After around seven years at Akvo I’m stepping out of the organisation over the coming five months. I officially leave at the end of February but I’ll still be around in the background as a member of Akvo’s “extended team” until the end of July.
They say that life goes in seven year cycles, so a big change at this point feels kind of aligned with the order of things. But I will miss so many of my colleagues. Akvo has grown a great deal from the team of twelve I stepped in to in 2010 to the “tiny multinational” of 90+ people it is today. It’s no longer a young start up but an established entity moving towards maturity. So many talented, intelligent, knowledgeable, passionate people have joined or passed through the organisation in different parts of the world, bringing in new perspectives and innovations and taking us in fresh directions. I’ve made some lifelong friends here and had the privilege to collaborate with and learn from some people I greatly admire. I feel very lucky.
Working in an organisation with a worthwhile mission is another privilege (and it is a privilege) that I value extremely highly; it’s my biggest motivator – no doubt in common with many of my colleagues. I kind of fell in love with Akvo when I first started working here. I’d never been part of an open source organisation before and it was incredibly exciting and energising. In many ways it was almost the opposite of all my previous working experiences. It took me some time to switch off the competitive, corporate mindset that had been deeply inculcated in me since my days as a graduate trainee in a technology PR agency, and then reinforced in all my subsequent commercial and even non-profit sector roles. I had to learn to tune in to a more collaborative, creative, open and transparent frequency. At first, I struggled. But I loved it. I was so enthused. I had never enjoyed a job so much.
Above: “Akvo is, Akvo is not” by Gino Lee.
Top: Akvo communications team gathering in Amsterdam, June 2016. Photo by Greta Osinskaite.
Part of what was so exciting was Akvo’s communications culture, which has always been so much a part of the organisation’s DNA, and which was fundamentally different from any other I had experienced in my career in communications until then. It was largely the creation of Mark Charmer, who would also undoubtedly acknowledge the inspiration and creative input of Gino Lee.
What was so different about Akvo’s approach to communications? It was open, transparent and generous. It was more about enabling success than achieving it and more about facilitating storytelling than voicing other people’s stories. It was human (as opposed to corporate) in ideology, scale, focus and practical implementation. It was distributed and empowering rather than centralised and controlling. It was playful, energetic and experimental but with a clear, accurate and sustained focus on Akvo’s values and objectives. I feel truly grateful to have had the opportunity to play a part in nurturing and propagating this culture, during the time when it was most relevant to the organisation. Grateful because it has changed my perspective in lasting ways, so it’s a gift I take with me.
There are a bunch of things I’ve been involved with at Akvo that I’m particularly proud of. They include among other things our work on product branding and messaging, the instigation of the combi programme and the partner hero photography series, and being part of our small, part time communications team with a big international footprint has been something quite special too. Despite the challenges of collaborating across far-flung time-zones, we’re a tight and well-functioning unit bound together by mutual trust and respect for each others’ skills and talents (there are some extremely talented people in this team), as well as judicious use of Skype and Asana. This makes our collaboration not only highly enjoyable but also productive and effective with a surprisingly large output for a team of this size.
I hope that Akvo builds on the groundwork we did in 2016 to enhance our communications capacity around our regional offices through our programme of training and support for combies. All international organisations have to somehow resolve this conundrum of centralised versus regionalised communications functions, and this feels like the optimum, ‘best-of-both-worlds’ answer. It allows for a joined-up approach as well as inter-regional cross-fertilisation, while empowering each region to do what works best for them, with support as needed from HQ and other regions. But it needs resourcing – combies need allocated time to carry out the comms part of their combination roles.
It’s an interesting time for Akvo in terms of communications and marketing. The approach that has brought us this far may not be what the organisation wants or needs to move it forward into its next decade. The new paradigm has yet to be defined in detail and it will be fascinating to see how it takes shape.
Moving forward, I’m going to be working on other freelance communications and marketing projects alongside my Akvo work; initially including a hospice gardens project and the launch of a new human values-based design brand. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter, Instagram, and via my blog.
Jo Pratt was Communications team lead at Akvo and is based in the UK.