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Volunteer stories: Samm's story

Samm Short – Project Development Intern / Head of Project Development for SEED Madagascar

Samm Sort - school opening

As the ex Head of Project Development for SEED Madagascar, I still like to look back and think about how I ended up living in the gorgeous town of Fort Dauphin, working for an organisation that is unlike any other charity I’ve ever come across before or since.

To a certain extent, I’d had a vague idea I wanted to get involved with humanitarian or international development work for a while, but never quite knew where to begin. I’d dipped into social work, working in women’s refuges and with children with disabilities and had signed up to an international development module with the Open University, but it all felt a bit like I was biding my time, holding out for the kind of work I couldn’t quite put my finger on but knew I wanted to be a part of.

And then one restless day I saw an advert in the back of the Big Issue for SEED Madagascar’s short term volunteering programmes. I looked them up and thought Bingo! That’s the one! But there was no way I was going to be happy with a 10 week placement, I wanted a career! So I offered my services in the London office, helping with donor research and re-formatting fundraising proposals and reports for different audiences. Those 2 days a week were the happiest of my life, squeezing everything I could from Mark and Mal in a bid to learn as much as possible about Madagascar and the charity.

One year later I headed out to join the team in Madagascar as the second ever Project Development volunteer. We didn’t have an internship programme back then, and we were a much smaller organisation than we are now. See, there I go again, using the word ‘we’ when I actually left over a year ago. SEED Madagascar does that to you – it takes your heart and soul and you find you’re more than willing to give them.

I guess I was hoping for something real, an experience I could put on my CV that would impress future employers, and a store of knowledge I could use to carve out a career in international development and aid work. You know, when I talk to other people about the routes they took into this field I thank my lucky stars I started out with SEED Madagascar. There was no tea making duty or shuffling papers in a big and faceless office – far from it!

Instead, SEED Madagascar is like a family – you’re expected to muck in and learn quickly, and the more you put in, the more you get out. So if you want to learn everything, see everything, do everything – you can, as long as you’re prepared to put in the hours and work hard. But this is no holiday camp – despite the beautiful surroundings. The people you work with depend on the project development team to bring in the money to keep their projects running and their jobs paid – and that’s a crucial and direct link you should never forget. The normal boundaries between work and life often don’t apply – you’re in the thick of it living with the people you’re writing about in funding proposals, experiencing the problems that you sit around in meetings trying to find solutions to, and everyone – and boy do I mean everyone! – knows who you are and that you work for SEED Madagascar; it’s like a flashing light permanently installed above your head.

So what did I get out of it? Well, one year turned into five because apparently this thing called on the job learning is never really over, my savings disappeared completely, I asked for and was supported to take on managerial responsibilities, and when the opening for Head of Project Development came up I made damn sure that I had the track record to be able to go for it.

And because we’re a small organisation, because I was able to see how the whole big bright beautiful machine worked, I came away with a stack of skills – recruitment, personnel management, budgeting, policy development, communications strategy, fundraising strategy, editing, training, dispute resolution, and an insight into how a host of development theories actually work in practice, away from the neat and tidy domain of academic words on academic papers. Which reminds me, I also got to co-author a few papers too, because no one really writes about the kind of work SEED Madagascar does in Madagascar, there’s a big gap in best practice and shared learning.

All of this had to fit in around the day to day needs of the NGO, and most of it was peripheral to the mainstay of my work which was supporting a team to write compelling fundraising proposals and reports, but like I say, if you’re ambitious and hard working the opportunities are there for you.

The best part of those five years though, without a doubt, was the side by side, hand in hand working between us internationals and the local team. They gave me the chance to learn about their culture, their language, their history, their families, their beliefs, and I am honoured to count them as my friends and colleagues.

These days, I run my own business supporting other charities to be more stable – through fundraising, staff and volunteers skills training, and media publicity. 5 years ago I could never have imagined I’d be setting up a business; the idea of feeling I had the skills and experience to be able to advise others would have been laughable. But it is real, it is happening, and while it’s early days it’s starting to take shape and word is starting to get out. And there is categorically no way that would have been possible without SEED Madagascar. The interns I worked with have gone on to work for DfID, IDS, Save the Children and a tonne of consultancies and think thanks. Others went on to do PhDs. Others went on to take over as Head of Project Development!

We used to say that doing an internship with SEED Madagascar is the equivalent of doing a Masters – but a lot less expensive and a lot more fun! It’s that crucial link between theoretical study and field experience that so many charities ask for, but so few are able to provide, and that’s where I think SEED Madagascar has hit the nail on the head.

So would I do it all again? Absolutely!