Monthly Archives: February 2016

Last words

I was hoping for a pyramidSome random thoughts about dying…

I’m working from home at the moment and welcome the company of Radio 4. So most Friday afternoons you’ll find me listening to Last Word – the weekly obituary programme which features four or five people who’ve died that week. Recently, of course, the programme has included David Bowie and Terry Wogan. Not coincidentally, this week’s Radio Times magazine includes a tribute to Wogan and a feature on obituaries. BBC News has also been sharing the stories of deaths from less natural causes, including the suicides of two males living with depression, one of whom was, literally, close to (my) home.

My interest in death and what we leave behind – which was how someone once defined ‘the afterlife’ – is neither new nor, I think, morbid. When I get the annual magazine from my old school I go straight to the ‘across the years’ section to see who I know has died (incredible few considering I left in 1973!) When I read celebrity questionnaires I always go first to their answer to ‘how would you like to be remembered?’ and who hasn’t considered their own answer to this question?

In a 40-year career in which marketing – doing it and advising others – has been a constant, I’ve heard many definitions of ‘brand’. One that struck a chord with me was ‘what people say about your organisation/company/service when you’re not in the room’. In a similar vein, your ‘personal brand’ could be described as what people say about you when you’re not there. Apparently the big thing in marketing is avoiding ‘brand dissonance’ – you should provide the experience your publicity promises. Sorry if that sounds like marketing guff.

Assuming we want to be talked about in a positive way (less important when we’ve passed – which seems to be the new word for dying…) I presume we need to avoid ‘personal brand dissonance’ which in turn means being true to our values and behaving accordingly.

I’ve just started an 8-week Action for Happiness course on ‘Exploring what Matters’ (and by extension what makes us happy). It occurs to me that how you’d like to be remembered, and what you’d like people to say about you when you’re not there, might add up to what you think ‘really matters in life’ – the theme of our course discussion last week. This week it’s ‘what actually makes us happy’ and for me, part of the answer is making other people happy. Which doesn’t work for many comedians of course – Tony Hancock and Stephen Fry being two.

As you may know, Spike Milligan was another famous funny man living with depression and one of the first people in the public eye to talk about it – as early as 1970. You may not know that in 2012, 10 years after his death, Spike’s famous epitaph ‘I told you I was ill’ was voted the UK’s favourite ahead, by a considerable margin, of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Either those curtains go or I do’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘The best is yet to come’.

So what would be your epitaph? Given my current interests and my intention to have my ashes scattered on the roses, I think mine could be ‘beyond repair, but not recycling’ or maybe just RIP – recycled in passing.

For more on the theme of communication go to

Your Own Place – seeking security

Latest in the new ‘More Expert by Experience’ series

Rebecca croppedI am re-discovering a social enterprise and Community Interest Company – Your Own Place (YOP) in Norfolk – which works with young people aged 16-25. I first interviewed Rebecca White, YOP’s Director and Founder, in December 2013 when we were both at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich. Two years on, I wanted to find out how Your Own Place had developed and, in particular, Rebecca’s experience of ‘going it alone’ as a social entrepreneur now working more-than-full-time on the enterprise.

To quote YOP’s own publicity ‘We aim to prevent youth homelessness through a number of interventions.  At the core of Your Own Place is our delivery of Tenancy and Independent Living Skills (TILS) training.  Our principle outcome is successfully sustained tenancies for first-time tenants who may need a bit of support along the way.’

Ultimately a social enterprise stands or falls by its income-generating capacity. YOP’s first year trading achieved an impressive 36% of total income; the year two figure is slightly down because of the need to focus on raising development funding.

Like all business start-ups, subsidies are important for social enterprises in the early years (unless you have the support of those traditional small business investors – friends, family and fools). I was interested to know about Rebecca’s success with a crowdfunding campaign.

Understandably, she was very happy with the outcome – £7,000 raised (I’d been advised to aim for £1500 – £2000 for a first campaign). Reflecting on the experience, Rebecca has some advice for others thinking about crowdfunding. “You need to prepare well and it’s a lot of hard work to maintain momentum during the campaign. Success depends on having access to [online] networks. I think we did well for a first effort with a fund-raising technique which is quite new to Norfolk.”   

YourOwnPlace logoMore recently YOP has been successful with an application to the Tudor Trust for £56,000. This development is significant for bringing stability and security to the organisation, helping planning and, importantly, taking some of the pressure off Rebecca who is now able to recruit a Peer Training Coordinator.

But how Rebecca would find ‘letting go’ a little, surrendering some control to another employee? Her response was typically honest. “Obviously this is ‘my baby’ and I’m a control freak. But on balance I’m excited more than fearful as I enjoy managing people; we had an employability support worker last year.”

Looking back over the past 12 months, Rebecca’s sees it as a reputation-building period for Your Own Place. “We’re building credibility with funders and commissioners, getting coverage on radio and in the press is easier, and people are coming to us for our expertise. It’s a slow pay-off for all the early work upfront. We’re gathering momentum, making useful contacts (after kissing a lot of frogs…) taking us in sometimes unexpected but exciting directions. 

