Charity workplaces and work culture, and how technology can play its part

I recently contributed to a Third Sector piece by the brilliant Zoe Amar: ‘What does the charity workplace of the future look like?’. It was nice to have the chance to reflect on the subject, and how digital and tech can play a part.

A while before that I had read The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman – Strategies for Impact without Burnout. As with all books co-authored by Beth Kanter, it was great and I recommend you read it – this one offered lots of real-life examples and practical advice on how to change your workplace culture and introduce new ways of working to reduce stress and get a better work-life balance. As the authors pointed out, burnout at work is often a risk at charities and other non-profits, where resources can be limited and people’s commitment to a cause often translates into overwork and less focus on looking after themselves.

New workspaces and approaches to work

I read it while the charity I worked for at the time, Diabetes UK, was working through some culture change of its own and looking for a new central office in London when our old lease expired. We took the opportunity to assess how we used the existing spaces and facilities, and survey all staff to ask what worked and what could be better. We found that up to 40% of desks weren’t in use at any one time but we always lacked meeting rooms and spaces for collaborative working, and one big flexible space that could accommodate all staff at once.

Activity-based working…

We designed the layout of our new office so we could introduce ‘activity-based working’ (a bit like the Lego Group in their London office) – essentially hotdesking with fewer desks but with:

  • a bigger range of shared working spaces such as booths or large tables for working together or informal meetings
  • small rooms for 1-1s, quiet work or calls
  • a media room with ISDN line
  • a prayer room
  • a dedicated digital testing room kitted out for in-house user testing, that doubled up as a spare meeting room
  • and a big ‘town hall’ space alongside a kitchen and dining space, as part of a ground floor that contained more traditional, but flexible, meeting rooms.

… supported by tech

All desks and rooms let you plug a laptop into the network and all desks had a keyboard and adjustable monitor so you didn’t have to hunch over a laptop all day.

This was made possible by most staff having laptops and lockers so they could not only hotdesk but also take their laptops to shared working areas and meetings if needed.

Some teams such as Finance had fixed PCs and desks, but no-one had their own private office. Instead teams were given dedicated ‘neighbourhoods’ on specific floors – so that you’d have an idea where to find someone from that team, but really you could sit anywhere – and even people in fixed areas would find different colleagues joining them each day. We also used Lync/Skype for Business, which let us say where we were in the building and instant message each other. (We had previously also used Skype to work with an agency and supporters to plan co-created video content, which wouldn’t have been possible without digital tools that helped us collaborate across the four nations of the UK.)

There were simple rules such as: not ‘camping’ at desks but also not expecting people to up sticks every time they went to get a drink or pop out for lunch; leaving rooms and spaces as you would hope to find them, etc. These rules were expected to evolve as we all got used to using the spaces.

To help with internal comms and collaboration it’s helpful to use digital platforms – but watch out for ‘platform fatigue’ if you have these on top of existing platforms for things such as logging work requests, processing payments, or managing annual leave, etc.

For internal comms we already used Yammer, including our corporate partner Tesco in the network – but enthusiasm had dwindled a bit by the time of the move, so the change helped to rekindle that a bit, eg with groups set up to share good finds for food and drink in the new area and other local knowledge.

We also continued to use Podio for project teams and for ongoing groups, such as analytics users and decentralised staff editing the website or using the charity’s social media accounts.

One good thing about the different platforms we tried is that they’re generally free for charities so it’s quite risk-free to try them and just as possible for small charities/small budgets as for bigger ones.

James Gadsby Peet maintains a helpful list of digital tools used by charities.

Changes translating into saving time or money, increased efficiency and impact

Overall, from my experience at Diabetes UK, I’d say the changes helped us work more efficiently. Project or campaign teams became just as important as your traditional ‘home’ teams. Having the flexible spaces meant it was easier to work on cross-team projects and campaigns. And quicker, informal meetings were easier because you didn’t have to book a room, you could usually just find a space. It also meant that eg on busy media days or campaign launch days, the relevant teams such as media, social media and marketing could sit together, and discuss, decide and respond more quickly.

I was in the biggest dept, Engagement & Fundraising, and we had never been on one floor together before – but in the new office that was possible and it was a nice feeling – no-one was out on a limb but you could easily retreat to a quieter space if you needed to.

