We celebrated our 30th birthday last week, and were delighted to spend an evening with clients, partners, and former colleagues reflecting on 30 year of working for social impact. As Chair of Trustees, Anna McKeon gave a short speech about working for Traverse today.
We’ve just launched our social impact report; a couple of highlights if you haven’t opened it yet: check out the project with the LGA we’re working on to evaluate 12 pilot schemes introducing new technology to enhance social care (page 4) and the work we did on alcohol licensing regulations that resulted in new legislation to ensure the provision of free tap water – you can find this, and the other legislation that work at Traverse has influenced on page 8.
What does this “commitment to social impact” really mean on a daily basis for us? Well, it often means arguing about what social impact means, and whether or not we should try and define it. But word-smithing aside, here’s what it means around our office.
It means that we regularly sit with the tension between being commercially competitive and socially minded. We have always been a company – not a non-profit. We don’t believe it’s ethical to generate large profits for ourselves from public money, but we recognise that in order to do high-quality work, and to keep learning, we need to be financially sustainable. We think this tension is healthy – we interrogate it, and debate it together.
Our commitment to social impact means that we say no to projects we don’t believe in. If the budget is unrealistic, if the project is a PR exercise rather than genuine engagement, if we are not the right people for the job – then we say no.
Our commitment to social impact means that we are alive to the fact that in any one project, we’re not just serving the client, but we’re also serving the people that our client serve. We don’t want to write a report and send the invoice – we want to know that report is going to be used, and make a difference to people’s lives in a positive way.
Lastly, our commitment to social impact means that we challenge each other. We challenge each other to think more deeply, to design more creatively, and to manage more rigorously.
This commitment to social impact as a team is also fuelled by a keen sense of curiosity. Everybody at Traverse has a highly over-developed sense of curiosity bordering on the ridiculous. We’re interested in everything.
It doesn’t matter how seemingly obscure, or mundane, someone in the team will get involved, and become fascinated by that topic, and also by the challenge of making that topic interesting and accessible.
Whether it is electricity pylons in the shape of deer antlers, cantilevers over motorways, or creating a multi-player game based on the proportion of finance that you pay in your Water bill, someone in the business will find it not only interesting – but fun.
Having said that we are fortunate, as a team, that our curious natures are regularly fed with fascinating and often controversial subject matter.
We have explored regulations for allowing mitochondrial DNA transfer in conception, and the capacity of social impact bonds to help tackle complex social problems.
We’ve talked to the public about self-driving cars, and co-created visions for the future with local communities.
We’ve supported people from across many sectors - including local government, the prison service, and the NHS, to become better leaders for social change.
In the last couple of years we have also analysed around 20 million words from responses on some of the biggest consultations in the UK – including on the BBC licence fee, the Lower Thames Crossing, and the Heathrow airport third runway.
What I found inspiring when I joined Traverse, however, is that while team members enjoy the intellectual challenge of considering complex, and controversial issues, the approach to the work isn’t just an academic exercise. It’s rooted in the experience of people who live these issues on a daily basis.
We sit with people in their communities and listen to their stories, we read every response we are sent, we code every word, we review every phone call. This is also part of our curiosity – we want to hear what people think, learn from them, and understand what shapes their views.
So here we have a bunch of people who argue about what social impact really means, and are able to get excited, and have an in-depth conversation about pretty much any topic you put in front of them. They also have something else in common - their kindness.
Traverse is the sort of office where if you’re working late at night, someone will come up to you and ask you what you’re working on and if you need any help. Or, if they can’t really help, they’ll bring you a takeaway and hang out anyway to keep you company.
It’s a place where we celebrate each other – not only our achievements, but also our identities. That might mean we all go out to the garden and do the Swedish Frog dance to celebrate Midsomer with Fanny Goterfelt, it might mean we head up to Rob Francis’s hometown of Wellington and get dressed up in period costume and take part in a parade, or at Christmas we support Dave Stannard, our Finance Manager of 18 years, in his journey to become a TV quiz show host.
We also celebrate each other when we leave the company to move on to new challenges.
We see Traverse as place that nurtures talent, and can be springboard onto other opportunities.
A friend of mine describes this as “creating ripples” – there are Traverse alumni who have created some pretty impressive ripples with their work – going on to become Directors of Research or academic institutes, and senior leaders within local government and the NHS to name just a few.
In term of our current team, I asked for them to share some words on why they worked at Traverse – here are a few things they said to me:
“It gives me enough autonomy to make my own choices whilst feeling supported by more experienced consultants.”
“It’s always been a really enjoyable place to work with so many committed, passionate, and enthusiastic people.”
“Traverse is more than a job for me, it’s a space where I feel free to develop and grow my professional interests.”
“When I joined I made it clear I wasn’t staying longer than 2 years. 11 years later I’m still here! The longer I've been working with public services, the more convinced I am that a company like Traverse is really needed!”
Now, let’s be clear. Some days things are stressful, we’re grumpy, we take ourselves too seriously, and we get things wrong. But we’re celebrating our birthday so obviously I’m focusing on the good bits.
But, that being said, who we are at Traverse is something to celebrate.
It can sometimes feel that working with committed, curious, and kind people is a happy accident. We just got lucky with who we happened to hire. I think it’s a bit different than that. I think it’s the result of many choices that have been made by many people over the years, and choices that continue to be made on a daily basis.
Someone much more insightful and smarter than me once said that the quality of our relationships at work determines the quality of our work.
I like to think that our social impact report not only evidences the quality of work we do in terms of the research, the organisational development, the consultation, evaluation, and engagement, but also how we work with each other, with our clients, and with the public we interact with.
We’re committed to social impact, but really that just means we’re committed to each other.