Jul 232017

Charity consultant and multi-volunteer Richard Sved has written the latest in my Sense of Place blog series.

I’ve always thought of myself as a London boy. I grew up in north London, my football team is based in north London (the red and white one) and most of my friends and family lived there.

But then, about a decade ago, we took the decision to move to St Albans, 20 miles north. It calls itself a city, yes, but it’s not the capital. And if you turn right from our front door, within 400 metres you’re in the countryside. It’s all green and there’s much less concrete. Quite strange for this urbanite.

For the first five years, I suppose I settled, but mainly because I convinced myself, commuting every day for work as I did, that I was still a Londoner, really. I remember being surprised that I wouldn’t be able to vote in the forthcoming Mayoral elections. I would have to rethink my identity a little.

We didn’t have many local friends. We only knew our neighbours on either side, and one other family (and that was originally through London-based work).

So, what changed? Three things, really. The first around leisure, the second around my professional life, and the third a bit of an overlap of the two. But now I feel like an active citizen of the local community with a real sense of place. Let me tell you about it.

Firstly, I got into running. I’m not the quickest, particularly when I’m injured which seems to happen a fair amount, but there’s something about being out there in the open air, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s both a physical and mental thing for me. I joined a running club, and I then became heavily involved in St Albans parkrun, which offers a free weekly timed 5k run in a park for anybody who would like to attend. It’s quite something. Every Saturday morning, around 400 people of all ages and all speeds come along and run round the lake, supported in a variety of ways by around 20 volunteers. I’m now the Co-event Director and because I’m there so regularly, I would say I know at least 50 people each week, and count a number of the parkrunners and volunteers as my close friends. Maybe it’s because we share similar outlooks and enthusiasms.

Secondly, I realised a few years ago that I missed regular interaction with peers, having become a freelancer. I loved that aspect of office life, much like Catherine Raynor did (guest blog 4 June 2017), and I needed to find a way to network with my peers. I work in the charity sector, and it turns out that there’s a few of us about, sometimes known as the “St Albans Charity Mafia”. We get together every other month in the pub, and the email group numbers over 30. Rather like Fight Club there are only three rules: 1) You live in or near St Albans, 2) You work in or with charities, 3) You don’t have to talk about charities, but you can if you want. It’s fun. We drink, we chat and we eat pies.

The third thing that changed my understanding of my sense of place grew out of the first two. The parkrun had shown me the power of community. The charity meetup gave me contacts and friends I could later rely on. And the idea came amid the summer of 2015, during which national charities were getting a kicking. As a result, I personally felt I needed to reconnect with the sector as a volunteer and donor. I also knew that small local charities were suffering in straitened times and that so many people would support their important work if only they knew about it. So, we brought The Funding Network (TFN) to St Albans (September 2016) and then to Hertfordshire (June 2017). Four local charities pitch their cause – Dragon’s Den style – to a roomful of potential supporters. It’s as simple as that. We’ve so far raised over £23,000 for eight brilliant local causes, money that has made a huge difference to each of those organisations. Not bad for two evenings’ work.

What do I think community means? The parkrun and TFN share something very special, to my mind. What I see is a shared sense of passion, empathy and support. And volunteering is such an important element of them both. There is nothing of greater value, in my view, than the things we give for free. My burgeoning sense of community has sprung from a greater understanding of how that drives me, and the value it brings to others.

I can still be proud of London and everything that it represents, but I am part of another community now, much closer to home. This is my sense of place.

Richard is the founding Director of 3rd Sector Mission Control, which works with charities to bring better performance and greater focus to their strategic development, fundraising, communications and governance, so they can deliver their missions more effectively. Find out more at www.3rdsectormissioncontrol.co.uk or follow at @richardsved


Jul 112017

Last week, I participated in a seminar exploring how best to bring together health and planning to ‘improve the quality of lives and places in England’.  The focus was on putting theory into practice and/but a lot of the discussion was about language and evidence as barriers to this. In particular – and this is a bugbear of mine – the mismatch between public health privileging of a certain kind of scientific, ideally epidemiological, evidence of health outcomes, versus the factors which drive ‘real world’ decision-making by local authorities.  Karen Lock, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Laurence Carmichael, Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at UWE, captured this tension particularly well.  Karen talked about the importance to planners of local knowledge, acceptability, viability, innovation and, last but not least, politics.  Laurence highlighted the ‘evidence gaps’ regarding (i) how to quantify the costs of bad urban design and (ii) how best to capture people’s ‘lived experience’ of a place and its pertinence for measuring health.  More research needed …

All this prompted two questions for me. One is ‘What is the health cost of inaction?’ aka ‘How much evidence is enough?’. The other is ‘Could we usefully reframe “sense of place” in terms of how people talk about their experience of living there (as opposed to orthodox public health outcomes)?’ I plan to return to the first of these which I think is an important ethical issue. In the meantime, here are some rough and ready thoughts on my own sense of the place where I live and the experiential and multisensory nature of this.

