An MBA with a difference

Sammera applied for the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA to build the skills to have a greater impact in the charity sector. Her efforts have been recognised by a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, who support British Muslims into higher education to better society.

Picture of Sammera

As Head of Development at the British Asian Trust and with over fifteen years’ experience of charity and voluntary work, Sammera speaks with authority when she talks of the need to innovate in the third sector. 

“Innovation and creativity are central to developing products or services in any leading organisation,” she explains, “but in the fast-changing and highly competitive environment in which charities operate, it is essential. There’s also the added challenge of adapting within a strictly regulated and scrutinised environment.” 

Sammera wanted to return to education to consolidate the skills she had learned through her working life. The Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA appealed as it provided the opportunity to bring together creative and business disciplines. 

“I didn’t want to do anything too conventional – I wanted to bring in a creative angle,” says Sammera. “The four units of the MBA programme link in with my work, so I can apply what I’m learning in my day to day integrating the business management theories practically. There are elements of the course that require independent investigation and research, while others focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and change.” 

In January 2020, Sammera successfully interviewed for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, which will partly cover the costs of the MBA programme. The Aziz Foundation offers Masters scholarships to British Muslims in order to empower one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country to bring positive change to society as a whole. 

For Sammera, the MBA is an opportunity to gain the skills she needs to make an even greater impact: “At the British Asian Trust, I have learned the value of social finance, making sustainable changes for the longer term and helping marginalised communities in South Asia. Beyond this course, I hope to continue to empower the diaspora and wider communities locally and internationally.” 

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: “We designed the MBA to equip students with the tools to make positive change. I am delighted that the Aziz Foundation has recognised Sammera’s commitment to the charity sector and that they have seen the potential for her to have an even greater impact with the help of the MBA.” 

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Tackling climate change head on

Professor Gabriel Waksman, Professor of Structural Molecular Biology, shares how he has set up a charity dedicated to funding carbon mitigation projects that aim to restore native forest habitats.

Since becoming a scientist, I have had the great joy of globe-trotting all over the world from conferences to review panels, from seminars abroad to lecturing at foreign institutions. Such extensive travelling was useful to promote my research, tell people about our latest discoveries, and exchange ideas with fellow scientists in my field. It also provided me the opportunity to publicise the achievements of the research institute I founded in 2003 and directed until October last year, the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.

However, I came to realise how dreadful my carbon footprint had become. Like many of us, my awareness of human-made global warming caused by CO2 emissions has increased over the years and recently it passed a threshold where I felt I needed to proactively address this issue. There is no doubt that government intervention is going to be crucial in solving the climate crisis, but I wondered how we, academics, could take individual responsibility for our carbon emissions. We must obviously reduce our travelling: we do travel far too much. But attending conferences and sharing our results prior to publication is an essential lubricant of science: it makes it work more smoothly and more rapidly. I suspect that, in the foreseeable future, academics will continue to travel to conferences.

If conference travel is here to stay (albeit at a reduced rate), what can we do to offset our carbon emissions? There are many ways to do so but I was attracted to the approach of native tree-planting. Trees are excellent carbon fixers and, in my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a native woodland. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded ecosystems. Also, it was important to me to plant trees in the UK, and not necessarily abroad as many afforestation projects do. Tree-planting sites in the UK are easily verifiable because they are easily accessible. They are also subjected to the Woodland Carbon Code, a set of stringent governmental rules.

I therefore set up a charity called ‘All Things Small and Green’ and a website where academics can compute their carbon emissions, convert them into trees (2-4 trees per metric tonnes of carbon), and add these trees to groves we have set up with Trees For Life, our tree-planting partner. We created a Scientists’ Grove, and Academics’ Grove, even a Friends’ Grove, and finally our first Conference Grove.

I find the idea of a ‘grove’ extremely attractive. Any institutions can create their own grove and ask their members to contribute trees to it to offset their carbon emissions. I hope we can create a ‘Birkbeck Grove’ where everyone at Birkbeck will be able to contribute trees. Birkbeck has made tremendous efforts in reducing its carbon footprint and last week organised its own ‘climate learning week’, that included a vegetarian day and an opportunity for students and staff to bring in their bikes for an appointment with Cycle Republic. But the effort must continue and address the issue of carbon emissions caused by academic travel. In that respect, the latest initiative by Wellcome is important and will spur all institutions on to tackle the issue effectively.

