10 things I’ve learnt from six years at Refugee Action

Eleanor Dean
8 min readFeb 3, 2017

Yesterday was my last day at Refugee Action after six years as their digital officer, five of those in a digital team of one. In that time I learnt a few things about digital campaigning and activism. Here are ten of them.

1. Measure everything — even if no-one is asking you to

When I first joined Refugee Action, no one outside of my immediate team ever asked me to measure or quantify anything I was doing. There wasn’t even a mention of analytics tools or measurement in my job description.

Despite this, I measured everything. I made spreadsheets, squinted at data exports, tweaked, tested and wrote long lists of goals I thought no one (except perhaps my line manager) would ever read. This helped me learn from my mistakes and do a better job, so I always thought it was worth it.

Then we got a new Chief Executive who, on his third week in post, called me into his office and asked me to explain “what I was trying to do” with digital. I was very glad I’d measured everything at that point.

2. Be ready for anything

One evening back in 2015, I was about to log out of Twitter when I noticed the words #RefugeesWelcome in the trending topics list. Did I miss something, I thought? Did something big happen in Parliament today?

In fact, Twitter was reacting with horror to the publication of a now-famous photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who’d drowned, along with his mother and brother, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea with his family. For a lot of people, seeing his picture was the first time they’d realised what being a refugee actually meant.

The following days were some of the maddest, strangest and most moving I’ve ever worked through. My colleagues and I talked hundreds of people through how they could (and sometimes couldn’t) help refugees. I herded people all over the Internet, trying to help them help. I wrote this blog post, which I think saved my colleagues (we don’t have a receptionist at Refugee Action, if you call us it’s like staff member roulette) a lot of long phone calls.

Through all of this, I was silently praying our website wouldn’t fall over and that our social media presence would inspire people to believe in our work. From the huge surge in donations, it seems like it did OK.

So keep crafting that online presence, digital people. If the world suddenly bangs down your door, you’ll be glad you did.

3. Training people is great

I never knew how much I liked training and delivering workshops until I worked at Refugee Action.

There really is no better feeling than teaching someone to do something they’ve previously thought was “a bit weird and technical” — except perhaps (honesty klaxon) never having to do it for them in the middle of a very busy day again.

If you’re a digital specialist and ever find yourself thinking, I don’t have time to do that thing for that person today, I wish they could do it themselves, then your organisation needs a training session and you need to deliver it. Honestly do it. Do a training course on training and go for it. It’s great.

This is especially important if your organisation works with people or groups who are not always well or fairly represented on the Internet. I ran a couple of training sessions and workshops for refugees and asylum seekers, but I know I could and should have run more. I regret that. Do better than me.

4. Digital work is never “finished”

I’ve always felt like I could do better at work. Probably in a lot of cases I could (see the point above) — but being in a tiny digital team in a rapidly changing environment can be quite restrictive.

So I worried a lot about work. Until I went to a great event called 300 Seconds and heard someone from the Government Digital Service say this: as a digital person, your work is never done. Things can always be better. It’s always a work in progress. Accept that, embrace it, and get back to work.

It’s an exciting and also a tiring thought, but it’s got me through a lot of bad days. Thank you, GDS person whose name I will never remember. That five minute (i.e. 300 second) speech of yours did me one heck of a favour.

5. Find your community

If you’re a digital person in the third sector, you’re probably in a team, or even a whole organisation, that’s being stretched quite thinly.

Fortunately, you also have a really big team around you: the entire charity digital community, who are many and legion and friendly.

Being part of this group — going to meet-ups like NFPtweetup and Digital Charities and having a brilliant Charity Comms mentor (hi Sarah!) — has made me feel like part of a team of hundreds when in reality I was a team of one (or more lately, two).

I’ve learnt a lot and been supported an immeasurable amount, and I would urge you to get out here and find this out for yourself.

6. You need to fight back against racism

In a week when you can get detained at a US airport for 19 hours for being from Iraq, it felt important to get this one of the list.

Working at a refugee charity has given me a clearer insight into racism in the UK than I’ve ever had before. I’ve met women who’ve had stones thrown at them for wearing a hijab, spoken to parents forced to move towns to escape racist abuse, and spent hours moderating vile and deeply ignorant comments on social media (and I don’t just mean dissenting views here — I mean properly nasty attacks on entire races, religions and social groups).

