In their sunny new office, Annekaryn Ranné and Emily Thomey of TheDive met with Nicole Winchell, one of the founding partners of The Changer. The Changer is an online community for social impact professionals who want to use their time at the office to change the world. Whether you are an NGO, a social business or any other mission-driven organization looking for new employees or a likeminded community, The Changer is your platform. Three years ago Nicole and her two partners Nadia Boegli and Naomi Ryland started The Changer in Berlin. Since then their team has grown to ten people and the plan is to go international later this year. We heard that The Changer is experimenting with the Ideas of Laloux and Holacracy, so we couldn’t wait to hear how The Changer is developing.
The Changer is a lot more than just a platform for jobs with social impact. How do you bring the community together?
We do so in a variety of ways, both online and offline. In addition to our content and community-building online, we also try to bring people together offline. On the one hand, we noticed that there was a lack of opportunity for professional development in the social sector. With that in mind, we developed The Changer Academy where essentially “anyone” can offer a workshop in order to share their expertise with the community – of course we always do quality assurance first. Our motto has always been that everyone is an expert in something – the goal is find ways to share that expertise. So by joining forces, we can share knowledge and best-practices in order to really maximize impact. Additionally, we organize Changer Hangouts where the community can come together offline to network and meet like-minded individuals in an informal setting. Sometimes the Hangouts have a thematic focus, for instance „How to fight populism in Europe“, which was the topic of our last hangout here in Berlin, whereas other times they are completely open. We always try to invite different partners and networks in order to encourage “cross-pollination” so that we get out of our bubbles and exchange expertise and knowledge across and between networks.
Do you have a kind of checklist for the jobs you promote? Have you every rejected a company because they didn’t fit?
Yes and yes. Here in Germany the „Geschäftsform“ is a useful orientation tool. If we are not sure what the impact of a company is, we always ask them to clarify what their social mission is. But there have definitely been cases where we said no.
That said, we have worked closely with our investors to develop a set of ethical criteria which will be the guiding framework for what types of companies can recruit on The Changer. In general, we try to operate on a future-based model. When we look to our ideal future, what kind of world do we want to live and what type of industries will exist? How do we want to do business in the future? In that sense, it’s obvious that certain industries, for instance the weapon industry, have no place on the Changer. Beyond that, it’s not all black and white. There is a big grey zone and that’s why developed some clear ethical criteria. The trick is navigating that. That said, purpose is also an individual and subjective thing – it means something different to everyone. We have total confidence in our community and also that they can help guide us in terms of what should or shouldn’t be on The Changer. So as long as it meets our general ethical criteria, we also allow the job seeker to determine what job they want to apply for.
What are these criteria?
It will be published on our website soon, so it will be transparent and available for everyone to see. Mission driven companies are a clear yes, whereas others don’t suit at all. And then of course there will be a case-by-case basis where we have to look at the exact position and company.
How do you yourself organize? We heard that Laloux and Holacracy are in your field of interest?
We are still at the very early stages of our organization development. In part because for a very long time the core team was just made up of the three of us. Of course we worked with some amazing interns and freelancers, but they were usually only with us for a few months at a time.
In terms of decision-making, Nadia, Naomi and I would always talk through a decision until we were unanimous before going further. At the end of last year, we were fortunate to receive an impact investment and we have been able to grow our team sine then. So now it feels like it’s the right time to figure out how we want to work and what sort of company we want to be. The goal is to be a teal company, to have flat hierarchies and to have a team that is really empowered in terms of decision making. We are very aware of creating structures that lead to a decision-making bottleneck and want to prevent that.
The first thing we did was just to speak to other companies and hear what they do. For instance, we spoke to Soulbottles who is practicing Holacracy. We also spoke with Euforia who is also a teal organization and just tried to get familiar with the different options and structures that exist out there. In doing so, we realized that even within the team we have different ideas of what “teal” actually means. So the first step is to understand what we actually want. In the future, we plan to work with a coach who can guide us through the process because we realized it’s not a “one-time thing”, but rather a process that unfolds and is layered over time. I think we have an idea on the horizon of where we would like to be, but we have a lot of questions and need to figure out how to best get there.
For now, we’ve tried to implement small day-to-day changes that can lead to a more transparent and happy company. For example, we try to be transparent about our budget and how much money we actually have so that everyone can make educated business decisions. Or we have a weekly team breakfast where we just take some time to eat together and catch up before diving into our computers for the day.
How would you describe your vision of a future work place?
I think our intention is to create a workplace where people are genuinely happy and feel that they are living up to their full potential. A company where people are motivated and also feel a sense of pride and ownership for their work. Personally I feel like it’s important that everyone can feel responsible for themselves and their work.
