You'll find answers to these and much more in the latest Charity Careers, our series in which Nicola Greenbrook talks to key influencers in the charity sector, inviting them to share their career story and how they navigate the professional world. We discover what they've learned along the way, what motivates them to get up in the morning and even what their dream breakfast might look like when they do...
This month, Nicola was thrilled to chat to James Harris, Associate Director of Communications, Marketing and Membership for Rethink Mental Illness about his fascinating career to date. She discovers how communications and social media plays a vital role in mobilising support for the charity, the invaluable advice he has for graduates and why he’s on a one-person evangelical mission to convert non-supporters to his beloved football team…
Hi James. Please tell us a little bit more about Rethink Mental Illness and what its cause and mission is.
One of the things that defines us as a charity is that we were formed nearly 50 years ago by carers. We work to improve the lives of people severely affected by mental illness. This might be through our local groups and services, the expert information and training we offer or our successful campaigning.
In a nutshell, what are you responsible for in your role?
I lead the communications team. My focus is on maximising the impact of our communications channels to mobilise support for our work and campaigns. This includes media, social media and digital - plus the delivery of marketing assets and internal communications. We’re very excited about the imminent launch of our new website!
I also support Time to Change’s digital, social marketing and children and young people teams. Time to Change, run in partnership with the charity Mind, leads the charge on challenging mental health stigma and discrimination.
Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week: why is it so important for the charity and how did you spend it?
We’ve a come a long way in a relatively short space of time in changing attitudes to mental health. Yet, there are still too many people who don’t receive the right support and care when they need it.
For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Rethink Mental Illness focused on turning increased awareness into action. We’ve been setting out all the ways people can support us to help bring about change that makes a difference to people’s lives.
How did you start your career? Any key roles along the way?
Politics was my first love, but we fell out and now hardly talk to each other. In my twenties I worked in several political roles - for an MP, a think tank and a trade-union campaign to (successfully) maintain political funds. In my thirties I moved into the third sector – joining Dignity in Dying then the Mental Health Foundation.
A decade later I moved to Rethink Mental Illness. Although there’s been a degree of serendipity to my career, with hindsight all the roles I’ve worked in have increased my skills and knowledge and shaped my management and leadership style. In other words, they all led me to where I am today.
Why charity? Was this your goal from the outset?
We may not have the rewards and recognitions of other sectors, but it’s a privilege to have a job where you get to bring about change on issues you care about.
That’s the thread that connects my younger self’s interest in politics and my passion for working in the charity sector. Straight out of university I worked in a job that bordered on soul destroying; but I’m glad that I did it. Despite the challenges of working on difficult issues with limited resources, I’m very grateful that I get to do what I do.
How do you keep your skills fresh and ensure you’re constantly learning along the way?
As your career develops you need to develop a broad knowledge across a range of issues and specialisms – but you rely on your team for in-depth expertise. So, if I need to know something, I ask the team.
I also love spotting innovation from other charities, and, when I’ve stopped feeling mildly peeved that they thought of the idea first, thinking through how we can absorb best practice into our work.
What advice would you give to, e.g. graduates considering a move into charity or emerging leaders about to make their first leap into management or directorship?
I’m conscious of how much more difficult it is now for graduates to get a foothold in the careers they want to pursue. The cost of living is much higher than when I graduated and there is an expectation that someone needs experience to secure a job – which begs the question of where you get the experience from?
On leaving university I was offered an internship. Looking it up in the dictionary, I discovered that it meant working for free. So that was out of the window.
After the stint in a job I disliked, I got a lucky break. I joined an agency that provided temporary administration support to the civil service. I envisaged being given a data processing role in an obscure government department, but instead secured an administration role in a Bill team putting legislation through Parliament (which for someone interested in politics was like winning the lottery).
So, my practical advice is: apply for paid opening roles in the teams of charities that you want to work for. Take time over the application – fewer, better quality, personalised applications are likely to be more effective than a large quantity of applications. Also, a good agency advocating on your behalf can also open doors (as was the case for me).
When you bag the job, there’s one guiding principle: be useful. The principle virtues of which are being creative and having an ability to deliver. If you have an idea – let people know. Speak up in meetings or tell colleagues directly. And if you commit to do something – do it.
Thereafter, things should (hopefully) fall into place!
What would you change about your job if you could, and what's the best bit?
A direct train between work and home would be the only thing I'd change, and aside from the job satisfaction, the best thing is our team. The ratio of fundamentally good people working in the third sector is (as you would hope) extraordinarily high.
Who do you look up to in the sector, or more generally?
Another stroke of luck I’ve had in my career is that I’ve had a succession of line managers who have supported and believed in me. I’m thankful to all of them for their faith in me.
Can you talk us through your typical day? Is there such a thing?
My alarm goes off at 7am and I'll snooze listening to the news headlines, before I’m dragged out of bed by my kids for the school run. Once I get to work there's no such thing as typical, but we always start the day with a morning huddle to quickly discuss the content plan for the day.
What's your dream breakfast - and is it anything like your actual breakfast?
Bran flakes, banana, toast and Marmite and coffee. Both my dream and actual breakfast. Life’s too short not to have what you want for breakfast.
And when you're not working, how do you spend your spare time?
Although I consume a lot of media and social media, my wellbeing tip is to take time to switch off completely.
My go to cathartic escape is watching football – which always leaves me at a bit of a loss in the summer. It would be remiss of me here not to crowbar in my love of the academy of football, West Ham United. I’m a season ticket holder and on a one-person evangelical mission to convert non-supporting people to our cause. As my colleagues will tell you this has yet to bear fruit.
A huge thanks to James for his time and engaging insight into his career to date and Rethink Mental illness. You can find out more about the charity’s invaluable work here.
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