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Mark - programme director for an NGO
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Name: Mark
PhD discipline: Philosophy
Area(s) of work: NGO; university teaching
Year of graduation: 2006
Date of Interview: 24/06/2008

Now Playing: Mark - programme director for an NGO
Mark describes his current role as a director within an NGO.

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What's your current position?

I currently work for a non-government organisation, an NGO based in London and I'm – how would I describe myself? I'm the director of one of my organisation's four programmes which is based on training, mainly public servants but also other people in developing nations on public sector ethics, especially in the context of corruption, so it's an anti-corruption integrity building NGO and my programme's focused on public service corruption integrity building. 

How do you do that?

For my programme we design courses and various other kinds of interventions for public service servants to try to increase their ethical competence to increase their ability to find out or observe what dilemmas that they face ethically and get some critical thinking going about that. Then we give them some tools and skills on being able to solve those dilemmas especially in the context of the relevant values and laws that make up their institution. Then post course to support them to set up workplace anti-corruption initiatives in their agency.

Who funds the courses and the work that you do?

We got most of our funding initially from George Soros and the Ford Foundation but the specific projects that we undertake in a particular country are usually funded by organisations, they're bi-lateral government funders so for example the UK's overseas aid budget through the Department of International Development. And similar groups in say Norway and the Netherlands etc. We basically have a memorandum of understanding with the governments in say Nigeria or Uganda or East Timor and we then go and get the funding from the bi-lateral partners.

What do you actually do on a day to day basis?

That's a good question. Probably three quarters of my work is very similar to what a lot of people's work is in NGOs and actually even in academia, writing stuff. Writing e-mails, writing proposals, giving reports to agencies but also a lot of strategic planning around trying to work out what do we do next and how do we do this better and then about a quarter of it is with the funder to travel into some of these countries. I go and meet with members of parliament and senior government officials to explain our project to see whether they're interested in having us work in their country. If they are, we go and develop the courses so then I spend quite a lot of my time having focus groups and developing a little DVD which is part of our training package where we set up some case scenarios so public servants can imagine themselves in those scenarios. For about a quarter of the time I'm in the country designing those courses and delivering those courses, training trainers so that it can be rolled out across thousands of public servants.

How long have you been working in the organisation that you work for?

I've only been here eight months so I'm fairly new and I'm just really just now starting to get the hang of what I'm doing and not feeling like I'm a bit of a fraud.

And where do you fit in the organisation structure?

Basically we have a CEO and then we have programme directors, there are about four of us and I'm one of them. Most of us will have a programme manager under us and we have some administrative staff and then a few that are non-aligned as well. It's a very small organisation. There are only about twelve of us, there's the CEO and then there are the people at my level.

And how collaboratively and autonomously do you work?

Good question. The programmes are separate and the odd thing is, the one thing that draws them together is this concept of integrity building but they're actually quite separate in that one's focused on business, one's focused on post-war reconstruction, one's focused on the public service and one's focused on educational institutes so quite separate. Having said that, we work together a lot and a lot of the initiatives are cross cutting. For example we might be wanting to make a video based course for children on civic education using the metaphor of sport so while that's under one person's programme, under education, because it's got the DVD component, that's something that I do as well so we cross cut a lot. We've just won quite a large contract which means we'll be working in about eight countries across all our programmes so we do a lot of working together.

Can you describe in some detail what the environment, the physical environment and also the work culture that you work in is like?

OK. Well we're quite lucky with our workspace I think. We're in the heart of London and we have another base in Jerusalem but the main one is here. We have eight or nine desks in a building which is funded by the London Development Agency to provide a space for NGOs so basically there are 63 little organisations working in this one building, just over three floors and we have a little segment of the desks but it's in the heart of the City and it's unlikely that most of us would be able to afford being here if it wasn't for the fact that it's funded. So good old Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, good for you. In the physical environment we are all within talking distance of each other, the eight or nine of us but right next door are some other agencies as well so we often have a little banter over the wall. The culture of the organisation; one of the great things about an NGO, especially since I've been in academia, one of the differences is that you can have an idea and within a couple of months there can be a funding proposal and then it can be happening with quite a large budget within a few more months and so there's encouragement to really innovate. We're an organisation that thrives on trying to find quite new and unique solutions to some of the corruption challenges that a lot of governments in other places face, that's one of the great things about it. It's quite dynamic. Because of that, as an underside of that, I think most of us are hired because of particular kinds of skills for me it's a PhD in ethics but also for project management skills. The focus on people management probably hasn't been there as much so that's something that we need to work on as we're growing. We're growing quite strongly at the moment so we now need to think about how we produce a culture that is good for the people that work there because we tend to be quite workaholic because there is so much to do. Those are probably the main things. The dynamism I really like and the fact that you can have ideas and they can be out there quite quickly.

Would you say that people were personally investing in the work that they're doing as well?

Yeah absolutely. This is the kind of thing that, because it's in the third sector – so not government and not private – usually people could be paid a lot more if they were working in the private sphere so in many ways we're here for love as well. Most of us would be in issues of development anyway. It's very much a case of people very personally invested to the point where we have to remind ourselves about work/life balance. We're more likely to just go for it.

So what are working conditions like in terms of your ability to set your own working hours and that kind of thing?

