Anna Clarke: Challenge Event Coordinator at AIDs Orphan
HER BACK STORY
On paper, a degree in English Literature and a job as Challenge Event Coordinator for the non-profit organisation, AIDs Orphan, don’t seem to go hand in hand. But Anna Clarke is part of a growing group of young people who are stretching their Arts and Humanities degrees as far as possible.
“When I was at uni, I didn’t have any career aspirations as such. Everything was so new, and I was so involved in what I was actually studying, that I never put much thought into a career,” she says over a coffee at London Grind.
“So why did you decide to study English Literature?”
“I’d always loved English, and my teacher at school was one of the most inspirational people I’d ever known,” she explains simply.
Before reading English at King’s, though, Anna worked her way through various career dreams: from ancient historian and archaeologist (with a particular interest in the Ancient Egyptians) at age 10, to actress in her early teens, to professional classical singer by age 17. Seesawing aspirations, for sure, and a pattern plenty of young people can relate to – after all, when you leave school and are trying to cement your identity, passions, and values, it’s difficult trying to pin down what career you would like to pursue for the rest of your life.
Anna suggests that a big part of this uncertainty is due to the troubling connotations of the word ‘career’ itself, and she doesn’t use ‘career’ when talking about her current job.
“When I came to AIDs Orphan, I didn’t think, ‘This is going to be my career’, I just thought, ‘I know I can do a good job of this and I know I can help these people’. To me, a ‘career’ was the grad schemes, and not something I would necessarily enjoy, so I just carried on following my heart and didn’t say no to any opportunities, and ultimately that’s how I ended up here.”
The pressures associated with the word ‘career’ can be draining. For ambitious millennials, it often means ticking boxes: internships, work experience, gruelling applications and interviews. It’s a daunting word for most people, and even more so for the many young people who – understandably, at such a young age and fresh into the workforce – have no idea what they want to do.
But Anna recognises how her parents encouraged in her a sense of realism and curiosity in the adult world, something she feels has shaped her values in her life and work today.
“My brother and I never received undue praise. It was given if we did something good, but never dwelt upon beyond reasonable limits,” she explains. “So I think we grew up with a very strong understanding of our place in the world. Our achievements were great, but ultimately we could be better as well, underneath it all. We automatically had an interest in bigger ideas and bigger subjects.”
At thirteen years old, Anna started working for a woman at a local teashop, Ruby Tuesdays, in her hometown of Looe, and she reflects fondly on the lessons she learned from her: “She’s one of the very few people I’ve come across in that sort of capacity who is a fully good-hearted person – kind, considerate, very understanding, very sensitive. And while that isn’t necessarily the best in a business sense, I think it taught me that ultimately kindness goes a lot further than the traditional, ‘I’m managing you, you do what I want’ attitude.”
HER BIG BREAK
Having been asked by the founder of AIDs Orphan to lead a challenge event in her third and final year at university, the job offer that followed post-graduation was too irresistible to turn down. Not that she didn’t try out other things before settling into her current role.
“I spent a few months dipping in and out of internships, trying my hand at PR and marketing and orchestra management. But ultimately I couldn’t draw away from the success of what we’d done with the challenge event and how much better I could make it if I could devote myself to it full time.”
Her attitude post-graduation was a positive one – saying yes to every opportunity that came her way. “Every time there was an opening for an internship, or some other part-time work, I said, ‘Yes, I will do it.’ And I had a really good time, trying out different jobs and roles. But nothing came close to my experience with AIDs Orphan. In the first year we had raised £65,000, and there was a potential to triple that, so it was a no-brainer really.”
Often undergraduate students will get involved with voluntary initiatives at university, as Anna did, joining various societies that support non-profit organisations and raising funds and awareness for the charity. However, for a lot of students it seems to stop there, and Anna thinks it’s important that these young people are encouraged to think about working for non-profits post-graduation. She works closely with students on a daily basis and recognises the potential energy and expertise they can offer to the sector.
