16th of March 2021… This date feels significant for several reasons. It was exactly this date a year ago that we had our last “normal” day. We knew something was coming, we figured that we would have to close down for a couple of weeks, stay indoors and let this threat pass. Little did we know that the world was changing as we knew it, that we would face some of our most challenging, anxious and lonely times over the coming year and that rather than taking time off, the Hummingbird team would work harder than we have ever worked before.
But 16/3/21 is significant for another reason too. Today is The Hummingbird Project’s fifth birthday! Different social enterprise support organisations estimate that around 70% of all social enterprises do not survive to their 5th birthday, a pretty harrowing statistic, considering that most social businesses are founded with a passion and commitment to make the world a better place. I can testify to having many sleepless nights, huge knocks in self confidence and an almost daily feeling of unease, wondering if the decisions that are being made are right and worrying about not having enough expertise.
Last week I was in conversation with a small group of people (virtual of course) who are starting a new social venture and out of the blue came this question – “So in your experience, what is important to build a strong organisation, with impact at it’s centre? You’ve obviously got it all figured out!” This really caught me off guard and anyone who knows me and my tendency for self-deprecation, my first response was “luck!”. But then I sat back and realised that actually – we are 5 years old, highly impactful, well respected – and just brushing it off with a fly away comment is disrespectful- to all those social entrepreneurs who are busting their gut trying to make a difference, to the group of people in front of me and myself and my team.
So, I tried to give them as much solid, honest advice that I could, and during the past week have been giving a lot of thought as to how we have managed to reach our 5th birthday. What were the things that got us through the last five years, not just surviving but thriving and what makes me most proud of the work we do and the difference we make?
So here are my Top 5 reasons why the Hummingbird is 5 years old today:
- Realising the NEED for something different… better. I can’t imagine trying to start a social enterprise, or any enterprise for that matter, without being absolutely committed to creating something that provides difference. This is not to be disparaging to any other organisation in our field; just because people deserve the right to choose and guidance to find the right service to suit their needs, does not mean that other services aren’t good. You just have to know that what you set out to do provides something new, innovative, impactful and needed. If you don’t know that people will benefit from your service more than if it didn’t exist, go back to the drawing board.
- Lived experience is the key to your values, your mission and your impact. The absolute KEY factor in The Hummingbird Project, that drives everything we do and every choice we make is… if the client was us, what would we want, need, deserve? The fact that all of the staff and volunteers have lived experience of a mental health issue gives us a purpose and a drive to make lives better and the experience to break down stigma barriers. Every time our staff members have to make the call of – should I phone that person back now or later? Is it worth connecting with other systems or supports to ensure the safety of a person or take them a step closer to their goals? I don’t actually HAVE to do that, but it would make a difference… Every time it is their experience of how they would want to be treated or what would have made a difference for them that drives them to go the extra mile. If you don’t have lived experience embedded in your organisation, take real, honest, patient time to listen to your clients and the needs/barriers they have, with no agenda. If you are not addressing their true barriers and supporting their goals, don’t do it.
- Stick to your mission, don’t let the money guide you. When you are in a not-for-profit organisation and funding applications and tenders are coming out that “kind of” fit your mission, it can be very difficult to stick to your guns, especially when you have wages to pay. In Northern Ireland particularly, many organisations are vying for the same money and this can create an atmosphere of silos and one-up-man-ship. If you know what you do that is special, that is needed and what you do best, stick to it. Come together with other organisations to create partnerships that have their own specialisms to create a project or service that brings all those skills and energy to the clients. Break the norms and create new ways of working that benefit the clients. Those applications and tenders will stick out because they provide the most impact. Don’t become a Jack of all trades but a master of none.
- Always seek advice and surround your organisation with supportive critics. Whenever you do good things as part of your day job, it can be very easy to feel like you are always doing the right thing. One of the most valuable assets that Hummingbird has is a diverse, committed advisory board, that provides advice, critical honest feedback and a genuine belief in what the organisation wants to achieve. I think that one of the positives to come from the pandemic is that membership bodies, employers and agencies have recognised the need to support and guide their stakeholders. This new environment allows us to admit more freely that we don’t have it all figured out and that change needs to happen to survive and pivot to meet the needs of the people we serve.
- Your team are THE most valuable asset you can possibly have. I’ve left this one until last… not because it is the least important, but because it is actually the Headline act to everything that has come before. Throughout all of the trials and tribulations that the last 5 years has brought, the staff at the Hummingbird Project have been the absolute rock that we have flourished on, my genuine joy in every day and my pleasure to share their skills and conversations. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our “on and off” days, but the honesty and passion that the team bring to our table, wanting everyone there to be completely safe, positive and lifted up to do the best job they can is remarkable. This year has been dark for many people, including us as individuals, but what has certainly got me through is the fun, support and joint decision making in our team. About 3 years ago, myself and my then 2 team members Jill and Jimmy, decided to form a “Triangular head structure” to our management with the 3 of us as we grew. I can honestly tell you that I have not made one big decision on behalf of the organisation completely on my own. The whole team keep each other in check, for both work standards and wellbeing. Having a trusting, honest and humble team that are absolutely focused on doing the very best for every client at the Hummingbird is the reason why we are celebrating our birthday today.