Racism might not affect you or me on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and isn’t a huge problem. Resist, refute and stand up for people wherever you can. If you’re nervous about doing this, this video might help.

7. Your mental health is very important

Some people can keep on campaigning, relentlessly, and be forever tough and strong. I am not one of those people. To me, sleep is very important. Eating properly is very important. Not checking my email late at night is essential.

It’s important to care about your work, but your work can’t always be your priority. Find the things that bring you joy and keep you sane, and make time for those things. Mine are rock climbing and seeing my friends.

Also, realise when you need to stop working. Do you really need to check Twitter again, or do you actually need to do laundry so that you don’t have to go to the office looking like an absolute shambles? Take care of yourself; it helps.

8. Show leadership, even if you’re not a leader

Here’s a cautionary tale from my first year at Refugee Action. One of my first big projects was to completely re-launch our website, at that time a hard-coded monstrosity with no content management system.

The task of keeping the old website online and breathing had fallen to a very small digital agency. They were brilliant to work with and helped me solve many, many, tough problems when I was green as green could be. They were on my side from the get go and I appreciated their help a lot.

So when it came to pitching for the new website, I really wanted them to get it. But another agency came in with a slick, “we’ve done this all a thousand times” pitch, and the managers I’d carefully selected to make the final decision were impressed. Things were not working out how I’d hoped.

Had I been braver, older or more experienced, I’d have pushed for the agency I trusted, liked and knew I could work with. As it was, I ended up stuck with an OK agency who built us an average website, and whose main enthusiasm for the project seemed to be that they could use it to pitch to our main competitors.

It’s not easy to show leadership when you’re younger and newer than everyone else. But if you’re the most senior person working on digital at your organisation, you are the senior manager of digital even if it doesn’t say that on your CV. Make decisions you can believe in and work with people you respect.

9. You probably won’t change the world

Working on political issues can be tiring. So can working on the Internet, brilliant and terrifying place that it is. Sometimes things can feel impossible. And they are — or at least, they will be if you think it’s all about you.

This week I went on London’s Emergency demo against Donald Trump’s immigration actions. The crowd seemed, well — crowded — but when you’re inside a crowd, it just feels like any other crowd. It was only when I saw the aerial photos later that I realised what I’d been part of.

Huge change does happen, but it doesn’t happen in every lifetime. It took 96 years for British women to get the vote on equal terms to men, for example. That’s longer than most of us will live. But a lot of women — indeed a lot of people — were part of that struggle.

So, maybe you will end up changing the world. Or, maybe you’ll end up a little old person, handing on (let’s hope) a slightly better world to some ambitious souls with a few more trips around the sun to go. I’d think I’d be OK with either, to be honest.

10. Hope is powerful. Protect it.

When you work with refugees, you hear a lot about hope. I hoped I would be safe here. I believed I could reunite my family. I thought this country would protect me.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way. But there’s something about hope. It survives the worst hardships and the longest journeys. And the smallest action can be enough to keep it alive.

Once I was talking to an older couple at work. They were academics, with political views for which they had suffered greatly. When I met them, they’d been refused asylum, suffered racial harassment, and the project they’d been volunteering on and clearly loved was closing. Despite this, just asking them about their work back home or their volunteering here in the UK made hope seem to switch on inside them like a lightbulb.

Why did you decide to come to here, I asked. Well, replied the man, we knew all about Britain from our work. We knew about the universities, the respect for learning and human rights, the freedom to write and say what you want. It was a place we believed we would be safe, a place where we hoped we could continue our work.

After months of trying, and with their children and grandchildren already scattered as refugees across the globe, the couple finally got a temporary visa for the UK (FYI: asylum visas don’t exist, you have to claim that once you arrive in a country). They arrived, frightened and exhausted. After loading their belongings — now everything they owned in the world — onto a trolley, they then found it stubbornly wouldn’t move.

As they struggled, a stranger approached. With a smile, he pulled out a pound coin, freed their trolley, and vanished back into the crowd again.

Do you see, said the man to his wife. I told you this country was great.

Thanks to all of the brilliant people I’ve met and worked with at Refugee Action. It’s been an honour.



Eleanor Dean

Senior content designer at the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Formerly at NCVO, the BMA and Refugee Action.