Laptops also made it easier to work flexibly and securely from home or at external meetings or events.

It wasn’t perfect, we often had hitches with getting screens to work and link up with laptops in meeting rooms but all things considered, the transition happened smoothly, helped both by good digital and IT infrastructure but also the cultural changes brought about by our collective work on brand repositioning, a committee to help plan and govern the move (with several reps from every dept) and the ‘lift’ we got from a well-considered working environment.

We got to vote on naming the meeting rooms and town hall space (maturely avoiding any Boaty McBoatface outcomes) and the wallspace and storage doors were designed for us to pin up our latest work, including personas and work in progress on our brand, new website, etc.

We had introduced a degree of Agile within our Digital work and the new spaces made it easier to bring agencies and other suppliers in for collaborative working all under one roof, and for us to involve colleagues and supporters in user testing. And an agile approach started to seep out to other teams – it made me smile when our membership review project took the form of a ‘sprint’, unprompted by the Digital team!

The ground floor spaces also let us host more events – our own events and training for staff, volunteers, groups and supporters, as well as carrying out user research and opening up to external events such as NFP Tweetup and Barcamp NFP – as it was all self-contained and accessible. As well as saving time and money on having to find and pay for venue hire, it also felt more inclusive – our Chief Exec envisioned it as more of a hub for the diabetes community, and having our own venue felt we could play a more valuable part in that community, helping to bring more people together.

I found that having one big main kitchen helped you to see more of your colleagues and also sometimes have serendipitous conversations that helped you in your work. It certainly made Diabetes UK feel like more of a social organisation and one that valued its staff and supporters, and made up for the upheaval that moving to a new location inevitably brings.

And having a dedicated digital testing room meant we could do more user testing, without having to always spend out on agency support, and allowing us to make a lot more ongoing refinements to benefit our users.

The future of the charity workplace

At my new employer Maggie’s we have teams based at cancer support centres and offices across the UK, and lots of staff who work across wide regions to deliver our programme of support and raise the funds that make it possible. In our centres we really focus on the connections we make between people, and giving people face-to-face support based on their individual needs.

It’s a very exciting time for us as we have recognised the need to make better use of digital to help us do our work. We want to do this in a way that fits in with the very human and personal approach we have to everything we do. We are looking at improving everyone’s digital skills and the IT infrastructure that underpins this, based on team and individual needs as defined by a recent charity-wide review, including face-to-face interviews and a survey.

There’s sometimes a concern that remote or digital working can be a bit faceless or isolating for staff, and it is still vital to have that personal contact – but for Maggie’s it will also be a way of better connecting our staff. We want to improve internal comms and cross-team working, helped by digital tools, whether that’s Yammer, Slack, Podio or perhaps a platform such as Facebook Workplace that combines features of both. We have quite small teams but increasingly more ‘virtual’ and project teams, that allow us to focus on certain areas such as Content that don’t have their own central team – and we need good digital tools such as Google Docs and Sheets to help us do that.

We also want to help people to use digital and social media to support them in their work and build networks of awareness and support – helping us reach new people, be more accessible, amplify the charity’s messages, increase the scale of support we can offer, and complement the help we give people in centres.

I think offering flexibility, remote working and a nicer working environment can help you to attract and keep staff and make them feel more valued. The right set-up is vital, and digital is a big facilitator, but it has to go hand in hand with culture change, and with a way of planning and implementing the change that involves all staff, rather than having it ‘done to’ them. At Diabetes UK it felt like the improved workplace really helped us to work more efficiently, saving time and money, and to include and support more of our volunteers, supporters, beneficiaries and the wider diabetes community. Flexible working for childcare or study also meant staff could find the right working pattern to do their best work without the stress of juggling impossible scheduling conflicts. I was allowed to do a regular flexible work week to allow for a weekly afternoon of childcare and if anything this made me more efficient and certainly more loyal to my employer.

