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News > Alumni stories > Alex Marthews – Spotlight on a Career in Non-Profit Organisations

Alex Marthews – Spotlight on a Career in Non-Profit Organisations

Finding out what drives him and what he gets from the roles in the non-profit sector
5 Dec 2022
Alumni stories

Alex Marthews left Moulsford in 1988, and went on to Magdalen College School, before studying English at Cambridge University. Since then he has pursued a career in non-profit organisations. We caught up with him to find out more.

Can you tell us a little about your journey from studying English at university to working for a non-profit organisation? What attracted you to join the non-profit sector?

As a child, I wanted to always explore and understand new things. I thought that most adult jobs were boring. Although I didn't know, till I was in my early twenties, that you could actually earn enough to live on working for non-profits.

I thought that I'd become a writer, but I was also very politically minded and was interested in fixing problems with the government. I did an internship with the Civil Service, and it seemed like people were trying to solve difficult economic and political problems without having much-specialised training. I applied to study public policy at graduate school, which at the time was mostly something offered in the US, and I got accepted to the University of California at Berkeley. While I was studying there, I started internships at non-profits and found it to be a sector full of people who wanted to do the right thing, and with very varied challenges.

Can you tell us about the different roles you have held?

My first actual paid non-profit job was a one-year grant-funded position as the Public Education and Outreach Director for "Housing California" (https://www.housingca.org/), which lobbied the California legislature for funding to help solve homelessness and housing affordability problems. We were not well off growing up, and I moved from house to house a lot, so it seemed very important to help people find and stay in stable housing. I helped Housing California improve its published materials, built its memberships, and helped organise a conference on housing.

When that position finished, in 2003, I saw a position advertised to be the executive director (so, the main employee) of a small non-profit called the Preservation Action Council of San José (https://www.preservation.org). "PAC*SJ" advocates for the preservation of historic properties. That was a fun job! It involved lobbying city officials, talking to developers, filing lawsuits, writing, and helping the Board of Directors run fundraisers. We did cool things, like saving a hot dog stand shaped like a giant orange that you could drive through. Then, my wife, who is also from Oxfordshire, finished her doctoral studies in 2005 and was offered a job as a professor in Massachusetts, over 3,000 miles away from where we lived in California. We moved there together, and I found another executive director position, this time running a housing non-profit in a suburb of Boston called Waltham (the Waltham Alliance To Create Housing, www.watchcdc.org).

Just before my twins were born, I resigned and went part-time, working as the executive director of Growth Through Learning (https://www.growththroughlearning.org), which provides scholarships for bright girls from poor families in East Africa to go to high school.

After five years there, I moved on and founded a non-profit advocacy group which is now part of Restore The Fourth (https://www.restorethe4th.com); and since 2014, I have been the national chair of that organisation.

Thinking about your recent years at 'Restore the Fourth, can you explain what the organisation's aim is, and what motivated you to join them?

Throughout my career, it has given me the joy to work together with others to change society for the better. But I started realising that digitisation has created a significant new threat of government intrusion on any kind of organising it disapproves of. That could mean organising for women's rights in Nigeria, organising against police violence in the United States, organising against global warming in the UK, or any of a hundred other worthy causes. The ability to be free from government intrusion, assuming you're not planning violence, is critical to every cause one could work on. We need civic spaces where people can thrive and plan. We need to be able to keep personal concerns, personal. The government doesn't need to watch everything at every moment, and by trying to do so. The government, especially after the September 11th attacks, has been closing down people's ability to discuss and solve problems of all kinds. If society looks dysfunctional right now, this is part of the reason.

What activities do you get involved in with your role?  What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career to date? 

My days are very varied, and they may involve lobbying, testifying at public meetings, fundraising, strategizing with activists or with allies, or recruiting staff and volunteers.

The best part is when I can clearly see that I have helped. At my last non-profit, my efforts led to around 1,000 African girls getting a secondary school education who otherwise wouldn't have got it. At the current non-profit, I know that had I not intervened and helped it get on a solid footing, the effort would have died, and a vital voice for freedom would have died away. That has helped to limit government surveillance powers for over 15 million people. One lesson I learnt from this is that it doesn't have to take many people, just a few people with time and enthusiasm can make a surprisingly big difference.

Where do you see career opportunities developing in non-profit organisations in the future? Why might that be?

The charitable sector depends on the ability and willingness of people to give out of their disposable income. There are a lot of factors right now in the UK that limits how much money people have to spend, especially the high inflation rate and the crisis over energy bills. The government is also undermining the viability of many cause-based organisations, especially those focusing on human rights or using street protests as one of their advocacy tools, so I do worry. Longer-term, opportunities will likely remain at larger and less controversial charitable organisations.

Your career has been largely in the US, what would you describe as the benefits of working there? Are there any disadvantages?

The non-profit sector in the US is both larger and better paid than the non-profit sector in the UK. There is also a greater variety of cause-based organisations because the rules relating to political activity by charitable organisations are much looser. There is a larger sector of religious organisations, and charitable giving is about treble per head what it is in the UK, though a lot of that giving goes to universities. So there are a lot of opportunities, and wherever I moved to in the US, there were non-profits that were hiring.

The disadvantages relate closely to the needs that exist. The US is a more unequal society than the UK, and many millions of people are in desperate need. But the level of need also means you're never likely to feel that what you're doing in the non-profit sector isn't vitally necessary. The working culture, even at non-profits, can be unhealthy, with the provision of paid leave and employee rights varying a lot from state to state. 

Thinking about a career in non-profit organisations, what might be some important considerations for possible new entrants into the sector? 

The best course for people looking for paid work at non-profits is to volunteer first for organisations whose mission you truly believe in, and that will give you better access to paid opportunities.

From your experience to date, do you have any general advice for those embarking on their career journey?

Don't worry too much if you aren't sure at first what you really want to do. Not everybody has a clear career aim in view. I didn't until I was in my mid-twenties (I'm 45 now). Try to stay engaged in and interested in a wide variety of things, read widely, inform yourself widely, and talk to your friends and relatives about what they do. Try to understand, given your own interests and skills, where it would be best for you to spend your talents and energies. And, even if the money looks good, don't spend your time on things that make life worse for others. You only have one life; I don't want you to regret a thing.

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