The date of 7 April 2020 had been stamped indelibly on our minds for over ten years. This was William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, and for the Wordsworth Trust it was meant to be the culmination of a major project and a day of great celebration. I had spent most of the previous month on the final details of anniversary events in London and Grasmere, and we were on track to reopen Dove Cottage, a key milestone in the £6.5 million ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’ project.
And then coronavirus happened. Events were cancelled, staff were put on furlough, workplaces were mothballed, home offices were improvised, and we all learnt how to use Zoom. I must have written at least a dozen risk assessments while seeking funding for ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’, but I never saw that coming.
So, nine months on from the birthday party that never was, what did I learn in 2020?
1. Be agile. I spent very little of 2020 on the work plan that I had diligently produced in January, and a great deal of it fundraising to compensate for our doors being shut at our busiest time of year. It feels like the whole year was spent firefighting. However, thanks to our loyal supporters, we ended up in a better place than we’d dared hope. It was about grabbing the opportunities when they arose: it wasn’t very strategic, but we got there.
2. Be purposeful. With our reserves already exhausted by a capital project that was suddenly on hold, we were in crisis mode from the moment the lockdown started. The challenge was daunting, but we were all facing the same direction and there was something strangely cathartic about its simplicity. But shouldn’t our fundraising always be like that? Why do we need a crisis to get clarity of purpose and organisational consensus? I’m hanging onto that thought as we edge our way (hopefully) back to normality.
3. Be realistic. We were rapidly adjusting to an upside-down world in which social contact with family, friends and colleagues might have fatal consequences for them or us. Of course it was okay to have the occasional bad day. But it took someone else saying it to stop me beating myself up about sitting at my desk with my head in my hands. It was a great reminder that we fundraisers have to roll with the punches.
4. Be brave. Nothing to do with the pandemic, but the National Trust publicly confronting its supporters over their reactions to its tweets about slavery and colonialism definitely felt like a pivotal moment. Post-BLM, and with the arms-length principle seemingly getting shorter, the new normal looks more politicised than the old one. I feel like we’re still getting to grips with it but being unafraid to defend your values was the lesson that I took from the National Trust experience.