Profile: Farheen Mohammed, Deputy Manager, The Sycamore Project Author: Craig Pemblington     
Date: 24th March 2016

Craig Pemblington talks to Farheen Mohammed, Charityworks alumna and Deputy Manager at The Sycamore Project.  Farheen talks about her career motivations, her cultural background and her perspectives on working in the non-profit sector as a British Muslim.


What’s your educational background Farheen and how did you come to be on the Charityworks programme?

After finishing my undergraduate degree at Lancaster University, I then did my masters in International Relations and went on to do Charityworks straight after.  So I actually only applied for Charityworks and didn’t apply for any other graduate schemes.  It actually popped up at the side of my emails the day before the deadline!  After a very intense time with my masters, doing 5000-word assignments and a dissertation of 20,000 words, at a time that was right before my sister’s wedding, I had a lot going on.  So I said to myself, I don’t have the time to apply for jobs that I’m not interested in.  Charityworks was the only one that caught my eye. 

I was actually on the waiting list for an assessment centre, got a call at 5pm asking if I could come to down to Bristol the next day, did it and ended up getting a place on the programme!  After getting through the process I realised that I wanted to work for a faith-based charity and to stay in the north, because I’d lived away from home 4 years prior to that and was finally settled.  I was matched with a placement at The Sycamore Project in Bolton, a charity that runs two youth clubs – Zac’s Youth Bars – and also does work across 5 local primary schools.  That’s where I still work now.


“One day I was in the prayer room at university and someone said to me – do what you enjoy [for a career]!”


So what was your motivation to pursue a socially minded career?

Well, I used to be the events officer for the Islamic Society at Lancaster University.  I had been involved with the society for three years, but had never really been a part of the committee, although I’d always volunteered to help them.  When the vacancy became available towards the end of the summer term, they really needed someone, as there are 2 or 3 big events that take place in October when the new term starts, and the president encouraged me to take it up.

One of the big events is called One Charity Week, a national competition between all the Islamic Societies at every university.  It’s essentially a challenge to see who can raise the most money.  At Lancaster, we do a week where we might have football goalposts set up in the square, bucket collections after lectures and face painting – any way really, that we can think to raise money!  Our other big event sees us hosting a charity dinner for around 100 to 200 people, and we also did a lot of work connecting with other societies like the Christian society and Atheist society.

The plan really was to go into politics after my studies of international relations, but one day I was in the prayer room at university and someone said to me “don’t do what you want to do – do what you enjoy!”.  That really threw me.  I thought to myself well actually, I really enjoy doing this charity work, but I have no idea what I would do in the non-profit sector.


“I’ve been part of a leadership development weekend with the Muslim Council of Britain where we had a values day.  Turns out the most important one to me is being charitable.”


Where do you think those motivations come from?  Do you feel like there is a cultural aspect to them?

Well I just really enjoy doing the work – I felt very rewarded by the outcomes that we had when I was doing charity work through the Islamic Society, and through work I’ve done with Water Aid.  Actually, more recently I’ve been part of a leadership development weekend with the Muslim Council of Britain where we had a values day.  We did an activity that helped us to identify what our 5 core values are – and it turns out the most important one to me is being charitable, not something I knew before I did the exercise.  We basically did an activity, a kind of story where in order to prioritise your values you have to imagine letting go of them, selling them for something. I really struggled to do this, but it made it very real because you’re really choosing what your core value is – the toughest thing to let go of.  I think what’s important to me is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in an office job, a corporate role, or on the front line in an operational role, as long as you’re having an impact and changing lives.

What do your family think of you working in the third sector?  Does your job title, being a deputy manager, have an impact on the way they think about your career?

I remember my dad asking me “are you working for free?”.  I’m like – no dad – I’m not working for free!  He thought it wasn’t a proper job, he thought I did something people do in their spare time for nothing, so he was wondering if I was actually doing anything with my life.  My mum didn’t really know anything about it, and neither of them really know how to explain what I did to my family.  My official title was deputy manager, but the extended family would ask what I actually did day-to-day and they weren’t quite sure what to say.  They didn’t really understand that if you want to work in the third sector you can have a career in it.

By the way – you certainly can build a career in the third sector!  Despite the fact that there was a lack of clarity over what I did that perhaps if I was a marketing executive or fundraiser wouldn’t be there, being a manager did give them a sense of pride, which was really nice.  I guess what I struggled with is because I was deputy manager in my first real grown-up job, where do you go from that?  Because you don’t quite yet have the experience in specific roles like marketing or fundraising because you’ve been dealing with a broad remit of jobs and lots of small things in the business. 


“[In this sector], if we’re having conversations that involve culturally diverse communities, we need to be able to fully represent them ourselves.”

And what’s it like to be an ethnic minority in the non-profit sector?  And specifically what’s it like being a Muslim working for a Christian charity?

Well yes the charity that I work for, when they started out 15-20 years ago they didn’t have anybody working for them that wasn’t a Christian.  Things have obviously changed since then.  I mean I wear the headscarf – so I’m obviously not a Christian, but I think working interfaith is good for the charity too.

Is it really noticeable?  Well we have prayer times, where the youth workers pray together, and one of my colleagues for example who would normally refer to God as ‘Father’ would refer to God instead as ‘Almighty’ as we do in the Islamic faith so that I could take part – that was nice.  Usually I do my own prayers there and obviously the way I pray as a Muslim is very physical – I’m there with my prayer mat, but they’re all fine about it!

I think where it can be noticeable sometimes is that there are certain things I can’t support, but nobody would expect me to anyway.  Certain faiths are not keen on lottery-funded money for example, or to do anything involving gambling or raffles. 

Diversity in the sector is vital though.  I remember talking to some of my peers who aren’t even from ethnic minorities and even they feel free strongly about diversity in the sector.  If we’re having conversations that involve culturally diverse communities, we need to be able to fully represent them ourselves.

So if I was from a BAME background, considering my options and interested in the third sector what would your advice be for me?

It’s important to find a charity that you can connect with – like I was able to on my placement on Charityworks.  Make sure you’re working for someone that you’re passionate about.  It’s important to remember that I wouldn’t just apply for anything and won’t send anything off unless I’m passionate about the job.  Applying for Charityworks was what I really wanted.

One thing I would ask of members of an Islamic Society, especially those motivated by socially minded career options like me, is: were you involved in One Charity Week?  Do you think that kind of work something you’d like to do as a career?  If so, give it a go!


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