Advice on applying for a job at Sustain or elsewhere
Sustain is keen to help people from diverse backgrounds gain employment and experience in the food and farming movement. Here is some useful advice if you are applying for a job at Sustain, or for a similar organisation in the third sector.
Sustain receives a large number of applications for our roles, many of high calibre. There is stiff competition and we regrettably often have to turn down a lot of people with relevant skills and experience. Like other organisations in our sector, we make our decisions to invite people to interview based on the close fit of each individual’s experience with the specific needs of the job.
Applicants may not be familiar with the process that organisations such as ours have to go through to select people for interview. We are sharing this blog to help people understand this process better, especially those applying under our Ethnicity Confident and Disability Confident schemes.
Below, we provide comments based on common issues that arise when we are shortlisting for job interviews. Sustain asks for a CV and cover letter, and often for an interview task. Many organisations in our sector use an application form, and the advice will be somewhat relevant to that format.
Make your cover letter count
Some applicants do not use their cover letter to set out how their experience is relevant to the role. The shortlisting panel needs to be able to score each application against the ‘essential’ criteria in the person specification. It is helpful and well-received if applicants explicitly describe their experience in relation to the ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ personal characteristics set out in the job description. It is usually quite challenging for a shortlisting panel to judge the relevance of experience mainly or wholly from the information provided in a generalised way.
Also, whilst getting a sense of a person’s enthusiasm for the subject, this can sometimes take up a disproportionate amount of the cover letter, leaving little room for laying out the relevance of their experience, which is usually more important.
How do we score applications?
People may not be familiar with the way organisations shortlist candidates for interviews. To be fair and systematic, we must score applicants on the basis of how their skills and experience fit with the ‘essential’ criteria. Scoring is quite a formal process – we list all of the essential characteristics for the role (as set out in the job description) and go through them one by one for each candidate, giving a score. Those with the highest scores will go onto the long list - we then go through a shortlisting process to decide on who to invite for interview, where each candidate’s match with the ‘desirable’ characteristics can also be taken into account.
If the applicant does not provide clear evidence in relation to one or more of the essential criteria, or does not help us to understand which parts of their skills and experience are relevant by clearly making those links, then we are likely to have to score them less highly than for other applicants.
Make the most of Disability and Ethnicity schemes
The above point is especially important to note in the case of our Disability Confident and Ethnicity Confident schemes, where we proactively want to be able to offer a guaranteed interview to those candidates who meet the essential criteria, as part of our commitment to positive action for diversity. However, if the applicant has not made it clear how they meet the essential criteria, and if we cannot glean this from the application by other means, then we must judge the application only on merit and in competition with others.
Understanding the job title
Job titles can mean different things in different organisations. At Sustain, if a job is described as a ‘coordinator’ or ‘development’ role, some applicants tell us that they see this as an entry-level post and primarily an opportunity to learn. However, Sustain roles with descriptions such as these have a leadership status, with the need for the person to be trusted to make decisions and presentations on behalf of Sustain and to run projects and perhaps line-manage other people. This can make it less likely that the shortlisting panel will be convinced that an applicant with less work experience, or less directly relevant work experience, will be sufficiently experienced to be able to take on such a position. A role described as ‘officer’ may be more suited to those with entry-level experience.
Work and life experience matter
Some applicants may see Sustain roles as being mainly about having a strong academic and research requirement. Whilst we fully appreciate the need to be accurate and grounded in sound understanding of the issues we address, our campaign and coordinator roles are usually primarily about engagement with those in a position to be able to take significant action.
Sustain is trying to adapt and accelerate the uptake of interventions that can support significant action to improve public health and social justice, and to tackle dangerous climate change and large-scale restoration of nature. Therefore, those with at least some direct experience of engagement with those in a position to make changes happen are usually likely to fare better in the selection process for project and campaign coordination roles than those who do not have such experience.
We hope the above information will be useful to people interested in working in our sector. We don’t have the capacity to answer individual questions. However, if you have something that you would like to see addressed in this blog, please do write and tell us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Published 28 Jul 2022
Roots to Work: Roots to Work is a platform for people to advertise and find jobs in the field of good food. We noticed there wasn’t a unique gathering place for good food opportunities to all sit together and felt it was time to make it happen in the UK.
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Kath is Chief Executive of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, since 2016 leading the alliance's response to Brexit and its profound implications for healthy and sustainable food, farming and fishing and developing the Campaign for a Better Food Britain. During the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Kath has been the alliance lead on Food and Vulnerability, serving on numerous liaison and coordination groups to support the emergency food response at local and national level. She was instrumental in launching a judicial review of the government's approach to children's holiday hunger during Covid-19.
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