Lockdown chat #4
Welcome back to Lockdown Chat, a series where we interview our team about life and work in the time of corona. For the European Youth Forum staff, we are continuing to work remotely, so we wanted to sit down with our colleagues for a chat near the coffee machine, just as we used to. For this next edition, we spoke to our Secretary General, Joe Elborn, who also began his role in the Youth Forum during the pandemic.
Hi Joe! My first question is what’s your job at the European Youth Forum?
I'm the Secretary-General of the European Youth Forum. I lead the secretariat and work with our elected board, four great directors, and our fantastic 30-membered staff to deliver results for our 108 members that represent over 6000 grassroots youth organisations. Together, we strive to make the world a better place for young people.
Could you describe your typical day of work?
What’s lovely about this job is that no two days are the same. Some days you're probably just doing what we all do, which is replying to endless numbers of emails. Other days, you’re jumping from meeting to meeting. Sometimes, you need to give speeches in front of a lot of people, and sometimes, you need to take a backseat and help someone else find the right line and angle to approach a task. In between all that, I spend two, three hours a week trying to figure out how we could make the youth forum a better workplace and what mechanisms we need to manage professionally in order to run such a big entity.
So, what would be the most exciting thing you're working on right now?
A ton of stuff. There are so many opportunities within our platform. It’s sometimes difficult to say no to new opportunities, but unfortunately, we do as we can’t do everything. I guess, there are three things I’m very excited about currently.
Number one is the modernisation process of the Youth Forum. We're calling it the “Youth Forum 4.0.” Hopefully, if we can meet in person in November, this will be completed this year after we vote through a new set of rules at our General Assembly, thereby modernising our organisation.
I’m also very keen to increase our presence in terms of sustainability. I’m working hand in hand with our sustainability team and our fundraising coordinator to boost synergy related to this topic. I've spent a lot of time in the last 10 years working on sustainability, and it matters a lot to me.
Lastly, the final thing is not so much something I’m excited about, but it is something that is important: What’s going to happen in our democracies post-COVID? If you look at the history of societal traumas, you notice that there has often occurred a democratic backslide after something so catastrophic. For instance, after the economic crisis of 2008, we saw a rise in populism and a decline in democracy. The Youth Forum will play a really important role to reboot democracy. We have got to do a better job this time than we did during the crisis of 2008.
Talking about the past, what did you do before coming to the European Youth Forum?
I did a bunch of things. I worked for three years in finance in Australia, which was exciting and fun for many different reasons. Immediately after that, I left for Brazil to do some volunteering work. It was a way for me to give back a little. Then, I spent nine years working as a consultant. By the end of my time as a consultant, I was running the environment and healthcare practice and became particularly interested in medical technology. In the last few years there, I was working more and more with foundations and NGOs. That’s where I was getting the most value from my daily work, and it led me to jump full time into doing that and joining the European Youth Forum.
It's interesting that you worked in finance and then went volunteering in Brazil. Would you describe yourself as an idealist?
I'm an optimist rather than an idealist. I think I'm a relentlessly optimistic person.
Talking about optimism, what would be your ideal version of the European Youth Forum?
I’d love to see a youth forum that has such tremendous prospects that our staff would multiply massively. For example, I wish we could have 30 people working on climate and sustainability alone from a youth point of view. In a perfect world, we would create enough interest in people such that they would invest in the youth forum, allowing us to expand massively. However, we need the capacity to deliver value to our member organisations who are at the core of our work. We also need to be sufficiently persuasive so that people want to invest in us. We’re beginning that journey. Let's see where that takes us. In three years, I hope to look at a much bigger, much stronger youth forum. Internally, my goal is to ensure every single staff member is happy – this is what I mainly care about.
Did you spot any difference between working in an NGO and compared to your previous work environments?
It would take a lot longer than a half-an-hour interview to answer this. Yes, there is some amount of difference, but nowhere near as much as people think. People in youth organisations believe in their work and are deeply passionate about it. In other worlds, people are much more objective-focused. For me, the perfect space is in the middle, where with enough passion and enough structure, incredible results can be generated.
Where are you spending most of your time during the pandemic?
At home, with my wife and beautiful newborn daughter.
Congratulations! Your home is in Brussels, right?
Yep. I've lived here for close to 10 years now, maybe nine years. I don't know, something like that. It gets a bit blurry after a while, doesn’t it?
Where are you from originally?
Originally, I am from Northern Ireland, but I probably identify as Irish more than British, although I guess that's a contentious thing to say. I was born in a little seaside town called Bangor, which is near Belfast.
Once the pandemic is over, what are you looking forward to doing?
One of my secret favourite places is the Pari Daiza zoo. I’ve got a season pass, which means I can go there as many times as I want. I think I go there at least 10 times a year. I’ve seen the animals a lot, but for me, it's essentially a space where I can reflect and think, so I sometimes go even on my own without the excuse of my daughter.
Is there anything you learned from all the remote working during these times?
I've been so much more available to my wife and newborn daughter. I think that it showed us that the nine-to-five working culture was, indeed, a wrong one, and I think we can do better in the future.