We recently invited Cassie Robinson, Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund to join us for our first virtual event, Transitions.
Whenever I talk about the Stewarding Loss work I start by acknowledging that talking about organisational endings at this time, is happening in the shadow of the enormous loss of human life. So many lives have been lost over the past 9 months, and continue to be. I just want to take a moment to consider that.
The strain on organisations is of course being felt too, and organisations are anticipating closures and reduction of services.
And as we know, so much of the experience of the pandemic is an unequal one — demonstrated in the work Ubele did at earlier in the crisis, that highlighted how BAME-led organisations were especially at risk of not surviving.
Loss is everywhere.
A short introduction to me. I currently run the UK Portfolio at the National Lottery Community Fund. We’re the largest grant funder in the UK, distributing £600 Million every year. In the UK Portfolio we have 8 funding programmes, that include our Climate Action Fund, Digital Fund and Emerging Futures Fund. We’re also the portfolio that explores new approaches in funding practice. I should say that the work I am speaking about today is not part of my role at The National Lottery Community Fund — but was funded before I took on my role there, by a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Ideas + Pioneers grant. However, of course, in the work I do at The National Lottery Community Fund, in particular through the work we’re doing on how to support civil society, means that we do recognise the predicament that many civil society organisations are in.
I’m also a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, I teach on the Ecological Design Masters at Schumacher College and I am Co-founder of the Point People. The latter was set up in 2010 specifically to work on systemic change. This was at a time when a lot of organisations were focussed on redesigning services, or setting up social enterprises. At the Point People we recognised that complex social challenges needed multiple sectors, multiple disciplines and a more holistic approach to change.
It was in my work with the Point People that I became familiar with new frameworks and theories — transition design, systemic design, emergence. These continue to be relevant and useful in my work but over this last decade, I became increasingly aware that something was missing.
During this talk, I’m going to cover —
- the overlooked part of transitions work
- why it’s important
- and what we’re trying to do about it
I’m going to start by just touching on a few frameworks that people use to design for transitions.
These look complex so don’t worry about trying to read them!
This is Geels socio-technical transitions theory, which is incredibly useful and is definitely having a renaissance right now. And whilst I don’t expect you to be able to read all this, maybe you can notice how much of it is about forward movement, it’s all about transitions. How we get from A to B. But nothing about what doesn’t come with us, how you leave behind what is no longer fit for purpose.
In the Carnegie Mellon Transition Design Framework, also very useful, they set out visions for transition — theories of change, and new ways of designing. In those new ways of designing there isn’t anything about designing for what needs to be left behind in a transition.
In the Ecological Design Framework, they recognise that there are degenerative aspects to the work, but this is often to show what is fragmenting or extractive rather than about the intentional design of ending things.
What I especially value about The Regenerative Design framework in relation to what I’m talking about today is that it recognises how regenerative work — the cycle of endings and renewal builds systemic vitality.
And the Adaptive Cycle at least puts ‘release’ onto their model, others’ have used this and called it the creative destruction phase, but it tends to be referred to as either a dramatic change that alters the system drastically, or someone being the creative destructor by challenging the status quo. There’s little about the practice of intentionally initiating and designing for creative destruction.
It’s the Berkana Two Loop model, that I was introduced to 10 years ago that does talk about the need to hospice organisations in transition work, and they make this role explicit.
This model shows a dominant system that is dying, and an emergent system that has the potential to become the system of influence. In our current pandemic context, the dominant system starting to collapse feels much more alive as a possibility.
The model shows many different types of work that need to happen in this context. New pioneers emerging, building alternatives that need connecting together. Illuminating this work helps show a path for transition from the dying system to the alternative, emergent system.
There are people that help keep the dominant system stable as it dies — this is important because there is still a lot that is dependent on that system. Others work to help people and organisations transition from the existing, dominant system — helping make tangible how to do things in a new way and showing them what is happening in the emergent system. I always picture these people as doing hand-holding work — walking alongside organisations to cross the “transition bridge.”
