What charities look for when they hire finance staff

test We approached the Head of Finance at 10 of the most respected International NGOs and asked…‘What do you look for, when your recruit a new accountant?’ below are their words and should help you if you are looking to work in the International Development sector.

Charity 1. 

“At CV level – they must clearly show that they have the relevant qualifications, skill set and experience. If any of these are not a clear fit with the job spec then either the CV should be adapted for the job to indicate how any gaps will be met, or a covering letter should be attached that succinctly states how the candidate is still appropriate for the role.
At interview - personality is an important factor. A candidate who is strong in qualifications and experience but interviews badly (ie they come across as either disinterested, superior to the role, not a good communicator etc) then this is a deal-breaker. Preparedness is vital - an interview candidate who doesn't understand what my organisation does for example, or what the difference between the commercial and charity sectors is unlikely to do well. A well prepared, personable candidate who meets at least 70% of the job spec requirements and has clearly thought about what they can do to quickly get up to speed with the other 30% is what I look for in an interview candidate.”

Charity 2. 

  • "Practical, resourceful, flexible & solution orientated – working in developing countries means that a text book approach won’t always work.  How do you apply the principles and come up with something workable in different contexts
  • Ability to engage effectively with non-finance staff – bring the issues alive to people that probably consider themselves ‘non-financial’.  Country Directors often feel quite vulnerable in financial matters as they are often the areas in which they feel least confident – so the ability to build capacity and confidence
  • Ability to communicate and help people really focus on what’s important – see the wood for the trees
  • Experience of complexity is useful – not necessarily of the sector but ability to deal with environments that aren’t always straightforward
  • Listen and be open to new ideas and ways of working. 
  • Certain amount of tenacity and perseverance – change takes a long time particularly in organisations that have not been subject to change in the past.  Celebrate the achievements along the way
  • Able to link what finance does to the real world – be able to understand the ‘business’s’ needs and be able to respond to them
  • Finance staff are often rather isolated and can be marginalised – any sort of coaching or mentoring experience very valuable."

Charity 3.

“I think for all roles personality and the fit with the existing team and team members is always going to be key. For more junior or entry level roles (so restricted funds officer, grants officer), qualifications and relevant experience are less important than generic skills and the ability to show that the candidate knows how to apply these to the charity sector. So what we look for here is a desire to work in the charity sector (evidence of volunteering or being a trustee always scores highly here), good basic finance skills and the ability to be adaptable, learn quickly and apply generic finance skills to the charitable sector.
When I was in this position I went to talk to people who worked in charities to understand how charity finance teams worked. I tried to understand what the working and management culture was like. I read charity accounts and worked out what the differences were and how I could show that I had the relevant skills despite not doing the actual work before. This is the area where we have recruited the most people from outside the charity sector.
For more senior roles, qualifications become much more important, so I would be looking for qualified accountants (or if someone was really good in all other areas I would be ok with a part-qualified accountant who was still in the process of qualifying). Relevant experience also begins to play a larger role but it does depend on the role you are applying for. For example I would probably not appoint someone to the role of restricted funds accountant if they have no experience of working with institutional donors or restricted funds , as this is key to the role, but I would consider someone without charity experience for the Africa Accountant role as this is a management accountant role with a focus on reporting, budgeting and policy setting, so there is much more opportunity for transferable skills.
For candidates wanting to move into the charity sector at all levels it is important to carefully select the roles and charity that you are applying for and pick those where you can make your skills appear transferable or roles that are similar to the one you are doing and above all show a desire to work in the charity sector. Once you are working in charity finance you will find it easier to move into the specific are you are interested in.
The biggest turn-off when recruiting for any role is someone from outside the charity sector who has done no research into charities, makes no effort to make their skills seem transferable and thinks we would be lucky to have them as they have experience working in ‘proper’ finance roles!”
Charity 4.


  • “A hard working, autonomous problem solver with initiative and a hands-on, can-do attitude;
  • Technical accounting and MS Excel skills – Debits and Credits. They need to know how to understand what has gone on in the accounting system, be able to make corrections and explain errors and corrections to the national finance teams. Sadly too many experienced finance staff seem to think that they are beyond their double-entry bookkeeping,  balance sheet reconciliations, financial report drafting and presentation with exceptional attention to detail;
  • Knowledge of the “ideal” financial management procedures to both identify gaps and address them, implementing and training on new/revised procedures;
  • Willingness to work long hours in potentially lonely environments with limited resources both in available time and capacity of local finance teams and partners. Working overseas with international NGOs is likely to be one of the toughest professional experiences of your working life – forget the glamour, it is no holiday but it is still exciting and interesting and an incredible experience to be embraced if you come in with the right attitude!”

