Careers Advice: Working in the Third Sector

Michael Chang

Despite the quality and length of tertiary education in planning schools, there is little or no knowledge of the wider opportunities in planning employment once you graduate. You either go into the public sector in one of the many local planning authorities or join the growing number of planners moving into consultancies in the private sector. These are the two obvious choices presented to planning graduates.

But there is one missing sector – the third sector or non-governmental organisations which serve purposes in planning for the greater good and for the benefit of society. Many would be surprised to hear that a large number of planners work in third sector organisations such as the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Often these are registered charities with a defined purpose.

Like those planners working in the public and private sectors, we have to deal with and be able to work across a wide range of planning issues such as housing, environment, public health and transport. Often the issues are dependent on the ability to secure funding from grant-making bodies or commissions from specific organisations. Because third sector organisations are often small, a degree of technical competency is expected of individuals to carry out the work independently and authoritatively - so being a chartered member of a professional institution is important.  

There are two differences in the way we work which determine the skills we need. Firstly we do not serve clients or serve under certain political persuasions. We are accountable to the charitable objectives we sign up to when we first applied for the job. These become the reference points to which we judge the impact of our projects and therefore we are constantly self-motivated to thinking about ‘why we are doing it’ not just ‘what are we doing’. Many of those who have worked in third sector organisations often comment on how enlightened they feel because they know they are making a difference. That is after all why we chose planning as a profession in the first instance.

Secondly we have to work across professions and sectors. The ability to communicate and work across professions and sectors is an indispensable skill because we want the work of planners and the planning system to be accessible to the wider society. While the target audience is ultimately the planners themselves, the majority of our partners and stakeholders are those who feel disempowered and lacking the confidence to engage with planners. This shows that the planning profession still has a long way to go to make it an accessible and engaging process - after all, it is about people’s futures and livelihoods.

Why should you seriously consider working for the third sector as a career? People have different motivational factors when selecting a job or a career path and the third sector will not be for everyone if the factor is financial. But working in the third sector allows a certain level of autonomy, self-awareness and enlightenment in serving a greater genuine purpose, but the results aren’t instant and you should allow a couple of years to really mature. There are opportunities for specialisms if you can find the niche, and for engagement with professionals at the highest level. Often people retire into the third sector, but I would urge those planners either at graduate or in early career to consider the legacy of your contribution to wider society. Come join the third sector and plan for a higher purpose.

Michael Chang is project and policy manager at the Town and Country Planning Association

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