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24 September 2023

Céline’s impact story

Céline Kamsteeg
Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director at Lafiya Nigeria

Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?

I am Céline Kamsteeg, and I am the co-founder and co-executive director of Lafiya Nigeria. We focus on providing access to contraception (3-month injectables) to women in the rural, hard-to-reach, poor northern regions of Nigeria. This role is very new, as I went through the Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program this summer. This program is focused on starting new high-impact charities. There, I met my co-founder Klau. Together we are now running Lafiya.

How did you get to where you are now?

Were there any pivotal moments or decisions?

One pivotal moment was when I was working as a corporate consultant freshly out of university, and was getting increasingly anxious about this career path. It felt like overall, people were pretty content with this job, whereas I was feeling unsure of what I produced was even making a change. When voicing these concerns it seemed to bounce off the wall and work made me increasingly unhappy. After some months of unrest, I decided to go to Lesvos, Greece for a few weeks of volunteering in refugee camp Moria. I saw a post on Facebook that asked for help and decided it would be good for me to take my mind off work for 2 weeks. On Lesvos, I felt that my actions were directly impacting other people. This was what I’d been looking for. It felt like coming home and I knew that I had found my career path. The team that was working there, saw my drive and within those two weeks, asked me to join their team as a programme manager. Much quicker than anticipated, I had found a new job! I moved to Greece and worked there for a year.

After working on Lesvos for a year, I noticed a drive in myself to measure our impact more. How did we know if our work was actually improving people’s lives? What initiatives worked or didn’t work? I started speaking to people about this, and then a friend from university pointed me towards EA and said “this might be what you’re looking for”. And it was! The focus on results, and knowing objectively what the best path to action is, felt so immensely logical. There was some action that I could personally take that, with relative certainty, would save lives. How incredible is that?

I attended an EAN online lecture (covid times…) where charity founders in the Netherlands spoke about their work (Max Foundation, Macheo). This felt like a step in the right direction and I decided to reach out to them to hear their story and how they had started their charity. After speaking with them, the founders of both charities welcomed me warmly into their organisation. I decided it would be good for me to get more experience in the field (I was still very early in my career) and learn first-hand from people who had started a successful and impactful charity. I did a business development internship at Max Foundation, and then joined Macheo, first as a volunteer and then as head of fundraising & programme manager. This has hugely helped me to build skills, by seeing what they had to do to make it happen, how they built their charity and the choices they made on a daily basis. This made me more confident that pursuing a career as a charity founder would be the right choice for me.

What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?

And how did it shape your career-related decisions going forward?

One challenge that I’ve faced is that it is tough to make your career out of non-profit work. As you can read above, I accepted non-paid opportunities (volunteering/internships) before being offered a job several times. Further, I’ve heard of EA roles that got 1000+ applications (me being one of those applicants for the past few years). This is something I really regret seeing, because there are so many talented and driven people who want to make their career out of doing good for others, but there is no room for them in the job market. I think it is a valuable flow-through effect of starting a charity that more people can get the opportunity to work on something impactful.

Personally, I also find the explore/exploit balance very difficult. How long do you search for more impactful opportunities, vs. committing to the path you have chosen? I always see new opportunities that I want to go for and try to find routes towards more impact, and can get restless or impatient if I have a feeling that I’m not on the right track. But I have experienced that it can also be valuable to commit to something for a longer period of time, so that you can build a network, skills and experience. For me, what helps is to set a timeline, where I say in advance how long I want to commit to this path, and try not to re-evaluate too much in the meantime. Then after a few months, once I hit the mark, I can re-evaluate and if necessary adjust.

What advantages or opportunities helped you get on the career path you’re on now?

I am lucky that I was able to have a very flexible, remote job on the side for the past few years. Breaking into the non-profit sector takes time and entry-level opportunities are mostly unpaid. Through my very cooperative employer (in the for-profit sector), who let me largely decide my own hours and working location (flexible contract), I could earn an income when I was pursuing unpaid opportunities in the non-profit sector. Now being able to pursue impact full-time feels like a dream come true.

I am also very grateful to have run into some people who have served as mentors for me. They have connected me with their network and provided their thoughts whenever necessary. Having mentors whom you can trust and ask for advice is incredibly helpful. In general, sometimes you just need a few people to give you a little push in the right direction with information or connections. I am lucky to have had a few of those in the past few years.

What advice would you give to someone looking to follow a similar pathway?

It’s important to really get to know the sector. Know what is going on, what trends are happening, and what skills are important to have/build. For me, informational interviews have been instrumental. Reach out to people who are in a position where you want to be, and pick their brain about what they did to get there and what they would advise you to do. Be clear that you do not want anything (a job, funding) from them except information. At the end of the conversation, ask them if they can connect you to two other people they think are relevant for you to speak to. This gives you a sense of what is happening in the arena you want to go into, and builds your network extremely quickly.

Further, do “cheap tests” to see whether you truly like working in a sector or cause area as early as possible, before committing to employment. If you don’t like something or it is not a good fit for you, you want to know sooner rather than later. Speak with people in the sector, do a short-term project, or an internship or volunteer a couple of hours each week. If you decide it’s not for you, no harm is done. If you do decide you want to pursue it, you also immediately have relevant experience to show for it.

Imagine yourself 10 years from now. How do you hope your career will have evolved?

We have audacious goals to scale Lafiya to impact 6 million women in Nigeria 5 years from now. If we manage to make that happen, I would want to scale to multiple countries where we build a similar model. I am very excited to build Lafiya further. And beyond that…. Time will tell what I am doing in 10 years 🙂

Want to know more? Ask Céline via celinekamsteeg at gmail dot com!