The past 12 months have been quite the journey at Lime Green HQ. No surprises there.
Like many others, we went into Spring 2020 believing that some things shouldn't be done online unless absolutely necessary. There was simply no way that an online workshop could replicate the experience of a having a bunch of energised people in the same room, armed with a whiteboard, colourful post-its and a plate of biscuits.
Fast forward a year and we’ve run approaching 75 online training courses or strategic planning workshops during lockdown, totalling over 200 hours of screen time. We’ve found ways of replicating most of the best aspects of face-to-face workshops, though admittedly we’re yet to crack downloadable biscuits…
Some people will inevitably have issues and preconceptions about online workshops. Digital exclusion is a key issue to keep in mind, and “Zoom fatigue” is now not only a common phrase but an academically-researched, peer-reviewed phenomenon. And too many people have lost too many hours to unproductive and chaotic strategic planning sessions for there ever to be universal enthusiasm.
However, call us new-fashioned, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the previous approach of “face-to-face unless absolutely impossible”. We’ve had too much positive feedback about online workshops – for many people they’re simply more accessible, not to mention being cheaper and eliminating travel time.
So, as we all stand on the cusp of returning to our offices and meeting rooms, what have we learned from a year of delivering strategy workshops online? And what should you be thinking about if you want to make an online session as productive and engaging as possible?
Plan shorter sessions with regular breaks
This may sound obvious by this point, but you can’t simply move a session online and hope for the best. We often used to run full-day face-to-face workshops, particularly when people had to travel to be there, but that’s more than anyone can handle online.
Our online workshops almost always last no longer than three hours, with a decent break in the middle, plus shorter breaks throughout to avoid people staring at a screen for more than an hour. This still sounds like a lot of screen time, but we find that provided activities are carefully planned and varied (see below), people can and do want to engage for this long.
Keep things moving and mix up the format
It’s easy for sessions to descend into drawn-out, unstructured conversations – these are hard enough to stay engaged with in a room, let alone on Zoom or Google Meet.
You can avoid this by regularly switching between activities and always focusing people on a specific task - this might be as simple as answering a focused question, filling in a table or coming up with three points on a particular topic. But always keep a good tempo, and avoid lingering for too long.
Mixing up the format also helps to keep people focused – for example switching between breakout room tasks, polls and feedback sessions with a bigger group. We’ve recently seen great results from ‘paired walking tasks’ – where we encourage people to step away from their screen, go for a walk and phone a colleague to discuss a particular question.
Invite people to 'park' ideas
Of course, it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping people focused and avoiding cutting them off. People in our sector are passionate about the way things should be done, and often see these a strategy workshop as a rare opportunity to get their point across.
In our face-to-face workshops, we often set up a ‘parking bay’: a piece of flipchart paper to note down any discussions we have to cut short, or issues that haven't been resolved. We invite everyone to come up and write down anything that matters to them, at any point – and we always capture any ‘parked ideas’ in our notes after. This makes it so much easier to move on and keep to time.
In many ways, this is even easier online. You can ask people to use the chat box on Zoom or Google Meet to note anything they want to come back to later – which they can either do anonymously by sending a private message, or publicly for everyone’s benefit.
Use tools like Miro to make things more playful and creative
A workshop isn’t a workshop without a whiteboard, coloured pens and your own weight in post-its. Capturing information visually is important for keeping people engaged - but typing notes in a document on a shared screen REALLY doesn’t cut it.
We’re huge fans of Miro – a free virtual whiteboard tool that's the next best thing to a big wall and half a stationery shop. Miro allows you to capture the output from a session way more creatively and collaboratively - you can easily move post-its around, group ideas together, or invite everybody to add their own annotations.
Set clear expectations about what will come out of the process
One thing I've found with shorter online workshops is that you inevitably make slower progress and need more patience. An initial session with a group of passionate people will literally fly by - fine if it's the first session on a busy agenda, but it can be more unsettling if that's all you've got time for that day or week.
