March 28, 2024

Around the Table with Ayla Francis

Ayla Francis is a Senior Advisor for policy & government relations at Humanity United. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Humanity United.

How do you balance your substantive policy portfolio with your government outreach efforts in your current capacity?

There’s certainly an art to the balance and I don’t always get it right. But the relationship-building piece of government outreach takes time, especially building trust and shared understanding about how government and philanthropy operate broadly, and how specific organizations within those fields can work together. For me the outreach is energizing, most of the time! I find that getting to work with my former colleagues within government has been a gift, and getting to know folks across the government who are eager to advance human rights, work with our partners, and make progress together using the unique tools available to government excites me about this work.

In my current role, my policy portfolio includes topics I’ve been either researching or directly working on for years. It also includes issues I have less experience with, but HU’s partners and my colleagues have years of expertise and deep relationships that I have been fortunate to draw upon as I continue to learn. In both cases, I spend time reading the latest analysis, attending events, and doing whatever I can to get up to speed about the origin of certain policies and where things stand today. At the same time, I’m always trying to imagine what could be. So while there’s the balance of learning what “is,” I also try to make the time to think outside of the box and find solutions and opportunities outside of the status quo when possible and necessary.

How has mentorship influenced your career?

I think about this a lot. I’ve spent years looking for a formal mentor –someone who mutually agrees with me that we will meet at this time at this place to talk about my career. I recently came to the realization that I've had so many people around me – peers, supervisors, more senior colleagues, professors, and folks in the broader foreign affairs field - who were serving in that role informally, and I’ve probably taken that for granted. I have a group of mentors, which is such a gift. A trusted person who can talk through a specific problem I’m having at work or in my career more broadly has been invaluable. As has the mentor who makes a hype playlist for me on a day I have a big presentation at work, or who writes a recommendation letter for me, or who will give me honest feedback on my writing or public speaking. These relationships have enhanced both my personal and career journeys alike.

It’s also been incredibly important for me to make time to mentor students and early career professionals. I have learned so much from the people I’ve mentored. I try to create an environment where people can let their guards down and tell me what they’re working on or researching, while not feeling like they’re being interviewed. I find that I learn so much about them and then I’m able to be a better mentor. It’s energizing to me to work with people earlier in their careers and to imagine together what might be possible for them. So I’d say that both being mentored and mentoring others has been incredibly formative for me.

What advice do you have for someone who is early in their career?

First, I’d encourage someone to find colleagues within your organization who share your values. Ideally, your organization is values-aligned too. But I’m mindful that we are in a time where everyone doesn’t have the privilege to “shop around” for the greatest organizational fit, especially early in your career. So it’s important to have a peer support network wherever you work and, ideally, someone more senior who is in your corner and understands what is important to you. Look outside of your immediate team. Get to know your colleagues at various levels within the organization. Volunteer to lead initiatives that are important to you that will enhance the organization.

Finally, I’d say to remember who you are outside of your career and make time to cultivate that. Early in your career, it’s easy to lose yourself in the work - especially if you like your job! - and think that working late and on weekends will lead to recognition or a promotion, and that this is the most important thing in your life. And while progressing in a career is what many of us aim to do, cultivating your interests outside of work is just as important. Do you like art? Is there an opportunity to volunteer in the community where you live? Or do you want to try something new altogether? Whatever it is, make time to do it. Set the boundary and if necessary, make sure your colleagues know that on Wednesday nights you need to leave by 6:30pm because you have a commitment to yourself or your community. Will you have to go in early to make it work? Maybe, maybe not. But carving out that space for yourself will keep you grounded and give you something to look forward to while you're also building your career.


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