How I survived my first year outside the Aid Sector


Eleven months ago I pulled the plug on a successful career in international aid. There were (and remain) many who felt I was mad. Even I thought so right up until I finally stepped off the cliff.*

Nearly a year on I find myself hurtling ever further and faster out of the orbit of Planet Aid. What once seemed unthinkable—that I would willingly leave the security, the adventure, the ‘meaning’ of a sexy, rewarding career—is now daily reason for gratitude. I could never imagine returning.

I am aware from the occasional visit to Aid-worker sites on the Net that the idea of a post-Aid life is a particularly hot topic. For most, ‘the next step’ is confounding. For some, it’s downright petrifying. Options run between the unsatisfactory (low pay, junior positions) and the non-existent (corporate, UN or think tank). Overall, I get the idea from the discussions, its better to remain a frustrated, unhappy, even depressed, employee than risk being an ‘ex-aid worker’.

As I’ve maintained all along, and as the title of this blog boldly proclaims, there is Life After Aid.   Let me tell you a little about how I’ve managed it.

When it came time for me to exit stage left, I was determined to avoid the familiar avenues of consulting, the domestic charity sector and academia.

I was determined to do something completely different.

I had three criteria:

  • I didn’t want to be involved with aid/development.
  • I wanted a sustainable income stream that would pay more than any NGO or consulting role.
  • I wanted to put my writing and other creative pursuits at the center of life.

Having ruled out the sector that had sustained me professionally for nearly three decades, the only option, this side of a hefty win in the Lottery, seemed to be to go into business.

So late last year, after several months of arguing, investigation, hesitation, more argument and hemming and hawing at the cross roads—if we don’t go for what we want now, will we ever?— my wife and I held our breath, pooled our meager liquid assets and began referring to ourselves as entrepreneurs.

The first thing to note is, obviously this is not a brick and mortar business. We didn’t have the cash for that and neither of us saw ourselves as shopkeepers.

Years earlier we had tried our hands at an MLM business which went nowhere.   We didn’t want to re-enter those treacherous waters.

Ours is a very contemporary business. 100% online. No inventory. No employees. No fuss no muss. All we needed, we were told, was a phone and an internet connection. It sounded like a plan.

In the months that followed we immersed ourselves in the world of online marketing: social media, click per view, content marketing, funnels this funnels that, banner ads, lead generation, CRMs and on and on.

I’ve learned how to put a pretty spiffy landing page together in a day and my ads are improving all the time. Yvonne handles most of the phone calls with prospective customers. She uses her natural authenticity and feminine power to do an amazing job of promoting the products. Speaking of which, are also very modern.

Our products have no physical substance. (How clever!) We don’t sell boxes, or books, CDs or cellulite cream. We don’t have a franchise to repair your iPhone glass when it shatters. And we don’t sell health products.

What we trade in is powerful ideas. Ideas about personal courage and taking personal responsibility. Ideas that offer a different take on the Universe and how we ordinary mortals can make it work for, rather than against, us. Essentially we offer people a way to create lasting positive change in their lives.

When I signed on to being a businessman I had no expectation that I would experience profound personal change as part of the package. But this sort of business demands that you not just know your product inside and out, but that you become a product of the product.

After spending 30 years in the aid industry focused on urging others toward development, the journey of turning some serious light into the dusty, crusty, much ignored corners of my own mind, soul and spirit was a bit confronting.

But the journey of personal development has been deep and exciting. In fact, much to my surprise I virtually absorbed the material by osmosis. One course led to another, which led to books, videos and podcasts from a whole chorus of other thinkers, scientists, philosophers and mystics.

Were I to abandon the business tomorrow, I would walk away knowing I have received value far beyond the financial investment and sacrifice we made.

But lest you think the last 11 months have been one long chorus of Kum Ba Ya, let me set the record straight

Depending on a business to pay the bills and not receiving a paycheck every month has been a major learning curve. More than once we’ve come close to doing a very realistic impression of the Titanic just after it hit the iceberg.

And like all beginners, we grossly underestimated the time it would take to produce an income. We have been frustrated by the learning curve and been challenged on a daily basis by our old habits and ways of thinking. Though we’ve never seriously considered chucking in the towel –we had no Plan B. A handy strategy if you want to succeed—there have been plenty of sleepless nights.

But being part of a company and community that is promoting personal development there is no place to hide. When the going got parlous and the bank balance skint, we had to find a way.

They say successful pushers never smoke their own shit. Well, in this business, consuming massive quantities of our products was exactly the thing that kept us moving forward.

So nearly one year on, what’s the scorecard look like?

To be honest, the results are mixed. I’ve not been able to write as much as I want or thought I would. Yvonne has been frustrated that she’s had to forego opportunities that interest her and further her passions. So that work-life balance hasn’t been created yet.

But considering we were complete novices when we began and that most businesses take a couple of years to truly get off the ground I have no doubt that we’ll soon have the time we want for the things that make us tick. It’s just a matter of time.

And what about the income?

We are not ‘financially free’ yet, of course. But I am absolutely certain that that heavenly state is one that is no longer the stuff of fantasy. Already we are earning more in a month than we’ve ever made in our lives so things are definitely trending in the right direction.

For aid workers struggling with the ‘next step’,  I offer a few simple lessons.

  1. There is most definitely Life After Aid. There are myriad opportunities, other than ‘jobs’ and consulting, out there. You just have to want it bad enough.
  2. Back yourself. If you’ve got a burning desire to do something other than aid work, find a way to do it. Don’t accept mediocrity or frustration or bouncing around the world hoping things will one day improve. They won’t. Follow your heart; it will lead you.
  3. A home-based business is an excellent option. If you pick the right one your investment costs can be incredibly low and your returns unbelievably high.
  4. There is nothing quite like the feeling of operating something you’ve created from scratch. The sense of pride, purpose and achievement that comes with a successful business venture is unbeatable. That we are able to assist others to become better, happier and more prosperous people in the process only makes the effort more rewarding.

So, go on. Take the plunge.

What do you have to lose except that regional conference on Aid Effectiveness?




* I have written about some of my motivations for getting out as well as how I somewhat accidently began my career nearly 30 years ago. You can peruse DEVEX and earlier posts of my blog (Life After Aid) for those reflections if you are so inclined.






One comment

  1. Nate Rabe · October 7, 2016

    Reblogged this on njrabe.


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