A day in the life of a charity intern

Friday, November 08, 2013


This time last year, life was pretty much exactly the same as it is now. I was living in the same flat, walking to the same office, sitting in the same ergonomic chair for eight hours a day. Today, it all feels so settled, so normal, so nothing-to-see-here. Last year, I was reeling. I'd lived in three different flats in the space of a month, my belongings scattered across Edinburgh like shrapnel, and I had just returned to work after three hectic months of moonlighting as an intern for Breast Cancer Care.

My day would start on the 8.37 train to Glasgow. I took the scenic train, the slightly longer one, because it took me directly where I needed to go without having to deal with barriers or lifts or platforms or commuters or tickets. I'm not good in the mornings.

People always say, when they're trying to sell internships, that every day is different. I probably ought to say that, too, but the truth is most days were the same. In many ways, it resembled my job as a lawyer, at least on the face of it. There were differences, of course: the technology wasn't as fancy; the office chairs were pink; I didn't need to record my time every minute of every day (blessed relief); the team meetings all involved cake. I was still sitting at a computer all day, though. I still organised things, recorded information, cajoled and persuaded people. I chatted and joked with the women sitting around me (and they were all women), asked them about their weekends, got to know them and like them and admire them greatly. It felt like any other job. Work is work, whether it's paid or not.

That's one thing that I found interesting about the whole experience, actually. It turns out that salary, or the lack thereof, holds very little interest for me. I was no less motivated as an unpaid intern than I am in my overpaid job as a stuffed shirt. I tried just as hard, cared just as much, took it every bit as seriously (which isn't always very seriously at all). I don't think it was the idea that I was "doing good" that motivated me, either; most of the time, it was difficult to quantify what good I was doing, if any.

To be a good fundraiser, you need to be a person who thrives on targets. You need to see totals inching up on a whiteboard and want nothing more than to smash last year's total, or blow this year's budget out of the water. I am not that kind of person.

If I learned anything from the experience, it's that fundraising does not and never will come naturally to me, and that's ok. I have other talents. I can find the best place to bulk-order pink heart-shaped sunglasses and feather boas. I can write letters to law firms, highlighting an obscure provision in the solicitors' accounts rules that lets them give stranded cash to charity and suggesting they might like to give it to us. I can work an event for 19 hours straight, directing and setting up and taking down and generally getting shit done, and I can do it with a horrible infection and a smile on my face. I'm a doer, not a blagger, and I'm glad I had the chance to find that out.

While "doing good" wasn't a daily motivation for me, it was, of course, a huge part of the reason I took up the internship in the first place. I've written before about Breast Cancer Care and the work they've done in raising awareness of, and supporting people living with, secondary breast cancer. They're still leading the way on it (this handy guide on what not to say to someone whose cancer has spread is just perfect). They've also, somewhat controversially, changed their primary colour from pink to orange. Given my ambivalence towards pink, naturally I'm completely on board. It's a fantastic organisation, run by wonderful, talented people, and it was a privilege to give them my time.

Of course, my interest wasn't just charitable. It was personal. I applied for the internship the day after I found out my mum's cancer had spread further. An unsurprising reaction, if an extreme one. It was an attempt to counteract my helplessness and take control of an overwhelming situation.

One year on, how do I feel? Helpless. Overwhelmed. Out of control. Some things, you simply cannot change.

My day would end back on the train, nestled in a corner, more often than not with a book in my lap, more often than not asleep as the train jostled through the countryside. Commuting is hard. Shaking collection buckets is hard. Making ends meet when you've given up getting paid for three months is hard.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

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Image: Christina Winkelmann for ban.do

3 boats moored

  1. I'm so glad you wrote about this experience. One of the reasons I love working different types of jobs is that you learn all sorts of things about yourself that you might not otherwise discover.

    As personal as this project was to you, I have a feeling it won't do your career any harm either. It's an impressive thing to have on your CV.

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  2. I love that you've written about it here. Thank you for this. I know that sounds corny but thank-you.

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