Old dog, new tricks; Kick-starting transformation in JRF

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is over 100 years old. It has a rich and valuable history and has achieved some pretty special things over the years.

I’ve been in post for two years with the exciting and challenging remit of transforming JRF’s digital channels, products and services through great design.

It’s been a good couple of years, filled with discovery.

Although ideally this blog would have come a little earlier in our journey, this point in time signals a significant moment for us, and it’s a good time to reflect.

So, this is just a snapshot of what we’ve been up to.

Having been around for a century or so, JRF has been through a lot of change and has undoubtedly evolved its purpose and programmes in line with the issues that have affected our society. In recent years, the organisation has focused in on solving UK poverty. This shift has sparked a transition to become a social change organisation.

So, what does a 21st century social change organisation look like? Not only that, what does one need to look like if it’s going to solve UK poverty?

Spoiler alert. We don’t have all the answers.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve really held a mirror up to ourselves.

Personally, I set out on a mission to understand the DNA of JRF.

It’s basic, but vital. I went into textbook discovery.

I found out heaps and was able to quickly form some cracking insights.

JRF’s people want to be the best they can be. We love helping people and focus our energy on making a positive difference.

However, our passion for our purpose didn’t translate into making best use of the skills, attributes and tools that the internet era has surfaced. We haven’t designed our organisation or our output to meet people’s goals or often raised expectations.

We do what we do well and have a top brand reputation to boot, but if we intend to solve poverty, that isn’t enough. We need to thrive.

Enter, people-led transformation.

Working with top-notch colleagues, we were able to reimagine what an in-house team could bring to the transformation party. We set about piloting some ‘new ways of working’ incubator projects (now lovingly termed Wow!) with the support of the excellent FutureGov. This enabled us to tackle those discovered insights through trying out some digital and design thinking on a couple of live briefs. We worked out in the open with the freedom to fail and learn. This whet peoples’ appetites and made way for the co-creation of our design principles.

I’ll spill more on those in a later blog.

A group of JRF team members stood up in an open plan office presenting a project show and tell to colleagues.

My learn from this part of the transformation journey was about culture and heritage, and what a double-edged sword they can be.

JRF, like many organisations, has a heritage to be proud of, but that can be a barrier to progression. Organisations with a long legacy often tie themselves up in it. The legacy itself can become almost personified and given power. Calling that legacy out and accepting that it exists is beneficial and can enable innovation and change to happen alongside it.

A note I made during a discovery workshop has really stuck with me:

‘Whilst we’ve been trying to change the world, the world has changed around us.’

Now we are on the journey, looking up, out, in and out again to ensure that JRF is in the best possible shape to solve poverty in this country.

And, we’ll be blogging about it.

Do keep an eye on the ‘Inside JRF’ publication for a range of voices on a variety of topics.

We may be an old dog, but we’re not shying away from new tricks.

If you have similar experiences or want to chat about transformation, I’m all ears, please do connect.

Thanks for reading.




The people working to solve UK poverty

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Sarah Mace

Sarah Mace

Doing lots of digital things at LEEDS 2023.

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