17 June 2019

My UEA Story: Matthew Sherrington

“Its been a while since my time at UEA. I brought my daughter for an open day a couple of years ago (she gave me a weird look when I whispered that the last time I was in the lecture hall had been during a student Cuts sit-in).” 

I had teaching in mind as my life’s purpose then. Looking bac, its hard to fathom a 30-year career in the charity sector and how I managed to become Fundraising director for Greenpeace in the US, and Communications Director for Oxfam GB. There was no plan. But what I’ve experienced is that curiosity, learning form situations and others, and making sense of things, open new opportunities and provoke new interests. Its up to you whether you choose to follow them. Learning to recognise what your good at, and what you enjoy doing too, helps. 

I came to UEA to study an MA in Development Studies in 1986 after a year as a volunteer teacher in Sudan. The year after the famine hit the region and the news. The year after LiveAid I learnt through the lives of my students about inequality, discrimination, the rural/urban divide; and something of the place of women in traditional rural Muslim society, and why girls didn’t get the same chances. I saw Marxist theory of accumulation in action, though I didn’t know that then. The richest merchant dominated the market because he owned the lorries and controlled the supply-route across the dessert. He also owned the only car in town, an imported American wing-tailed beast (in spite of there being no roads to speak of). 

I learnt about colonialism, my teaching role being a remnant as English was still a compulsory subject in school. I saw aid. There were a lot of expats in land-cruisers. I saw corruption. The local council once ripped off the displaced nomadic people camped outside out town by distribution only half the ration and selling the rest in the market. I saw desertification and goas (but didn’t yet understand the tragedy of the commons.) 

And so to UEA. I wanted to make sense of Sudan. Other teachers stayed, volunteered with INGOs, disdained my coming home to learn about I rather than do it. It felt a bit self-indulgent. But that expat aid worker thing already felt uncomfortable. I was never going to do that. Besides, the course Director David Seddon was a ‘political economist’ and that sound impressive. And I’d done medieval history first time round and you can talk about that in the pub.  

I did teach for a year, in Paris. But it wasn’t enough. Back home, I volunteered at Oxfam’s HQ for a couple of months, the start of 15 years at Oxfam. I travelled in and out of South Africa for the four years of transition from apartheid, responsible for communications and campaigns. 11 February 1990, the day I first arrived in Johannesburg; the day nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was a thrilling time. 

My programme knowledge got me my first management role, heading up a team securing government and EU contracts. Rwanda happened. Funding grew. It wasn’t really me, but I learnt about budgeting, reporting, organisational finances, and management. Five years on, I was asked to step across to the public fundraising team. I had the programme credibility to navigate the tension between what programmes wanted to say with that audience were interested in hearing. I was involved in Oxfam’s first TV ads. I loved it. I spent a couple of years at Oxfam International supporting Oxfam fundraising and communications in other markets, from France to Japan, US to Hong Kong.  

The international experience opened the door to Greenpeace in the US. My wife spotted the job in the Guardian; I applied for it – why not? And incredibly, I won it. We took our kids, and had an amazing four years in Washington DC. I brought back to the UK new experiences ad insights around political mobilisation, the history of civil rights, campaigning and movements. I brought back thinking I helped pioneer around treating supporters as more than donors, integrating campaigns and fundraising, and making the most of digital channels to do so. 

For me, commination is about engaging people and inspiring them to take action. That’s as true for leadership and management of people, as it is for supporters of a charity. That’s what I’m passionate about, and for the last few years, that’s what I’ve focused on as a consultant, coach and trainer, supporting charities large and small, from the Red Cross in Lebanon and Movember in LA, to bear-rescuers in Vietnam and hen re-homers in Somerset. I’ve experience depression from time to time, and the pace the life suits me better too. Self-awareness is a key skill in the workplace, and it’s important to learn to take care of yourself. 

The last twelve months, as interim Communications Director as Oxfam, have been intense, but a privilege. The crisis provoked by the sexual misconduct case in Haiti in 2010 knocked supporters and staff alike, but deep down, they know that what Oxfam us about – the cause of helping people beat poverty – matters and that Oxfam, while it faces challenges like any organisation, is a good, principled and effective organisation. 95% of supporters have stuck with Oxfam. There’s a lot to do to reaffirm values and reassure people of change, while continuing to engage and inspire people around the life-saving and life-changing work that has carried on, supporting people around the world, fighting to beat poverty, and making progress. 

I may not have had a plan, but I do see a common thread. I’ve been motivated to fight injustice, change the world, and make a difference, always. I’ve learnt that I can do that in different and changing ways. I’ve learnt that you constantly learn through life, I’ve learnt about myself, and I’ve learnt that finding your own way is quite an adventure. I’m back to consulting now, Every client is a new chapter.