People working for charities in their 20s are the modest heroes of our generation

Every working day has a positive impact on the rest of the world

Being in your 20s right now means being roundly condemned as one of the most selfish people on the planet. We’re Generation Me, selfish, entitled, more spoiled than anyone who has ever lived. Sure, we’ve inherited a world that’s rapidly falling to pieces but, as we’re frequently told, that doesn’t excuse our vanity, our narcissism or our egos. In short, we’re irredeemable.

Of course, none of this is really true. Yes, there are spoiled brats on Snapchat and selfish bankers willing to screw over their own grandparents but every generation has its loud attention-seekers. Look beyond them and it won’t take long to find thousands of young professionals who aren’t cashing in their degree for the highest-paying job or selling their soul to corporate city. Instead they’re resolutely set on doing what everyone who calls them selfish and entitled should have been doing in the first place: trying to make the world a better place.

‘The Sundays spent dreading Monday mornings have vanished’

Compared to the flashier graduate recruiters with their extended application periods and aggressive courting of potential hires, the charity sector is relatively low-key. As a result, it can often be hard to know what a job at a charity actually involves: before I lived with an employee of Save The Rhino I’d assumed their 9-5 was mostly spent cold-calling pensioners.

The reality, as with any job, is far more nuanced. In some cases, working for a charity is almost an extension of gap year volunteering, a way to work while travelling the world. Tom, who studied French and Spanish at King’s College London, is currently working in Ghana and although he wouldn’t rule out working in the UK he says he’s enjoying being “in the thick of it”.

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Tom, practicing his basket-balancing skills in Ghana (Photo: Katherine O’Donnell)

“I finish here in July and there’s a full-board opening in Rwanda for two years which looks great,” he says. “Before this I worked in a small marketing start-up. Although I was thankful for the incredible amount I learned while I was there, I was painfully aware that all I was working towards was earning more money for my boss’ pension and paying off the mortgage on his house in Cornwall.”

Instead, Tom is now helping local communities in Ghana. In one instance, he worked with a small group of physically disabled women training them how to make necklaces, bracelets and earrings which they can sell in their shop. In another they set up an apprenticeship scheme between street kids and mentors, helping them develop life skills and gain a sense of personal security. He says working for a charity is immeasurably better than working in a job where his heart just wasn’t in it.

I’ve never felt so motivated to get to the office and work. The Sundays spent dreading Monday mornings have completely vanished. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling seeing things like disabled women learning new skills that might help them be independent for a long time. It’s a satisfaction I know I never got in the private sector.”

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(Photo: Anna Achea-Obuobi)

‘I felt like a privileged white person’

Working for a charity doesn’t have to mean decamping to another continent. For many in the charity sector, a typical London office is a more common work environment than a Ghanaian village. Rather than an exotic locale, it’s the positive impact their work can have which draws graduates in.

Everyone I spoke to who works in the charity sector admitted that although it’s a cliche to say they want to make a difference to the world, it doesn’t make it less true. “From my teens, I’ve always just wanted to help people,” says Tanika, a Funding Coordinator at Saferworld. “When I left uni, with a little bit more knowledge and experience of the world, I knew that I wanted to involve myself in charity work. I’d travelled a little bit and felt like a privileged white person a lot.

“I researched internationally-focused conflict-prevention and peace-building organisations in the UK and Saferworld is one of very few. They had a paid internship available on their funding team so I read everything on their website, wrote an impassioned cover letter and crossed my fingers. Somehow I got an interview and I’ve been working for Saferworld for four years since.”

That determination to make a difference has paid off for Tanika. When war broke out in Yemen last year, the work she was doing helped young people, women and local communities source water and medicine. “Whilst Yemen’s conflict was largely forgotten about on the international scene, we found ways for our charity to stay in the country, support local people and keep their communities together,” she explains. “Even though the conflict continues, I’m really proud we’ve done that.”

Tanika, furthest left

Tanika, furthest left, with the South Caucuses team at Saferworld

Even charities with a focus closer to home provide their workers with the satisfaction which comes from making a difference. Lizzie, a Project Officer at an education charity, says she’s incredibly proud of an online event they launched for schools. “It was the first project of its kind so we were unsure what the level of uptake would be,” she says. “On the day, hundreds of schools joined and Twitter went crazy. It was so amazing to know that our hard work had paid off and that we’d managed to share our message with thousands of young people.”

‘You have to make sure you’re not burning out’

This pride and satisfaction in their work helps explain why so many young people are willing to shun higher-paying career paths for the chance to do something more altruistic. “It’s been refreshing to work in an environment where I know my efforts are not putting money straight into somebody else’s pocket,” Lizzie tells me. “Plus, we aren’t pitted against each other to get results.”

This isn’t to say that working for a charity is easy; as Tanika makes clear there’s plenty of stress and hard graft. “Working with teams in different timezones does not lend itself to a 9-5 existence,” she says, “so you have to watch your own energy levels and make sure you’re not burning out”. When those long days are done though, Tanika and thousands of others like her can look back on their day’s work with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

So much for being an irredeemable generation.

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