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.

Agile – an update

Following my presentation on agile working and service delivery at Diabetes UK for the Third Sector Digital Leaders programme last year, Zoe and Dave kindly invited me back to present to the latest cohort a couple of weeks ago; coincidentally during Diabetes Week.

I focused again on our use of Agile methodology to develop our digital Know Your Risk tool, but took the opportunity to update it with new things I’ve learned, as well as more on how we as a charity have adapted to a new (small ‘a’) agile approach to working since we moved to our new central office in Whitechapel in September 2016.

One of the many good things about our new base, apart from it being less expensive than our previous office, is that we have a big ‘town hall’ space with a kitchen, where it’s easier for the whole charity to gather, as well as making it easier to bump into colleagues and have an interesting chat while getting a cup of coffee.

The wider world of Agile

Just before my latest presentation I bumped into my colleague Richard from the database team who had just been to a useful presentation from Tom Gilb – his key takeaway was to take an approach to requirements definition that kept refining to remove any ambiguity – to really hone each one down to a basic, clear, universally understood definition.

I also followed on Twitter an excellent workshop session on Agile from Econsultancy, serendipitously the day before my own session. One highlight was the use of the term ‘Wagile’ to refer to organisations who end up with a kind of hybrid of Waterfall and Agile project management, which might sound bad to purists but could just reflect the fact that not every organisation can take a textbook Agile approach.

I was interested to see a new JustGiving blog post from Zoe about Agile, sparked by a report into money wasted by ineffective Agile projects possibly turning the tide of opinion against the methodology. Zoe and her contributors really got to the heart of the new and more nuanced approach needed to get the best from Agile, especially if you can’t take a textbook approach – you might never expect to get your whole organisation working in a ‘pure’ Agile way but you can, as I’ve mentioned before, at least cherrypick the best elements and underpin it with a more ‘agile’ mindset.

Zoe also wrote a nice summary of some of the highlights of the latest cohort on her own blog – it was good to see that the people on the programme felt that my experience of introducing ‘agile by stealth’ could be something that could work for them too. As long as everyone appreciates it’s in the ‘subtle’ rather than ‘sneaky’ sense of the word! 🙂



IoF & Facebook Social Good Summit – London, 2 June 2017

This free one-day conference at Facebook’s office in London last Friday, run in association with the Institute of Fundraising, was a chance for charities to learn more about how to make the most of both Facebook and Instagram for their charities and communities – I was especially keen to hear about Instagram, as I have long been a fan and feel that charities could make more of this social network, while realising that it comes with some limitations.

I’ve Storified the event highlights here.

Of course, the past few months, and especially the past few days, have been overshadowed by horrific terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. While there are different schools of thought on how much the big tech and social media companies can or should do in the fight to prevent these atrocities, the defiant response, including bravery, hope, love, generosity and even humour, has been woven together and strengthened with the help of social media and digital tools such as JustGiving.

Social network users were able to alert people to what was happening, often faster than official breaking news sources (but obviously with the occasional confusion or misinformation that can come from that) – and social media, especially Facebook’s Safety Check tool, could help in the aftermath of the attacks, allowing users to announce if they’re safe and reassure friends and family… as well as allowing everyone to remember and honour the victims, fundraise to support people affected, and be part of defiantly carrying on with their own lives.

Safety Alert was originally developed as a response to natural disasters but in recent years has been used in response to terrorist attacks.

Early on in Friday’s event there was an unexpected moment of levity around this serious feature, when an automated safety announcement at Facebook’s London HQ interrupted the speaker just as he was talking about Safety Check… and as the announcements continued, despite them being introduced as a drill, there was a mounting communal sense of “Should we evacuate…?” – and with almost comic timing there was a pause before a final recording announcing the end of the drill, when the collective sigh of relief was as audible as the nervous laughter at what had just happened.

Of course, we couldn’t have known just how soon the feature would tragically be needed again, with the horrendous attack in London the following night, bringing it all the more close to home.

Here’s an interesting piece on what Facebook does with Safety Check data, and some more background info on the tool and how it has (and hasn’t) been deployed.

The Charity Digital Toolkit

Despite great progress made in the past 10 years or more, digital skills and strategy are still in short supply in the voluntary sector. To help to address this (and following her report on the state and implications of this shortfall last month), Zoe Amar and the Skills Platform have put together the Charity Digital Toolkit:

Building on the success of The Charity Social Media Toolkit, we decided to take a similar approach in giving charities a grounding in fundamentals by sharing expert advice, inspirational case studies and tips and tricks, but we wanted to tackle weighty topics, going in-depth where needed and asking big, challenging questions about what it takes to make digital work. We encourage you to use this toolkit to help your charity take the next step in its journey with digital.”

– from the Introduction, Charity Digital Toolkit

Each chapter provides insight from a range of contributors into different areas of digital trends and know-how, and I was happy to contribute a case study about how my charity, Diabetes UK, introduced Agile working in a very pragmatic way, through development projects such as our main website and – the featured case study – our online Know Your Risk test for the risk of Type 2 diabetes:

  • Foreword – from Martha Lane Fox
  • Chapter 1: What is digital? – from Zoe Amar
  • Chapter 2: Digital leadership – from Louise Macdonald and Simon Hopkins
  • Chapter 3: Digital audience and strategy – from Katie Taylor and Zoe Amar
  • Chapter 4: Digital channels – from Mandy Johnson, Donna Moore, Dave Evans and Jarrah Hemmant
  • Chapter 5: Measuring success – from Clare Bamberger and Matt Collins
  • Chapter 6: Digital fundraising – from Steve Armstrong
  • Chapter 7: Digital governance and risk – from Brian Shortern and Sarah Atkinson
  • Chapter 8: Digital service delivery – from me
  • Chapter 9: Digital behaviour and the future – from Beth Kanter and Paul de Gregorio
  • Chapter 10: Digital skills development – from Jo Wolfe.

The more I reflect on our online Know Your Risk project and our Agile approach to delivering this service through digital, the more I can see that the best way to achieve the digital skills that lead to digital transformation or maturity, and a more effective voluntary sector, is through doing – taking a hands-on approach and involving people across teams throughout your projects and activities.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have on this, or what you’ve tried that has or hasn’t worked, in any area of digital skills for non-profits.