If you’re planning an online workshop or a series of sessions, always share a clear agenda (that you stick to) and a quick list of planned outcomes in advance. I often start a session by saying something like “This week is all about getting all your concerns and questions out in the open – then next week we’ll start working on answers”, which is a great way to build trust and understanding with people from the outset, and avoid unrealistic expectations.
Remind people about settings that will make them more comfortable
When you think about it, using Zoom isn’t really like meeting people face-to-face at all. It’s unnatural and intense to have everybody staring at you the whole time, all while looking at a mirror image of your own face.
Fortunately, platforms like Zoom give you plenty of options to dial down the intensity, for example hiding your own video, only viewing the person who is actually speaking, or turning your camera off for a break. Resizing the screen so people's heads are closer to the size they'd appear across a table, rather than taking up most of your vision, also really helps. Simply showing people how to use these options – and encouraging them to use them if they need a break - instantly makes it easier and more comfortable to participate online.
Bring in an external facilitator
Shameless plug here, but I love seeing how much more people get out of sessions when they don’t have to worry about taking notes themselves, keeping to time or reminding people when to shut up.
Often, before we run a workshop with an organisation, they’re concerned about how much they’ll get out of it, or whether one person will dominate. But with the right planning and a few ground rules, it's almost always much more enjoyable and productive than they expected.
If you’re struggling to get people to engage positively or keep to time - or even if you just want to be able to dive in fully as a participant yourself - an independent facilitator is usually well worth it, whether you’re meeting online or face-to-face.
I read recently that 116 Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts – including Elon Musk – have petitioned the UN to ban the development of autonomous weapons and ‘killer robots’.
Elon Musk is one of the world’s most prominent tech entrepreneurs. His companies are revolutionising transport, both on the roads and in space - Tesla Motors has brought fully electric vehicles into the mass market. He's invested heavily in AI research, in his own words because he wants to “keep an eye on what’s going on.”
I've long been fascinated by AI and autonomous technology. Without doubt it's going to completely change our lives – we've already seen the emergence of driverless cars and robots in Japanese hospitals to ease the burden on nurses. Stephen Hawking recently said that AI could hold the key to eradicating disease and poverty.
On the flip side, there are growing concerns about what will happen if autonomous technology falls into the wrong hands. Hawking and Musk have both warned that it's the biggest threat to the survival of the human race. We're now just years away from huge autonomous weapons that can cause unimaginable loss of life at the touch of a button. Robots with vastly more capability than the human brain, but no moral code, no longer belong in the realm of science fiction.
As technology races ahead, the debates about ethics and regulation fight to keep up. The technology for driverless cars already exists - it's the challenge of how we programme them that's holding things up.
On the surface, this has nothing to do with charities and fundraising. However, I know that many of us have to battle with something that also has great potential to improve how we do things, but great destructive capability too.
When you have big responsibilities in a small organisation, what role does self-doubt play? Is it a positive or a negative influence?
My transition from fundraiser to charity consultant left plenty of room for self-doubt. When you stop working for an organisation, you leave behind the comfort that comes from being part of an established structure with a good reputation.
For most of our first two years, I went into every major meeting or event with some kind of self-doubt. Am I well enough prepared? Will people appreciate my ideas? What if our training attendees find this exercise unclear or boring?
Doubting yourself can be enormously beneficial, but too much self-doubt can be destructive and exhausting.
It drove me to meticulously prepare for everything – if you naturally go through 20 different ways something could go wrong in your own head, more often than not it ends up going to plan!
But the negative thoughts also meant I used up lots of nervous energy, spent too much time preparing for things that weren't essential, and got bogged down anticipating problems that didn’t really exist.
Over time, I've gained experience and started doubting myself less. Generally I enjoy my work more as a result, but sometimes I also miss that ‘edge’ - fretting over small decisions or details can definitely help keep you on your toes.
Working for a smaller charity is often a lonely experience, particularly if you’re in a senior role or you’re the organisation’s only expert in what you do. This can make self-doubt a double-edged sword.
