Charity Masters Degrees: a balancing act

My media career started at a very young age – at just four years old I was pictured in The Selby Times, dressed as a bell for my school nativity play. But I’m no Macauley Culkin and since then I have withdrawn from the heady heights of celebrity and got on with my life.

However, this week there’s a little snippet from me (not dressed as a bell) in the Guardian’s post-graduate supplement. So I’ve taken this opportunity to note why I believe there is a need for specialist charity masters degrees and the opportunities and challenges of undertaking one.

The main point is this: while the general public believe that our work is special, they don’t necessarily believe that it is specialised. It is.

There are 180,000 registered charities in the UK tackling social, economic and environmental issues. This vast sector requires staff and volunteers that are representative of its diversity (I’m referring to skills, education, expertise, background as well as ethnicity and gender) but it also requires specialist knowledge. This is where a charity masters degree can be beneficial.


  • Sector specific knowledge: some things are different in charities due to the fundamental difference between for-profit organisations and charities, who do not distribute profit to ‘interested parties’. If you’re a senior manager at a charity you should know something about charity accounting (the SORP) charity law and regulatory bodies such as the Charity Commission – and practitioner-specific ones like Fundraising Standards Board.
  • Broad knowledge: the basis of each course covers areas including voluntary sector policy, marketing and research, and resource management (financial and otherwise). Whatever your seniority, there’ll be something you’re not so strong on and charity masters provide an opportunity to develop in that area.
  • Practical and applicable: coursework is based on your organisation – this is really useful if you want to explore something in or for your organisation but can’t fit it into your day job.
  • Clever folk: guest lecturers and speakers tend to be well-known and well-respected individuals in the sector, such as Ian Bruce, Karl Wilding, Jenny Harrow and Debra Allcock Tyler. Consequently you get excellent case studies and examples throughout.
  • Networks: past students advised us to make the most of the contacts we make through the course. I hadn’t anticipated how valuable this would be; I now know people across a range of organisations who I can call if I need a steer on something new to me.

And the flip-side:

  • Balancing personal development according to sector changes: I don’t believe that solely a charity background is the only way to strengthen the sector (as per my NCVO blog regarding people coming in to the sector from the forces) and I’ve certainly noticed an increase in people talking of talent coming from the corporate sector: there are lessons to learn from both sides. Fundraising and marketing are inextricably linked and some organisations are reflecting this in their structures: Friends of the Earth, WWF and Breakthrough Breast Cancer staffing structures place marketing and fundraising activities within the same directorate. This enables greater synergy between the two functions but has implications for marketers with a corporate marketing background working with fundraisers and vice-versa. For those of us already in the sector, we should balance charity-specific training with broader, perhaps more commercial training. For those entering the sector, courses such as Cass’ Charity Masters could provide the edge to push you further up the ladder. Ultimately, a balance of development activities and training will enable us all to work more effectively together.
  • A bit of a life thief: there are times when you’re busy at work, or you’re on holiday, or you’re just shattered…but you need to research and write an assignment. If you genuinely want to develop, you need to put in the effort and this can be testing at times.
  • You become a charity geek – and quickly too: shifting from a mind-numbing episode of Hollyoaks of an eve, to clips from BBC Parliamentary Live because it’s interesting was an unexpected change for me. You notice things in the press you wouldn’t have previously noticed, you want to comment on said articles, dammit you want to write them!

For me, the course is helping me gain knowledge and skills that I wouldn’t necessarily have gained ‘on the job’. Moreover, it has encouraged me to be better, aim higher, expect more: we can’t solve complex social problems if we don’t keep pushing.

Time for tea and cake

Gin and tonic cake

I didn’t think that such a thing existed, but to my pleasure, it does.

Courtesy of my course buddy @KatieKirks who directed me to this:

My top tip is to use a massive tin as it’s a lot of cake and it rises a lot too. I used tonic and lime in the icing and I think that was a very good choice.

Feedback included: “It’s a very accomplished cake.”

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