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The leader fighting for girls education and a fairer charity sector

23 September 2019 at 8:29 am
Maggie Coggan
As the leader of One Girl, Sarah Ireland is fighting to not only empower girls through education, but set an example of how a charity should be run. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 23 September 2019 at 8:29 am


The leader fighting for girls education and a fairer charity sector
23 September 2019 at 8:29 am

As the leader of One Girl, Sarah Ireland is fighting to not only empower girls through education, but set an example of how a charity should be run. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Ireland describes her first few years working on the ground in disaster relief efforts as humbling. Being thrown head first into disaster relief efforts gave her a chance to learn quickly, not just from people in the sector but from local people directly affected.  

As CEO of One Girl, it’s her mission to empower women and girls in Uganda and Sierra Leone to take charge of their own futures through education, creating a sustainable change that outlives the charity. 

And back on home shores, she is working hard to practice what One Girl preaches within the organisation by creating a workplace culture that is flexible, supportive and open, positioning herself as a role model for other young people in the charity sector.  

For her efforts as an outstanding leader in the sector, Ireland was named as one of Pro Bono Australia’s 2018 Impact 25 award winners.  

In this week’s Changemaker, Ireland talks about the importance of grassroots change, taking time out, and stepping back as a leader to step up. 

What first sparked your interest in the sector? 

I always wanted to be a journalist, and worked as a journalist for a little while before going on to do further study in international relations. Like many Australians before me, I took off on a working holiday visa in the UK, and it was there that I became exposed to the humanitarian and development sector in a way that showed me that it could be a career beyond working for the United Nations or volunteering for a charity. 

I ended up getting a volunteer position at Save the Children in London and a month later, I was in the middle of a disaster zone in Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. I was sent there for one month to help on logistics and get life saving items into the country. I ended up staying 10 months.  

What was that like, seeing as you were pretty new to the sector?  

When I took on the 10 month job, I made it really clear that I would need someone to help me grow in the role because I didn’t have the experience. But I was willing to learn. I was a problem solver and solution focused, and when I had questions I would ask. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were willing to play that role and support me, but on the other hand I was game enough to put my hand up and put myself out there. That was the experience that I needed. I had this exposure to the humanitarian context of what it was like to respond to emergencies, to work side by side with communities who had just gone through the traumatic experience of an enormous disaster and provide them with the support they needed so they could really lead the way in building their lives back up.

Do you think that’s important for leaders of organisations like One Girl to have that firsthand on the ground experience before they take on a managerial role like that?

Some people can succeed without it. For me it has really made a difference in how I am with my team here and how I approach leadership, because I started from such a humbling experience of not knowing what I was doing, really having to learn from the international aid staff, the people who’d been impacted, and the local staff that I worked side by side with. I also learned a lot from them about what my role was. It wasn’t to be there building houses or teaching kids in the schools or anything like that, but to provide an enabling environment and provide them with the tools and resources they needed so they could do it themselves, because that’s where you get long-lasting change. 

What do you want to achieve while you’re at One Girl?

Internally we have a lot of both volunteers and staff who are starting out in their career, it’s their first or second job. We have volunteers who are still at university and so it’s about how I can support them, how I can inspire them, and how I can be a role model so they see pathways for themselves to continue on a pathway for leadership in whatever way suits them. 

It’s really important they can look at and see a female CEO or see someone who is really pushing for progressive workplace practices and to create flexible workplaces for people who have kids, but also people who don’t and who need it for whatever reason. It’s also about making sure employees in my organisation are paid appropriately, and aren’t underpaid because they are working in the community sector, which is a predominantly female-led sector. 

We’re basically doing the same in our programs overseas. All of our programs are girl led, the girls in Sierra Leone and in Uganda help us design the programs because they’re programs for them, and so they should be really driving that. But also they implement the programs. They play a leadership role in the programs, they evaluate the programs as well. So again, it’s about giving them the skills and the tools they need to be able to do so. 

One of the things I want to leave One Girl with is how can we expand our programs outside of Sierra Leone and Uganda, but how can we support other organisations who are working in other countries with adolescent girls, with young women, to be able to have the same impact in their programs in the way that we have now. 

Is there anything you would do differently in your career or anything you’d change about where you are now in your career?

There isn’t anything I would change [about where I am now], but when I look back at when I was younger, something I would change is thinking I had to prove something. Being a young female, managing an office where I had much older people surrounding me and thinking I had to prove myself to them and show I could do it, rather than using my platform to elevate or amplify the voices of people who didn’t have that. And it’s something that I’ve looked back at and thought maybe I didn’t do that so well. But what I did do is learn from it because I was open enough and also surrounded by people that encouraged me to reflect on my behaviour and my leadership practices to help me improve.

What does your day look like?

It really varies. Today I’m wearing a school dress as I talk to you, and I’m out and about doing talks this morning in my school dress for our “Do it in a Dress” campaign, because I feel it’s really important to provide leadership in whatever we do, even if it involves being in your mid-30s wearing a school dress. 

A lot of time is sitting with the program staff, working with them on the technical aspects of our work and our approach to gender and gender transformation in our programs. 

We just launched a new website, and I’ve never done that before. So sitting with my head of fundraising and head of communications and listening to them talk about SEO value and all these things that I have no idea about. But how I can support them to be able to actually do their job properly, knowing that they’re the experts, I just need to ask the right questions and support them. 

I find in the CEO role that it’s spread across different parts of the organisation. I need to be able to be there to support and to lead when needed and to be that person to step out front and be on the radio or wearing my school dress. But I also need to be able to get knee deep in packing orders or do spreadsheets for budgets.

How important is it to take time out from your job? 

I spent the first six months or eight months of this role really just working. Getting home, seeing my daughter, and then opening up the computer again. But that’s just not feasible in the long term. Having balance is really important and there are peaks and troughs through the year. Our major campaign has just launched, so the next couple of weeks will be very busy and will require some at home work, but after that I’ll really aim to not do that so much. 

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

Spending time with my daughter and my partner. I also love going to the beach, getting out hiking and camping. Getting outdoors is just a way that I can completely regenerate. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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