Changing the world through digital technology and communications | A conservation leader’s career switch
Campaigning, communications and engagement are key tools in conservation work today, and they almost always rely on digital technology! Emma Marsh is the Executive Director of Digital Technology and Communications at RSPB, where she oversees the charity’s global digital technology, communications, campaigning, and engagement work. Emma shared her experience of switching careers into conservation as a woman from a working-class background and gave brilliant advice for aspiring conservationists in her interview.
What first inspired you to work in conservation? And what continues to inspire you?
“I was brought up on a farm in the Midlands (of England, UK) because my dad was a farm worker. I used to spend my childhood days exploring the fields, hedges and trees. That was my playground and my happy space. I remember such freedom and natural wonders, like the thousands of lapwings in the fields that would flood each year and the huge flocks of skylarks and tree sparrows.
That was back in the late 70s, and through every year of my childhood thereafter the numbers of birds dwindled as the fields were drained, hedges ripped out, and less food and habitat for wildlife remained. I would walk the fields when I was a teenager and despair at what was happening. That experience, combined with the reality of climate change, is the reason I became a committed environmentalist.
“But my route into a career was definitely not ‘standard’. My parents wouldn’t let me consider a career in farming – we didn’t own the farm or the land, and it wasn’t seen as something that had a secure future – and they desperately wanted me to be the first member of our extended family to go to university.
I was also a bit of a politics fiend and so decided to study International Relations. It was a fascinating degree, and the module looking at the international politics of the environment was completely riveting. But it left me a bit in limbo, not knowing what direction to go in but definitely needing to start earning money.
So I navigated a route through the public sector (civilian police), then the private sector (IT and telecommunications project management), and back to the public sector (waste and recycling). Then, after a year of volunteering in organic horticulture and conservation, I finally landed where I should be: in the charity world and in conservation.
“My route into conservation wasn’t standard… but I finally landed where I should be: in the charity world and in conservation.”
“The same things that inspired me as a child still inspire me to work in conservation now. The destruction of the natural world continues at an accelerating pace despite more people doing great things, such as nature-friendly farmers leading the charge and young people standing up to fight for nature. The climate and nature emergency has never been more terrifying and more urgent, and I am hugely privileged to work for a charity with the heft and influence to make a difference – I won’t waste that chance.”
What does your current role involve; what’s a typical day at work for you?
“Every day is different! One day I can be immersed in helping my team gear up our technology and media to deliver big events (such as Big Garden Bird Watch), the next pivoting all our focus from what’s planned to something that no one expected (such as the recent Attack on Nature).
Another day I’ll be signing off budgets and strategies, the next working with Trustees, and another day will be spent at one of our incredible nature reserves, seeing the spectacular conservation delivery that our teams do so well. It’s such a varied, dynamic and interesting role – I’m incredibly lucky!”
A lot of your work revolves around campaigns. What drew you to this?
“Since heading up the Love Food Hate Waste campaign for WRAP, I’ve really seen and felt the power of campaigns to make a difference. They are a crucial part of what creates change. It was fascinating working with so many behaviour change experts on food waste to look at how we could help people to change their habits, even by a small amount, to make a big difference over time. And just as important, if not more so, was learning from the failures (we all have them!) by working out what didn’t work and why.
“I’ve really seen and felt the power of campaigns to make a difference. They are a crucial part of what creates change.”
“And all that learning has come with me to my new role; at RSPB I want us to be bold in our campaigning because that’s what the nature crisis demands. I want us to show what our shared future could look like, with the skies teeming with birds and insects, habitats like peatland and saltmarsh restored at scale, and a world where nature thrives.
And I believe campaigning, mobilisation and communication are critical to getting us there – alongside changes to policy across the four countries of the UK, demonstrating the what’s possible through practical conservation, world-class research and science… every bit has a critical part to play.”
What key steps have you taken in your career so far, and what did you learn from them?
“Because I didn’t know how to get to my dream job, or really what my dream job would be, I followed the path of skills gathering rather than focusing on moving through a hierarchy or organisation. I decided to get experience across the public, private and charity sectors, which has been invaluable to my career.
