Cash and Passion


A friend who still works in the aid sector but who like so many harbours a desire to pursue other things sent me an article this week. Why do aid workers leave this line of work? presented the findings of a survey that quizzed about 1000 aid workers. It came as no surprise that many of the ‘gripes’ about the sector I’ve hit on in this blog and in my Devex series, were confirmed. In spades.

One of the themes that always comes up in this conversation is ‘if I don’t puruse a career in aid, then where and how do I make a living?’ There are two aspects to this question: passion and cash.

Passion in the sense of, “Am I going to find the same sense of purpose I have now, as a teacher, taxi driver or banker?” (Given the high levels of negativity about the aid sector from the same respondees, this anxiety is not without irony!)

The second part of the equation is cash. “How in the world am I ever going to get paid as much as I do now, with all the benefits of frequent free travel, paid housing, pension funds and subsidised education?”

These are existential questions. They are—to a point—essential questions. But they can also be comfortable questions. The sort we love wrestling with but enjoy not coming to a conclusion about.

Eventually, some aid workers will make the leap out the sector. Hopefully, with both questions (and all the others about family, schools and aging parents) nicely answered. But if you’re like me you’ll probably have one mostly answered and the rest still frighteningly open and uncertain.

I named this blog Life After Aid because I believe there is such a thing. And not just a miserable, slow-decline-to-oblivion in the suburbs but an exciting, enriching and rewarding life. Easily as good as any mission or project or friend we ever encountered in our humanitarian work.

In a way, this is the first proper post of Life After Aid. Everything up to this point has been about life in aid. And in answer to the many people who have enquired about it, I’ll share a bit of how I make ends meet without a regular aid salary coming in.

Ultimately, I left the aid sector to write. I have a contract (just got the advance last week!) to write two books. I write a couple of columns for an online newspaper. I have a pretty strong idea of what my next novel will be about. And the one after that, too.

Even though the publisher’s advance was happily received, and I get paid for my articles, I am under no illusions that writing will support the lifestyle I’ve come to expect and aspire to. At least in the next year or two.

This may be a good time to digress a bit. My aspirations for personal wealth are quite healthy. I’ve got two young children in a fee-devouring school. I’ve got my eye on a new car and regular trips to the US to spend time with my aging father as well as vacating our two bedroom apartment in favour of a multi-bedroomed house and garden. All as soon as possible!

Getting to the point of allowing such luxurious and wealthy plans into my consciousness was a struggle in its own right. I mean, 30 years of aid work, of being nose deep and obsessed with poverty, deprivation, economic injustice and systemic exclusion from wealth, has reinforced the belief that having lots of money is somehow inherently ‘wrong’. Or, at least unseemly. ‘Rich aid worker’ is one of those oxymorons no one likes to utter in public.

I may share some thoughts on how I changed my attitude towards personal wealth later but suffice it to say that when I considered how I was going to make a living outside of the aid sector, I was not thinking about scraping by. I was looking for a way to make a steady, sustainable and sizeable income. An income that would afford me the freedom and wherewithal to write, travel and photograph.

To be honest, there aren’t too many options. Especially, once I factored in an additional parameter: no more office jobs, no more senior management jobs, no more ‘leadership roles’, in fact, no more employment in the ‘normal’ economy.

Other than Powerball, the only legal option seemed to be to become an entrepreneur.

Yvonne, my wife, and I have set up a business in the personal development industry. We work with an American company and offer a range of subscription based online courses as well as Live events. We work from home. We work from the library. We work in the car as we wait for the football training to end. We work wherever we have wifi, which is pretty much anywhere. We work about 20 hours a week.

I have to admit, I was not an immediate supporter of this particular business plan. I’ve been raised and have nurtured the idea of Me (or at least a big part of Me) being co-equal with my career, salary and position. I offered the usual resistance to the idea: home businesses are dorky (at best) and predatory (at worst). They never work. They are all pyramid schemes. Just stick with a job and wait life out till pension time.

But when I turned my attention to the reality of what that final sentence actually meant, my heart sank. I knew that staying in a job I didn’t like meant dousing the flame of my purpose. In the end, it was a no-brainer. Rather than seeing a home business as a dorky scam I looked upon it as an adventure.

The advantages of a home business are many. As aid workers we love travelling and not being tied to a desk. Flexibility and portability are a big part of why we became aid workers in the first place. Some home businesses do tie you down. You’ve got physical stock to keep and ship, or your market is so niche it’s only viable in one particular country. But for most home (or any) businesses these days the market is global and products are online or in the cloud.

So, big non-negotiable Number 1, the ability to keep travelling, is a Big Tick with an online business.

Big non-negotiable Number 2, to still retain meaning in the work I do, is also ticked.   We aid workers spend our lives all fired up (until we get burned out) about community development. We are gung ho about helping other people develop themselves into innovative, resilient, strong, healthy, economically viable and aware individuals and communities. But when it comes closer to home most of us ignore developing these very same qualities in ourselves.

Running a business where my daily job description is implementing more productive and positive ways to make my relationships, my body and my mind strong, resilient, innovative and flexible is exhilarating. Helping others who are looking to get more out of life and make a positive contribution is pretty fulfilling. It is refreshing to work with people on implementing positive change in their lives without any of the political agendas and management bulldust and donor interference that characterizes ‘aid’. It’s person to person assistance. The best kind.

Finally, an online small cottage business can be very lucrative. Since we don’t have any overheads for inventory and have no employees, our expenses are incredibly low. At the same time, our ‘parent’ company, which provides the content of the personal development courses and events, has structured itself in a way that allows us to keep between 75-100% of all our earnings. In any industry or business of any sort, that is almost unheard of.

Big, non-negotiable Number 3—earn as much if not more than I did as a senior aid worker—a Big Tick.

[If you’re curious you can check out our websites 1 and 2 ]

Here’s my advice for those who want to seriously consider this option for life after aid.

  • This option is best for people who  have other passions to pursue and who want the time and cash to pursue them. If you’re happy with the 9-9 office culture of NGOs and Aid then this is probably something you’d find too unstructured.
  • A home business is like any other serious commitment you make, be it buying a house or a car or changing careers. You need to invest money up front and be willing to not earn much or anything for a few months until you get some momentum up and learn the ropes.

But if you can handle those two, then Life After Aid can be truly inspiring and rewarding.