In this blog Jo Wells, a former CEO for a UK Foundation and currently working with Emerging Futures, reflects our recent experience of recruiting a major new role in the team, and offers some thoughts on the kinds of skills and capabilities this work needs.
The Emerging Futures programme has at its heart a big vision – to speed up the transition to a more just and equitable world. The work acknowledges that it must commit to an alternative model of philanthropy that intentionally seeks transformation alongside others. I’ve followed this work with excitement, so was glad to be involved in the important work of growing the team.
I’ve personally been involved in building both global inter-disciplinary teams for systems change, and transforming governance to put lived experience at its heart and transfer power to alternative voices. I believe that a team that can centre justice and equity in its work on a daily basis, bringing a mix of skills, experience, ideas and creativity, will be vital for this work. A team that models the values of the work internally and externally will be credible and accessible to its essential partners and allies.
But how do you recruit for alternative futures? What skills and experience do you prioritise and uphold in the context of uncertainty and embracing new approaches that Sophia Parker, Director of Emerging Futures wrote about last month. How do you do justice to the time, energy and thought that people put into an application process? And what have we learnt through candidate submissions about the Emerging Futures work itself?
As Sophia and I have been recruiting the Associate Director role, we’ve been pondering these questions. Applicants were asked to explain why the work of Emerging Futures is important, what leadership in this context looks like, and examples of working with systems and/or risk. It made for a rich and interesting read, some of which we wanted to share in a spirit of gratitude, transparency and learning.
The power of hope
The overwhelming first impression from submissions was the deep endorsement of the Emerging Futures work, and the responsibility for JRF that comes with that. So many spoke to a renewed sense of optimism this work had given them. A deep sense of motivation that Emerging Futures could enable them to step beyond the day-to-day systems they are operating in, to pursue the deeper change they want to see. This felt incredibly hopeful - because those that applied are a group of many brilliant people, often operating under the radar on the edges, doing incredible work across different walks of life, who passionately want to be part of something bigger and transformational. This has added urgency to the sense that Emerging Futures needs to prioritise ways to create space for the many not the few, and a deeper appreciation of the different yet equally legitimate entry points to this work.
Valuing many forms of wisdom
Philanthropy is slowly progressing its understanding of the need to uphold alternative forms of wisdom, and to appreciate the authenticity that comes from this lens. It was therefore heartening to see the number of submissions who wrote about their own lived experiences of poverty, and other forms of marginalisation from the mainstream. We had a notably higher proportion of candidates applying and shortlisted than is normal for JRF who declared a disability, and/or were BAME, and more than half interviewed brought lived experience of systemic disadvantage.
We did not shortlist with academic qualifications or professional status in mind, but rather the breadth of experiences, credibility and thinking that sung from the pages. Whilst several candidates shortlisted had experience of philanthropy from within, as a trustee for example, over half shortlisted had none, other than perhaps as a dissatisfied recipient of its benevolence! People who applied came from all walks of life: community business, philanthropy, creative arts, design, corporates, local and national government, global networks, technology, movements, investments and more. It feels crucial that in building the rest of the team, this commitment to looking outside the ‘sector’ is sustained, and this breadth of experience is at its heart, to remove the echo-chamber risk, and drive the connections and field-building work.
A time for alliances
We were struck by the human and empathetic nature of the submissions. Embracing change, uncertainty and the unpredictable, requires learning and collaboration. A thread that ran through was a realistic and mature grasp of the need to bring people with you – a deep sense that the work needs a strength-based approach that starts with what’s working and builds meaningful infrastructure around it. Leaning into what we want to build together. A time not for finger wagging, but for unusual collaborations, optimism and connection. People were so thoughtful about the deeper nuances of change.
Applications reflected a sophisticated understanding of internal change (individual and team culture) in service to, and as a necessary precondition for, external change - defining the working practices, behaviours and values that underpin the work together. That requires a different kind of leadership – empathy, and an ability to nurture teams, create psychological safety in the face of uncertainty, and challenge one another. How this work is co-created will be as important as what it delivers; the submissions emphasized the importance of this for JRF as it evolves its own internal culture alongside.
Working with uncertainty, while keeping moving
If real change requires risk – the risk of exposing your ideas and getting them wrong publicly at times, it was also clear how wholeheartedly the Emerging Futures work at JRF has embraced this – it felt like people have been walking the journey alongside JRF through the blogs and communications we’ve shared. But in that openness, applicants had an awareness of how new this work still is and its fragile underpinnings – it will require continued and sustained bold leadership. Candidates acknowledged the urgency of this work, whilst also being mindful of not exhausting energy – equity and pace are not always happy bedfellows. And people reflected on the constant challenge of finding ways to avoid the limits we impose on ourselves ‘based on the limits you know the system is going to impose. Seeing in reforms, rather than liberation’.
Building a movement of changemakers
So how to keep the door open on Emerging Futures for the 160 people who applied for this role? How can we find ways to honour the commitment they demonstrated in applying – to open other doors so they can be part of the change? We hope this blog is a small gesture in that direction. We will be inviting everyone who applied to stay involved; to ask them directly how they’d best like to do that and to share our ideas on what we can offer. We will also be announcing the successful Associate Director soon.
We now have two further Emerging Futures Fund Lead roles live here on the Notion site set up for Emerging Futures. And in late March, we will be looking for a Learning Lead and Design Researcher. We are taking our desire to recruit differently to the next level. For example, we have appointed Radical Recruit to support us to reach beyond our normal networks and to support radical candidates in the recruitment process. And so we can see as many candidates as possible, we’ll be doing group interviews for the Fund Leads with a skilled facilitator who is part of an active community of changemakers and external to JRF, to hold a learning process. We will share more detail on this in a further blog.
These steps are small individually, but when combined with an end-to-end process that provides clear accessible information, strong feedback, and centres candidate care and wellbeing, we hope they are part of a more explicit modelling of the Emerging Future we all wish to see.