18 month notes (oops)

I have a lot of admiration for people who churn out weeknotes every single week or even just monthly. I am averaging ‘18 month notes’ which doesn’t feel like it comes close to achieving what is possible when you ‘work in the open’…but here we are.

I set sail as a freelancer almost 4 years ago. One of the things I enjoy the most about freelancing is being able to weave together a range of work and projects that matter to me and the world (or so I think) in a way that makes it all greater than the sum of its parts. So here’s a run through of what is on my plate, a few questions that are coming up for me at the moment and a few cheeky requests and favours popped in for good measure (I’ve put these in bold and italics).

tl;dr? Here’s a quick summary:

  1. The core of what keeps me busy continues to be a bunch of interesting stuff on loneliness and social connection.
  2. I’m planning trips to Scandinavia and Italy as part of my Churchill Fellowship project researching intergenerational social connection in rural communities. If you have any connections / ideas for me, I’d love to hear them.
  3. I’m supporting organisations to consider loss as readily as growth through Stewarding Loss and am supporting a nonprofits to close well too.
  4. If you’re a freelancer and fancy being part of a community of 400+ others who are swapping jobs, tips on stuff and generally being nice to each other, get in touch.
  5. I’m mulling over the idea of returning to work in an organisation.

1. Work that connects

A large part of what continues to keep me busy is supporting organisations to maximise their role in warding off loneliness and social disconnection, or more importantly: work that strengthens social connections and bonds.

Lockdowns, the cost of living scandal and the long tail of the impact of the past few years on us all is creating a toxic tidal wave of isolation, loneliness and disconnection. We’re cut out and cut off from one another in new and ever more damaging ways that are having devastating impacts on our health, communities, economy and democracy (I think the GLA’s recent report on reconceptualising loneliness is a valuable contribution).

Now more than ever Jo Cox’s words ring true: loneliness is everyone’s business. So I enjoy the way freelancing allows me to weave together work with people and organisations at different scales so I can learn what can be done to unlock action and energy across the ‘whole system’. In the past 18 months this work has included:

  • Providing long term support to The Linking Network across everything from external communications, stakeholder engagement and fundraising. Every year The Linking Network links together young people with people from different backgrounds, classes, nationalities, faith or belief, ages or other differentiating characteristics. In the process young people come to feel connected to those around them, a sense of belonging in their community and develop a life-long commitment to supporting communities they live in to thrive.
  • Working with The Relationships Project supporting their work to strengthen the field of relationship-centred practice. In the Through Thick And Thin report published in 2021 we shared what we’d heard through 100+ interviews in 2020: a multi-decade journey towards a society where relationships are the ‘first mile, not just the extra one’ in all aspects of our shared and common life. Drawing on field-building literature (eg. this on field catalysts), The Relationships Project’s work to seed energy, create coherence and commit for the long term is exciting and humbling to be a part of (which we have exciting news about which isn’t quite shareable yet!)
  • Advising the consultancy Collaborate on their work to develop a systems-level approach to tackling loneliness for East Sussex County Council.
  • Continuing to support the The Cares Family’s Projects Team as they grow their Multiplier Programme and their research, communications and campaigning portfolio.
  • Supporting the care provider Choice Group Care to change the way they measure and articulate the value of social connections and wellbeing for people in their care
  • Support to the funder Spirit of 2012 in the early stages of development of their Inquiry On The Power Of Events.
  • Being a proud trustee for the Rural Coffee Caravan which offers much needed social spaces in rural places where so much social infrastructure has withered over the years. I do all the usual things trustees of small charities do alongside supporting the team with fundraising.

2. Churchill Fellowship

I am looking forward to starting concerted work on the Churchill Fellowship I was awarded just before covid arrived and made international travel impossible. The focus of my research project is to explore new ways to embed everyday social contact between generations into the day to day life of rural communities (reassuringly this was something that Bobby Duffy’s excellent book ‘Generations’ concluded is the most important thing anyone concerned about generational division can be doing right now).

I’m hoping to travel to Scandinavia (because they’re great at this stuff) and Italy (as it has the fastest ageing population in Europe). If you can think of people or organisations I should be chatting to in the UK, Italy or anywhere in Scandinavia, I’d love to hear from you. (I’m also looking forward to joining the Only Connect event in Falmouth in July hosted by Ellie Robinson-Carter to meet others who are asking similar questions and doing essential intergenerational work. You should come!)

3. Tending to endings

Collaborating with Louise Armstrong and Cassie Robinson on how to support civil society to better tend to endings in all their forms has continued to be important and meaningful for me. Armed with the Stewarding Loss 7 Principles for Better Endings and the accompanying toolkits, I’ve been glad to put our thinking and frameworks into action in recent months.

