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Charity Careers: meet Sara Rees, head of fundraising for Rays of Sunshine

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Welcome to our new series of interviews, Charity Careers, in which our guest writer Nicola Greenbrook talks to key influencers in the charity sector, inviting them to share their personal career story so far and describe in their own words how they navigate the professional world.

We discover what they've learnt from their ups and downs at work, what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning and even what their dream breakfast might look like when they do...

If you're a graduate curious about the not-for-profit sector, an emerging leader looking for inspiration, or simply want to read a motivating charity success story, look out for more Charity Careers features throughout the year.

Starting us off with some much-needed sunshine, Nicola meets highly-experienced head of fundraising Sara Rees!

sarah rees

Sara Rees is Head of Fundraising for Rays of Sunshine Children's Charity which exists to brighten the lives of seriously ill children and their families across the UK.

The charity's work brings joy, hope and relief and creates precious memories for the whole family.

Our charity's mission is...

We believe these brave young people deserve to experience happiness and put their illness on hold, even if only for a day. We grant magical wishes (whether being a ballerina or fireman for the day or a trip to Disneyland), deliver services in children's hospitals and hospices (like installing play areas or running activity days with arts & crafts and entertainers), and organise days out and events (from Christmas parties to pop concerts).

We've seen a 93% increase in demand on our services since 2011, and last year we granted our 6,000th wish and touched the lives of 12,000 children.

I'm responsible for...

Working with the fundraising and management team and Board to raise the funds that make our work possible. We do this through amazing events, corporate partnerships, patrons, community supporters, people taking on challenges in aid of us and lots more.

I started my career...

I studied languages at Uni, but I didn't really want to become a translator or interpreter. So I fell into jobs across a variety of sectors that played to my strengths. It was during a gap year when I was 25 that I realised I wanted a more meaningful career. Once back in the UK, I temped and half-heartedly tried to break into the charity sector. I didn't know what my transferable skills were though, so was unsure what jobs to apply for.

About a year later, I was introduced to a friend of a friend who'd set up a recruitment agency. His advice was, start volunteering and work your way up. I found this so frustrating - I was certain I had so much to offer right then!

He sent me a job spec anyway and it turned out to be an Account Exec role in the Corporate Partnerships team at Cancer Research UK. I nearly fell off my chair when I read it... someone had written my dream job down for me! It was then, only with hindsight, I realised my previous jobs shared a common thread: account management, business development, sales, relationship management. I got the job - and I haven't looked back since.

My key roles along the way were...

I spent 6.5 years at CRUK, thirsty for experience and taking on new roles or projects with greater responsibility every two years or so. Since then, I've worked on a Capital Appeal at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity and then headed up the Corporate Partnerships team at Breast Cancer Care.

I keep my skills fresh by...

Learning new skills is one of my highest values. I'm grateful that my thirst for learning has been matched with some amazing developmental opportunities from day one. In my early career, I signed up for courses on everything from presentation skills to time and priority management. You name it, I went to it. My passion for development was noticed and I was trained to facilitate in-house learning sets and programmes.

One of the best things I did was a post-graduate certificate in Leadership & Management and another highlight was joining the free Aspire scheme. I was paired with the most insightful coach I've ever met. They generated some massive breakthroughs and 'aha' moments, which I still apply on a daily basis.

Cheesy as it may sound, I genuinely view every challenge as an opportunity to learn, gain experience of something new, and become better.

My advice for anyone considering a move to the charity sector...

For grads - first, work out your strengths and skills and what kind of role you could get really passionate about. Then apply for internships and volunteer roles in those areas. If a position opens up in the charity, you're in a prime position to apply. If not, the experience looks great on your CV and provides valuable content for interview questions elsewhere.

To emerging leaders - get yourself an experienced mentor and read up on the world of management. There are plenty of books and courses on different management styles and techniques. Get equipped with as many tools in your belt as possible!

The best piece of advice that's stuck in my mind is...

I've heard some of the most successful women in business asked, "what advice would you give to your younger self?". They almost unanimously respond along the lines of "you are unique - know and play to your strengths, trust yourself, stop seeking approval all the time, don't try to be something or someone else, and relax - you can handle it." I love that advice. The older I get, the more I appreciate it.

My alarm goes off at...

7.00 am - I'm so not a morning person! I'm more snoozer than spring-out-of-bedder. My 20-minute walk to the station is a life-saver - it wakes me up and provides great thinking time.

My dream breakfast is...

Eggs Royale; poached eggs, smoked salmon drizzled with lemon juice and wholemeal pitta bread - delicious. My other half also makes mean pancakes!

Since I'm not a morning person though, and usually in a hurry, the Eggs Royale looks more like a nutrition shake or a nut bar with some fruit to snack on (I'm a 'fruit nut' as my old boss used to say). Oh, and a coffee. I love my coffee - the last sip is always accompanied by a resigned sigh.

A typical day...

Doesn't exist, but that's what I love about it. Today, I was in Leicester presenting with a colleague to a group of hotel chain general managers. Yesterday I was buried in budget spreadsheets, writing a strategy and pitching for new business. Some days I get to help out at one of our magical beneficiary events.

Right now I'm reading...

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, a gift for my birthday. Also reading and definitely not enjoying - GDPR guidance papers!

And watching...

I grew up on classic comedies and can't get enough of brilliant stand-ups, sitcoms and satire. I whooped out loud on the tube when I read the BBC is giving Alan Partridge another series this year.

I can't get through the day without...

Good conversation. I get a lot of energy from connecting with people. Not just with colleagues, family and friends; I chat to random people during the day too. I really enjoy each encounter and it so often leads to something positive - from a simple film or restaurant recommendation to something more impactful, like a lead or an introduction. I can't imagine going through a day without it.

And finally, on sleep...

I love sleep, but I'm a night owl through and through. At the time I should go to bed, I get a new idea or an overwhelming urge to tick one or two more things off my to-do list. It takes me ages to finally get to bed - but as soon as my head hits the pillow, that's it. I'm a good dreamer but not a great bed buddy; apparently I sleep like a starfish and for a little person, manage to take up the whole bed. Then before I know it, it's 7.00 am again...

We know the feeling only too well! Our sincere thanks to Sara for kindly being our first interviewee and sharing her insights - and of course to Nicola for bringing us another great feature: we're already looking forward to more!

Meanwhile if you'd like to find out more about Sara's organisation, visit Rays of Sunshine Children's Charity.

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