Often, your work isn’t subject to many checks and balances. Your colleagues or trustees may not know enough to meaningfully question your decisions, or reassure you that you’re on the right track. As a result, you may find you have a broad range of questions going round in your head:
So what's the right balance? I’m not sure I’m qualified to say, however personally I have a couple of ground rules:
1. You need to make self-doubt a 'force for good' in some way, that you can use to drive yourself forward and improve your work.
2. If it becomes draining or stops you enjoying what you do, you must address it, even if that means you lose out on some of the positives too.
Like with autonomous technology, there's probably no holding back the 'technology' of self-doubt - it's hard-wired in most of our brains. The challenge is harnessing it in a positive way, and remembering to be kind to yourself along the way.
Lime Green Consulting HQ has now relocated from London to Bristol, which is the inspiration for this blog. If you're based in Bristol or the South West, we'd absolutely love to hear from you. We're also continuing to work with organisations in London and across the country.
This week, after months of planning, my partner Sally and I finally took the plunge and moved to Bristol.
Like many people, we were looking to buy our first house but facing the reality of London house prices. We knew that saying goodbye to North London after ten years would mean more space and a better quality of life. However, uprooting not just our home but our social lives and my growing business has been challenging and, at times, daunting.
Moving house is stressful at the best of times, especially when you’re relocating to a new city. On top of the usual challenges, we’ve got two very anxious young cats and unwittingly scheduled our move at the same time as a prolonged heatwave!
Unpacking boxes and painting walls as the thermometer hit 31 degrees wasn’t a pleasant experience – especially when we had to keep doors and windows closed to prevent our cats making a break for freedom. Even the local Tesco (our one local supermarket) couldn’t cope with the heat as their fridges broke down - so not only did we run out of basic supplies, we couldn't even celebrate with a calming alcoholic drink either.
So how can you ensure 'business as usual' when you're surrounded by mayhem? Plenty of small businesses - including charities - face the same challenge during a major upheaval such as office move, a change of leadership, or even a key staff member facing something big in their personal lives.
Having now (just about) survived the move, I wanted to share a few tips on ensuring continuity during these stressful times, including some I've learned the hard way:
1. Be realistic about your time
Like me, I'm sure you're guilty of sometimes stretching the definition of a 'working day' in order to achieve as much as possible. But when you've got something major going on outside of work, protecting your time is more important than ever.
For our big move, I was determined to do something I'm usually pretty bad at - take enough time off to do everything else properly. When you're planning things weeks in advance, it's easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking: "I'm sure things won't be that bad when it's time to move - after all, how much more difficult could one extra meeting / deadline / piece of work make things?
I tried to avoid falling into this trap by carefully scheduling client work weeks and even months in advance, consciously preserving a full five days off. At the time this felt like way longer than I'd need, but I've been grateful for every minute of it. As a result, I've been able to unpack things properly, deal with the inevitable teething problems of a new home, and explore the local area a bit.
I'm writing this blog in a sunny garden on my final afternoon off, rather than in the evening after rushing a piece of work that I wish I hadn't taken on. To protect my time, I've had to be firm with myself and others, but that's much better than promising the world and disappointing people later.
2. Keep your focus
When life is pulling you in multiple directions, you don't just lack time, but quality time to reflect and think. So it's essential to decide your priorities in advance, and remain focused on them.
A few weeks before the move, I wrote a list of all the priority tasks we needed to accomplish in June and July at all costs. So when I was able to briefly open my laptop between unpacking and painting, I already knew what I needed to focus on. No need for creative thinking!
Keeping your focus involves difficult decisions - I was recently asked to speak at a really interesting event in Bristol which would've been a first opportunity to meet some local organisations, but I reluctantly had to turn it down because it clashed with our move and I had clear priorities already.
Last year, we worked with a social enterprise whose founding CEO was leaving after 10 years. They had an overall direction, but their staff were anxious about preserving their focus and values during the upheaval. We helped them to evaluate their position and develop a one-page list of crystal clear 'interim' priorities, which gave them so much reassurance during the handover period.
3. Think positive and give yourself something to look forward to
Moving to Bristol has involved a lot of disruption and we've also had to say goodbye to a lot of people and places, which is never easy.
