I am the lead administrator for what Oxfam has termed “key countries” such as South Sudan or Zimbabwe that require specialist intervention due to the long term nature of their humanitarian needs. As the title suggests, it does have some day to day admin duties such as invoicing expenses and setting up meetings and training, but I have more interesting responsibilities. I am the first point of contact when Oxfam want to arrange to move staff in, out or around these key countries, I also organise project work when needed, ranging from arranging mass training events for hundreds of humanitarian professionals to researching and report writing on topics such as gender and religion when dealing with humanitarian responses.
The most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of my role is that I go home at the end of the day and know that even my small contribution has made someone’s life better, which is amazing. There are very few roles I can imagine having such job satisfaction! This also lends itself to a very good office and team atmosphere; I love going to work and have made some incredible friendships in all the roles I have held in the charity sector, not just at Oxfam.
The most challenging aspect of my role is probably that work can ebb and flow. One day can be quiet, then next day having lots to do based on what is going on in the world for example when Tacloban hit, but you get used to that pretty quickly. Another challenge is that little is static. for example, the issues in South Sudan at the minute can change daily. This means you have to be constantly in the loop, and seek chances to learn as much as you can on a lot of issues, but it does mean that work is never boring.
If others are thinking about starting a similar career I would advise they need to have a lot of perseverance. A lot of the jobs at Oxfam and the charity sector as a whole come through internships, at least at the entry level. Often these internships are unpaid (though some offer expenses such as lunch and reasonable travel), so that rules out quite a few potential applicants but the job satisfaction I had in my internship at least balanced this out to an extent. I gained the experience through a lot of volunteering, internships and so on. Most in the sector have an MA, so it can take a while to break into the not for profit sector. Also further training, whether online or part time, can really help emphasise a particular skill set roles look for, as well as be useful to develop a holistic view of issues. Lastly, look outside the sector. I managed to get regularly published by the Huffington Post UK, which I later used in interviews to show obvious skills such as writing, but also that I can research and develop an argument, and explain it coherently and concisely.
My time at Northampton helped my career and personal development as it gave me a great understanding of the foundations of a lot of issues that I now deal with day to day, even in the charities I worked at before Oxfam. That being said, the sector does constantly change with events like the Arab Spring or the shifting politics in Asia, so I have always needed to keep studying. Last year I started a part time course at Oxford, studying emerging economies such as India, having already enjoyed my time at King’s College London the year before where I studied Arabic.
Besides the IT skills and time management skills you need as a student, other skills I gained whilst completing my degree included soft skills like interpersonal communication and being able to write for a variety of audiences. Also, networking skills are key in this field; there are a few posts that come by headhunting and are not advertised, so being able to handle yourself in social situations and develop long term relationships is a must. Being able to articulate an idea is also essential, as most roles require a degree of report writing and presentation skills.
The advice I would give undergraduates is to be prepared to work unpaid for a while in order to get experience. In some cases you can obtain short contracts as there are few long term graduate posts apart from the oversubscribed graduate schemes offered by a few major charities. Still, even working unpaid and knowing you are making a difference is hugely rewarding, and sometimes come with unexpected bonuses; I was given the chance to travel to the EU, and meet some famous faces from Olympic champions to royalty, although I don’t like to name drop! Also, many of the posts come up internally or through networking, so again these unpaid posts can always lead onto more permanent work. Lastly, I was lucky to get into a major charity such as Oxfam, but look for smaller, lesser known organisations as well, which will allow you to build skills and contacts, and who knows, you may well find yourself staying.
The staff and my fellow students on my course at the University of Northampton were fantastic, and that it allowed me to develop as a person greatly. Also, as I remain connected to the University as a mentor, I can see that it is definitely going places in the next decade.