EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR | UNITED NATIONS ASSOCIATION – UK (UNA-UK)
What do you do as Executive Director for the United Nations Association - UK?
UNA-UK’s mission is to build support and momentum for an effective UN. The biggest problems we face don’t respect borders. Our lives are influenced by what happens in other countries and they are affected by our choices, as voters and consumers. We need to recognise we are global citizens and invest in global solutions and institutions. My role is to inspire and support my brilliant team in making that case.
Describe a 'typical work day'.
As Executive Director, I do a bit of everything – research, advocacy, communications, outreach, fundraising and governance. There are times when I need to get my head down, but for the most part, I like to divide my day into short concentrated periods: writing an article, Board paper or speech; producing policy recommendations; trying to persuade someone to support or fund us; and generally making sure our activities are on track.
This way, I can respond to things as they come in, and park something if I get stuck. I also try to spend some time each day thinking about the bigger picture. How can we be more effective? Where do we really add value? How is our role evolving?
How did you get to your job?
My journey at UNA-UK began in 2006, as Executive Assistant to one of my predecessors. I had recently finished my Masters and spent time before that working in different sectors. This seemed like a genuine opportunity to move from 'job' to 'career'.
Small organisations usually enable (require!) staff to work outside their remit, with greater responsibility than in larger, defined hierarchies. I’ve been very fortunate to forge a path for myself in an organisation I love. In nine years I’ve had six roles – each one the result of luck, tenacity and lots of hard work. Having done something of everything stood me in good stead when the Executive Director role became vacant.
Re-reading my initial application with a recruiter’s eye, I probably got through because I was confident about my experience but modest about my knowledge. My heart sinks whenever an applicant writes they have 'comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the UN system' because of their IR degree – just show me that you can learn!
The UN’s remit is broad, dauntingly so. Not a day goes by without me wishing I were an expert in lethal autonomous robotics or the impacts of soil erosion on indigenous communities. You can’t cover everything, but I’m glad I did multidisciplinary degrees that gave me a taste of law, anthropology, development and so on. My human rights degree taught me the value of people-centric approaches to policy; my history degree how important it is to study broader trends. Both helped me to understand the conflicts and inequalities that exist today.
Degrees can help you to think and write, but experience matters too. You have to be able to apply your learning and work with people. Your judgement develops over time.
You were the first woman to hold the position of UNA-UK executive director. How would foreign policy change if there were more women involved?
I think all sectors and organisations would benefit if their leadership reflected the make-up of society. It’s hard to pick out particular differences without falling into stereotypes – I’ve been described as too feminine and too masculine – but the benefits of different perspectives and approaches are well documented. At the UN, progress is often achieved through creativity, relationships and navigating the spaces between rigid processes. Diversity can only contribute to this.
Why is writing such a key part of your job, whether for The Guardian, the UNA site etc.?
UNA-UK works to make complex issues accessible without over-simplifying them. We try to find the right words to make progress possible. You may have found the solution to the world’s ills but if you can’t describe it, nobody will care. When you’re speaking to a decision-maker, you need to get your point across quickly, but also be able to back it up if questioned. When you’re drafting an agreement, clarity and ambiguity can both be useful.
This is probably the character trait I value the most in the office. I say 'trait' because you can only go so far without natural ability.
You speak English, German and French. How does that help in your career?
I wish I could speak more! It makes a real difference to your ability to build relationships and make an impression in an international environment, not just in the narrow sense of communication but in terms of real understanding. If you haven’t got languages, start learning. If you find it hard, travel.
You are a trustee for the Association for Citizenship Teaching. What does it entail and why choose this voluntary side role?
There are a number of organisations I support, formally and informally, with advice on policy and governance matters. The Association for Citizenship Teaching and the Sri Lanka Campaign are the ones I care about the most – two small non-profits doing crucial work with minimal resources. In addition to attending meetings, I support the staff with anything from drafting a policy paper to providing a template contract. It’s the perfect way to develop my skills in a meaningful way. Most of my peers support other charities. The sector is hugely dependent on voluntary expertise, much more than it should be.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
- Seeing what young people, particularly those in school, get from our teaching resources and Model UN events
- The freedom to put ideas into practice
- The pleasure of working with great colleagues and our supporters across the country
- Constantly having to cut costs and secure funding
- Trying to change an organisation that predates the UN
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
Get to grips with everything your team does and then let them get on with it.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Creativity = daydreaming and writing stories
Communication = churning out articles and presentations
Eye for detail = past mistakes
Making good decisions quickly = experience.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
The toughest lesson I’ve learned is that hard work isn’t enough. The best lesson I’ve learned is that everybody fakes it.
What is one the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?
Every experience can help you. There is very little that I regret today, however awful events may have seemed at the time. Overall, I wish I had been more confident in my 20s, more willing to say ‘yes’ and more discerning about what to turn down. The only specific change I’d make is that I’d take a gap year to volunteer overseas. I’m glad I didn’t do it at 18 because I wouldn’t have been able to contribute as much as I could now. But I’m tempted to do it after UNA-UK. I don’t feel as though it’s held me back, but it would be great to point to my own experiences, rather than to research alone.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Acting in the best interests of an organisation involves tough decisions but I’ve always found personal ones more challenging. For instance, making my family understand that some of the work I do, particularly on human rights, may involve risks. It’s a challenge I’ve yet to master.
What achievements are you most proud of?
- Transforming UNA-UK’s mission, communications and education work
- Nurturing an NGO start-up to self-sufficiency
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
There are many people who inspire me. Margaret Anstee – who achieved just about every 'first' a woman could at the UN. She had the type of career I always wanted, and remains one of the sharpest and wittiest people I know. Jeremy Greenstock, UNA-UK’s brilliant chairman, who is far more open-minded and creative than I believed a diplomat could be. It's hugely motivating to work with someone who’s spent his life working on intractable issues and hasn’t given up – far from it. And Lasantha Wickrematunge, a Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was assassinated in 2009. The Charlie Hebdo shootings were tragic and despicable. But for me, Lasantha’s story –captured in his posthumously-published editorial – is what real courage in journalism is about.
Natalie Samarasinghe | Executive Director | United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK)
Speaking at UNA-UK’s UN Forum event at Central Hall Westminster, June 2014 © UNA-UK/Mark Makela
12 years' experience
CV in brief
Previously worked at Oxfordshire Social & Health Care, the University of Oxford