I've tried to keep positive by focusing on all the things I'm gaining in return, including a garden (unheard of in London!) and a spacious home office after years of working out of a tiny flat in London. Designing this office - including buying new furniture and painting the walls (lime green of course!) - has been a little treat that has made everything else seem more bearable.
Reminding your staff (and beneficiaries) about the positives of a big transition can reduce anxiety and maximise productivity. Every big change brings opportunity as well as uncertainty, even when it's unplanned. I love this story about Ben Medansky, who used a devastating fire in his studio to launch a new range of ceramics and find the time to reflect on and rejuvenate his business.
4. Count on others
'Business as usual' is only possible when things run smoothly. This means working closely with colleagues, but also not being afraid to ask for help from everyone else in your life.
Sally and I have had to work as a team to overcome the challenges of our own move. When we exchanged contracts on our house, I was in the midst of an intense month of work, so Sally took on the unenviable task of endless dealings with solicitors and mortgage brokers. In return, I've taken extra time off work for the move itself, so Sally could get back to some urgent work more quickly.
We've had help from so many people including our brilliant friends Sam and Jess, who even let our removal men into the house when we took a wrong turn on the motorway and arrived an hour late!
5. Have a bit of patience
While our initial move went smoothly, it wasn't long before we encountered problems - a washing machine that didn't work, a fuse that keeps tripping, and a particularly long afternoon in Ikea.
When we initially made it to Bristol and started unpacking quickly, I felt that the worst part was behind us and everything was working out perfectly. So when things started going wrong, I struggled to stay patient and deal with it.
Any big move or transition period involves ups and downs. Paradoxically, ensuring business continuity involves accepting that nothing will go completely to plan, and that disruption will linger for longer than you'd like. This helps you to stay calm and keep things ticking along in the meantime. Getting frustrated rarely does any good, so it's better to take a deep breath and just get on with it.
If you've recently survived a big transition period in your work and have your own tips, or if you're based in the South West and would like to find out more about what we do, please come say hi.
Growing your influence in a busy world – five things I’ve learned from running Lime Green Consulting
It’s been just over two years since I waved goodbye to full-time employment and turned Lime Green Consulting from a twinkle in my mind into a bona fide consultancy for small charities.
Since then, I've met some incredible people, worked on amazing projects and made a few mistakes along the way. Setting up and growing a small business has many things in common with running a small charity, and many of the lessons I've learned will resonate with charity directors, staff and trustees. Here are my top five tips:
1. Be clear on your core purpose
If you want to get noticed, it’s so important to distil everything that you do into a simple, clear message.
When I started out as a consultant, it took some time to understand how to articulate exactly why charities should work with me. I had pretty broad fundraising experience and wasn't sure what was most relevant. I had a naive belief that I could sit down with a charity, discuss their challenges and find a way to make myself useful.
In reality, if you’re not clear how you can help someone, most people will be way too busy to take the time to work it out for you. It was only when I developed a really clear proposition and a small range of headline services that I was really in business.
Charities must distil their often complex projects and sometimes technical work into a crystal clear message. Get the what and why right and people will ask about the how and with whom later. Don’t throw everything at people immediately – have the confidence that if you give people enough information to remember you and start a conversation then they’ll want to come back and find out more over time.
2. Collaborate and grow your universe
When I first started out, I was given some wise advice I've never forgotten: “The most important thing is to meet people and make yourself useful. Don’t worry immediately about making money, it will follow.”
This is a great motto if you want to meet amazing people, find brilliant opportunities and grow your influence. I always embrace opportunities to meet and help like-minded people, whether at a networking event or over a coffee, without worrying about whether there’s a quick win.
Some people think "I don’t want to spend time chatting to someone if there’s probably nothing in it for me – it’s a waste of time." Instead I always ask myself: “What if I turn down the chance to meet someone and it could've been the next big opportunity or introduction?”
These days we’re always under time pressure so it’s tempting to evaluate everything in terms of the immediate return. However, it's so valuable to take the time to discuss challenges and share problems with people in a similar position at another organisation - this can give you a new perspective and help you to solve your own internal challenges.