  1. I like that I live up a hill. I think this is linked to: a sense of achievement when I get home; the idea of a vantage point; the view across London from the top; it being one of the things which gives the place ‘character’.
  2. Where I live feels ‘real’ because I am in walking distance from a butcher, a baker and a hardware shop. I don’t eat meat, but that’s irrelevant.
  3. Where I live also feels ‘special’ because I am near a couple of fantastic and distinctive public green spaces: a heath and a beautifully designed Victorian park (on a hill).
  4. The smell of wisteria, lavender and roses in people’s front gardens makes me smile on a daily basis throughout the spring and summer. As does the sight of my next door neighbour’s front garden vegetable patch.
  5. I feel connected to where I live because I work from home and have daily casual contact with people who live and work in the neighbourhood. And I belong to a great local film club whose membership is multi-generational (and includes at least two planners that I am aware of).

Am I healthy as a result?

For Karen Lock and colleagues’ take on valuing different kinds of evidence, see Trading quality for relevance: non-health decision-makers’ use of evidence on the social determinants of health. BMJ Open, 5 (4). e007053.

Jun 042017

Catherine Raynor’s blog is the first of a series of guest posts on the theme of Sense of Place.

It’s 18.14 as I start this post. I’m writing it in my garden. I have a stack of paper in front of me. On it are the notes for a plan that I will write up tomorrow morning before heading out to meet a friend for coffee. She’s on sick leave after her second lumpectomy in little over a year. Today I’ve written six case studies for a client, done a load of laundry, cleaned my flat, signed up for some Labour canvassing slots, updated our prospects spreadsheet and been for a swim. I’ve chatted to my business partner on Skype and spoken to my Mum on the phone about where capers come from.

So what sense of place, and self, does working from home give me? It means I regard time as a whole, to carve up to best effect. I don’t have work life and home life; I have life. I seamlessly blend chores with work, hanging up some towels as a break from my desk and in doing so achieving those much lauded (and important!) few minutes of moving between tasks. I chew through a sticky problem as I swim in an almost-empty mid-afternoon pool. It means I can support friends through tough times. And it means I rarely wake up on a Saturday with a list of life admin that will suck the life out of my downtime.

I love my home office. I’m a nester. I like things around me that make me feel ‘at home’, even when I’m at my desk. When I worked in an office I had favourite birthday cards and photos pinned to my notice board. I had a fruit bowl from some travels on my desk, a selection of cereal, teas and toiletries in the deep drawer meant for hanging files. As I hear an increasing number of friends talk of hot desking policies imposed on today’s office environment, I shudder.

So far, so me. How does this set-up help my clients? For my clients my home office offers flexibility. About 50% of our work is international, so if I’m planning a shoot to India and my client requests a planning call at 7am my time, it’s really not a big deal. When a client calls with an urgent and last minute edit I can reassure them that us working a couple of hours on Sunday really isn’t a big deal. Of course, technology means that most people could do this, regardless of whether they’re self-employed or not, but I don’t resent it because I’m not being forced to bring work into ‘my’ personal space, I invited it in. And on those days when workloads demand a 12 hour day, as they do in employment or self-employment, I don’t begrudge it because I know I can just take that time back. If not immediately then definitely come Wimbledon fortnight when it’s written into our rule book that unless the Queen wants the moon on a stick I don’t do much more than answer emails from my sofa from 13.00 when centre court opens…

But I’m also an extrovert. I get my energy from people. I loved office life; the gossip over morning coffee, the drama of internal politics, and the ‘quick drink’ after work that you knew would never be quick. God, I even loved team building, away days and appraisals! So how do I stay true to the gregarious and learning-hungry side of me and how do I maintain a good working relationship with my business partner when he lives and works 200 miles away?

Well, on the latter we Skype most days and spend a lot of times on shoots together. I’ve even managed to embed my love of reviews and planning into our annual calendar and every so often I decamp to Mile 91’s West Country base for reflection and brainstorming. As for the social butterfly in me that thrives on daily interaction, well, again, tech is great. Fellow self-employed types and I will regularly chat on WhatsApp as you would if you were taking a few minutes downtime in the office. The friend I’m meeting tomorrow I met through a local freelancers networking group. I write this post for a fellow entrepreneur who’s a peer on an enriching professional development group. There’s even a group of us who enjoy an Unemployables’ Christmas Lunch each year!

Unemployable? How so? Aren’t we all talented, well-networked, much in demand consultants? *chuckles* Well yes, but we’ve also all thrived so greatly through the flexibility, freedom and reduction in stress that comes with self-employment that we really do regard ourselves as unemployable. We’d struggle to go back to an office. Our sense of self and sense of place is born of our ability to forge our own path and use our time to best effect.

Catherine is a co-founder and co-director of Mile 91 which specialises in story gathering and story management for charities and changemakers. Through films, photos and words they bring to life the impact of social organisations and sustainability teams. Find out more at www.mile91.co.uk or follow at @Mile91_