Ian Steed

As long as I can remember, I have volunteered. Whether it was with the Boy Scouts helping to build bridges over rivers, refereeing rugby games, or playing with refugee children. While volunteering is not always fun, you get to meet people, pick up new skills and do things you’d never imagine doing, quite often being pushed out of your comfort zone. Now, working to help volunteer organizations grow and have more impact has become my career. And it all started 15 years ago.

I studied German and Dutch in the UK, and my first contact with the Red Cross came when I worked in a German Red Cross refugee home. Through this role I met people working in the national organization, and was invited back to the national headquarters as an intern when I finished my studies. As luck would have it, as this opportunity was coming to a close, an invitation came to intern with the IFRC secretariat’s organizational development department in Geneva.

This brought me into the complicated world of a global membership organization, united by a common vision and standards, but organizationally different everywhere. After the initial shock, I found the complexity of different ways of working and different understandings fascinating and challenging. The pace of work was fast, and the exposure to some outstanding practitioners, several of whom I still count as mentors today, made for a fantastic learning environment.

Some of the best advice that I received in this period, however, was not to stay too long – too make sure that I got other experience outside the Red Cross Red Crescent, away from the rarefied atmosphere of international organizations. I returned to the UK, spent a year studying management, worked in the management team of a UK school, before setting up an organization to better network the wealth of international development expertise in Cambridge, UK.

Building an organization from scratch was a hugely satisfying challenge, giving me very practical leadership experience to complement the more theoretical work with IFRC and my studies. The joy – and terror – of a small organization is that there is no one else to do things: you have to become expert in all sort of things, or persuade people who are to help you, fast!

So when my Swiss wife and I decided to move back to Switzerland, it made sense to look again at IFRC. I applied for a role in volunteering development, and have since moved into organizational development, working as part of a team to support the network of National Societies in their own development.

As before, the work is varied and fast-paced. I typically work at both policy and practical levels, which is important to me. It is so important to have regular contact with the reality on the ground – as Geneva can feel a very long way from anything actually happening sometimes!

When National Societies grow, the transformation can be astounding – within a few years Burundi Red Cross moved from being virtually non-existent to having a network of 400,000 volunteers in a country of nine million people. So while my role isn’t directly about delivering services, the impact of such organisational change on the lives of vulnerable people is potentially massive.

I personally believe that the future of the Movement depends more on having strong, sustainable national organizations than on collecting donations from rich governments to spend in other countries. This fits more closely with my understanding of human development as something that comes from within individuals and communities rather than being delivered by outsiders. So I am lucky that my current role enables me to explore with people from around the globe how they can develop Red Cross and Red Crescent institutions to meet the challenges of the future using their own resources. Every step a National Society takes in that direction has a direct impact on the lives of vulnerable people.


Organisational Development Advisor, Geneva