“I really love the people I work with. I wake up looking forward to going to meetings with young people who are so inspired and caring, so willing to put their own time and intellect and thought into helping other people,” she explains passionately. “There’s a huge misconception that young people care about nothing but themselves – that they’re career driven, and only focused on money – but that’s not true. There is an abundance of young people willing to help, and the charity sector needs to work harder to get these inspired individuals working for nonprofits. They’ll get involved at uni and love it but don’t see it as a career, and that needs to change.”
HER SUCCESS SECRETS
As a small organisation, Anna and her colleagues currently work from home, with intermittent meetings around London. I ask her how she finds the inspiration and self-motivation to work remotely instead of in an office environment.
“I wake up and I always note down my hours, because I’m scared of not working enough. I’ve gotten used to treating weekdays as working days. I’m very careful to work at my desk, too, and I’d never take my computer and sit on the sofa and watch TV at the same time. In my mind, work and home are separate even though they’re in the same environment, and it’s just become routine. And even though I’m on flexi-hours and I don’t have to work 9-to-5, I do because it’s when everyone else is awake, and they’re the most productive hours.”
Ultimately, the biggest motivator for her is the end product: the fact she’s not just working for herself, but for other people. And that’s where her professional happiness comes from, too. “I was very fortunate and was able to go over to Kenya to meet the children, and see the progress that has been made since I started with the charity. That’s the motivation – it’s very easy, day-to-day, to sit at your desk and get tied up in the little things. But if I take ten minutes to sit back, make a cup of tea, and look at the photos I’ve taken and remember the experiences I’ve had… it just brings it all back and makes me realise that ultimately we’re doing a good job and helping people.’”
The job and sector aren’t without their challenges, however. Although not-for-profit is one of the biggest employers of women, when you get to CEO level the balance favours men once again. Beyond that, Anna is frustrated by the way charity is stereotyped.
“We are widely pigeonholed: charity is “cutesy” and charity is “feminine”, and it’s about fundraising and baking. That’s what it’s become, and it’s come under so much ridicule because of it. It’s frustrating because stereotypes like this prevent many talented young people from thinking about a job in the nonprofit sector.”
There’s also the often-asked question about donations, and why people should pledge money to a charity when a percentage will be cut for administration fees (rather than giving their money straight to the source). Anna has a perfect reply to these attacks: “The one thing I can say when it comes to donating to charity is, ‘Would you rather have £20, buy £20 worth of food, and then feed the orphanage, or would you rather have £20 and pay for a few hours of work that will generate £2000 for a project?’ But it comes under so much scrutiny – do other businesses and startups come under that kind of scrutiny?”
Anna has big aspirations for AIDs Orphan over the next two years. She doesn’t see herself leaving anytime soon.
“It has so much potential and there are still so many more people we can reach out to!”, she exclaims enthusiastically. “The next thing I’d like to accomplish is a big ask: my boss mentioned it to me a few months ago and I initially thought, “No, that’s not going to happen”, but I’ve come around to the idea. Namely, we want to reach a million pounds fundraising, which means we’ll have to quadruple in the next two years, but I think we’re ready for it.”
Whilst she’s not a believer in five-year plans, this is a concrete strategy for the organisation that will help change children’s lives. Aside from that, she’s not planning too far ahead – and her reasons behind this thinking will resonate with many young people.
“Trying to plan ahead and determine where my life was going to go caused me more stress than it provided solutions. For me, it’s about focusing on short-term goals and focusing on doing the best that I can now, and seeing where that takes me.”
For now, then, she’s enjoying the thrill of her first salaried job and the very real difference her work is making: “It’s amazing to have the freedom to make my own decisions, and have people say yes to my ideas and respect them. It’s also pretty wonderful to know that every minute of hard work I put in is a minute more given to these projects and to the children we’re helping. It’s a really incredible feeling – and something I would hands down encourage other young graduates to consider.”