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!