[In August I came across this interesting piece found via Adam Grant:]

In charities, especially in health charities, it would be good to see more of a shift towards practising what we preach, helping staff and volunteers stay healthy and feel valued, reducing stress and avoiding burnout. For example, at Maggie’s it’s not just in our centres that we have a kitchen table at the heart of our spaces – we have them in both of our offices too and everyone’s encouraged to have lunch there together rather than grabbing a sandwich at your desk. It definitely helps you feel more together as a charity and gives you a chance to catch up with everyone and recharge a bit before getting back on with work.

Obviously all of this will depend on your charity’s size, what it does, and the ability (and will) to try new things – reading Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s brilliant book ‘The Happy Healthy Nonprofit’ is a good place to start, as it offers examples and guidance to suit charities of different sizes, types, stages and cultures, as well as giving tips for individuals to help them to make positive changes of their own.


VEG4N – the rise of mainstream veganism

It’s been four years since the first Veganuary event, four years since I went vegan. But it feels like this year is the year it passed a kind of tipping point and really became embraced in widespread way. It felt refreshingly normal.

It felt like I was seeing reports every day last month, either in the news or on social media, about new vegan products, our outlets, or existing ones going vegan. It genuinely felt like it was becoming part of the mainstream.

Some of the highlights were (and continue to be) Tesco’s partnership with Wicked Kitchen for a range of sandwiches, wraps, salads, ready meals and pizza. Suddenly there wasn’t just one vegan option but so many that it became hard to choose! (Next, they just need to make the sandwiches and wraps part of the Meal Deal… :))]

Other supermarkets and food producers such as the Co-op and M&S not only introduced more vegan products but also made them easier to find – avoiding the ‘accidentally vegan’ nature of the past and making labelling clear so that you no longer have to scrutinise the ingredients listings.

There was the Spread Eagle pub in east London that went 100% vegan, and the Blacksmith & Toffeemaker in Islington, also with a 100% vegan pub menu. Other new places that have recently opened or are about to include: Hackney Downs Vegan Market, every Saturday; Cupcakes and Shhht in Elephant & Castle; Temple of Seitan in Hackney, and sister Temple of Camden halfway between Camden Town and Kings Cross; and Young Vegans Pies, in Camden Lock Market.

And bringing so much great stuff to our attention as always was the amazing @fatgayvegan, who also published an excellent book: ‘Eat, Drink and Live Like you Give a Sh!t’, which I was delighted to receive in my monthly VeganKind box in January.

Barcamp NFP – 19 January 2018

It was good to start the year with a Barcamp NFP event, after I hadn’t been able to make it to last year’s. It feels like it runs more smoothly with each passing event, with less time needed at the start to create the programme, and more time left for sessions.

These were some of my key takeaways and contributions.

Trustee Boards

  • Language – take care with it – do they respond more to ‘innovation’ or ‘efficiency’ or ‘risk’/’urgency’?
  • I’ve found an Agile approach can be a way of mitigating risk, by not having to agree everything up front, and by being able to show regular progress.
  • Make it user- and problem-focused, not focused on a channel or pre-empting a solution.
  • Find out what makes each trustee tick – can one trustee/senior manager fill you in on that?
  • Check out Lucy Gower’s new Lucidity Network.
  • Try to meet and talk outside of usual board meeting settings.
  • Also consider involving them in away days – they could even help to run them.
  • Organise your own internal conference.

Design sprints

  • Five days ideally – one week
  • Could compress or split
  • Roles incl decider, budget holder; key people with relevant skills
  • External facilitator can be seen as more neutral and trusted, need specific skills so unlikely to be an internal person
  • Books to refer to include The Sprint Book and Just Enough Research.
  • Techniques include dot votes, silent critique, place to park ideas.
  • Eg EA Games have menu of approaches incl design sprints, agile, waterfall – and choose best approach, not wedded to one.
  1. Day 1 – like a compressed discovery phase.
  2. Day 2 – morning: recap outcomes of day 1, plus examples of others solving similar problems. Afternoon: shortlist five to eight possible solutions in poster format
  3. Day 3 – narrow down to 3 – in afternoon start to flesh out
  4. Day 4 – prototyping – writing, building prototypes, get set up for next day. (Marvel, Sketch) prototyping software). Make it as real as possible.
  5. Day 5 – testing through eg 5 1-1 interviews. Can record eg through private hangout on air.