That said, it’s also something completely new for me. I’ve never worked in a teal organization and the more I learn about teal organizations, the more I realize that the older or more traditional organizational models are quite engrained in the way I think about work or company structures – particularly when it comes to decision-making. At the moment, it feels very much like the new frontier and that feeling of uncertainty also makes it a little overwhelming. But that said, I do believe there is so much potential and that excites me and pushes me to keep exploring it.
What do you think about the idea of wholeness?
It’s definitely something that we are trying to incorporate into our daily work life. We really want people to feel like they can speak up and share if they are not well or if they have specific needs and wishes. We have a standup two days a week and we always start with a personal check-in where we talk about how we – the individual – is doing and how we are feeling at the moment. That way everyone knows if someone is feeling tired or a little fragile that day, which helps us understand one another and work together. Essentially, it feels like a core element in establishing trusting relationships – something that we have identified is critical in working together.
We are in your new office now and you are still moving in. Do you want to incorporate New Work ideas into the design of your new office?
I think they key is to find a balance that works for everyone. To be honest, I like it really quiet when I am working and I need a kind of private space – so that’s why I am sitting next to the wall. I need that bubble to get into the flow and struggle to get into the zone when there are a lot of people are talking or if there is in an open office with a lot of activity around me.
I think the challenge is to understand different working styles and find something that accommodates everyone. The idea is that we have a work area that is quiet and in the other corner we have a more collaborative, creative zone where we have a couch and the table where we can sit and eat or work – we call that our wellbeing area. And then we have the meeting room which is where we are right now. A colleague and I are also in charge of the coziness of the office – so getting plants and flowers and also trying to accommodate everyone’s wishes.
Probably the bigger thing what we are exploring is home office and remote work. For me personally remote work was always very important because I grew up in the USA and have family both there and here in Europe. I feel very much that my roots are in two places. The dream was always to work from both locations and have that flexibility – to be able to spend time in both countries. We are implementing that now. Naomi was just in the UK for a longer period of time and later this year I will be going to Maine where I grew up. In the future, maybe we will be a completely remote company, who knows! The same goes for home office. We regularly do home office and I think that is something very important to all of us – even if it is just one day a week.
What does home office change for you?
Well I guess it goes back to that bubble that I mentioned earlier. Not to mention it still feels kind of novel. It is wonderful to wake up and not feel like I need to rush off but rather to make a cup of team and enjoy the sun as it shines in. I feel like I have total control of my time and my space, which really helps me to get in that work zone and the flow. I find that if I have bigger projects to get done I feel so much more productive in home office than in office. Though perhaps that’s also because I avoid scheduling meetings on home office days!
Would you like to share the lows and learnings that The Changer experienced?
I would say the beginning of last year was kind of a low. When we first launched The Changer things went surprisingly well. We had an immediate resonance, which was both reassuring and motivating. In the second year we worked hard on internal structures – developing our business model to make sure that we would have a sustainable existence and redesigning our website – basically getting our ducks in a row so that we could continue to grow and expand. In the third year we decided to pursue getting an impact investment in order to allow us to really take The Changer to the next level – particularly scaling to international markets.
Unfortunately it all took much longer than planned. We basically went into survival mode and hardly paid ourselves anything for a few months. Instead of focusing on long-term strategic growth, we had to focus on making fast cash to keep us afloat. That was really stressful – particularly when you’re expected to project an outwards image of confidence and conviction and on the inside, you’re insanely stressed out. And of course it wasn’t even certain that we would get an investment, so what then? Do we continue anyway? That was a really challenging time.
But those difficult questions also made us confront things – and our future – head on. We decided that even if we didn’t get the investment, that we would keep at it because we genuinely believed in the idea and felt there was so much potential, we weren’t ready to give up yet. If it were easy, the world probably wouldn’t need The Changer. That is exactly why we are here. So I guess you could say that sticking with it was our key to success. And in the end, we did get the investment! I am also very proud of the fact that Naomi, Nadia and I are still really close friends, which is an accomplishment in itself.
An important part of being happy at work is being paid enough. Working for NGO’s is probably still not the best idea for fair salaries, is it? Do you feel The Changer is changing that as well?
Yes, I believe that we can help to raise awareness on this issue – particularly because there are a lot of myths surrounding salaries in the social sector. In the past, talking about money was a real taboo. But this led to a lack of transparency – which often resulted in a lack of fair pay. If you don’t know what your colleagues are earning, how can you ask for a raise if you don’t even know you’re being underpaid?
We realized that talking opening openly about it is the first step towards transparency and change. Therefore we conducted a salary survey in 2016 and 2017 – in 2017 we had over a thousand participants. We published the findings on The Changer in order for people to have a reference for what other people earn – whether it be at an NGO, social business or foundation.
That said, there is also a myth that everyone who works in the social sector is badly paid. This is also not true. We want to show people that it is possible to do good AND be fairly compensated for it. Particularly because we want to attract top talent into the social sector and show that working in the sector is a viable career option.