve led large sales teams through major ups and downs (including Covid), and I know how to motivate and inspire people. That’s as much needed in a charity as it is in the corporate world.

What skills do you think you will need to develop to be successful in your charity roles?

There’s a lot about the charity sector and fundraising that I have to learn. I’ve become a Trustee of my local Mencap branch, which will help me to learn about the running of a charity, legal regulations, and so on. Whilst I know a lot about corporate partnerships, I need to learn about the other areas of fundraising, such as philanthropy and legacy. I’m looking forward to learning new things at Cancer Research UK and to broadening my roles in the future.

What else are you looking forward to about taking on your new roles?

Both my CRUK job and my Mencap trustee role are learning opportunities and a chance to shape the future of the organisations; it’s also a chance to work with some fun, motivated people who want to make a positive difference in society.

Overall, I hope that I get a much greater sense of job satisfaction and a feeling that I’m doing something which is helping people and making the world a slightly better place.

What advice would you give to someone else looking to explore opportunities in the charity sector?

Be clear and authentic about your motivation to make the change and articulate it clearly. Also, be really clear about the transferable skills and experience that you bring to the sector, and why they add value to a particular charity.

Build your charity sector network and see every conversation as an opportunity to learn more and expand your network further. It’s a very people-focused sector.

Be resilient. Finding a charity job could be a rollercoaster process so manage your emotions and your time well. Don’t become too obsessed with the job search – enjoy the journey and be kind to yourself.

Anything else you’d like to share on this topic?

It helps you to learn and to show your commitment to the sector by getting involved in any way you can through volunteering, local fundraising, becoming a trustee, taking an interim role, and so forth. Look out for opportunities to get involved with charities, even on a small scale; especially if you have the time on your hands to do that. It’s great fun, and it helps to build credibility on your CV.

“Be clear and authentic about your motivation to make the change and articulate it clearly. Also, be really clear about the transferable skills and experience that you bring to the sector, and why they add value to a particular charity.”

Thank you, Phil! We wish you all the best with your new roles.


Do you have a story like Phil’s? We’d love to hear your advice and tips on your own sector swap to inform and inspire others! Contact Dr Jenn Allen to share your story.

If you are a candidate that is looking to make a similar move or a not for profit that is keen to attract candidates with commercial experience, please do get in touch – we would love to explore how we could support you.

Dr Jenn Allen is a Principal Consultant in our Not for Profit Practice. In addition to being a well-read scholar with both an MSc and a PhD in Education from the University of Oxford, Jenn has a wealth of experience working with foundations and trusts to recruit to both executive and board roles. With a passion for making a difference, Jenn works with her clients to find excellent candidates who are committed to the positive changes they seek to make in the world. You can connect with Jenn on Linkedin or send her an email.