Donation forms

  • A/B testing – you can use Optimisely for this
  • Payment solutions include Paypal; GoCardless
  • Good forms example: Avaaz
  • Identify/ focus on the friction rather than worrying about the distractions
  • Contactless and Apple Pay only really works in person.
  • At least capture email address and permissions initially in case people drop out.

Artificial Intelligence

  • aka Amy or Andy
  • Meeting organiser bot
  • Chatfuel for building FB Messenger bot

Internal comms

  • People are using eg: Yammer; Microsoft Teams (like Slack); Facebook Workplace; Papyrus
  • Champions in each team; and one main coordinator
  • Slack can get quite sprawling
  • Brand platform – Aquatint
  • Remove other options or minimise them
  • Make it based on internal user need – Follow up with ‘you said, we did’
  • Give your intranet a friendly name + “Relentless enthusiasm”.

Death and digital

  • Break the taboo
  • Think about it earlier
  • Plan for it
  • National Bereavement Survey
  • Passing Boxes
  • Alzheimer’s Memory Boxes
  • 40% of people don’t have a will.
  • Think about digital assets as well as physical
  • Living wills
  • Dying Matters Coalition (and DM Week)
  • Run by Hospices UK
  • Next of Kin Myth = only HCPs have final say if people don’t have power of attorney or living will set up – not Next of Kin.

Full circle

I haven’t blogged for a while because it’s been a busy few months, during which I’ve left Diabetes UK after many years, moving to a dream role as the digital lead at Maggie’s Centres.

It was sad to leave but I’ve wanted to work for Maggie’s for such a long time. I’ve supported them for years, first learning about them when I studied Architecture and volunteered at the RIBA. I’ve followed their progress ever since, seeing them open a centre a year for the last 20+ years, providing amazing emotional and practical support for people affected by cancer.

Their brilliance was thrown into sharper relief for me when we lost my Dad to cancer but unfortunately there was no Maggie’s centre in the area – I felt their worth through their absence.

Ask my friends in the charity digital world and most of them knew I wanted to work for Maggie’s someday. So it feels like I have come full circle, with my foundation in modern architecture and my career in digital health and charities, and my family’s personal experience of cancer. Maggie’s is the perfect next step. I’ll be blogging about my early experiences there soon.

Meanwhile, for World Diabetes Day it seems like a good time to say goodbye for now to Diabetes UK and reflect on what I learned there.

“The most important thing I’ve learned in the past twenty years of my career as a scientist is also the greatest discovery of modern ecology. It’s the simple yet fundamental idea that life is the expression of relationships within a network; it is not a series of separate goals pursued by distinct individuals. This is as true of ants, giraffes and wolves as it is of humans. It’s through my interactions with all the pioneers of human ecology that I have been lucky enough to express my own creativity and contribute to the community. I am extremely grateful for that.”

– Dr David Servan-Schreiber,  Not the last goodbye

Milton Keynes (and Modernism) and Me

I’ve just watched Richard Macer’s documentary ‘Milton Keynes and Me’ on BBC iPlayer and I really enjoyed it. He and the city both turn 50 this year and that was the starting point for the film, which is available on catch-up till mid-Sept.

Macer left MK at 18 and hadn’t returned for a significant amount of time until staying with his parents while filming.

I also grew up in Milton Keynes. My parents moved there in the mid 70s when the city was less than a decade old. We left (because of a new job elsewhere for my Dad) as the city turned 25 and I turned 16, so at a similar point in my life to the filmmaker, though my whole family left whereas his parents still live in their family home today.

I empathised with his memories of cringing whenever having to answer the question “Where are you from?”. (He found people from elsewhere only knew about the roundabouts, whereas for me it was always the Concrete Cows.)  I don’t think I appreciated MK while I lived there but in the past seven years I’ve re-evaluated that view, learning more about its development and understanding better when set against the experience of living in London all my adult life and visiting other parts of the UK and other world cities such as Sydney, Paris, Amsterdam and New York.

Macer interviews his older sister, who also fled the city at the earliest opportunity, noticing now how small she found the family garden, how soulless the family home and how lacking in community the city as a whole. For that perceived lack of community she reflected it might be because pretty much the whole city at that time were newcomers. I’m not sure I remember it the same way – while it did lack history (apart from a few older parts that the new town incorporated when built in the space between three existing old towns) I never felt it lacked community within neighbourhoods or school districts.