‘Glad’ is a strange word to use, perhaps. I am not glad because I relish the endings themselves which have been at times fraught with the usual pain. But glad because I feel more confident than ever before that tending to endings as fully as possible is some of the most important work to be done by civil society and social justice organisations. It is all too often overlooked and under-appreciated by organisations, their leaders and (crucially) their funders. So to have the chance to do paid consultancy in this area is a real step forward for the sector and hopefully the sign of small but important steps towards valuing this work fully. This work has included:

  • Working with the Small Charities Coalition to seize the opportunity they had to capture their learnings from their 14 year journey with the Small And Mighty report, mark the moment with an event and deliver a bold call to action for others to pick up where they left off. I was glad to get this feedback from the work: ‘Thank you for stepping in — for offering to help, being a compass and a calm voice reminding us that a good ending is possible and to be aimed for. I think that we always knew it was possible from a practical, financial “don’t hit the buffers” perspective, but your holistic approach added so much. People were losing something of value to them, and you helped us mark that by helping us find our story, our rituals and our closure’.
  • Supporting Anneessa Mahmood and the Trustees of Campaign Bootcamp to harness the narrative and power of their ending with a final learnings report which will be published in the coming month.
  • Supporting Spirit of 2012 to articulate the vision and value of their ending as a spend out trust in 2026.

Two things are coming up for me on this right now.

First, I have had countless conversations with infrastructure groups and funders in the past couple of months about how the organisational closures anticipated earlier in the pandemic (eg. these warnings) but which never really materialised are now beginning to materialise (I wrote more on this last year here). How can we support organisations to close well as more look to close? How can we get funders to enable good endings? How do we do both of these well and fast enough to meet the need as it rises in civil society?

Second, I believe the work that has the greatest potential to transform civil society is that which places loss at the heart of organisational life alongside growth — i.e. work that doesn’t wait until ‘the end’ to think about endings. After 2.5 years of working on Stewarding Loss, I know I’m not alone in dreaming of a civil society where endings are stewarded throughout the life cycle of an organisation and ultimately where endings are considered from the beginning. From tending to endings in grant and project cycles to thinking about founder leadership transitions to thinking about annual organisational wide conversations about loss. If you’re doing this work in your organisation, or you would like to, Louise and I would love to hear from you.

4. Finding community in freelancing

When I set out as a freelancer I was told by a number of people that competition for work and the natural isolation of working for yourself would likely be lonely. So I am relieved to say that I have had an almost entirely opposite experience. From the very start I was grateful for the honest, invaluable advice of experienced and generous freelancers on everything from bank accounts to tips for winning work.

The community and camaraderie of freelancing has reached new heights through the Freelancers Get Sh*t Done community that I set up 2 years ago when I recognised that there was a gap for ways for freelancers to collaborate, help each other out and pass on work they were unable to do themselves.

18 months on, ours is a community of 400+ freelancers with skills stretching from comms to fundraising to strategy to design, all united by their commitment to working for clients with social or environmental purpose in all sectors. It’s entirely free and open-source. Generosity and reciprocity are its core currency with everything from thousands of pounds worth of work passing through it every month alongside the value of having template contracts, tax advice and a listening ear whenever needed.

If you’re a freelancer who gets sh*t done for clients with a purpose, drop me a line and we’ll add you.

5. Pondering a return to organisational life

Despite all that I love about freelancing, I am beginning to wonder about returning to organisational life in the next year or 2.

I’m hankering for a single organisation to focus my energy within. I miss climbing big hills over long periods of time with committed groups of talented people. I miss the feeling of being able to leverage the collective strength of an organisation. In the midst of the Great Resignation and the proliferation of freelancing I think a lot about what you lose by being on the outside of organisations, and what organisations lose by everyone leaving.

I’m drawn to…

  • Anything that has strengthening social connections at its core
  • Work that is highly networked — where the 4 walls of an organisation aren’t the full extent of an organisation’s landscape
  • Work that straddles delivering in communities whilst having presence and influence beyond its community
  • Opportunities to draw on the learnings from Stewarding Loss and experiment with regenerative, ‘loss-comfortable’ organisational practices
  • Opportunities inside or outside of the charity sector
  • Co-leadership opportunities

At the moment my approach to working out if I really want this is (as always) to have conversations. So please do get in touch if you fancy a chat about it or send job ads my way if you spot something.

It’s a pretty cool (and pretty privileged) position to be in: to love the work you do but be asking yourself what else could I do or be part of? I have heard a few other freelancers say something similar recently. If you’re one of them and fancy mulling over what the return to organisational life might look like, I’d love to compare notes.

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