Endings as the overlooked stage of transformation
This is the written transcript of a speech I gave at the New frontiers in funding, philanthropy and investment event and the Innovation in Philanthropic Practice panel in July 2022. A provocation for how to frame endings as a core part of transformation, and a need to fund and resource that as part of social change work.
The full talk can be found here from 45–55mins into the recording.
I want to start with a provocation…
What if… we valued endings as much as we do beginnings?
Endings are the overlooked part of the cycle of change.
Endings are the overlooked ingredient of transformation so many of us are striving for.
I should say is I find myself a bit surprised that I’m hear talking to you about loss and endings.I’ve spent more than a decade starting things up — new projects, collaborations — in the hamster wheel of 2–3 year funding. You jump to the next exciting shiny thing to the next. I’d been through that cycle enough times — started to notice I was paying little attention to the ends of these endeavours, and wondered, perhaps I was missing something.
In parallel, I’d been holding this strange fascination with death for a while, a fear of my own death, fear for the future — I couldn’t explain it. But I’ve come to realise it’s unprocessed grief through generations of my family.
And then the pandemic happened — the fear of catching covid, of dying, forced us into isolation for months. Those already disproportionately affected by inequalities — yet again — were more likely to die from this virus. It was the pandemic that’s forced me to really lean into endings.
So I’ve been doing that with Stewarding Loss and Iona Lawrence over the last year. It was set up in 2019 with the aim of supporting civil society at all levels to dedicate the time, energy, care and resources to endings that it does to beginnings.
What we’re learning about endings
In that time we’ve been:
- researching into the state of endings cross civil society
- published tools and guides to support people
- hosted events, breaking the taboo / silence around this topic
- experimented with setting up Careful Closures fund -surprisingly little interest
- had over 40 candid conversations with individuals / groups considering an ending- those in leadership roles looking for a safe space to talk through options — going to boards / teams / funders
- and most recently have supported high profile organisations Small Charities Coalition and Campaign Bootcamp to close well. (I’d really recommend -the Campaign Bootcamp closure report that was released recently which has is a treasure trove of insight and learning in it.)
And there’s three key learnings about what endings are like :
- Messy decisions making process can be long, drawn out and complicated. It’s not always an active choice but the relief of making a decision is huge.
- The process of ending can be traumatic and emotional. The harm can be experienced by many, and the burden and responsibility of ending can default to Executive teams and Boards of trustees- to hold and carry that emotional turmoil. There is a need for more emotional support for people — as well as structural support to turn the lights off
- Through all of this — there is we’ve learnt that funders have a key role in normalising, investing in and tending to endings. Because of the gravitational pull and influence they have on influencing civil society.
And we’re starting to see endings as a credible impactful strategy for change.
Spend out funds and foundations not new. We heard from Thirty Percy yesterday and their Spiral Investment approach — spent down their investments to allow commutes to thrive. The sunset movement in the US. And we heard from the next generation yesterday wanting to let go of the wealth they’re inheriting (hear from Marlene Engelhorn from 1h 33min in this video to hear the full story) .
And I have a hunch that at the root of so many of our challenges — is grief. Unprocessed, unmet grief. This is DNA foundations that so many of our current financial and funding institutions are built on. Particularly true or family foundations or those with colonial and extractive past and a world guilt, grief and shame are connected. I think many org tensions and difficulties with the philanthropic world stem from this. But that’s a whole other talk on that, for another day…
Why paying attention to endings is important
Tending to endings is about being more resilient in a fast changing world. The pandemic is just the starter for the rest of our lives that will be unpredictable and full of discontinuities — that don’t need to go into.
The just transitions and regenerative futures we’re seeking and investing in — aren’t just shiny utopias but will inevitably mean a loss of old ways of doing things, ways of living, and relating that are often ignored.
So an investment in endings, is an investment in seeds and beginnings of the new system we’re want create.
What does tending to endings enable? It can support us to transform
Too often the thought of endings worse than the reality.
When done well, endings can be beautiful, liberating, celebratory — providing wisdom and seeds of the new. We just heard from Immy Kaur, the Impact Hub Birmingham team and closing is a beautiful example of closing with intention. You just have to look at the work of Civic Square to see what a powerful vision and practice is evolving from tended to that ending with intention.
Tending to endings can enable healthier cultures and organisations
- it’s about knowing when to stop — not burning ourselves to the ground,
- it’s about deep care and kinship,
- and it’s a contribution to healthier, liberating cultures that allow people to thrive.
You might be thinking this is all good in theory — but what does it mean in practice?
We’ve identified 5 things that funders and investors do to pay attention and actively be investing in and practising better endings:
- Get better at acknowledging and practising all types of endings — be that leaving roles well, ending projects, programs, funding relationships, exit strategies. Don’t just think about endings at the end, but upstream in our how we work.
- Be approachable, open to difficult and challenging conversations — a lack of openness and fear of approaching a funder or investor when things are going wrong is something we’ve heard time over. LIstening with compassion can be the difference between an orderly or disorderly / more traumatic ending.
- Offer emergency funding those choosing to end- offer running costs for the last 3–6 months to ensure a good ending, ensure learning can be captured and shared, rather than cliff edge where much of the knowledge and experience gets lost
- Invest in an ecosystem of support for endings that is on a par with the start up ecosystem.
- Invest in the culture and narratives that value and reframes loss and endings, seeing it embedded and inevitable part of our lives, not to ignored or something to be afraid of, but embraced — intentional and beautiful
We’ll be holding event on the 20th October in London, sharing the honest testimony to those recently closed.
What it’s going to take to get better at endings?
Lucky, this is not a new idea, endings and loss are simply part of the way life works, and we need to ease in and trust that. But it will take all of us to get better at acknowledging, talking about, practising and investing in endings upstream to ensure this happens.
And remember that leaning into and designing endings is the most courageous leadership choices and moves that can be made today. A future full of vitality and liberation will exist when more of us are brave enough to step into that space.