Stewarding Loss — a care-ful infrastructure for organisational endings.

Iona Lawrence
Oct 27, 2020 · 9 min read

“This is structural, if things ended well in the sector, the sector would be healthier overall.” A participant in one of our Loss Circles

In summary

Sensing An Ending shares our first draft of 7 principles to steward better organisational endings, with an accompanying guidebook. This was an important trajectory to take, as it is responding to the context of the present, and the impacts of Covid-19.

Staying Close to Loss is an introduction to the idea of continual enquiry in an organisations’ life span — where loss is considered within organisational strategy as ordinarily as ‘growth.’ This is explored through a series of canvases.

Following on from this initial work we are setting up:

  • A community of practice — creating a network of practitioners who can support civil society organisations to design their endings, and intelligently and carefully dismantle them.
  • Ongoing listening circles — a new series of peer-to-peer circles, with 3 different focal points to choose from: one for people going through organisational endings, one for people anticipating an organisational ending and one for people that want to explore the wider systemic and regenerative practices that need developing in relation to loss, across civil society
  • An enquiry specifically for funders — funders who want to better understand and define the appropriate roles that they can take in resourcing wise and dignified organisational endings can join a growing community of funders are exploring this.
  • A series of events — curated by Ivor Williams, that will bring this work into the wider consciousness of civil society organisations — to encourage a cultural shift in how organisational endings are perceived, designed for and experienced. Alongside positioning this work in a longer time frame, connecting civil society work to the losses other crises will bring, like the ecological and climate emergency.

If you are interested in any of the above please fill out your details here. The events series will go live soon, so look out for that.

Read on to understand more about our journey to date and what we’ve learned.

Anticipating organisational endings in a time of great loss

Yet in this time of great need the outlook for the sustainability and survival of many nonprofit organisations is uncertain. Everyday brings news of redundancies in the charity sector with latest figures suggesting 60,000 jobs will go (this Redundancy Calculator from New Philanthropy Capital paints an eye wateringly stark picture) whilst 1 in 10 charities face having to close within 1 year.

The story of organisational loss, as ever, is an unequal one. The Ubele Initiative estimates as many as 9 in 10 BAME led organisations are facing closure having been cut out and cut off from the resources and power reserved for their peers not just this year but over decades. All in the shadow of the great and ever growing loss of lives.

Our journey so far

However when we set out with this work we couldn’t have anticipated the scale or depth of loss and endings that would be catalysed by the events of 2020 so far. Therefore since March we have sought to understand if and how we might be able to help support those facing endings now. To inform this work we have interviewed over 30 people, listened to the experiences of those who have led organisational endings and sought to witness where nonprofit leaders are anticipating loss now and in the months and years ahead, through hosting 6 Loss Circles, with the support of Thanatologist Cass Humphries-Massey.

What we’ve noticed

The cost of bad endings is etched wide and deep into our nonprofit landscape. Without thought to legacy, programmes and hard earned intelligence of organisations can disappear overnight; without time for emotions, staff can go out into the world and to their new organisations carrying the burden and trauma of a bad ending; without careful planning, the money and assets which are left are inefficiently dispensed of in the haste of a poorly designed ending; and without knowledge of the complex legalities, well-meaninged mistakes can easily be made leaving staff and trustees the wrong side of the law.

Endings involve complex logistical, legal and financial considerations. The work of infrastructure organisations like NCVO and SCVO along with many organisational change and design practitioners do a good job at offering advice and guidance on this and many leaders we’ve spoken to speak highly of this support where it can be afforded. But we were struck that endings are also marked by different experiences and emotions by all those involved and these are rarely designed into endings.

Anger, despair, relief, shame, guilt and grief are just a few of the countless experiences that come up time and again as people share their personal stories of organisational endings. Not just because of the scale of the loss, but perhaps especially, it’s essential that in designing better endings the practical, technical and emotional elements of the ending are planned for and stewarded throughout.

Three offerings for better endings

This work is rooted in our believe that we need to establish a relationship with loss if we want to better understand our context and invent from within it. These three publications make a distinction between the enforced closing of organisations brought on by external events versus encouraging organisations to identify the right time to die or vacate the stage.

First, we have created Sensing An Ending: a resource for those organisations that need immediate support with how to face closure. Rooted in what we’ve learned and heard, we propose 7 key principles which could be used to guide nonprofit leaders considering endings of all kinds whatever their circumstances at this time:

Second, we are publishing Staying Close to Loss which returns to the original intent of this work before Covid took its toll. This work addresses the idea that within civil society there are, and have been for some time, organisations that in the natural cycles of death and renewal, have had their time.

The Canvases

Third, the accompanying Stewarding Loss Canvases are a set of tools for tending to organisational cultures so loss is explored as part of life. These canvases have been created to support organisations to develop an ongoing relationship with loss — to continually anticipate it — know how to respond to it, and have distinct roles for it, feels important to familiarise ourselves with in the next couple of years before crises happen on a wider and more regular scale.

So our first ask of you is: we would love you to take a read of this work and share your thoughts, reflections and challenges with us. Please get in touch with Cassie and Iona through the website.

Following on from this initial work we are setting up:

  • Ongoing Listening Circles — a new series of peer-to-peer circles, with 3 different focal points to choose from: one for people going through organisational endings, one for people anticipating an organisational ending and one for people that want to explore the wider systemic and regenerative practices that need developing in relation to loss, across civil society
  • An enquiry specifically for funders — funders who want to better understand and define the appropriate roles that they can take in resourcing wise and dignified organisational endings can join a growing community of funders are exploring this.
  • A series of events — curated by Ivor Williams, that will bring this work into the wider consciousness of civil society organisations — to encourage a cultural shift in how organisational endings are perceived, designed for and experienced. Alongside positioning this work in a longer time frame, connecting civil society work to the losses other crises will bring, like the ecological and climate emergency.

And our second ask is: if you are interested in any of the above please fill out your details here. The events series will go live soon, so look out for that.

And finally, some thank you’s

In each of the pieces of work we’ve shared above there are acknowledgements to those who’ve shaped our thinking, taken part in the research, and worked with us on the guides. In particular we want to say thank you again here to Sonia for her design work, Vanessa Reid, Graham Leicester, Ivor Williams, Cass Humphries-Massey, Dr Dawn Langley, Caroline Lien, and point to past work that explored some of this by the Berkana Institute, Mission Models Money and The Art of Exit.

Stewarding Loss

Shifting narratives around loss, endings and cycles of change

Stewarding Loss

Supporting civil society to dedicate the time, energy, care and resource to endings that it does to beginnings. Reframing loss and endings, to be seen as an essential and positive force for transformation.

Iona Lawrence

Written by

Iona is a freelance strategy consultant. Previously she set up the Jo Cox Foundation, worked in the Calais refugee camp and campaigned for Save the Children.

Stewarding Loss

Supporting civil society to dedicate the time, energy, care and resource to endings that it does to beginnings. Reframing loss and endings, to be seen as an essential and positive force for transformation.