But it’s the last role, right in the middle of that image, that I’m particularly interested — the Hospice Worker, and the need to acknowledge death and composting in transition work. As the dominant system starts to decline, the Hospice Worker provides care and compassion for those that are dying and alleviate the pain. They address the need to close things down, dismantle them, end things, as if it is a natural part of change. This is not something we do well, organisational endings are something we rarely design for.
So why hasn’t more work been done on how to design for this?
Having previously done work as a designer with the NHS and with hospices, looking at things like end of life care, I know how culturally here in the UK we find death and dying difficult to face up to, to talk about.
There have been a lot of analogies and practices that I’ve drawn from those contexts — hospices, palliative care, grief therapy etc and applied them to this work.
There’s also our cultural relationships to old and new, the care (or lack of) that surrounds people and things that are dying in comparison to the emphasis and attention we place on the new (babies and start-ups).
And I should say, other people have been and are thinking about this too. Joe Macleod in his work on Ends, Laura Bunt and Charlie Leadbetter in their Art of Exit work with Nesta back in 2014, and Vanessa Reid and her conscious closures.
Unlike these pieces of work, I’ve been focussing solely on civil society, and at an organisational level — not just the decommissioning of a service.
In Laura and Charlie’s work — focussed on public services — they were looking at how you could do endings creatively. I’m interested in how you can do them ethically and intelligently — with compassion.
And why are endings important, required?
I believe that for us to transition, from an old system into a better alternative, something needs to give.
Endings can be a natural consequence of growth — when organisations or a whole sector, reach a point when there is too much going on, and insufficient resources to go around. Civil society organisations which have grown very rapidly and expanded their services, can end up losing their focus and effectiveness. Even if a sector is needed more than ever, and has a lot of demand, it can get stuck. It can experience too much activity and too little progress.
Looking at the landscape of civil society what would it mean to identify which parts of the landscape, which organisations have become unnecessary and no longer contribute meaningfully to the transitions that are needed?
I’ll use several metaphors from the natural world and the first is the idea of pruning — when trees and plants that grow quickly they need to be “pruned” in order to focus their nutrients. This pruning process also helps to remove disease or excessive growths.
Another reason it’s important to be more prepared for and consider organisational endings is because so much is changing, all of the time.
If organisations haven’t been able to recognise, or adapt to make the shifts needed and learn new ways of operating, they are unlikely to be fit for the future.
And these changing contexts are going to change more often, and more dramatically.
For a start, there is the climate crisis and what that will require of us all.
This is unlikely to be the last pandemic we’ll experience.
The power of big tech will continue to change public expectations, displace things and make things redundant. The biases in algorithms will continue to create new social injustices that require entirely different approaches and capabilities from civil society. Our needs as a society are evolving more quickly — as we try to adjust to a data-driven world. Are organisations in civil society showing they can keep up?
And it’s not enough to just keep increasing the supply of promising ideas to address these kinds of challenges, this needs to be matched by just as sophisticated an approach to dismantling things and closing them down.
Considering endings is important for the whole ecosystem — the whole landscape — the whole field. We’ve seen through the pandemic how interdependent many things are. This is about the health of the whole system.
This is where the idea of composting is important.
Composting improves soil. It provides nutrients. It stimulates the ecosystem. It builds health.
If we don’t consider organisational endings we lose the chance to leave things in a better way than when we found them. We don’t consider what would make better compost.
When the natural cycles of renewal, or collapsing are deterred, because we haven’t stopped doing the things we should have, or we’ve kept our head in the sand — negative patterns can be perpetuated. It doesn’t make for good compost.
And this is also a time when we need bold, new ideas.
We need to be able to take great leaps forward.
We need new things to be able to emerge.
This is a time to divest in the status quo.
To refresh the soil.
This is a quote from one of the people who took part in our work over this year and I think highlights the idea that it’s about a healthy ecosystem. A sector needs renewal, and that renewal comes in part from some organisations ending, and some new ones emerging. But we can bring more intent to this — some of this can be better designed.
This is what we’ve been looking at for the last 9 months.
We’ve done interviews with over 100 people.
