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Esther | Executive Aide - INCLUDED

The Charity




Women in Development

Esther Name
Executive Aide to Executive Director

Can you briefly describe your current role, perhaps a typical day?

There is no such thing as a typical day!  As the organisation has changed over the last two years, the tasks that I am working on have also changed. In the first year, my role involved working a lot closer with staff on the ground – discussing details about how programs were run in our community centres, helping programs run smoothly (including calling around friends to see if anyone was free to be a skilled volunteer for one of our programs), attending meetings to explain INCLUDED’s work, writing fundraising proposals and reports, checking impact data, understanding the organisation and strategy from the ground up.  These last few months, my work has become more desk-based and strategic as we build a stronger finance/funding system and infrastructure. 

Despite my previous life as a lawyer being all about words (and definitely not numbers!), I have had the challenge of stepping into a CFO-type role to develop day-to-day and strategic tools which can be used to analyse the financial position and potential of the organisation in an increasingly sophisticated way so that information and analysis can be driven into our fundraising strategy and business planning.
What were your reasons for choosing to work in the charity sector? What brought you to INCLUDED?

My first career was as a finance lawyer in London. I moved to China in 2005 to learn Mandarin for 3 months, and ended up staying for 8 years! There is a great deal of pace and development in China and the Asia market that makes it a compelling and attractive place to be if, like me, you enjoy adventure.  However, what you also find in Asia is more direct exposure to poverty and its effects.  It is difficult to live here and not to want to help make a difference to the lives of those who are disadvantaged because of where they happen to be born.  Early on during my time in China, I went with a group of friends to do Christmas carolling at some grass-root non-profits – it was here that I first came into contact with the situation of rural-urban migrants in China and the dire circumstances that they live in just so that they can be in the city and find work.  This was in stark contrast to the work that I was doing on a daily basis – working at an international law firm closing deals as fast as I could for big players.  

In 2008, I was able to transition to a role as counsel for the International Finance Corporation (the private sector investment arm of the World Bank) and this allowed me to start bringing my work together with a focus on social impact.  Whilst this was an extremely interesting role, particularly because of the close exposure to the business side of investment, I realised that I wanted to get closer to the ground and also broaden the application of my skill set beyond being a lawyer. 
Did you find it difficult to break into the international development sector?

I have been fortunate that it was not too difficult.  One of the key reasons behind this is that I have made those transitions in China. Whilst China’s economic growth in the last few years has led some to argue that China does not need as much development support, there remains a significant amount of real poverty and need.  As a result, there are a lot of on-the-ground development operations and activities, with the variety of jobs that follow.   There is a shortage of local talent in the field, and the supply of strong senior management skill is chasing to keep up with demand.  Therefore, with a solid amount of work experience, there are more opportunities open to those from outside the field than compared to a more mature market such as the UK. In addition, there is quite a well-networked expat community in Beijing (which is continually transitioning) across a broad spectrum of sectors which makes it a good place to make a career change. 
There is often a perception amongst those in the commercial world that charity work is an easier career option, with fewer hours and targets and less stress. Do you think this is true?

From my experience, it is fair to say that I have worked more sensible hours in the charity sector than as a finance lawyer (although this is probably not that significant a feat!).   Hard targets are required to be met (particularly where the organisation is accountable to third parties) and can be tougher to achieve because of stretched resources.  In terms of stress, it very much depends where an individual is working – like the commercial world, there are “easier” roles and “less easy” roles.  For me, working at a small and fast-growing start up charity, the stress is different but very much there.  The stress that I previously experienced related to the weight of expectation and demand for results and time constraints – there was pressure from a need to perform within a system.  The stress that I experience in this job relates more to the feeling of duty and responsibility to provide for our beneficiaries’ needs and for our staff – the pressure is very personal to a specific face or group of people.  In addition, the ability to discharge that duty is made all the more difficult by the lack of resources in the sector.  This kind of stress and the reasons for that stress can often feel a lot more real and less easy to escape. 
What are the challenges you face in your work? What would you say are the benefits you’ve experienced working international development sector?

There have been a couple of more significant challenges that I have faced working at a charity.  As mentioned, the first relates to the lack of resources available.  It has been greatly humbling to be challenged with achieving such important results, yet with so few resources (staff support, monetary resources, strong systems/infrastructure).  My ability to think creatively and out-the-box is stretched on a daily basis to see how limited resources can be used frugally yet efficiently and with maximum impact. 

The second relates to a difference in culture.  Coming from a career where I had always worked in long established multi-national and well-structured organisations, I have found that working in a small organisation in the charity sector in China was quite a shift.   I learned very quickly that over-communication is of extreme importance.   In a small organisation, roles are not able to be as clear-cut as in a large corporate and therefore, it is crucial for good teamwork and not to make assumptions about what other members of the team are or are not doing.  I have been quite bowled away at how clear the day-to-day communications are between our staff that have been in the non-profit sector for a while – their ability to listen and repeat back what they have heard and clarify with questions is at times quite textbook.  By contrast, I have been surprised to discover quite how much does not need to be communicated in large established corporates as a result of the strong systematisation of processes and roles – I have had to work hard to catch up.  In addition, charitable work, by its nature attracts people who have made a choice to be there out of a desire to help those who are disadvantaged – this motivation can mean that their work is very personal to them and I have seen that it is important to be sensitive to recognise this. 
The benefit of working in the international development sector is seeing that you make a difference every day.  This is somewhat of a cliché, but it has been fulfilling for me that I can see regularly that, if I were not in the role that I am doing, that no one else can quite fill that role in the same way. 
A job in the development sector can often mean a more modest salary and sometimes a change in lifestyle. Do you think this is easier for a woman to adjust to these changes?

