My friend Susan

On 24th February 2019, my colleague, mentor and friend Susan J Ellis died, finally losing her long fight with cancer. As is often the case when we lose someone important to us, disbelief is my over-riding emotion right now — I can’t believe that someone I’ve known, worked with, trusted, relied on and confided in has gone.

I first met Susan shortly after I started working with Barnardo’s in 1996. I attended a conference on volunteer management at the University of Manchester that was organised by the National Centre for Volunteering (a previous organisation to Volunteering England who subsequently merged into NCVO in 2013). Susan was a keynote speaker and workshop presenter. My enduring memory is the organisers having to rejig the programme because Susan was such a hit with those attending that people were abandoning their workshop choices and all trying to go to Susan’s sessions.

Susan, Andy Fryar and me enjoying one of her traditions — taking friends for breakfast at a local iHop restuarant.

In 1998, I came across Susan again. This time at the first ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (IAVM), a three day gathering of some 50 Volunteer Managers organised by CSV (now Volunteering Matters). I remember sitting with Susan and a couple of fellow delegates over dinner. Susan was always looking for ways to continue the learning for us and for her, and championed the idea that we’d do small scale, informal discussion over meals as well as the more formal curriculum sessions at IAVM. I especially remember Susan trying to explain to the waiting staff at the venue that she wanted her coffee with her desert (American style) not after it (UK style). Two nations divided by a common language and when they drink their coffee!

When I founded Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 Susan was right there supporting me. We spoke on Skype every month: Susan giving me advice and wisdom from her years of experience; discussing issues and trends and volunteerism; debating politics in our respective countries; and sharing a mutual love of certain TV shows and science fiction. I can hear her now, describing in great detail — and at great length — how Star Trek: Into Darkness played too fast and loose with the history of her favourite show.

Susan and I at the 2013 MAVA conference. She had recently undergone chemotherapy and joked that at least her hair would grow back!

Outside of work, I had the great privilege of staying with Susan at her home outside Philadelphia. I got the best tour of her adopted home city that anyone can get. We ate Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches and iHop breakfasts together. I experienced her love of the theatre and cinema. We joked about how everything in Philadelphia seems to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin. Most memorably, Andy Fryar and I got to spend the 4th of July with her in 2013, Susan loudly proclaiming to anyone she met that day that I was British! That day ended with fireworks viewed from the river in the city where the USA began, one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Andy Fryar, Susan and I in Washington DC in 2013. The first time we were ever together in the same place.

In so many ways I am the person I am professionally, because of Susan. But now she’s gone. My colleague. My mentor. My friend. I won’t speak to her anymore or hear that laugh of hers. The world is a quieter place without her. Heaven on the other hand, well she’s already telling them how they could be better organised, recruit some volunteers and she’s busy getting God to embrace new technology!

Goodbye Susan. I will miss you more than words can say.

I’ll keep tilting at those windmills for you my friend.

The Susan J Ellis Foundation has been established to “provide grants or support programs that will expand volunteer administration and support education and research activities in volunteerism.”

Susan suggested the foundation “fund seed grants that will improve the position of director of volunteers; education projects to widen understanding of the history and foundations of volunteerism and research that supports volunteer management work.”

For those who would like to honor Susan or support the Foundation’s mission, donations can be made to the “Susan J. Ellis Foundation” and sent to:

Energize, Inc.
5450 Wissahickon Ave, #C-13
Philadelphia PA 19144

For any questions about the Foundation, contact