There can be no going back

By Damian O'Broin - Feb 11 2022

Last week, for the first time in nearly two years, there was a buzz in the office.

About half the team had decided to work from the office, rather than home.

It wasn’t the result of some big ‘re-opening’ or a central command to abandon remote work and attend the office for a roll call.

We’ve already made it quite clear that it’s not our job to tell colleagues where to work. It’s up to us to provide our colleagues with the supports, structures, systems and – crucially, the autonomy and authority – to choose where they can best perform their roles on any given day.

Actually, the reason so many of us where in the office together was because one of our long-standing colleagues was leaving Ask Direct and we wanted to see her and say goodbye in person.

To be honest, it wasn’t the most productive of days. But only if you take a very narrow view of productivity. There’s a value and importance in coming together at time like this to remember, to celebrate and to send-off.

It was lovely to sit around a table and share lunch with colleagues and friends. It had been a long time.

A really long time.


I think we all felt it.

The amount of time that had passed. The amount of change we’d been through.

We’ve had two years of daily anxiety, heightened stress and for many of us it’s been everything just to cope with all that the world has been throwing at us.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst it’s hard to see how much has actually shifted. We’re only now beginning to see clearly the extent of the change that has happened. What’s different and what has stayed the same.

At conferences and seminars over the months ahead I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of people asking how has fundraising changed – and plenty of others confidently asserting that it definitely has, or definitely hasn’t.

But I think that’s the wrong question to be asking.


Many years ago, back in the last century, one of my biggest clients was APSO, which was at that time, the state agency for recruiting volunteers to work in the global south in development work.

One thing that always stuck with me was something that came out of our research with them.

However difficult volunteers found adjusting to working in a new country, it was nothing compared to how difficult they found re-adjusting to living and working in Ireland after two years in Africa, Asia or South America.

When you think about it, it makes sense.

Spending two years away from family and friends, working in a radically different culture and environment, perhaps with a deeper sense of purpose and meaning that was absent before, changes you.

When you come home, it’s not Ireland that’s transformed, you have.


So the question we should be asking is not how has fundraising changed?

Rather, we need to ask how have we changed? And how have our supporters and donors changed?

Because after the last two years, our donors may not be the people we used to know any more.

We can generalise about the broad trends… increased salience of mortality, greater appreciation of caring and service work, need for connection and contact… but each of us has had our own pandemic and each of us has been changed in our own particular ways.

More than ever, we need to be talking with our supporters. If research wasn’t at the top of your priority list before, it really needs to be now.


I have an old, faded t-shirt with a quote from Aneurin Bevan.


We have been the dreamers

We have been the sufferers

And now we are the builders


The British Labour Party had just won the UK general election of 1945 and were about to set about building the incredible welfare state infrastructure of the National Health Service, National Insurance and National Assistance programmes.

There are moments in history that hold the potential for change, when the ground shifts and the systems and structures and supports that we took for granted suddenly lose their solidity.

1945 was one of those times. Now is another.

Change has been forced on us by the past two years and many things that once seemed impractical, impossible or pie-in-the-sky are suddenly routine.

We can be builders.

When I say that there can be no going back, it’s not a statement of fact. It’s a call to action.

2019 is lost and gone forever, but what will replace it is still contested.

The way the authorities here in Ireland – and in much of the west – responded to Covid is illustrative. Yes, there was huge change imposed, but it was all short-term rather than structural. So we had lockdowns, movement restrictions, mask-wearing and work-from-home mandates. But no sick pay improvements, no enforceable clean-air requirements, no investment in making schools and workplaces safer and healthier. Where is the ramping up of hospital and ICU capacity or the improvements in public health?

It’s as if the government has spent the last two years expecting it all to be over in another week or two.

So if we’re going to build our bright, brand new day, we’re going to have to fight for it.

Whether that’s in our own organisations, as we try to build better ways of working, shifting greater power, authority and autonomy to colleagues and staff. Or in the wider world as we campaign for radical improvements in housing, proper sick pay, increased rights for workers and all the many other important issues we need to address.

There can be no going back. Let’s start building.

Damian O'Broin     @damianobroin


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