Charity 5.
“On a CV I turn to qualifications first and then experience. Hopefully their personality will start to come through at interview and is equally important but you would only get the interview if you have the first two!”
Budget accounting experience is particularly critical”
Charity 6.

“This is what we typically look for in a new candidate in addition to very strong technical skills...



  • Detail orientation with the ability to quickly master subject matter and see it in the context of a global operational framework.
  • Excellent interpersonal and communications skills and demonstrated ability to work across a range of cultures, personalities and competencies.
  • Ability to take initiative and work independently, as well as in a collaborative environment.
  • Commitment to health and social justice."

Charity 7.

“It's the skills (or competencies) that we focus on most in recruitment (qualifications or experience are ways of demonstrating the skills the candidates have).  I'd replace personality with inter-personal skills or relationship building and we'd have this as a core competency.  Also I'd include 'values' in this list.”

Charity 8.



  1. “Initially, when shortlisting, we are drawn to CV’s that are well presented, showing relevant qualification, experience, knowledge and skills at the right level.
  2. When interviewing, we look for someone who has relevant experience and we expect candidates to answer questions by using real examples from current or past jobs and to demonstrate their application of initiative, skills and knowledge e.g. when asked about difficult projects they have been involved in we would like to hear for clear examples of their experience but more importantly how they identified/dealt with/resolve any problems/issues.  We are always looking for a people with ‘hands on’ experience who can deal with issues effectively.
  3. The way the candidate communicates is key e.g. interaction with the panel, demonstrating how they communicate when responding to questions. We would often include a short presentation during the interview which is free format so that we can assess the candidates choice of presenting and how they carry this out i.e. was it clear and interesting and did it hold the panels interest.  We feel that it is very important that finance staff can communicate effectively with non-finance staff.
  4. People skills are very important, regardless of whether the post is a managerial position because we are more keen to recruit accountants who are good at interacting and engaging with people outside finance.
  5. Personality is important in that the person needs to fit in with the team. Often we are looking for signs of a team player, committed to meeting deadlines and being flexible.
  6. We are impressed when candidates have done their homework and researched the organisation and ask relevant and interesting questions. This always leaves a very good impression.

“We would consider candidates who have not worked for a charity but can demonstrate experience, skills and knowledge of systems implementation, training/capacity development, reviewing and developing policies and procedures, improving processes, controls and efficiencies, team working and working on own initiatives.  In fact one of the managers who reports to me was someone with no charity experience but had all of these skills and experience and is considered a very key person in the finance unit and organisation.”

Charity 9.
“One of my main requirements is the need for finance professionals to be good business partners as well as service providers, which means they need to be good listeners, be able to put themselves in the position of their internal and external customers, and that they need to be able to challenge existing practices to keep us at the forefront of effectiveness, and comfortable living with a constant level of change.”
Charity 10.
“It’s very important that the candidate can demonstrate why they want to work for the organisation. For this, they should have a really good knowledge of what we do, and be able to demonstrate their desire to work for us. Charity-specific skills are easily learnt, so if they have solid finance experience from elsewhere, that is fine.
Personality is also very important. We work in often difficult environments and candidates need to demonstrate that they can work and communicate well with people in difficult circumstances. For field based roles in particular, acknowledging that the work will likely be very different from a commercial UK-based organisation is helpful.
I’d say that a basic understanding of donors would be really useful – not experience working with donors x,y and z, but simply an appreciation that there are rules that each donor has with which NGOs need to comply . Anyone that has done one of the MANGO courses would be in a good position."
John Cammack, Specialist NGO Consultant
“If you are about to qualify with CIPFA you would be well placed to undertake an AFID assignment, and indeed to work in the NGO sector. Many NGOs require primarily hard qualifications – an accounting qualification is a good way in – and if you have experience of some international work, for example through an AFID volunteer assignment which would certainly be to your advantage.”

For more great insights take a look at our Career Changer case studies.