YOP Peer researchers (4)It would be deceptive to pretend that the past 12 months has all been positive and Rebecca acknowledges that there have been some young people who haven’t benefited as much as she would have hoped. “We’re working with challenging, often hard to reach, young people so, despite our best efforts, some will fall by the way. But I remember some wise words from a supervisor when I worked in London. ‘Don’t take it personally as a failure – it doesn’t mean they haven’t taken something away from the experience. You’ve planted a seed and there may be a pay-off later.’ We had one trainee who ditched a summer course on day one, but later came back and asked for a meeting to find a mentor.”

Rebecca is clear that Your Own Place’s vision remains unchanged – that the destination is the same even if the route has changed a bit. The comment reflects her advice to others to take opportunities and make the most of all the pro-bono support that’s available. For Rebecca, this means returning to the School for Social Entrepreneurs for their ‘scale-up’ programme in London (which also means getting a mentor).

“Don’t be too proud to admit you need help – take all the support that’s going” advises Rebecca. Wise words from someone who oozes self-confidence and authority, but isn’t afraid to ask.

Further reading:

Close to homelessness (December 2013)

Follow Rebecca and Your Own Place at

Beyond the stiff upper lip

It’s Time to Talk about mental health, men, and moustaches

Enterprise Essentials

Day 30 MoThis blog post is re-issued to mark Time to Talk Day – 4 Feb 2016 (

Day 20 and my face fungus is progressing considerably better than my fundraising effort for Movember (but more about that later… )

We all know that ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is the traditional (British?) response to adversity – particularly for men who, like me, had a privileged education in a boys’ boarding school. I imagine it was like that in the two World Wars and, in relation to men’s mental health today,  it’s still the recommended remedy from well-meaning people who know no better.

If, like me, you’ve experienced clinical depression you’ll know that ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is not the answer. For me and many others it helped to talk and that’s why I’m using my top lip this month for something more positive – to start conversations about…

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Beyond the garden wall

IMG_8881“The grass is always greener where you water it” Neil Barringham

When I left book publishing in London after 15 years, I had a dramatic career change – working as a Community Enterprise Coordinator in the Cambridgeshire Fens. That beautifully stark part of the country is another world where, I was told, change happens by generations.

Like many relatively remote rural areas, if you aren’t born in the Fens, you’re an in-comer for ever. Imagine my situation then – I didn’t even live in Cambridgeshire, let alone the Fens, and the European Union was paying me to tell the local population who’d been there for generations how to live their lives. And I had absolutely no formal qualifications for the job.

I’d been advised that I had two advantages – I was male and mature. I’d never been described as mature before, but they were right; people did at least give me a hearing. But then on my third day in the job, someone said ‘you know Chris, we’re a terribly self-sufficient lot’. I knew I wouldn’t have people queuing up outside my door asking for help.

Then I got some great advice from a community development worker in Devon who’d been in the field (literally) much longer than my two weeks. She said, and this is the point of this blog…

“Think of yourself as a gardener, sowing seeds. You plant the ideas and if some of them sprout, you water them and nurture them. If they shrivel up, you know they’re non-starters and you plant other seeds in, you hope, more fertile soil. And don’t give up trying – it might just be the wrong time of the year.”

I found that advice amazingly useful over the following 18 months – it was an analogy that fitted the rural soundings and helped me explain my role to local people.

And then the gardening analogy cropped up (pun intended) when I was back in London working with the biggest and friendliest charity that’s ever been foolish enough to employ me.

In the course of advising people about business planning, I learnt about SHARE Community in south west London – a charity that provides training, education and personal development for disabled people and those experiencing social exclusion. SHARE Community’s CEO Annie McDowall describes a strategic planning day with a difference…

“To be honest, I was a bit bored with the same old format … SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. This was my first away-day with SHARE and I wanted to make it special. Also, I wanted to include a fair number of SHARE clients all of whom experience some level of disability…

SHARE has a horticultural project and we’re all very enthusiastic about it… How about we did a SWOT by imagining SHARE as a garden? We could use art materials to build up a picture with strength represented by trees, ladybirds and so on, weaknesses as weeds, slugs etc, opportunities as birds and bees, threats as greenfly – that sort of thing…

The next part of the planning session looked at what features of SHARE we wanted to keep and what to throw away. We kept the metaphor of the garden identifying what were weeds (to be got rid of) and what were hardy perennials (hold on to them). Next we asked each group to identify new garden features they wanted to introduce to SHARE. This was a really useful exercise because it produced a list of action points for the year ahead.”

Even though that planning session happened over a decade ago, it struck a chord with me as a brilliant idea. It’s remained in my memory because it connected at a higher level.

I’m pleased to say the garden analogy (or is it a metaphor? I never know) is still thriving – another intended pun. Just last week I read two blogs – from that wise man at Strategic Edge, Nicholas Bate, and the other was a 2013 blog post from another insightful writer – Seth Godin. Nicholas linked gardening to business, parenting and life, and in Seth’s blog he observes “Great projects start out feeling like buildings… but in fact, great projects, like great careers and relationships that last, are gardens.”

So plant seeds, grow well, and may your life, career and relationships bloom.

Further reading:

Nicholas Bate’s blog

Seth Godin’s blog

SHARE Community’s gardening enterprise