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100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

cancerletters2

At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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Charitable giving in times of uncertainty and distrust

This article was written by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Dr Seu participated in a Cultural Capital debate  entitled ‘The trust virus: the future of giving’ on 9 February 2017

money-256319_1920In a climate of economic uncertainty and rampant resentment, what hope is there for giving? Is there a future for altruism in an age of isolation? Are charities the answer or do government and corporations have to take responsibility? These were some of the questions asked at ‘The Trust virus: the future of giving’, a Cultural Capital debate organised by the Y&R London on 9 February 2017. These debates are terribly important for both academics and NGOs as they engage with the complexities and moral dilemmas involved in giving as an act of helping and social responsibility in today’s divided society and conflicted world.

The findings from the four-year research project discussed in the forthcoming book Caring in Crisis, which I co-authored with Shani Orgad (LSE), address some of these questions.

Charity starts at home

All the focus group participants in the study believed that charity does start at home. Yet, to think of this as simply parochialism, in antithesis to universalism, is unhelpful and an over-simplification. Looking at how people perceived the boundaries of their care and social responsibility, we identified nine circles of care from the most inward-looking (some expressed this in terms of ‘me and mine’) to the most universalist (‘the world is my family’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the world’). Worryingly, the majority of participants did not extend their sense of responsibility beyond their local community. This speaks to the power of the ‘inward looking’ attitude at the heart of parochialism. Yet, it is in the daily practices of care that people use in their community that people find a model for taking responsibility for others, near but also afar. Members of the public expressed a wish to care for distant others built on these practice of care they are familiar with, as if the ‘world were a small village’. These practices of care can be a vital resource for NGOs to build on.

On the other hand, Brexit, based on isolation over integration, is feeding on and in turn fuelling processes of ‘othering’ of distant sufferers. Many have commented on how anxiety, verging on paranoia, is at the heart of xenophobic Brexit. This anxiety, fomented for political ends, can have very damaging effects on the capacity and willingness to open empathetically to others. For example, the portrayal of refugee seekers as scroungers, parasites and vermin circulating in the media, blocks empathy and exasperate pre-existing and outdated portrayals of those affected by humanitarian crises. Focus group participants spoke of ‘the Africa thing’, whereby Africa becomes the stereotypical symbol of what is quintessentially wrong with humanitarian causes –– intractable, corrupt, hopeless.

The defensive and oppositional stance of ‘us and them’, at the heart of Brexit, disconnects rather than connects people to others. This is very detrimental to the future of giving to distant sufferers.

This distrust is not limited to refugees

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identified a worrying decline of trust towards NGOs and charities. We also found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. In particular, people distrust NGOs when they were perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money’. This distrust runs deep. Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving and NGOs in general.

People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished-for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).

Money is not the future

Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation in that they give people permission to disengage. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional model of engaging the public, which we call the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication. This form of communication presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally-charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf. Put crudely, members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help. In the short term the ‘hit and run’ model ‘“works” in so far as it is a successful fundraising tool. For this reason, it is understandable that cash-deprived NGOs resort to it so frequently. But it is counterproductive in terms of long-term public engagement. Participants commented that the ‘hit and run’ model enables people to disengage with a good conscience and doesn’t require commitment.

This is where we can learn a lesson from care in the community. When people talk about their model of caring for others, we found that it is relational rather than transactional, and based on commitment. People feel that the ‘hit and run’ transactional approach is dehumanising for themselves (‘all they want is my money’) and for the beneficiaries.

The future for giving then is not money but connectedness. People feel they want to connect to distant suffering in more meaningful ways, which they model on their everyday ways of caring. These ethics of care are deeply rooted in people’s ways of life. One participant talked of wanting to ‘give blood and tears’, not money. That would make his giving meaningful. If we listen to the symbolic, rather than concrete meaning of this, we learn that the British public are looking for symbolic, cognitive and emotional meaningfulness in their giving. On these, meaningful connectedness to humanitarian issues and deeper public participation over time can be built.

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