How to get a first campaigning job

Hint: don’t wear a cardigan

It wasn’t the Chelsea boots, floor-length pleated skirt or bobbly cardigan that meant she didn’t get the job — but they didn’t help. Crying at the interview didn’t do him any harm — but questioning our questions did.

So you want to be a campaigner (and you want to get paid for it)? Brilliant: campaigning for social change is a great career. And NGOs are realising that the “help one person at a time” model sure as hell isn’t going to solve the problem they were founded to sort.

But getting a job in our field is pretty sought-after, so I thought some reflections might be useful.

I’m going to assume you know how to write a great application. This bit isn’t very different to the generic advice out there. Take it seriously, give examples that show you meet every competence. You’re up against lots of competition — so make your application stand out by answering the questions that they are (implicitly) asking you.

So: you’ve got an interview. Congratulations! Time to prepare. Get your examples ready. Read up on the organisation. Read up on campaigning. Don’t read up on the issues: if the panel are testing your knowledge of an issue before you’ve worked in their field, then they’re not smart and you don’t want to work for them. Look up the panel on LinkedIn — but don’t freak people out by bringing it up at interview. Call the recruiting manager to talk through the format. Show willing. It’ll do you good.

On the day: dress like you want the job. May be how you look shouldn’t matter, but we live in the world we live in, and it does. I want to employ people who meet the expectations of their audience and can flex their style— so show you can do that when coming for a job interview. It’s respectful, and I need to know that you get this.

Next: you’re coming for interview for a campaigning job. It’s likely you’ll be asked about campaigns you admire or thought were effective. Can you imagine a football manager unable to name teams he wants to emulate? A web designer unable to talk about the next big thing? A fashion student unable to identify Galliano or Versace’s style? No. So don’t sit with a mouth like a goldfish when I ask about campaigns you admire and tactics you think innovative. If you struggle to do this, is this the right field for you? (On this point: a campaign that you support is not good or innovative by virtue of your agreement with it.)

Don’t tell me about #nomakeupselfie unless you’re ready with metrics on money raised and can justify choosing a fundraising rather than change campaign. Don’t choose Movember unless you know how many extra health checks happened as a result.

Don’t choose a campaign you worked on or a campaign I did either. Doing the first makes for a boring interview; doing the second looks sucky. Doing either demonstrates no imagination.

And whatever you do, pick a campaign that succeeded, and have an opinion about why. If you’re using the 3Cs to structure your interview examples (context — conduct — conclusion), chances are you’re telling me about why campaigns or projects you like or worked on were a success. Do distinguish evidence that the campaign was efficiently run (email signups, actions taken, event attendees) from evidence that change happened (laws changed, attitudes changed, policy changed, behaviour changed). Explaining to me how your transport campaign was successful because you secured a meeting with the shadow minister won’t cut it — cos nothing changed.

Try to show that you get the debates in our field. Understand why professional campaigners might be sceptical about communicating to a mainstream audience in rights-based language. Know where you stand on using myth-busting as a tactic. Know why you might choose insider engagement and why you might opt for supporter mobilisation. Be prepared to defend your views.

Don’t assume the ideological position of the panel. Campaigners believe that change is possible regardless of the who forms the government of the day: if we don’t believe that, why don’t we just give up the day job and concentrate on getting one or other party elected? Governments of all parties have agreed to the demands of campaigns I’ve run, and governments of all parties have dismissed my campaigns.

Smart campaigners keep their objectives true to the change they want, but tailor their message, timings and tactics to their audience and target. Show evidence that you can do this. The essential rightness of your cause is rarely enough: provide evidence that you have achieved change (or, if you didn’t, that you gave it your best shot, approached it in a nuanced and clever way, and learned from your failure.)

Make the interview like a conversation if you can. If I’m asking you a question, there’s a reason for it, trust me. Get over your nerves: everyone goes for interviews, and at some stage in their career everyone conducts interviews. It’s part of life. Good preparation will cut your nerves, I promise.

When I ask you for your questions, be ready. Having no questions tells me that you are not curious about our organisation, its campaigns, and why we do what we do. That’s not a great impression to give.

After the interview: if you don’t get it, ask for feedback. Write it down. Work on it. Distinguish which feedback is about the idiosyncrasies of that particular organisation or interviewer and which feedback is about you and how you present yourself. Practise on this post — which of these comments merely reflect my idiosyncrasies? Do a better interview next time.

If you get offered the job, congratulations. Now you need a plan to get the most out of a brilliant opportunity in the most exciting career in the charity world. Good luck!