A year in the life… report back from the rhizosphere

Rhizome’s a year old! We did our first work in February 2010, and formally incorporated as a co-op in March that year.

At the time we took the decision that rather than write policies detailing our ethics and standards we’d borrow from the principles of open source software and adopt a practice of transparency – reporting back on what we do through our blog, and through a yearly post (let’s not call it an annual report – it’s far too informal for that), and letting you decide whether you think we’re an ethical organisation. Ethics on paper are meaningless. Ethics in practice….. that’s altogether harder. Here’s what we said at the time:

Why not just write a policy? We talked about that. Everyone has ethical and environmental policies these days from governments to arms manufacturers. Policies are ten a penny. We’ve decided that for now we want our values to live, breathe and possibly grow and change – we want to share the concepts with you here and then share the practice with you through our blog. We’ll be taking the value of transparency seriously, posting regular thoughts and evaluations of our work in practice, sharing the tough choices we might sometimes need to make, posting information about our ongoing ecological and social footprint. And of course we’ll be asking you to interact with us every step of the way.

Walking our walk

We’re far from perfect, and you’re very welcome to engage us in dialogue about where you think we could improve our practice. We’ve broken this down into:

  • Who we’ve worked with
  • What work we’ve done
  • Our footprint – choices we’ve made
  • A few issues that we’re dealing with at the moment

Who we’ve worked with

Over the last year we’ve trained, facilitated, mediated and offered phone and email support to around 27 groups, networks or organisations as diverse as Bridges, a Shropshire development education centre and Greenpeace UK.

6 Billion Ways | Bretton Woods Project | Bridges Shropshire | CPRE | Crude Awakening | Fairtrade Foundation | Friends of The Earth | Gathering Momentum | Greenpeace | Labour Behind The Label | Leeds University People & Planet | Low Carbon Communities | NGO Capacity Building Forum | Peace News Summer Gathering | PEDAL: 100 days to Palestine | People & Planet | Reclaim the Fields | Sheffield University People & Planet | Steiner School Leicestershire Interest Group | Sustrans | Threshold Centre | Transition Leicester | Transition Towns Conference | World Carfree Network | World Development Movement

The following word clouds give you some idea of the nature of the work we’ve done, it’s proportion (bigger the word the higher the proportion) and how much work we did for paying clients and how much we did for free (or just for expenses):

Of that work here’s how it broke down in terms of facilitation of meetings and other processes, training, and other support (mediation, phone and email support etc):

We’ve brought in a modest income from the paid work we’ve undertaken (too modest if truth be told- see below) and used that and some seed money we started Rhizome with to fund the pro-bono work:

Of course our work isn’t confined to these things. We also maintain a blog and a website with, hopefully useful, resources. We’ve uploaded over 130 posts – a mix of reflections on the work we’ve done, signposts to other people’s events and resources, and thoughts and advice on the issues we concern ourselves with – participation, activism and consensus. We won’t pretend we have a huge readership, but it’s growing steadily. For some reason we also became the 56th most influential UK environment blog though we’ve sadly slipped in the rating a little since then!

Our footprint

The people we choose to give our money to for the various services that an organisation like Rhizome needs to exist probably gives you a fair idea of our ethics in practice, so here’s a quick rundown:

Banking: we opened an account with Triodos Bank – we like their ethics. With Triodos, it’s not just avoiding the bad stuff, but actively supporting the good.

Insurance: we hunted around for an explicitly ethical insurer, but failed to find one that would either offer the type of insurance we needed or answer emails and phone calls efficiently enough to make doing business with them viable. So we went with Towergate Professional Risks who are, at least, specialists in our field.

Another big expense for us is travel. With the exception of a couple of taxi journeys (eg: to venues that weren’t accessible by public transport on a Sunday) all of our Rhizome related travel was by foot, bike, bus and train. That’s not to say it’s without consequence. There was a lot of it. We contemplated working out the mileage and from there the carbon emissions, but life’s too short.

Design and printing: Stig helped us to design and lay out our publicity materials. Calverts printed them. Stig’s a designer for many activist, green and arty folk. Calverts are a London-based workers’ coop with good environmental credentials. The card is 100% post-consumer waste. We used digital printing to accommodate our small print run. Vegetable inks aren’t available for digital printing, sorry.

Office space: we don’t have an office, we both work from home. As such all of those decisions on things like utility providers are made by us individually and with our families and not as Rhizome. Our registered address is at an Ethical Property Centre

Website: we opted for a low-cost, do it yourself approach and started a wordpress.com blog. WordPress produce the wordpress.org open source blog software that enables you to host a blog using their themes and structure. We like them for this. We have recently heard some criticism of wordpress.com via Network 23, and will keep an eye on things:

Issues arising for Rhizome

We thought we’d share some issues that are ‘live’ for us one year into the journey that is Rhizome.

Financial sustainability: Times are hard, unless you happen to work for a transnational bank, energy company, or be a Tory cabinet minister. Times are especially hard for a lot of the folk we traditionally work for. That translates as hard times for us. We haven’t brought in as much paying work as we’d hoped to despite reasonably good contacts, and, we think, decent reputations. We’re exploring a few avenues, writing a few funding bids, but not expecting miracles. One of the consequences of hard times is that we’ve been slower than expected to expand the pool of people who make up Rhizome.

Growing a diverse network: A year in we had expected Rhizome to be more than just Carl and myself. We’d like to bring you an even wider range of skills and experience, and we’re fully aware that 2 white men of roughly similar age doesn’t shout “diversity”. It hasn’t felt like we have that much to offer potential members of Rhizome. We’re not bringing enough paying work to offer them a secure income. However money isn’t all, and we’re thinking that now’s the time to invite a few people to dip their toes into the water and join the fun. We can offer exciting opportunities to train and (co) facilitate. We can offer mutual support, a window on the world in the shape of the blog, and a chance to help develop Rhizome.

Anything else you want to know?

We said we wanted to be transparent and we mean it, so feel free to use the comment function below to pose a question (or of course, make a comment!)