Understanding the different drivers and levers you can pull means that I feel I’m more rounded as a leader. Once I knew that I was good at managing people and projects, I spent time in different roles building on those skills through training, mentoring, and development. Then, when the dream job came up, I had exactly what was needed.
“Because I didn’t know how to get to my dream job, or really what my dream job would be, I followed the path of skills gathering… Then, when the dream job came up, I had exactly what was needed.”
“I also knew how hard it was to get into the world of conservation and sustainability, so I did a lot of volunteering in my own time (including giving everything up for a year so that I had enough experience in the environmental sector to get through the door). Somehow it worked!”
What are your career highlights so far?
“Being voted the Guardian’s Unsung Hero for my work on food waste was such a humbling and amazing experience. I didn’t expect it, and the fact it was voted for by my peers and the public gave me the confidence to believe I really could make a difference.
“Getting the Regional Director role for RSPB changed my life overnight. The RSPB is an amazing place to work, and suddenly working with such talented and passionate people in a role that was truly connected to nature was bliss! My recent promotion to an Executive Director has just been incredible; I feel so lucky to be in this role, to be able to help the RSPB deliver on our strategy and mission, and truly work with others here and with partner charities and organisations to change the world one day at a time.”
What challenges have you faced, and how have you tackled them?
“My biggest challenges I think have come from being a woman in what has often been historically a man’s world, and being from my socioeconomic class. I was born into a rural working-class family, and one of the biggest challenges I faced as I moved into the world of work was my lack of contacts. I saw everyone else getting introductions or help from friends of the family, but when you don’t have that it’s a bit bewildering. I found myself in a lot of situations where I didn’t know how to behave, and I had to learn stuff that others around me found instinctive.
“There’s quite a mental toll when you don’t feel you quite fit in or that you don’t really belong. It’s taken me quite a few years and stumbles to be able to manage those feelings – I wouldn’t say they’ve gone, but I know now how to control them. I also now see these not as challenges, but as things to celebrate – as well as making sure I help clear a path for those that follow me.”
Could you tell us more about your work as a mentor?
“Because of the challenges I feel I have faced, I have always been keen to help mentor others – to help them navigate this complex and messy world. I’ve been a mentor for over ten years, and there is nothing quite like seeing someone fly as a result of the actions they’ve taken and the steps they’ve made after our conversations. I’ve gained so much from each and every mentee.”
“I help clear a path for those that follow me… Nature needs people to fight for it. All people.”
Do you have any other advice for aspiring conservationists?
- Find out about every conservation charity and all the multitude of things they do. They each do so much and achieve so much but are all very different. Speak to staff and be curious – everyone is so happy to share what they do.
- You can be a conservationist in so many ways! Don’t restrict yourself to thinking that you have to have a degree in ecology or be an expert in a species. Conservation needs all of us. You could be site managers, accountants, IT developers, communications officers, data analysts, fundraisers, leaders…if you have a passion to save the natural world we need all your talents!
- There are so many opportunities to grow and do different things throughout your career. Keep your eyes open to opportunities.
- If you always give your best, you’re proactive, and always look to make things happen and have impact, you will do well.
- Believe in yourself! People can pigeonhole themselves into types of roles or a certain hierarchy – don’t allow yourself to do that. Aim high!
- Speak to someone you admire and ask for advice and feedback. If you know where you want to go but don’t know how, then seek out support.
- Never forget to look after yourself. Your well-being is imperative and balance is key. This is a tough job. We see the climate and nature crisis in detail, and it sometimes feels like an enormous weight when things don’t go so well. But together we know we can and are making a difference, and nature needs us to be fighting fit.
- And finally, just be yourself and bring your whole self to the conservation sector, and welcome that from others. Nature needs people to fight for it. All people.
Author Profile | Jenna Woodford
Jenna is the Social Media Officer at BTO and a volunteer Conservation Careers Blogger. Through all their work, Jenna aims to help make nature and the conservation sector more accessible and inclusive.
Featured Image. Credit: Ben Andrews (RSPB).