• Team Telescope

Our 2021 Reflections

We, like many people, can not quite believe that we are nearly two years into the global pandemic. Little did we think that come Christmas 2021, our public services would still be under so much pressure, and we would still be worrying so much about lockdowns, positive tests and keeping our loved ones safe. Despite our best hopes for a return to normality, we’re still hearing stories of the challenges on the frontline. There are continued pressures in homelessness, such as the new requirement to vaccinate all rough sleepers as soon as possible despite local authorities being stretched thin already. And there are worrying stories of apprehension among exhausted NHS staff. We are blown away by how our frontline staff have continued to push through, despite the extreme and ongoing financial squeeze and mental load for those working in local authorities and public services.

Covid is a brilliant example of a challenge facing our world which must be tackled straight away - a firefighting response which mirrors the day-to-day of many frontline staff around the country. But it’s only one among many challenges, some of which are longer-term but increasingly urgent, like the climate crisis. Dan Hill writes brilliantly about “the curve behind the curve”, showing how we could channel resources into concerted efforts to fight the climate crisis while also firefighting the pandemic. As he explains, though, “this would be interpreted as taking resources and attention away from the first wave response to the virus” - a reaction to which many frontline workers who try to think more long-term are very accustomed. We wrote recently about “leading with empathy” at COP26, exploring how empowering the voices which most often go unheard could bring more solutions to the crisis that threatens us all.

-- Dan Hill, 2020

Building empathy into all parts of our business

Our core value at Telescope is empathy. We believe that empathy can drive meaningful change, and that giving people space to build meaningful empathetic relationships can make all the difference to their own sense of fulfilment as well as how they do their jobs. Recently, inspired among others by Lauren Currie, who builds her values of boldness and confidence into all her work, we’ve been thinking about how we might “operationalise empathy” into our work. How could we boost the empathy ingredient in our programme design, in our interactions with participants, as well as the way we interact with clients, our partners and each other as a team? We are exploring different mechanisms to formalise this including an “empathetic NDA”, as a way to ask potential clients to exercise discretion with our proposal materials and enable collaboration with aligned parties without compromising on our business model.

This ties into one of our key goals for this year, which was to improve and expand our thought leadership. Alongside amazing people and organisations like Claire Yorke, Compassion in Politics, and the Relationships Project, we want to help build an ecosystem based on empathy, that can drive a more inclusive and better-informed policy space. During her social media takeover of our channels, Claire Yorke explained: “emotions are assets in policy-making, and empathy is a lens through which to understand and interpret them. Although often dismissed as irrational or unquantifiable, emotions give us data, sources of meaning, and valuable insights into public moods and the impact of policy”.

Building empathy into our very nuts and bolts is also about our role as a social enterprise. We constantly straddle both commercial and impact goals, treading a fine line between staying afloat and creating the most powerful impact possible. Indeed, our impact model may be based on empathy, but it’s also our business model - something that sets the social enterprise world apart from mainstream consumer and corporate businesses. While our focus on impact alongside financial returns can be challenging, as we explore below, it also gives us a chance to influence. As a social enterprise, we occupy a space that could, in time, contribute to a much broader change in how business is done. If we can show that business can do good and still “do well”, and convince big business they can do the same, just imagine the scale of impact that could be achieved.

Secret sauce

One of the key value-adds we offer in our programmes is giving busy people the time and space to think outside the box, away from the day-to-day firefighting that can be anathema to innovative solutions. As probation officers in a recent workshop put it, “we know what works, but we’re not given the time, space, and resources to apply it…I love to be able to take that long-term focus in this project” (Grand Avenues, 2021).

We use carefully designed tools, inspired by amazing designers and thinkers - from Brené Brown to Nesta to the Relationships Project - which we are constantly iterating and developing through our programmes to help create an environment where all voices are valued equally, and meaningful relationships are built.

Of course, this isn’t quite what Telescope looked like last year, nor the year before that. And as we adapt and build our expertise, it has been vital to remember that the more we all share in this world of collaborative policy design, “the more we can draw the threads together and spread this way of working across society”. At the same time, we’re still trying to build a business model that can help us to sustain ourselves and grow our impact.

So we are constantly innovating our “secret sauce” to make sure it’s still valuable and bringing meaning to people’s work and lives. We’ve taken on unusual bespoke projects to help us achieve impact in new ways. We’ve banged the drum for frontline and expert by experience voices to be heard in innovation projects across the system, and found many allies along the way who have helped amplify these messages.

Staying true to our values, to our mission, and to each other is an ongoing effort that we face daily as a team, with a mixture (familiar to many business owners, no doubt) of joy, frustration, loyalty, and humour. We’re still the same at our core, but sometimes the packaging looks a bit different, and we simply hope that we can keep doing work that makes people’s lives better.

Looking forward

There is lots to look forward to in 2022.

We are excited to be a delivery partner in the Grand Avenues project run by the Ministry of Justice, a radical new project that is seeking to redesign the approach to probation in Cardiff. The probation officers, community organisation workers, and other frontline staff involved are a truly inspiring group who bring energy, enthusiasm, and a passion for true co-design to every session. We have already seen some green shoots of ideas and new connections from our initial set of workshops, including some potentially transformative innovation around the kind of asset-based questions probation officers might ask when someone enters their care.

We’re also looking forward to seeing the outputs from our work behind the scenes with the Centre for Homelessness Impact on their What Works Accelerator programme, which is supporting local authorities across the UK to make better use of data and evidence to create meaningful systems change.

In an environment where everyone is busier than ever and time is precious, the joy we’ve felt when people have gone the extra mile has been enormous. Thank you to Bonella Ramsay for her pro bono legal advice which really got to the heart of our ethos as a business. Thank you to Andrew Brisbin, whose joyful check-ins, useful advice, and endless humour through the Allia Impact Accelerator was invaluable. And thank you to Anna-Lisa and Pete from Sapphire & Steel, who kept us motivated during the Accelerator and challenged us to do our absolute best, every step of the way.

As we look towards another year of tackling a global pandemic and other societal challenges, we are grateful to all our partners, allies and supporters in the social impact space who are doing this important work alongside us.

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