I used to write about my awesome job quite often, so today I’ll write about my considerably-less-awesome job hunt instead. I’m sharing this tortured tale to ensure that everybody with a stable and happy work life can remind themselves of how good they’ve got it. I have found it incredibly difficult to not have a job. I have loved my work in recent years and I’ve taken a huge amount of personal and professional pride in what I’ve achieved – to no longer have that is really challenging.
When we moved to New Zealand I knew that I was unlikely to walk straight into a job in my field, largely because the world of corporate community investment is smaller and less mature here, which reduces the number of dedicated jobs in companies. Also, a big proportion of Kiwi business are small and medium-sized, and are very unlikely to do much more than a bit of fundraising for a local cause – not much scope for developing large strategic partnerships there, and even less scope for hiring a dedicated person to manage things.
Over the past few years I’ve told people that my dream job would be to return to NZ and manage community engagement for the New Zealand Rugby Union, to more effectively harness the great influence and appeal of the All Blacks in NZ society. I am a very passionate rugby fan and I’ve seen firsthand how effectively elite sport can work cooperatively with sensible charities to achieve amazing outcomes, particularly when working with young people. So imagine, if you will, the delight with which I spied a job vacancy at the NZRU within a few weeks of our arrival: Stakeholder and Community Relations Manager. Hurrah! The one downside of the role was that the NZRU is in Wellington, whereas I am in Auckland, but I figured that I could be down there for a few days each week, and I knew that this kind of job would involve a lot of time out of the office.
I did a lot of research and prep work, and then put together what Tristan and I thought was a very strong application – my background and experience fitted their ‘person specification’ perfectly, so it wasn’t too difficult. And I figured that it might be helpful to include some testimonials about my work, given that NZ is a small place and the NZRU were likely to know a lot of my competitor applicants, so I included some amazingly kind and generous written references from colleagues at charities with which I had worked in recent years.
And… I didn’t even get an interview. I got one of those ‘very strong application, but we were overwhelmed by great candidates’ responses. I was pretty gutted – given the relative immaturity of my field in this country, it was surprising to hear that there were hordes of better qualified candidates (although Tristan and his colleagues instantly concluded that the NRZU will have had a candidate lined up for the job from the start – the world of sport is a bit like that). So I wallowed for a while and then decided that I had to get over it. And I rationalised it: the job was in the wrong city anyway, and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do – it had a big focus on community rugby, whereas my interest was more about how best to utilise the influence of the elite players.
While I was going through that application process one of Tristan’s colleagues saw a charity chief executive role advertised, so I applied for that as well. It wasn’t really my thing, though: it was an organisation that provided fulfilled wishes for dying children. A real feel-good cause, but as anybody who knows me professionally will confirm, I feel that children’s charities, while undoubtedly worthy, get a disproportionate amount of support when compared with many other equally worthy causes. Just as well I wasn’t really up for it, seeing as how I didn’t get an interview for that one either!
After a lull of a few weeks (spent getting the house organised), I put in an application for another charity chief executive role. This one was much more my kind of thing: the charity works to provide secondary school students with broader knowledge about career opportunities. It does this by organising an annual day of workplace visits, where small groups of students are sent to a specific business and learn all about the careers on offer. This is a pretty helpful thing to do, in my experience: most teenagers are totally unaware of the breadth of career opportunities available to them. At my last job we’d host visits from students who assumed that every single person in a law firm was a lawyer, and that all lawyers spent every day in court, dealing with criminals. We’d tell them that the firm employed everybody from event organisers to pastry chefs (and people like me, who gave the firm’s money away and encouraged everybody to volunteer), and they couldn’t believe it.
This charity’s trustee board is chaired by a woman who owns her own recruitment company and the charity is based in her company’s office, so one of her recruitment consultants was responsible for handling the vacancy. I duly submitted my application, had a preliminary telephone interview, and ended up being one of five people in the shortlist for a more formal interview.
Unsurprisingly, I did a fair degree of preparation for my interview. During the past four years I’d been involved with a variety of youth education and employability charities, so I felt reasonably confident that I had a good grasp of the way that this kind of organisation can function in order to support young people and give them better access to career advice. As I learned about the charity’s current activities I realised that there was a huge amount untapped potential – its offering didn’t seem to extend beyond organising this annual event, and there were so many ways that it could broaden the scope of its work and provide even more support. I learned that there was no other charity in New Zealand attempting to provide students with career guidance, so I thought that this was an exciting opportunity.
I was particularly interested to learn about the charity’s relationships with its corporate supporters. It seemed to me to be a fairly implausible business plan: the charity was, in effect, asking a business to host a group of students for a day-long visit, and also pay an annual fee for the privilege of being involved. At the firm we would host workplace visits from students, some of which were organised through charities, but no charity ever tried to charge us for it – on the contrary, they tended to be hugely thankful that we were willing to get involved. If a charity had attempted to charge me for my firm’s participation, I was have politely declined and would have then telephoned a secondary school and arranged the event directly with them (and that’s actually the model I developed at the firm, which led to us building a very strong relationship with a local secondary school). I couldn’t help but wonder whether the charity’s current business supporters would reach a similar conclusion eventually and realise that they were being charged for no reason. Interestingly, the charity had been operating in this way for more than 15 years – this gave me a good insight into the relative immaturity of the community engagement activities of the corporate supporters.
Analysis of the list of business supporters (helpfully provided on the charity’s website for the past five years) seemed to indicate that the attrition rate was fairly high: every year a decent number of new supporters would come on board, but a large number of previous supporters would also drop out. This seemed bonkers to me. I’ve got no great background as a salesperson, but even I know that gaining new business is much more challenging than retaining past business. I started thinking about how I would reposition the charity to retain corporate supporters, which would reduce the need to endlessly win new support – thus giving the staff more time and energy to invest in actually running the charity and further developing its work.