I believe that charities can gain a lot from collaborating with each other, sharing ideas and teaming up for joint projects - there can be too much of a tendency within the sector to view other organisations only as competitors.
3. Develop your expert voice
If you run a small charity, there's usually so much to do and so little time. We’re naturally inclined to focus mostly on urgent short-term goals, yet we also expect to be capable of thinking big and staying relevant. In reality, we can only do this if we keep one eye on what’s happening outside our organisation.
I try to dedicate time every week to keeping abreast of wider issues in the charity sector – reading articles, sharing ideas on forums and social media, and writing blogs. It’s sometimes difficult to fit this in alongside other work. However it means that more people notice me and also helps me to develop my voice and opinions on key issues that people expect me to know about.
Always be on the look-out for key developments and conversations that you can contribute to. This is challenging because you can’t control when things pop up, for instance as the result of a news story, so you often have to make time at short notice. However, get this right and over time people will come to see you as an expert and this brings lots of opportunities.
Being the "go to" authority on a particular topic will make your charity more visible - this can open up fundraising opportunities, attract the people that need your charity's help and enable you to better represent the needs of those beneficiaries as a credible expert voice.
4. Make your content work harder
So you’re developing your expert voice and publishing great content, but who’s listening?
I read a great tip from Alex Swallow who said that you should spend 20% of your time generating content and 80% sharing it.
With limited time, it’s so tempting to publish something, tick it off the list and move on. However, publishing content is the tip of the iceberg. If blogs are our shop window, then promoting them is the billboard or TV advert that gets people to visit your shop in the first place.
When I publish something, I make a big effort to schedule posts about it on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and send personalised emails to people who would find it particularly interesting. Sharing all your content via your mailing list is another great way to keep reminding people that you exist and builds familiarity, credibility and trust over time. Check out our email marketing tips here.
I know many charities who could be better at promoting their content and successes to the right people. The next time that you win an award, produce a great impact report or write an insightful article, be sure to share it via all your channels, because it’s no use to you in a dusty drawer.
5. Listen to people and don’t be afraid to ask for help
It's easy to think that you know what people want, but harder to ask and be led by others. We’re all guilty of something called confirmation bias, where we sub-consciously listen out for information that proves our existing beliefs and ignore anything that contradicts them.
So often I hear charities pondering how often to send people a newsletter or fretting about which new event their supporters would like best. Often I say ‘Have you tried asking them?’
We often feel the need to present a polished, professional side to people, but involving our supporters in our problems can be a great way to engage people and win trust. Small charities have a natural advantage here as people won’t always expect you to get everything right and will value your ability to be friendly and human. Social media has also made this much easier.
If you can ask people for help and make them part of the solution, you create ambassadors who have a natural interest in seeing you succeed, even if this is partly so they feel part of that success themselves!
This blog is based on a version that was first published on The Influence Expert by Alex Swallow in April 2016. If you've enjoyed reading it, please sign up to our mailing list for more blogs and advice.
This blog was first published on Eventbrite on 1 June 2015.
Last month I took a few days off to visit my parents in their new home in North Wales.
I’d recommend the Llyn Peninsula to anybody who needs a change of scenery. It’s beautiful and invigorating – cycling along country roads with a panoramic sea view couldn’t feel any further removed from life as a fundraising consultant in London.
Taking a step back is important because working in the charity sector can be extremely demanding, especially with organisations under pressure to reduce costs and maximise income. Creativity and enterprise can be replaced by fatigue. So holidays are a crucial opportunity to recharge your batteries and gain some much-needed perspective.
One holiday to France in late 2013 changed my whole career. I’d just completed my fifth year at Link Community Development managing a busy fundraising portfolio with ever-decreasing resources. In hindsight, I was drained and no longer enjoying my role.
I’d recently broken my ankle so had plenty of time sitting by the pool. I reflected on what I’d liked about Link in the first place – the challenge of running a major fundraising event early in my career, the space to inspire a young team and be innovative. I realised that changing circumstances had gradually eroded my job satisfaction, and wondered how I could regain that and use my expertise in a different way.
