Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Linguist for hire – what are the not-so-obvious careers in which linguists excel? Guest blog post by Hayley Smith

Have you ever noticed that multilingual people, whether through formal teaching or due to social factors, are perfectly suited to, or naturally gravitate towards, some not-so-immediately obvious careers?

Allow me to give you some food for thought. I’ve just returned to study for a Translation MA at the University of Surrey after a ten-year hiatus; as much as I would have loved to have stayed on in Paris after I graduated, swanning around the Marais, a Stendhal novel in one hand, Pastis in the other, the need to earn some money and “get a proper job” won out, and I moved to London.

Following a couple of non-starter jobs (facilities management, anyone?), I found my groove in philanthropy fundraising – securing large charitable gifts from high-net-worth individuals and from foundations for some amazing, household-name charities. After eight years of a relatively successful career in the sector, I was desperate to return to working with my language skills again. Although, on second thoughts, perhaps I’d just ended up channelling them in a different way.

“I chose to study languages as I wanted to be able to communicate in the best way with others – for me to feel comfortable with them, and vice versa”, says Holly Hastings-Payne, French and Spanish graduate and Head of Philanthropy at Action for Children. “Language is communication and being able to communicate effectively with a broad range of people, engaging and motivating them, is key to being a good fundraiser.”

Holly is just one of a large number of fundraisers I’ve met that, like me, also happen to be linguists. Usually, we happen to be Relationship Fundraising specialists – a term used to cover areas where fundraisers have one-to-one working relationships with supporters, such as philanthropy and corporate fundraising. Notice the word ‘relationship’; there’s an old adage in major gift fundraising that “people give to people.” In essence, a charity can be doing phenomenal work, but if the person representing them isn’t the right match for the supporter, they won’t get very far.

So, what makes a good relationship fundraiser? Like any job description, there are countless ‘essentials’ and ‘desirables’ to consider (like being able to add up properly – something I never quite mastered), but I believe the key qualities that are shared with linguists are:

  • Being sensitive to how you are communicating and how others are reacting to what you are saying, through words, sub-text and non-verbal cues. Being a linguist makes you hyper-aware of how you communicate, and whether you are making yourself understood!
  • In a similar vein, I’m sure we’d all agree that linguists are chameleons - we are often a different version of ourselves when we’re in another country, speaking a different language. Likewise, if a supporter is a theatrical 'luvvie' or a highly analytical business person, a good fundraiser will adapt their personality and communicative style accordingly.
  • “Advanced knowledge of another language gives you a better grasp of your native one, especially the written word,” says Emily Wheeler, Head of Philanthropic Partnerships at MQ: Transforming Mental Health and a French graduate. There is a lot of writing involved in philanthropy fundraising - from persuasive texts, right through to adapting complex and/or scientific concepts for a lay reader. The skills needed for this are very similar to those required for translation and interpreting.

There will likely be many more besides, but I would like to end with a quality that Rachel Hughes, Deputy Director of Major Gift Fundraising at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and an Italian speaker, believes is shared by relationship fundraisers and linguists alike - curiosity.

“Curiosity is so important in relationship fundraising – you ask a lot of questions to find out what makes a prospective donor tick, to work out which areas of our work would be of most interest to them. I think they’d be able to tell if I weren’t genuinely interested in them as people! Learning a language means you are able to cross cultures and it made me naturally curious about other people from quite a young age.”

It would appear that learning a language can have a huge impact on your future career, whether or not languages remain an explicit part of your chosen path. Please let me know what you think on social media – are there other not-so-obvious sectors that seem to attract linguists? I’d love to hear your thoughts!