Profile: Morenikeji Okeowo on the Professional Social Sector Author: Amy Pettipher     
Date: 17th January 2017

Keji shares highlights of her career in the social sector and outlines the skills and professional opportunities that getting paid to change the world opens up.



Please tell us a little bit about your background in this sector

At 16, I saw a lack of development opportunities for myself and others; I wanted to empower young people to have an active voice and take action on the issues most important to them. So, in 2000,  I joined CityZEN – a youth-led organisation, formed by young people living in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, as a team we wanted to create ‘positive inner city vibes’ through our projects and peers. It was our goal to create long-term opportunities for ourselves and others

I joined CityZEN as a volunteer peer educator and at 18  and became a managing director,  with the support of our one experienced adult staff member Steve Curtis.  I learned on the job and over time became responsible for grants, volunteer management, recruit and training and the general running of the office; HR, finance and IT.  I regularly trained and managed teams of peer educators and project coordinators, who in turn worked directly with young volunteers delivering borough-wide youth engagement programmes funded by LB Hackney, housing association, summer universities and the GLA.

I later joined the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services as the Development Officer for Young people’s skills; soon after joining I became the Youth Participation Manager, managing the Young Partners Project, a five-year Big Lottery-funded programme aimed to support and develop youth participation across the Voluntary and Community Youth Sector. The project was steered by a network of 350+ young people, 11 regionally based part-time staff (aged 18 – 25) and a full-time staff team of five.  Through my work at NCVYS, I have had many opportunities to work on a national and international level developing youth policy, creating youth programmes and sharing best practice.

What sorts of skills and strengths are important to making a successful career in the sector?

Given the roles I have held in the last 16 years, I think you need to have good management and leadership skills.  I have recruited, and line managed teams of part-time and full-time staff, many of whom have been aged between 16 – 26.  

As a manager, who primarily employs young people, I think you need above all else excellent communication and leadership skills. You should also be skilled in project management, line management and coaching.  I believe that more time should be built into supporting younger staff members on both a professional and personal level.  This support starts from before they join the organisation and as a result, I have enjoyed designing and implementing robust, creative and transparent recruitment and selection process which enables staff and young people to have a meaningful and understood role in the process.

NCVYS worked with over 350 organisations, across England and the Young Partners project spanned all nine English regions. As a result, I developed skills in stakeholder engagement and volunteer management.  Though not stated in my job description, having event management skills is a must, I have managed and hosted many national and regional, training residentials,  award ceremonies, conferences and best practice sharing events.  

How good do you think the opportunities are in this sector, compared to say the public and private?

There are vast opportunities across this sector, particularly middle management and operational levels.  I can’t say the same for senior, director-level roles, though I am noticing an increase in new charities and social enterprises, by individuals under the age of 30, which brings with it new leadership, ideas and innovation (which is always a good thing). Salary wise, in comparison to my previous roles,  I have noticed that organisations are requiring more hours per week and paying less than what I started on.   It’s hard to compare to the private sector, as I have limited experience, but from what I hear of others that do, I think the VCS offers greater flexibility and more time to those with young families.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

It’s hard to say as there have been so many. I’ve worked with some fantastic organisations and individuals.  I have had the opportunity to work with Tibet House and host a conference for over 10,000 young people to meet the Dalai Lama in Manchester.  I went to Japan as part of the UK delegation on the FY2012 Core Leaders programme to share best practice and learn from others around the world. I have hosted and managing countless youth training residentials across England and learned something new each time.

A significant highlight of my career has been the opportunity to work with talented and dedicated staff team and young people. It’s been a real pleasure to have worked with and achieved so much with a mixed team of staff and volunteers.

How reflective do you think this sector is of the diversity profile of wider society?

In my experience, the sector is quite representative at delivery and management level, if we are only focusing on gender and ethnicity, though I think you will find more women in the sector.  However, I believe that this is less so at CEO level,  especially if looking at ethnicity as there are very few CEOs from BAME backgrounds. I’m not sure why, given the broader organisational makeup of the many organisations  I have come across.  

What are the main obstacles to getting more people from a BAME background into the sector, how can we address these?

I think for many young people who are trying to figure out what to study at university or even what to do with their degrees once they graduate. The voluntary sector, doesn’t readily come to mind.

This is may be because they have limited knowledge and awareness of the potential impact their work could have on the lives of others as well as potential career pathways and earnings. Greater emphasises is placed on them to get a career in the city or to become a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant by family and friends. Such views are extremely limiting and often a distraction to great talent and leadership entering the VCS.

In my case, while my dad knew that I worked with young people, he was never quite clear about why I did and why I chose to work for a charity. He would often make comments like ‘why don’t you try and work for a bank or have you tried working for the government’. I think in my dad’s case, it was about being able to tell others that I work in a profession which is recognisable and secure. I believe the VCS is often viewed as a sector which is less financially stable and professional.

What next?  it’s important to let people know through programmes like Charity works and through guidance at school and university that you can have a wealth of careers in the third sector, it isn’t just about volunteering. People are often surprised by how competitive the salary and fees can be in this sector. The third sector needs and has the same transferable functional and creative roles required in the private and public sector.

As the recruitment window for Charityworks opens, have you got any tips to anyone thinking of applying, especially from a BAME background?


Be willing to share your skills and be open to learning, the support you will get from the KOREO team and the organisations you will work with, will inevitably open doors and offer opportunities to network and make a difference to the lives of others. Being on the Charityworks programme does not mean that you will only have a career in the voluntary sector, the skills you will gain, are transferable and valuable across sectors.


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