Describe your career journey from university to where you are now Femi.
I graduated from Portsmouth in 2013 and wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to get involve in straight out of university. I knew I was socially minded, that’s why I studied sociology, so I started volunteering at Maudsley Mental Health Hospital in a project looking at improving the quality of life for discharged patients and trying to reduce the rates of relapse. It was a really interesting project that gave me some insight in to the flaws in the mental health and wider social care systems.
So all of that started to increase my interest in the issues regarding social policy in the UK and I got involved in a couple of other non-profit organisations including one where I was working to improve the levels of work retention, and general ability of people with dyslexia to apply for jobs and stay in work.
I’ll be honest though, I didn’t know much about the Charityworks programme when I applied for it. I quite literally stumbled upon it on Guardian jobs! I put through an application, forgot about it until I was invited to do the online tests and put it to one side again until I was invited to the assessment centre. That’s when I started to do more research as to what Charityworks was and what it had to offer.
What are you working on at the moment in your role as a Policy Officer at the UK Faculty for Public Health (FPH)?
Well a week ago we were frantically trying to complete an inquiry into the impact that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will have on child poverty. This week we’re following up on campaigning and lobbying. My role really centres around supporting our special interest groups, that are in essence groups set up by our members to engage in issues and respond to public enquiries. I’m on the Department of Health and the Department for Communities & Local Government website pretty much all of the time! We’re doing a lot more to become pro-active at the moment, a lot of horizon scanning to get on the front foot so that we can respond more efficiently.
What made you want to apply for a graduate scheme for a socially minded career in the first place?
It’s kind of a combination of things. I would say a big part of it is my faith, I consider myself a Christian. Also my upbringing, so whilst I was born in Scotland, my blood is Nigerian and having spent a lot of time in Nigeria I’ve seen, not so much relative poverty but absolute and extreme poverty. I kind of feel that at an early age I understood that I wanted to do something that even in a small way affects the lives of people that perhaps weren’t as fortunate as I was.
Can you tell us a bit about your family background and your upbringing?
Well my parents are doctors, so me, my brother and sister were always quite good when it came to biology and chemistry, and our understanding of the human body, and we had the capacity to go and study medicine. My brother now works in a legal firm, my sister is an incredibly talented designer and I’m at a public health charity. Primarily we didn’t have that ambition, that calling to go into medicine, because it is a vocation, you have to have a sense of calling for it or else you’re just going to go grey. But there was that pressure, I don’t know if it’s an African thing, or a first generation immigrant thing, but our parents definitely wanted to ensure we did better than they did. They saw the best route for us to achieve that aim was to do something with the hard sciences.
I suppose my parents didn’t really understand the value and career trajectory that could be achieved by going into the non-profit sector. I think it probably doesn’t help that there aren’t a great number of public sector organisations like FPH in Nigeria and other African countries. I mean obviously there’s a health department and lots of work being done to engage in public health there but there is still a strong emphasis on doing medicine, or becoming a banker or a lawyer.
What would you say to someone who might be facing similar pressures about the types of role on offer in the third sector as a whole?
I know exactly what I’d say. I would tell them that the perceived image of people working in the charity sector being hippies who wear flip flops, have long beards and want to, you know, stop puppies and polar bears from drowning isn’t a fair reflection! There is a highly professional element to the sector that does things like business development, investment and programme development that require such a degree of skill to work on, that anyone working in a professional level in the charity sector can transfer to a similar professional level in the private sector because the skills required are very similar.
It’s a highly professionalised sector – and this applies to Charityworks too. There’s policy positions, public affairs, business development, programme development, communications positions and lots of others. All of these are high skills roles on offer.
So you explored ethnic diversity in the non-profit sector as part of the research you conducted whilst you were on the Charityworks programme. Can you give us some insights into what you found, and your own thoughts as a black leader working for a non-profit?
Basically the non-profit sector does not, in the main I feel, fully reflect the communities that it serves and they certainly don’t reflect the talent that’s available to them. It’s tough because, in a city like London where so much of the population is BAME, and where BAME attainment is rising, where the number of BAME professionals and forums that are developing are increasing and where BAME-specific media sources are growing, it’s surprising we aren’t tapping into that talent. I knew that I wanted to pursue this kind of career – but I imagine there are plenty of intelligent, talented people from a BAME background that may not because they feel the broad sector doesn’t reflect them.
With rapidly declining statutory funding from central government and with local authority budgets being squeezed, charities and third sector organisations are having to rely ever more on the general public. As the general public becomes more and more diverse, and as BAME communities become an increasing part of the populous, charities will need to engage with them more fully.
I also think that we have to be careful, because of the way the media seize on our sector wherever they can. At the moment there is a kind of growing sense that BAME communities are getting the short end of the stick in the top jobs in say finance or business sectors. It’s only a matter of time before that focus comes round to us. If the non-profit sector is in a robust position to say, well actually we’ve recognised this and we’ve been taking steps to address it long before you media guys came along trying to stick a flashlight on it, we’ll be better placed.
So what would you say if I was from a BAME background and interested in a career in the sector as whole?
Whilst the general sector as a whole isn’t perfect in its ethnic representation, it’s so much easier to change it from the inside. You can’t really affect positive change from the outside, you need to be inside. I really hope that, not only in speaking about it to you but in everything else I do in my career, I do what I can to get non-profits and people to engage more with the BAME communities.
And as a route into the sector, what would you say about Charityworks to a graduate?
It’s an absolutely fantastic programme that will not only develop you as an individual but will also develop you in a professional capacity. I actually say this at any meeting I go to, I really try to sell the Charityworks programme because I’d like to see it expand dramatically. I really try to emphasise that it’s a programme that gives graduates an opportunity to enter a sector that’s notoriously difficult to get involved in.
I would say to a graduate, I know what you’re going through. I applied to I don’t know how many charities when I graduated and the response was “you haven’t got the experience”. Well Charityworks will give you the experience, and in the future if you’re applying for a job in the sector you are able to say, look I did x, y and z, which ties in very nicely with the x, y and z that you’re looking for – hire me. And they’ll have no excuse not to. It’s a brilliant opportunity for graduates looking to make a difference.