Macer highlighted some of the early MK estates, or grid squares (stemming from MK’s grid-like plan of 1km squares) where fledgling architects were able to contribute whole master plans, the most notable of which was Beanhill by Norman Foster, now of course the world famous architect, Lord Foster.

Looking back it feels like the earlier estates were more experimental and Modernist, whereas those built from the 80s to the 90s were more a product of those times – the more bland, identikit Barratt-home style designs rather than the crisper more experimental Modernism of its earlier designs. My first home there had a more unusual design, a big one-plane pitched roof and a pale gold brick, whereas the second, designed and built about a dozen years later, leaned more towards the identikit red-brick modern home with ‘traditional’ stylings.

Central Milton Keynes was the shopping and business district at the heart of the new town and while it contained two of the most memorable structures (for me), in the shopping centre and city library, at the time it felt less appealing than other parts of the city – more diffuse and following the most rigid orthogonal street layout.

I think that consciously or otherwise, growing up in Milton Keynes influenced my decision to study architecture and my continuing interest in it even when I chose not to pursue it as a career. My particular interest in Modernism must have started there too, enhanced by my Mum being a kind of unwitting Modernist herself – always eschewing the pre-20th Century homes like the relatively run-down Victorian terrace of her youth for the new, big, bright, clean and modern.

A few very happy memories from my teenage years involved Modernist icons in London. A visit to the Commonwealth Institute, a copper-clad design recently overhauled as the new home of the Design Museum. An evening at the National Theatre, where our coach from MK got stuck in traffic and we had to jump ship, cut across town on the tube and then run across Waterloo Bridge, seeing the NT hunkered illuminated on the other side, arriving just in time for the performance (Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’). And staying next to the Barbican for an art history field trip, getting to wander in and about there every evening for a week, this beautiful, complex, uplifting and enveloping space, noticing funny little details like how it shared the same exterior floor tiles as my school in Milton Keynes.

This school, Stantonbury Campus, was one I shared with the film maker Richard Macer and his memories of it round out the documentary really well.


A week ago it was announced that the new Doctor in Doctor Who would be played by a woman for the first time – Jodie Whitaker – and it felt long overdue – even to me, as a relatively recent convert to the show. (Current era mainly, though I dabbled just before it was cancelled in the eighties.)

But it met with some resistance in some quarters, including the less-than-progressive corners of the media and social media. I thought this was a great riposte, which I found via Stella Duffy on Twitter.

The gender-switch story, followed by a week in which the BBC was revealed to massively underpay its biggest female stars compared with the male ones, felt like a focal point for lots of things I have been thinking about and reading over the past few years about feminism, gender equality and female heroes and role models.

Lean In Together

Following her book about women at work, Lean In, and expanding on the movement it started, Sheryl Sandberg teamed up with Adam Grant for Lean In Together, looking at how both genders could work together and change their mindsets and approaches to push for gender equality. This began with a series of four articles a couple of years ago in the New York Times:

All of which I was introduced to by a LinkedIn blog post from Adam Grant:

This struck a chord with me, as a father of daughters, as although I was a feminist before they were born I feel a new sense of urgency now that I also want the world to be as fair for them as possible too.

Role models and heroes

So here are some of the people I admire and respect, their writing and sometimes the characters they’ve created, all pushing for that fairer, equal world.

Integrated PR Campaigns – CharityComms event, 3 July 2017

Last week I attended a CharityComms PR Network event hosted by the British Heart Foundation – you can view the slides on their event page.

It was interesting to see not only the great range of PR and digital and experiential marketing they employed across the three example campaigns but also the approach that the PR team, and by extension the whole charity, took – monthly campaigns, each centred on specific CVD conditions, all initiated and led by the PR team.

This was born from an idea the PR team had one evening in a local Camden Town pub, to generate their own campaign concepts and move away from the more reactive ‘agency’ role that internal PR teams often play to their ‘client’ teams. In fact, their new Director banned the use of the term ‘client’ as part of the new, more proactive and research-led approach to integrated campaigns.