What’s next for wellbeing? The journey to Carnegie UK’s new strategy

January 25, 2021

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by Sarah Davidson, CEO, Carnegie UK Trust

“…by such means as the Trustees may from time to time select as the best fitted from age to age, remembering that new needs are constantly arising”, or “how to solve a problem like improving wellbeing?”

Along with his substantial endowment, Andrew Carnegie left his UK and Ireland Trustees an obligation to undertake regular reviews of the most effective means of securing his mission to improve wellbeing. This has translated over time into quinquennial strategy reviews and the subsequent production of 5-year strategy documents.  Those of you who follow our work may have spotted that the most recent one (2016-2020) expired at midnight on 31st December. So, what’s next for the Carnegie UK Trust?

For an organisation whose entire purpose is focussed on the improvement of wellbeing, the past decade has been a remarkably fertile one in public policy terms. Across the world, as well as here in the UK, the concept of “societal wellbeing” – everyone having what they need to live well now and in the future – has gathered momentum. The Trust has been at the heart of that debate, bringing accumulated expertise to policy and practice and adding to our own understanding as we went along.

It has been an incredibly busy period, no more so than in the last few years. In our work on digital futuresfulfilling work; enabling wellbeing; and flourishing towns we have ranged widely across the public policy landscape as well as the actual geographies of our 5 jurisdictions. In doing so, we have enjoyed multiple collaborations and partnerships, developed a diverse playbook of approaches, and invested in the thinking and doing which we believed were necessary to stimulate positive change.  It has been challenging and exhilarating and – at times – exhausting.

As we entered 2020, we knew that it was almost time to draw breath, to look back and to look forwards and to take stock, as Andrew Carnegie asked us to. And then came the pandemic, and the year that was to have been one of review and reflection became the year when we doubled down on the insights and learning we had gained throughout the strategy period and brought them to bear on the greatest challenge to individual, community and societal wellbeing of our lifetimes.

However, we quickly discovered that 2020’s clarity of focus on questions of wellbeing actually acted as a stimulus to our strategy review, rather than a distraction. We added to our existing evidence base about what influences wellbeing, and we worked alongside partners old and new to understand how Covid-19 was affecting communities across the UK and Ireland.

At the same time, the experience of remote working during a pandemic encouraged us to reflect on ourselves. What is our identity as an organisation when we are not working together in our familiar building in Dunfermline? What does it mean to work across the UK and Ireland when you never leave your home?  Faced with immense challenges to public policy and practice, how can a team of 16 FTE reasonably make an impact, and what does “impact” mean anyway, in our business?

In the course of last year, we started to address some of these questions, drawing on the extensive experience and insights of our own team and Board of Trustees, as well as undertaking a thorough stakeholder survey carried out on our behalf by The Diffley Partnership.

We heard some very encouraging and positive things during this process.

People who engaged with our work in 2016-2020 said that they regarded our activities as relevant and influential.  We have strong relationships and active networks across all the jurisdictions where we operate, and across sectors, allowing us to fulfil a valuable convening function.  The quality of our work, our approach to partnerships and our varied menu of ways of working are all perceived as strengths, as are my colleagues who are highly valued by all who engage with them. As the Trust’s still-relatively-new CEO I am privileged to enjoy the reflected glory of much of that feedback.

However, a period of reflection and review is most useful when it sharpens your ambition and signals future opportunities. So, while we are proud of the work that we have done over the past decade in order to improve wellbeing, we also recognise that in this rapidly changing world we must evolve our approach to build on the work we have done to date and become even more effective in pursuit of Andrew Carnegie’s mission.

This is what we are working on as we enter 2021.

We are exploring how to strengthen the focus on our USP, which is wellbeing. As part of this, we want to invest more consciously in our ongoing learning as an organisation (both at a governance and an operational level), and we intend to become much more explicit about our values and how they shape us and our work. We need to revisit the sheer volume of activity that we undertake and reflect on the trade-offs between individual busyness and the overall depth, quality, and impact of our output as a team.

We want to understand more fully how the work we do and the way that we present our evidence connects with those we seek to influence – or doesn’t.  Does everyone understand what we mean when we talk about “wellbeing” and if not, how can we communicate that more effectively? It’s also important for us to keep abreast of and emulate the very best practice in assessing impact in the complex world of social change.  We are currently inviting expressions of interest from people interested in working with us on refreshing our brand, and also on a review of best practice on impact. If either of these falls into your area of expertise, we’d be keen to hear from you.

At the same time, we are continuing to assess our own ongoing development as an organisation.

In common with many others in our sector, the events of summer 2020 added further urgency to the challenge we had already set ourselves to examine our policy and practice on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  We’ve started some important conversations, but we have much more still to do here. We were already auditing our environmental practice a year ago, but an 11-month period without travel has shown us what is really possible with the aid of technology and the goodwill of partners. The realities of lockdown created opportunities for team members to step into new spaces, take on additional responsibilities and demonstrate the power of collective leadership. Our Organisational Development strategy will be founded on our strengthened belief in the capacity and desire of individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole to learn and grow.

So, that’s what we are up to here at the Trust, while at the same time making sure that we bring any remaining work under the 2016-20 strategy to a positive conclusion. The next six months will be the time when we lay down the critical foundations for successful delivery in the years ahead.

We expect to publish our 2021-2026 strategy in the summer, along with the accompanying operating plan. Between then and now, we will go on sharing updates on how our review is going. We are always keen to learn from others, so if you have experience and learning to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.