So I trotted off to my interview armed with a huge number of ideas to take things forward. The recruitment consultant and I had a good chat, but it was a frustrating interview in a lot of ways: the consultant didn’t actually know enough about the inner workings of the charity to answer a lot of my questions. Nobody is going to consider leading an organisation without understanding its funding structure, for example, but the consultant could only provide me with very limited information, and for 75% of my questions she told me that I would have to wait and ask that again ‘at the next interview’.
She told me that the other candidates for the role had strong sales and sponsorship experience, and asked me whether I thought I was disadvantaged in that regard. I told her that, although I didn’t have dedicated experience in a sales role, I did have experience of ‘selling’ my ideas – specifically to the partners of my firm, to ensure their ongoing support – and that my success had been demonstrated by the fact that my programme had continued to grow and develop in a economy that saw many firms and companies wind down their community affairs strategies, or cut them entirely. I also made the point that, while I didn’t fancy my chances when it came to selling something like photocopiers, I had full confidence in selling this kind of thing: I knew what I was talking about. And I mentioned the high attrition rate and suggested that the focus could be shifted away from constant selling, and more towards relationship management, to keep corporate supporters. I explained how I would do that – by turning this organisation into the kind of ‘brand name’ charity that is difficult for corporate supporters to refuse. I’ve seen this done successfully in the UK and I know that it works. I’d also increase government support and get government funding, which would both reduce the need to charge corporate supporters a fee for taking part in the event, and increase the opportunity to involve SMEs and sole traders (both of which make up a large proportion of the NZ business world, and neither of which would be likely to shell out $1,500 to join in).
The consultant seemed very keen on all of this and I left the interview feeling reasonably confident that I would be invited back. It turns out that this confidence was misplaced – I didn’t get shortlisted. I had a fairly fractious conversation with the recruiter and asked her where my application was seen to be lacking. Apparently, it was my lack of sales and sponsorship experience. I pointed out, again, that I could present a clear strategy to explain how to take things forward, but it was a waste of time. The consultant was working to the ‘person specification’ set by the charity’s trustee board and, as she didn’t actually know enough about the cause herself, she wasn’t able to challenge their assumptions about what they thought they needed. At this point in the conversation I told the consultant that I was sorely tempted to set up my own rival education charity, just to show these punters how well things could be run!
It was SO frustrating, party people. That charity is achieving merely a small proportion of what could be done to help young people. There were so many ways that it could be strengthened, but I can guarantee that nothing will change while its trustee board lacks imagination. And the most frustrating thing for me was that I didn’t actually get to have a conversation with anybody who worked for the charity throughout the entire process. That’s a really dumb way to recruit your organisation’s leader, in my opinion.
As you can probably gather from the venom and vitriol of the last few paragraphs, I was pretty annoyed about this knock-back. There was some wailing and gnashing of teeth, believe me. The thing that freaked me out was that this seemed like a sign that people here Just Don’t Get It, which made me wonder how on earth I’d find anything to do. I had two big problems: there were hardly any jobs available; and nobody wanted me for the jobs that did come up! Like most people I’m not blessed with endless reserves of self-confidence, and things were starting to take their toll.
However, I’m feeling better about things now. The week after the Great Education Charity Drama, I had a very good meeting with the director of Volunteering Auckland and discovered that she and I are totally on the same page. Most corporate volunteering in New Zealand is still in the ‘send out a team of people to do some gardening’ stage, and she (and I) would like to encourage more companies to think about how their employees’ skills could be used to help charities and community groups. She’s also keen to explore ways to support SMEs to engage with their communities and develop corporate social responsibility strategies, which is something I’ve had some exposure through by working with Heart of the City in London. I’ve offered my services to her organisation on a pro bono basis and I think I stand to learn a lot from her, and discover how the world is working over here.
A week or so after that I spotted an article in a legal magazine that talked about the newly-formed Coalition of Community Law Centres o Aotearoa. At the firm we worked with three community law centres and I felt like I might be able to add some value to this new organisation, by helping to ensure the legal sector to provide additional support, so I cold-called the guy chairing it and had a good chat with him. We arranged to have a meeting and, a couple of days before it was due to take place, he called me back to say that he’d been talking to his company’s head of CSR (he works for a big energy company), and would I like to meet him as well? I ended up meeting the two of them separately and they were both very knowledgeable and interesting. I’ve since spent a few hours working on a project with the law centres guy – he’s setting up a pilot version of a pro bono brokerage in Wellington (and this is something that I had in mind to do, which is serendipitious), so I’ve been sorting out the presentation for an upcoming meeting with law firm partners, to win their support.
The corporate meeting was excellent and I hope that it may lead to some consultancy work for me in the future – the company is doing good things already, but I gave them a long list of opportunities to consider. It also sounds like there could be a full-time role there at some point, but I’m not holding my breath about jobs anymore!
Long story short: it’s not easy to develop a career in a country where your field is small. However, I’m starting to feel more confident that, with the help of like-minded people (and the do exist here, despite my initial fears), I will be able to achieve good things. At the moment I like the idea of working on a consultancy basis, with one or two corporate clients to at a time. This would enable me to spend some of my time working pro bono for good causes, like Volunteering Auckland and the Coalition (and the new brokerage). I know that my focus would be reasonably specific: to assist businesses with their community engagement strategies. So I’m spending my time reading research, talking to people, and looking for chances to get involved. I have time on my hands at the moment, so I figure that I’m better off doing good work for free, rather than sitting around and bemoaning my lack of paid work. I feel hopeful that the money will follow when people realise what I have to offer.
I’m also determined to do some writing, but that is a topic for another post…