Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector
1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?
I’m the Commercial Director for the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA). I joined in November 2017 so I am still learning about the huge positive impact the organisation has on the lives of so many. The IWA works with and on behalf of people with physical disability to drive positive change in Ireland. My role over the next few years is to help IWA to become the leading social enterprise in Ireland. It’s a very exciting time to join IWA with lots of positive change taking place and amazing people. My role encompasses fundraising, communications, retail, sponsorship and the wider commercial opportunities within our services.
2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced this decision?
I’ve a background in marketing and sales. I started my career in sales promotion for FMCG brands such as Guinness, Knorr, Mars and Lynx. I then joined an ad agency and eventually ended up as a marketing manager. My big career break came when I combined the marketing and sales roles and became the Commercial Manager for Tropicana Orange Juice. At the time it was a €35M brand and I headed a team of 20 sales and marketing staff. Very exciting and well paid but ultimately I really didn’t get much fulfilment from it.
In 2005, I volunteered on a trip taking children from an orphanage in Nairobi to Mombasa for a holiday with Refugee Trust International (now VITA). It changed my perspective on what my career should be about. On my return, I landed a job as Head of Fundraising, Communications and Volunteers for Dublin Simon Community. I then joined the Irish Heart Foundation as Head of Fundraising & Marketing and stayed for six years. It was a fantastic role and I really enjoyed helping to build a successful fundraising team raising money which helped change the course of Stroke Care in Ireland. I then joined the international aid agency GOAL which was an extraordinary exciting and dynamic place to work. I worked with some of the most amazing humanitarians on the globe and also met some truly inspiring donors who helped create real change.
I moved to IWA because it offers me the opportunity to bring all my commercial, marketing, fundraising and management skills to a role with huge potential. The IWA is already the leading disability organisation in Ireland but has the potential to effect even greater positive change in the coming years.
3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?
It’s a cliché to say but it’s all about the people. Although I’ve only been here a couple of months, the people I work with are hugely enthusiastic, committed and hardworking but also know how to have fun. It’s a great place to work and the IWA proudly has people at the heart of our values and unlike some organisations, it’s already evident to me that IWA, really does live its values.
4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?
At the moment the scope of my role is very wide. The key challenge is to prioritise which tasks will have the biggest impact in the shortest time. The IWA has been a progressive and successful not-for-profit for over fifty years but it’s been quietly successful, so one of my main tasks is to build our profile with the general public. I want to help them to understand the breadth of our work and most importantly demonstrate the huge positive impact IWA has on the lives of our members – roughly 20,000 people!
5. How do you relax?
Since I joined IWA, I’ve resumed my footballing career with a five-aside game with my colleagues! I do a little running “every so often”. I’m still a taxi service for my children’s sporting activities but I really enjoy watching their matches and races. I find it very difficult to stay silent on the side lines but I’m working on that. I’ve been threatening to take golf seriously for years but 2018 could very well be the year!!
6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?
My role in the IWA is a commercial role, focusing on the income generating capacity of the IWA, so a good understanding of business, sales and marketing are essential. In all the roles I’ve had in the NFP sector, I realise now that entrepreneurial skills including get-up and go, creativity, resilience, risk-taking and a willingness to work very hard are all essential. Good communication is essential also, especially when presenting or pitching. I think the fact that I like presenting to both large and small groups is a real advantage. Finally, you mustn’t take yourself too seriously!
7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?
The economy has improved and there are a large number of jobs available in the sector. So firstly, don’t rush to get “a job”. Take your time figuring out what are the things you like to do. Are you an analyst or a presenter? Are you really good with numbers or more of a writer? The old saying find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life is really true and therefore make sure you find out as much as possible about the organisation. Secondly, try and get to know the people you’ll be working with. You’ll spend more waking hours in the week with these people than you will with your partner or family – find the right people and then the role, no matter what it is, will be good for you.
8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“Nobody knows what’s coming around the corner. You can only plan for what you believe will happen and then adjust to the reality”. There is risk in every decision you make as a business leader and early on in my management career, I’d often spend too much time analysing all the potential pitfalls of a decision. This made me less decisive which as a manager is the biggest failing. Making a decision because you believe it’s right and executing it to the best of your ability is better than making no decision at all. It might not turn out as you expected but it beats not taking action.
People mostly regret the things they didn’t do!!
9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
I have often been focused on the great feeling of hitting the financial targets each month or each year. Securing a grant of €2.5M from Atlantic Philanthropies for the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) for our Stroke Awareness Programme was a real highlight. But my career moment was two years later, meeting a man who survived a stroke because he saw the IHF’s ACT FAST Stroke Awareness advert on television. He told me that he wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for the fact that he saw the ad and realised he was having a stroke. Knowing that my work directly impacted his life and hundreds of others like him was definitely the highpoint.
I was also really lucky to travel and see the work of GOAL in India, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. Meeting the people who GOAL help and meeting the Goalies working all around the world will always stay with me!
10. What are your career aspirations?
In the medium term I’m determined to deliver a massive increase in the income of the Irish Wheelchair Association. There are a number of big commercial opportunities and corporate partnerships that I’d like to secure. I’d also like to see the IWA Commercial Directorate grow and thrive both as a team and as individuals.
In the future, I see myself as a CEO of a large not-for-profit in Ireland or internationally. But I’ve also learned “nobody knows what’s coming around the corner”!
If you’re interested in taking part in the ‘My Charity Career’ interview series, please contact Laura at [email protected].