Sarah Anne Harris, Volunteer Invest, Founder

Sarah Anne Harris

Co-Founder/Managing Director

I have forged a career that connects university students to human rights projects around the world and I am very proud to talk to you about the world of possibilities that lie ahead for you all. I am so lucky to have found myself in a position where I do exactly what I love to do, support global international development.

 

When I first jumped on a plane, away from everything familiar I was petrified. Six months previously I had walked into a travel agent and booked a solo flight to Australia. This might not seem strange now, but considering I hadn’t travelled alone before nor stepped foot outside of the UK, it was a pretty bold move 11 years ago. I was heading into the unknown, my first giant leap of faith. I had all the nerves and excitement anyone could imagine and I was going to grab the reins and fly. I booked onto an organised tour that would take me through Australia, from South to North and left the rest to fait.

 

I sobbed for the entire first 12 hours of my flight to Bangkok, where I had to change planes and tackle an airport all by myself, having only recently passed through Heathrow 12 hours before, my first ever airport.

 

I met a kind group of volunteers who took me under their wing and showed me what to do. The kindness of strangers is one of the most magical things about travelling around the world.

 

I’m sure some of you took a gap year, and some of you have been lucky enough to travel before university, and some of you are here, because you want to travel and take that initial leap into the unknown, but what makes my job extra special is I help people not only travel and see the world, but take their skills, education and passion and connect them with human rights organisations and real people around the world.

 

When I returned from Australia, I couldn’t find a job. A very familiar story, with current statistics claiming 64% of current students most important priority is finding relevant opportunities for career progression. I was in a familiar boat to everyone else. Unlike everyone else, I stopped applying for jobs and created one. A trend that would continue throughout my life. If there is a barrier, find a solution.

 

I started my first business when I was 20 and like most 20 something’s, I was at a loss as to ‘what I wanted to do with my life’. For the next 5 years I juggled university, internships, travel, running my own business and went from record label executive, to events manager, to spokesperson, to alternative health. It was a career path that had no obvious direction, but I wanted to find the exact way of working that worked for me. Gathering experience in all sorts of industries along the way.

 

After all, we spend such a huge proportion of our lives at ‘work’. I was focused on finding the exact way that worked for me. What did I do next; I flew to Hong Kong on a one-way ticket, with my life packed into one suitcase and the thought of never returning home. A city that is well known to pack in more working hours than any other city in the world. My work/life balance was about to take a beating.

 

I arrived in Asia in 2012, with more enthusiasm than I had ever experienced. I was more focused than ever to find a career break, and I was convinced that landing a job in Hong Kong would answer all my questions plus catapult me up the career ladder.

 

I picked up the local paper and called the first thing that caught my eye, a charity working with food re-distribution aptly named; Feeding Hong Kong. I was visa-less, but considering I had never let anything like paper work get in my way, I said I would work remotely, and start raising awareness for their work. I couldn’t believe that one week after arriving, I was already living like a local, filling out spreadsheets, calling companies and booking meetings. I felt like I had truly found my calling.

 

I was connecting my passion for equal rights, charity, logistics and communication all whilst living abroad. Through this I started working for a refugee charity, helping refugees seek shelter, food and protection. I started to form my own opinions about the charity sector, but realised I wasn’t yet experienced enough to act on them, so I carried on, worked hard, networked and made notes of how I would do things differently.

 

It wasn’t long until I found a corporate office job that covered my bills and allowed me to stay in Hong Kong with an official working visa. The only downside to this was it wasn’t working to help people improve their lives, but I realised very quickly that the job, not only offered a platform for people, companies, banks, law firms to destroy the exact communities I wanted to help.

 

I had to get out, and started once again to volunteer, this time for a social enterprise helping communities in Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. Their aim was to teach skills and help sell products produced by communities in these countries, inspired by TOMS shoes, which had just exploded. It was an exciting project to be a part of. I fell in love with this model, business with a focus on social causes and justice seemed like the perfect place for me. I had found my tribe.