People that have closed down organisations, and those that are anticipating closing an organisation down. We’ve spoken to end of life care practitioners, hospice workers, ritual designers, death doula’s, grief therapists, lawyers, the charity commission, and so forth.
I’ll now share some of what we’ve learned and created.
- Endings need reframing.
- Make a distinction between the different ways this can be approached.
- Keep alive to it in the organisation’s culture.
- Make use of design.
- Consider equity and care.
So how might we reframe organisational endings?
And consider what becomes available if we think about closure or endings in a different way.
It was important for us to make a distinction between the enforced closing of organisations brought on by external events (like Covid) versus encouraging organisations to keep engaged in an active enquiry about when it might be the right time to die.
One of the guides and sets of tools we’ve created is related to this — Staying Close to Loss. This is about how we develop an ability and capacity to be in an ongoing relationship with the potential of loss — to continually anticipate it, know how to respond to it, to design for it, and have distinct roles for supporting and delivering it. As I have spoken about earlier, this feels important to familiarise ourselves with given the many crises ahead.
Civil society is also going to need to (and quite urgently) shift resources out of the old, no longer fit-for-purpose system to fuel the growth of an alternative system. An ability to do this, and to do it well, will be vital throughout the developed world in the next decade.
This is all part of the processes of change, adaptation and transitions.
Central to all of this work is the role of design. Design is about intent, and that’s what we want to encourage more of. If you design for organisational endings you can consider the whole journey, with different touch points, and of course it’s not linear.
In this guide we’ve divided the tools into 4 areas.
As you bring an ongoing inquiry about loss into your organisation, it’s helpful to lay a foundation of shared narrative about who the organisation is, what brought you each here and what holds you together. Holding a space for enquiring about endings needs different kinds of skills and behaviours so there is also a canvas to help you consider the kinds of roles you might want to assign to people in the organisation, and wider.
This section is about building a practice of regularly tuning in to what is emerging, and designing for that. This is a way to design what to tune in to, so as to help decide whether to exist or not. And then other resources for how to do ongoing enquiring and the anticipation of loss.
A shared view
One of the most important parts of this work is how to keep making sense of the organisation together, in a participatory way so that everyone is doing regular temperature checks on the organisation. Having a shared view is a helpful canvas to keep referring back to.
If the organisation does decide to dismantle itself, too unravel and too close, then these tools help consider four aspects of that journey. Stories, artefacts, rituals and relationships. Paying attention to the process, to what makes good compost, is important for laying foundations for what’s next.
That is why we have also created a practical resource that is useful now — if an organisation is at that point of knowing it needs to close. We worked with some other experts on this who understand the legal, HR and regulatory context too.
These are the seven principles we’ve created in the first iteration of this practical guide for endings in the the near future.
We didn’t find many (well hardly any!) useful guides or tools available for this kind of work, and the few we did find really didn’t account for the emotional journey of the work. All transitions work goes through phases that have a distinct emotional field. This is the Managing Transitions model by William Bridges and broadly we’ve mapped our tools onto this.
Equity is also vital to consider — it’s not just about when is the right time to close something down? But who gets to decide?
These are some of the things we are doing in the next phase of the work. Join us!
My last slide is actually where this started. The Farewell Fund as a provocation, and the name of which we changed to Stewarding Loss because it didn’t feel appropriate any more in the current context. But it is what I am returning to as a next step.
Working with a group of other funders we are exploring what a dedicated fund for organisational endings could look like. It feels like the fund could be the ‘trojan horse’ we need. An application to the Farewell Fund could set the tone that moves this kind of work into a different frame.
Can it give people a sense of permission, of acceptance and therefore create a willingness in people to hold up their hand and say “this is no longer working”? To admit that they no longer know what to do and it’s an endless struggle to survive. I have a fantasy that there are organisations in civil society that might feel a real relief if they were able to say that, and to know that there was a way out.
And can it be done in a way that is responsible — considerate of all potential consequences, kind — people feel respected, cared for and valued, and intelligent — the history, the learning, the wisdom and the assets have been successfully absorbed in to the new.