The phrase “charity worker” may seem like an oxymoron but many people choose to pursue a career within charitable organisations. We caught up with Debbie O’Dowd, one of the Direct Marketing team at Friends of the Earth, to talk about cow costumes, cake and campaigning…
What took you to Friends of the Earth? Was it the cause that led you to work there, or was it “just a job”?
It was mostly cause-led but I was also intrigued by the organisation. I’d seen some coverage of Friends of the Earth’s media actions in the newspaper and was really impressed at the creative way they communicated messages. It looked like a fun place to work.
What’s the biggest project you have on at the moment?
It’s all about energy – where we get it from, how we use it and what needs to change. We’re at a crossroads and the decisions the Government makes now regarding its investment in energy sources will resonate for decades to come.
Have you ever been caught up in some of the stranger Friends of the Earth campaign stunts?
One of the best days I’ve had here was spent dressed up as a cow, driving through the centre of London on an open top bus, dancing my socks off and waving a banner. We were filming a video to promote planet-friendly farming and rainforest-free food. I’ve never laughed so much at work before.
What's the weirdest thing you've seen at work?
A while ago I walked up to the roof terrace and my colleague Dan was cleaning an inflatable white elephant three times my size and it seemed perfectly fine. It made its debut in front of Parliament a few days later at a nuclear power campaign.
Been to any cool events?
One of the perks of the job is that I get to go to quite a few festivals during the summer. We were at Hop Farm this year and saw Prince play live. You can’t get much cooler than that!
Who are Friends of the Earth's celebrity patrons?
We’ve had some great celebrity support over the years. The one that springs to mind first is Thom Yorke, who travelled to Copenhagen for the UN climate talks in 2009 to act as a Friends of the Earth spokesperson. As the front man of Radiohead he was certainly the right person to make some noise.
Have you ever met anyone famous as part of your work?
I once saw the back of Colin Firth’s head at a gala event. Does that count? To be honest, I’ve not had that many celebrity encounters but I have met a lot of interesting people along the way. My first job was at Survival International, a human rights charity that works with tribal people. We regularly had visitors from indigenous communities around the world and to save money we’d put them up in our own homes. My flatmates were quite bemused when I brought back a Bushman from Botswana to sleep on the sofa. I’ll always remember that evening because he explained – in detail – the best way to kill a giraffe. It could save my life one day...
How do you get on with Greenpeace? People seem to think you’re similar even though you both use completely different methods to get things done. Do you compete or collaborate?
We don’t compete, we complement each other. Organisations grow to develop their own styles of campaigning and become experts in using different avenues to achieve results. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who supports both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace because they have different attributes even though they share the same overarching objectives. On some campaigns we do work together to leverage all our strength, but at other times we work on our own campaigns to cover a greater distance.
People have this perception of environmental charities being full of hippies talking about growing their own food, but that can’t be the case. How does working in a charity office environment actually differ from a “normal” one?
It doesn’t. Charities these days are highly professional and I’m surrounded by skilled experts who make me proud to be part of Friends of the Earth. Like any business or government, we understand what works – whether that’s in marketing, lobbying or governance structures. That said, the ethical ethos of the charity permeates everything. The way we behave towards our supporters, stakeholders, everyone, reflects the values of the charity. And I’d like to point out that the whole time I’ve worked at Friends of the Earth, I’ve never witnessed a single tree-hugging incident. Although there is a lot of homemade organic cake.
You can find out more about working for Friends of the Earth on their website.