On graduating with a degree in Social and Political Sciences, I had little or no idea of what I wanted to go on to do. I had an undefined view that I wanted to “make a difference”, but as to what that difference would be, or how I could make it, I was unclear.
It was then that I spoke to the father of an old friend – a successful businessman and philanthropist. Though he had left school at 16, he had been in the same predicament. The advice he gave to me was based on his own experience, taking the first job offer he received. Getting your foot on the ladder is hard enough. Trying to find your dream job from day one, is nigh on impossible. The worst that can happen, he told me, is that you learn what you don’t want to do.
Applying for every job I thought I might want to do, I took that advice and accepted a position as a graduate trainee at an independent communications group. It was the best move I could have made.
Cutting my teeth in the private sector, enabled me to develop many valuable skills that have held me in great stead as over time I began to specialise in advising social sector organisations on their communications. It was then that I left the communications group to set up my own PR agency, specialising in charity PR, and then selling my stake in that to set up another agency, The Social Enterprise, that focused on broader consultancy to charities – including policy, programmes and development.
It was from there that I was offered my current position, as Director of Survivors Fund (SURF), an UK registered charity representing and supporting survivors of the Rwandan genocide. The position is challenging, as we are a small organisation (I am the only full-time employee in the UK) managing a comparatively large budget of up to £1 million per annum. As such, it is vital to be able to do everything – which in the past week has for me included writing funding proposals, managing a board meeting, developing a new programme evaluation model, writing this article and finding and making a new meeting table (sourced through freecycle, a wonderful resource!)
The best training for the position is twofold.
First, undertake as much work experience as possible, in my view the broader the better. Get a feel for the kind of organisation that you want to work for, large or small, public sector or social sector, local or international. Also, try finding opportunities in different departments – communications, finance, research. Do your research and tailor your approach to secure the opportunity, and mine the network to get that all important break – GradLink is a great resource for this purpose.
Second, consider a practical masters degree to develop your skill base – but do not jump into it after graduation. Build up some work experience first, and once you have an idea of what you really want to do then focus in on the programmes that offer what is best suited to you to take you to the next level. I was incredibly fortunate to be offered a Reynolds Fellowship in social entrepreneurship from New York University. It gave me the exposure to learning and access to contacts that are now proving critical in my new role. Whether I would have benefited as greatly from the programme without the 7 years of working beforehand; I question.
Ultimately there is not one best route into a job in the social sector. The difference I want to make may well have been possible in the private sector – working in corporate social responsibility – or in the public sector – working for the Department for International Development. What is most important is to open yourself to opportunities and take the opportunities open to you. Obstacles are there to be overcome, and failure to be learned from. Good luck!
First published: The Cambridge Student, October 2009.