“Real life begins after work,” a former colleague – government employee by day, band musician by night – told me in my first job. Indeed, I have met many people who are good at what they do, but to whom a job is, well, just a job. Occasionally, though, I meet people who speak of their work with a spark in their eyes or excitement in their voice. I met them while working at a philanthropic foundation: social entrepreneurs, charity staff, journalists, designers, and filmmakers with ideas about improving society and the drive to make them happen. Many founded or worked at small/medium-sized social impact organizations.
The idea of working at such organizations in the UK did not initially cross my mind, however. When I left Hong Kong for London last fall to pursue an MSc Social Anthropology degree at the LSE, I imagined my weeks to be filled with volunteering and internship. After all, London is home to many large, well-known social impact organizations with a global reach. Despite having subscribed to the e-newsletters of many such charities, social enterprises, consultancies, and thinktanks, they remained “faceless”. What are the “vibes” of working there? Do you have to be white and/or have grown up in the UK, or even have gone to certain types of schools, to fit in? I had no idea. If I found it hard to visualize working at these well-known organizations, the lesser-known (but impactful) ones have not even entered my radar.
I quickly put aside these internship plans due to Covid and my academic workload, but jumped at the chance when the LSE Volunteer Centre organized an eight-week Community Engagement Programme (CEP). I became a volunteer student consultant on the issue of educational inequality and widening participation in the UK, teaming up with six amazing undergraduate and postgraduate students from diverse backgrounds (Dhruv, Kiana, Surya, Wasim, Zaynab, Zhiai) and a very dedicated mentor (Marc). We worked with the team of a small/medium-sized social mobility charity that provides tutoring, coaching, and support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK. We discussed the charity’s organizational growth and fundraising strategies, and provided recommendations on programme development based on the surveys, focus groups, and desktop research we conducted.
Studying anthropology constantly reminds me how our subjectivities and behaviour are shaped by even mundane, everyday social interactions, hence the significance of workplace environments in which we spend so much of our lives. The right people and right culture can help us thrive. Through CEP, I worked for the first time with the founder and key staff of a small/medium-sized UK charity. This gave me a sense of the motivations, inclusiveness, openness to learning and collaboration, and dynamics at the organization. The team’s enthusiasm, youthfulness, and sense of purpose reminded me of the changemakers I enjoyed working with, and how working at small/medium-sized social impact organizations can be exhilarating and rewarding even while challenging. Seeing the team’s diversity and meeting the British Asian founder & CEO also offered an encouraging example of working in the UK social impact sector as a member of BAME communities.
This engagement and its feedback loops furthermore enabled me to assess my own knowledge and skills on social impact built up in Hong Kong in line with global developments, which gave me a reassuring sense of their transferability to the UK and other contexts. All in all, the CEP experience helped flesh out, and shine a positive light on, the hazy picture I had in my head of working in social impact organizations in the UK, especially small/medium-sized ones. I feel more confident and interested in potentially exploring this as a career option, in the search for work where “real life” happens within office hours.
Besides working with the charity, I learned a lot from working virtually during Covid lockdown with an amazing team from 6 disciplines across 3 time zones 13 hours apart (from left to right, top to bottom): Dhruv, Marc (mentor), Zhiai, Lorraine, Surya, Kiana, Wasim, Zaynab