Right. Well most of us at programme director level or higher, work way more than the minimum hours that we're supposed to but because of that it's very flexible, if I need to work late one night and then I don't come in in the morning, that's fine. I mean we need a presence in the office to answer the phones and things like that but basically we do the work when it's here, it's quite flexible in that regard. 

Are you able to work from home sometimes?

Yes. I tend to work from home maybe a day a week if I can because I do quite a lot of quite intense writing. For example, when I'm designing an ethics course or something like that or designing a lecture (we also run a university course once a year) so those cases I would definitely work from home or go and work in a cafe or a slightly less pressured environment, a bit more creative.

And what kind of opportunities do you have to get out and about and meet people?

Lots and lots. It's great. Because I'm new to the UK this has been an amazing way of just getting to know people, networking because I talk about what I do and give someone my business card and usually there's some connection that they're doing something similar so there's a lot of that goes on.  There are a lot of groups, not so much similar to ours but, related to ours so there are a lot of partners, a lot of people that we have actual potential partnerships with so there's a whole lot of opportunity for that. Yeah, it's one of the best things.

Can you tell me a bit about the travel that you do and the regularity of the travel that you do?

OK. Yeah at the moment I've got about four countries that my programme is looking at. Mainly Nigeria which we're half way through and we're about to start in Indonesia. They're, you know, opposite sides of the world so we have to do quite a lot of travel. As an environmentalist I struggle with that as you can imagine. I could say more about that if you want later but the travel aspect, I would probably be overseas maybe two weeks out of eight. I tend to go for two week chunks and it's either running training courses or going to see government officials about the project. Then occasionally it's doing some other things like our university course but also because we have an office in Jerusalem if we're doing some work in Palestine then it makes sense for me to be based down there occasionally.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Erm, that's a great question. Because I've just come back from overseas I'm quite inspired. If you'd asked me about three weeks ago after having been in my office for a month doing all the preparation I was not really finding much to enjoy. I like the travel. I like meeting people from other cultures and getting to know how other cultures work. I love the sense of meaning, that I'm doing something I believe in. All through my life that's what I've had to do. I have a high sense of, or high need, for meaning in work to the point where I've often sacrificed the micro pleasures of work to the macro, big picture. I'm trying to get both at the moment. So that's a huge thing for me. That sense of do what you love, the money will follow, as a mantra really. So it is the meaning aspect. There's also the fact that, and this is a really nice thing, because of the work we do, it opens doors into being able to talk to people that I would never be able to talk to normally and there's quite a cool sense of actually being able to have some influence I think. That's one of the major things. Probably the major difference for me now, versus say a couple of years ago when I was at university, is that I feel like the level of influence I can have has just gone up a couple of orders of magnitude in the sense of working with a certain level of people. Of course, at university, working with the students, that was great as well. I still have people come up to me from five years ago, the lights on went on during a lecture and that's always a nice thing. There's the sense at the moment of, I guess, it's the meaning thing again. I feel like there's a sense of meaning, there's a sense of having some influence even though sometimes we can't see that very easily.

And what are the main things that you struggle with or enjoy least about your work?

I still, I've been trying to get out of this for years. I still spend far too much time in front of a computer. I think most people make that complaint. While there's a lot of me that's really invested in this work there's another part of me; there's various aspects or sub-personalities within me that don't really get expressed here as much as I'd like. For example, I used to do quite a lot of things around group facilitation, especially with people who are asking some quite serious, life, spiritual questions which I'm not really doing quite so much here because even though when you're teaching ethics that's what you're doing because it's very much professional ethics. We tend to be relating it more down the professional end of things rather than the personal spirit end so that's something that I'm looking for more opportunities to put in here. Yeah, that's one thing. If I could have that in this job, it would be great, so I'm trying to work on that. What else? At the moment I don't have a huge sense of team. Because my project is quite new, we're about to get someone on board to work with me which will be great because I think I'm at my best when I've got someone to spark off. So I'm working on one project and because there are other projects we do have a cross connection but there's no one that's specifically oriented onto the same things that I am. That's one thing that I miss from some of my past work but something I'm looking forward to as well. 

Does your work have any connection with the subject area of your PhD research?

It has connections with the broad subject area in that I did my PhD in. Ethics, this is very much about professional ethics and business ethics. My PhD itself because it was more focused on environmental and legal policy, there's not a huge connection. However, we almost had some people working under us who were looking at the question of indigenous rights over plant species and medicines etc. which would have been quite relevant to my PhD. We didn't end up forming that partnership so it's not, in the specifics no. I'm not using it in the sense of teaching from it or if I had a policy job in something like a ministry for the environment that would be very specific. It's one level back but having said there are still a lot of connections as well.

Are you able to apply anything you've learnt through the PhD experience in the work that you do?

Yeah, I guess on two levels: the content and skills. Content wise there's a little bit, like I said, but skills wise just applying yourself again and again to the same problem was an important skill. I guess having training in a discipline that went on for years, that's something that's really important. A lot of people get into this work through doing a degree in international development which doesn't necessarily have any single discipline set of tools so I think it's an advantage to have immersed yourself in one discipline and be able to use its tools so I do bring out those tools. Having said that, there is so much to learn in this work that my PhD studying didn't really prepare me for. In any field there's such a wealth of knowledge. Even if you have a set of skills, there are so many knowledge gaps that you just have to plug them over time.

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