History opens doors, it doesn't close them

Photo of Ben Clarkson
Ben Clarkson
Chief Operating Officer - Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership
BA History
Ben Clarkson tells us how he started working in the Charity Sector, and what motivates him in his work. He also explains how his History degree helped him become a Chartered Public Finance Accountant.

A transcript of the video:

Hi, I'm Ben Clarkson the Chief Operating Officer at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation partnership. I chose to study history at the University of Sheffield because I wanted to do a degree that I would enjoy, something I felt I was good at and something that wouldn't limit me in terms of career possibilities. I hadn't decided what I wanted to do with my life and I felt that history would open doors rather than close them.

After graduating, I briefly in insurance before moving into Public sector audit. I completed a graduate training programme with the audit comission where I became a chartered public finance accountant after qualifying I took the opportunity, reassess what I was doing. Whether I wanted to stay in the public sector where I was kinda motivated by the public benefit of the role or move in to the charity sector where I felt I could have a wider social impact. So in 2012 I moved to a financial accountants role at Macmillan Cancer Support. Briefly after that, I was promoted to head of financial accounts role, and then subsequently I've moved to other organisations. First as a director of finance and resources, at the London community foundation. Before moving on to my current role as Chief Operating Officer at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation. 

Skills and experiences I gained studying history put me in great stead for the career path I've chosen. The great thing about a degree in history is that it creates, encourages you to have an inquisitive mind. Now, auditors need professional scepticism just as historians do. And those skills i'd, I'd kinda developed as a history undergraduate were very valuable to me going into public sector audit, and helped me kind of build a bit of a reputation for myself that I was able to build on. You might think that a history to accountancy is not particularly obvious career path. But actually I've found lots of historians who turned in their hand to accountancy later. Because actually once you get past the first couple of modules, not much of it is about maths. And those, those who have done related degrees in Accountancy may have had an advantage in the early stages. But actually as you go through the training programme, it becomes much more about evaluation and thinking. And the, the essay question, essay. The essay based questions that I had to grapple with as a history student are very similar to the sorts of questions that you get, you get to the end stages of a professional qualification in accountancy. I've also found that the interest in social history, that I developed, whilst an undergraduate, has helped to inform and direct my career. One of the reasons I enjoy the work I do is that because we are motivated by fulfilling an unmet need, we have a charitable mission and we're there to serve people who aren't necessarily going to be served elsewhere. There's kind of an echo there for me of the, the unheard voices that get brought out through social history that you don't necessarily see in earlier periods of history. 

As well as my core area of finance, my current role oversees people. So HR, technology, and governance . So I'm the company secretary for the organisation as well. Now, there isn't really such thing as a typical day because that role is quite broad and varied. And particularly over the time I've been in this organisation, we've been through a merger and a global pandemic. So typical, probably, probably went out the window on day one. But The sorts of things I have to deal with will range between strategic planning for the organisation. Looking at our finance to see how we're performing forecasting ahead. Which is particularly challenging in the moment. And dealing all throughout this with uncertainty. And in many ways, the skills I learned through studying history kind of set me up quite well for that. History isn't a certain thing. It's not the same as a science, science subject or maths where you can often be sure that there's a right answer. In studying a history degree, you're often having to kind of see things through the evidence that you can find and piece that together to create a picture. That's kind of what I do every day, I have to get the evidence that I can find and create a picture of what I think is going to happen. and be comfortable with that uncertainty. And I think the skills that you learn as a historian, put you in a good position for those kind of roles.

The thing that motivates me most in my career is the feeling that everything I do has some benefit for the end mission. So in particular, I'm motivated by unmet needs. So people from deprived or under-represented communities who wouldn't necessarily get access to the support that we provide elsewhere. Charities tend to be trying to address some some form of market failure or an issue that the public services don't provide well for. So the motivation factor doesn't really matter what the cause is. Sometimes it's a cause that you might be personally affected by, but even a cause that you're not directly affected by, you can still feel that you are having some kind of benefits for the public good. And when you do a back office kinda role like mine where it could be, you could be working in finance, or HR or technology in any organisation. What kind of drives me is the fact that everything we do has some benefit on for our beneficiaries or helps raise more money so that they could reach more people. And I found that, that something I didn't really get in other sectors I've worked in, I've already really experienced that personally in the charity sector. And that's a personal thing for me. It's something that really motivates me. What I enjoy really most about my job is the ability to kind of drive things and make things better for people. I've always found that I'm motivated by listening to what people need and unlocking things for them and helping unblock and solve problems. And in a role like mine you get to do that all the time. For example, something I'm really passionate about is advancing the equity, diversity and inclusion agenda within our organisation. I feel as somebody who came from a relatively disadvantaged background, it would be unlikely that I would get into the position that I'm in, and now I'm there I think I should use my position to try and help others into those positions as well. 

My advice to current and prospective students of history, at the University of Sheffield, is to keep an open mind about what your career options might be. The joy of a degree in history is that it gives you lots of transferable skills. Skills that are sought after by a whole range of employers and it doesn't close doors, it tends to open them instead. So you don't necessarily have to decide straightaway what you want to do. But you can be confident that you're building yourself a skill set that's going to put you in great stead and make you very employable for a whole range of organisations. As I said before, people used to say to me, 'What are you gonna do with a history degree'? And I used to say whatever I like and it's turned out to be true.

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