It is dependent on the individual as to whether or not it is easier to adjust to these changes.  I think that the numbers of women working in development would suggest that it is easier for a woman to adjust.  We have seen with our staff in China that, as our local male staff get to a certain age and level, they comment on the pressure that they face to seek out a position which will allow them to be in a position to get married.  This is very much as a result of the culture here that men are expected to provide for their families and also their aging parents.  Whilst the expectations in China are still fairly traditional, it must be recognised that this kind of pressure still has bearings in all societies.  However, this is gradually changing as traditional gender roles continue to be broken down.  A career in development is seen as an attractive option by both men and women, despite the more modest salary and change in lifestyle. 
Is it common for women in China to have leadership roles in an international development organisation?

There are many women in China who are in leadership roles in international development organisations.  From a local perspective, this may be for the reasons mentioned above (that there is still a strong cultural expectation that men will have monetarily successful careers which women may not be as bound to).  In China, the non-profit sector is still young and not well understood.  We will always ask potential recruits what their family thinks of their choice to work in the charity sector, as we have seen in many situations that staff without family support will not be able to stay in the non-profit sector for long.  If the potential employee is male, then this is culturally an increased issue.  Whilst the senior management of INCLUDED is majority male at present, this is noted as quite unusual and, in previous years, the senior management has been mostly female.
Does your role involve travel to project sites?  Have you ever had greater access to places or people, as a result of being a woman? 

My role requires that I spend a lot of time in the office and in meetings in Beijing.  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to visit our operations in Nepal and Bangladesh. However, I do enjoy travelling to our community centres in Beijing, and find that it is important in order to keep the ground level perspective as an active part of decision making.   The migrants who are in the communities that we work with in China are always friendly and open, regardless of whom the visitor is.  The question that I do often get when meeting with migrant mothers in our communities is, “Are you married? Do you have children?” and then some shock when they realise that I am in my 30’s and not yet married with children!
What are the main issues facing women in China and the development world? Do you think development programmes are adequately addressing these issues?

Generally, the challenges facing men and women in China and the development world are not so different (although this may not be as true in more rural areas).  The local sector is largely dominated by government-supported non-profits, and there are an increasing number of smaller, independent charities.  It is hoped that the sector will open up more in the next few years and become more developed.  In turn, this will attract more resources, as there is an increasing understanding of the development sector.  For those working in the field, it is clear that increased salaries and benefits will make development a more sustainable career choice.  However, there is also a need for training resources, to equip staff well to deal with challenges in their work, and have opportunities for personal development.
What qualities do you feel one needs to have a successful career in international development?

Have is a good balance between having confidence in your own view, and yet also keeping an open perspective that there may be different ways to look at a situation.  There are a lot more grey areas in international development – methods of getting things done, and what effective solutions look like.  A great deal is done through partnership in the development field.   Resilience and perseverance to keep going even when there are set-backs is important – you need to get used to hearing “no”, but then finding solutions. 

Who or what has been the greatest influence/inspiration on your career in development?

Without doubt, the greatest inspiration to my work are the staff that I work with on a daily basis.  Working in development is very much going against the grain for our staff in China – many of them live a more difficult life because of their choice to work in this field (questions from family and friends as to why they have chosen a work which is not related to building careers and status, living on the outskirts of the city close to our migrant communities, lower salaries than they can command in other lines of work), yet they show immense dedication to giving all their skill, effort and friendship to the migrants that we work with.  The same is true of our staff in Nepal and Bangladesh – what they do is so much more than work.  One of the migrant slums in Kathmandu that we were working with was suddenly demolished one morning last year, and many families were left homeless and with nowhere to go.  Our staff worked long days on the ground to help the families find shelter and set up an emergency community centre to give children a safe place to go.
What advice would you give to other women considering starting a career in the field?

Working in the development sector is greatly fulfilling, although it is not easy, particularly if you come from the corporate world.  Adjust your expectations and be prepared to keep adjusting.  I spent a lot of time considering the pros and cons before taking on my current role, but living the reality is more than I could have been prepared for. I spent the first few months constantly questioning why certain processes were done a certain way and how decisions were made, before I realised that I was trying to move the organisation’s systems and processes to replicate systems that I was already familiar with.  Instead, I realised that we should be looking at a more tailored approach for the organisation based on resources available.  In particular, our mantra this year has been about simplicity and, this means not trying to replicate the most sophisticated processes available, but finding the most simple yet impactful method based on the specific current and future needs of the organisation.  
Despite the challenges, it is important to keep returning to why the choice was made to work in the development world (for me, this means spending time with our staff who are on the ground and hearing their stories).  Otherwise, my advice is to make the transition recognising that moving into development is not a one-way street – as with any career, it is important to keep developing skills to stay marketable in a wider field – to stay, in development-speak, sustainable!