During the early morning drive back to the airport, I realised just how little I wanted to go back. My heart wasn’t in it and it wouldn’t have been right to carry on – so two days later I handed in my notice and resolved to become a fundraising consultant for small charities. Lime Green Consulting was the result.
Keeping a healthy level of perspective about your own career – both in and out of the office – definitely helps you to perform better in the long run. Here are eight ways of achieving this:
1. Make sure that a holiday is a real break
These days it’s harder than ever to switch off, with smartphones meaning that our emails are never far away. During a particularly stressful client project in February, I finally decided to switch my email notifications off on a weekend away – and I’ve never had them on at the weekend since!
Time off gives you crucial distance from your desk and sometimes creative ideas start swarming around as a result. You can embrace this without becoming sucked in. I know many people who scribble down ideas on a pad of paper if they come during the night or on holiday, then go back to relaxing knowing that they can pick up on them later.
2. Take a step back to appreciate what you’ve done well...
I’ve met many fundraisers and Trustees who clearly feel guilty and frustrated. Guilty because they’re not able to do more with their limited time, and frustrated at not being able to turn ideas into action. It’s understandable but it doesn’t do you any good.
Taking a step back provides an opportunity to celebrate your successes and appreciate the progress you have made in often challenging circumstances. This inevitably boosts your confidence and inspires you to find ways of building on that success in future.
3. ...but also learn from your mistakes
It’s important to accept when you have got things wrong and analyse how to improve your approach next time. This is hard to do when you’re wrapped up in the day-to-day realities of your role.
Looking back, there have been times when I’ve been overly defensive or naive about my work when problems arose. While there are often extenuating circumstances or several people responsible, you can still learn lessons yourself. Fundraising is about trial and error and innovation goes hand in hand with a risk of failure. Accept this challenge, as long as you can learn from your mistakes.
4. Value your professional development
One of my biggest mistakes at Link was becoming fixated with short-term problems. I was obsessed with the performance of my fundraising events and dismissed some great training opportunities because I was short on time and couldn’t see the short-term benefit. I just didn’t allow myself to prioritise my own long-term development.
While you must of course be focused on your day job, you also need to put yourself first sometimes and embrace opportunities to become a more rounded professional. Investing time in making yourself more employable for the future is so important – and your employer should value that too.
5. Broaden your world by meeting new people
A busy job can make you become insular, so you believe that all the solutions can be found within your own office. If you work at a smaller charity, you may not have many close colleagues to help you, but there will be people at other organisations in a very similar position.
I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it is to meet like-minded people – whether it’s just to share experiences or ask specific advice. Fundraisers are generally a friendly and supportive bunch, so the right networking events are a great use of your time. I’d particularly recommend the London Young Charity Professionals events.
6. Learn from others online
Similarly, there is so much information online that saves you having to learn from your own mistakes! I regularly use a number of LinkedIn groups (including those run by the Institute of Fundraising and UK Fundraising) both to monitor general discussions and find answers to a specific question.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I’ve been lucky enough to receive some great support from both formal and informal mentors. I think more people should try to seek out somebody who could help to develop and inspire their career. Also think about how you could help others, which is always a hugely rewarding and educational experience. Alex Swallow’s podcast about mentoring is a great introduction to this.
It’s also important to seek help closer to home when you need it. Overworked fundraisers sometimes fall into the trap of working ever-increasing hours as a way of demonstrating that they need extra support. Burning yourself out is never the right way to prove a point – it’s always better to proactively state your case to management.
8. Remember why you’re there
The longer you work somewhere, the easier it becomes to lose sight of the fact that, whatever your challenges, your work is making a genuine difference to lives. Taking the time to remind yourself of what it means to work in the charity sector can really help in the difficult moments.
Alex Swallow also made an important point recently about caring for the cause rather than the charity. As fundraising becomes ever more professionalised and competitive, I’ve seen people lose perspective about the greater good, viewing other organisations only as competitors and threats. Sometimes we need to work together more for the benefit of our end beneficiaries.
I hope that you all get to have a refreshing and reflective summer holiday – make sure you find some time to look after number one!
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