 

I worked with the most amazing people. People who raised funds for materials, workshops and training for local people. I worked with organisations that helped women out of the sex industry by teaching them a vocation like jewellry making. Brands that trained ex-addicts how to sew. Organisations that up cycled taxi seats into wallets, bomb shells into fashionable bags and motorbike tyres into shoes. Not only were these amazing businesses, they also solved global environmental challenges and complex social inclusion issues.

 

I worked with individuals who saw a problem and came up with sustainable working models to tackle them. I was sold on the idea that charity needed sustainable platforms built into them, so the communities they seek to help can build themselves and have a reliable income stream that can then be invested into their own communities.

 

I quit my corporate job and went head first into the social enterprise world having volunteered for six months, funding the whole process from my full-time corporate role, saving hard, reducing my spending to next to nothing and moved home.

 

I worked remotely for the following two years from my bedroom, cafes, and friends houses. I was awake at 3am to take calls from the US, and then had a 7am conference call with Asia. I was 100% convinced that this area of work was where I should be, where I wanted to develop and where my skills were best matched. After working in a corporate, being paid a ‘real salary’, I realised that I wasn’t driven by money, but by the potential impact of my work to help others.

 

I sacrificed everything to build a name for myself in a sector that was only just emerging. Try explaining to your 93 year old grandfather that you work in a social enterprise and don’t have an office and your team is based 1/3 in Asia, 1/3 in Europe and 1/3 in the US.

 

It was years of breathtakingly hard work, with no guarantees of the next pay cheque. But I was convinced it was the place for me.

 

Anyways, back to why I am monologuing about my journey from Asia to Africa. Mainly because I am so inspired to tell you that anything you want to do, really is possible, and as most of you are studying, you have the added bonus of already being aware and caring about the impact of society and environment, culture and history on communities. But how do you apply this to your future, how do you forge a life after university, with a pay cheque and align your passion and interests. How do you choose which direction to take?

 

I started working with Arms Around the Child when I finally wanted to settle back in the UK. The director, who coincidently taught me at college when I was 18, seemed like a good person to reach out too and find out more about the projects she was involved in. We thought in exactly the same way about the future of charity.

 

We talked about the amazing work that Arms Around the Child had done over the past decade, the amazing communities they supported in Africa and India and what the next steps were. I made suggestions about reforming charity and building sustainable fundraising models. I wanted the partner organisations we supported to be able to rely on sustainable and regular donations so they could employ people in their own communities and develop their own dreams.

 

I returned around the time Kids Company was all over the news, and charity was under a huge amount of scrutiny in the press. Charity needed a shake up, and I felt like I was the person to do that. No longer was charity about HUGE cheques and handshakes, it was moving into impact investing, data analysis, digital fundraising and viral campaigns. Arms Around the Child came with a 30-year knowledge base in charity, education and fundraising.

 

 

Arms Around the Child supports over 1500 children every month. These children have all been affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. Some are orphaned, some are from child-headed households and some have been rescued from trafficking. They dealt with a complex set of issues and I was eager to throw everything I had learned into making the lives of these children more secure.

 

I developed Volunteer Invest as a response to research and experience and as a response to the negativity that surrounds charity work, workers and voluntourism . In an industry that is unregulated, we wanted to regulate it. We had collectively worked with charities for over 35 years in every continent in the world and we had listened to their needs. We researched what motivated people to volunteer and what charities really needed from international volunteers. I sat with founders of charities and asked what kept them awake at night, I asked what the next 5 – 10 yeas had in store for them, whether they saw improvement, development and how they were encouraging and lobbying governments for real impactful change. I was so motivated to help, and when we set up Volunteer Invest, we had no idea how quickly it would grow.

 

Within two years of launching, we have increased volunteer enquiries by 400%. And we are now aiming to add another four volunteer destinations each year. We have received some of the most heartwarming feedback and life changing stories about how their volunteer programme changed everything. This is what motivates me every day.

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