10 things I learnt in 3 years at NCVO

Eleanor Dean
7 min readMay 27, 2021

A couple of weeks ago I said goodbye to NCVO after three years as their digital content and experience manager.

I’ve not done a ‘things I learnt in a job’ post since I left Refugee Action back in 2017. So here are a few things I’ll be taking with me into my new role.

1. Documentation is really important

I thought I was good at explaining myself when I took on my NCVO job, which was my first real management role. I was not.

I also thought it would be fine for my team to understand and collaborate with one another without things written down for us to refer to and be guided by. This was also very much not true.

Everything sped up and got a lot easier when we started writing things down and sharing them with each other. I really wish I could go back in time and point this out to myself. Ideally on day one.

2. It’s better to spend ten minutes helping someone else than ten times that helping yourself

This was a hard one for me to learn as a manager. I always wanted more time to focus than I got. The easiest thing to push to create space was time spent supporting my team.

Fortunately it soon hit me that whatever time I put into helping my line reports tackle challenges came back to me tenfold in terms of what they then achieved. No matter what work I got done, as a team they would always exceed it if I put in just a little time to help them when it mattered most.

Also, making time for people and being approachable makes it easier for people in turn to help you. This happened with me and one of my line reports when they very politely told me that something I was working on was absolutely going to fail. Most useful conversation I had in my role for sure.

3. Collaboration makes things better

Another hard lesson for me as a manager was to stop trying to do everything myself and to bring my team and other colleagues into work sooner.

I think it’s a combination of not wanting to give busy people more work, and my own perfectionist desire to fix things. But all I was doing was blocking other people and missing out on their expertise.

The processes and tasks we worked on together ran much more smoothly than anything I ever did by myself. I realised eventually that if someone was going to have to work on something, they should really get the chance to help create and shape it. Things always worked out better when they did.

4. So does consistency

I read ‘The Making of a Manager’ quite early on in my role. One of the main things that stuck with me from it was how important it is to check in regularly with your team and to stick to this consistently.

There were many (many!) times, especially in the last year, when I really wanted to push or ditch a catch-up but didn’t. As already mentioned, resisting this urge was very important and helped me a lot in getting the most from my team. Show up for people and they show up for you.

Aside: documentation is also very important for this point. Do not trust your brain. Especially during a global pandemic. Write the stuff down. I’m serious.

5. Listening to users is the most useful thing you can do

Nothing was more helpful to me in my NCVO role than getting out and hearing directly from our users (staff, trustees and volunteers of charities, community groups and voluntary sector organisations) about their needs and experiences.

Doing user research helped me solve problems, build understanding and move work forward faster. It also never failed to remind me why I came to work, which was to help brilliant people do great things in communities all around the UK.

A big shout-out here to CAST and Neon Tribe who helped us massively as we got our heads round this work. We came so far with this that now we have a full time user researcher. I’m excited to see where the team take this next.

6. Sometimes you just need to quiet down and be human

I got quite into writing weeknotes in 2020, finding the chance to reflect and record what I was up to really helpful. I also enjoyed and benefited a lot from other people’s weeknotes, so it was nice to try and give something back to that community a little bit.

I stopped writing towards the end of 2020 when NCVO went into its restructure process. While it might have helped me to reflect on that experience, it didn’t feel right to do so publicly when the changes and uncertainty were affecting everyone around me so much.

Instead, I tried to put the time I would’ve spent writing and reflecting into showing up for my colleagues and myself. I took part more in our staff networks (credit here to the awesome colleagues who ran these). I made more time for my team and others. I basically did whatever I could to cope better and support others better through what was a really tough time.

I think (I hope) it worked out for the best. And I’m excited to pick up weeknoting again in my new role.

7. We’re still a long way from everyone being able to bring their full selves to work

NCVO went through a process of investigating its own approach to equity, diversity and inclusion last year. This found some very difficult things.

It’s clear it’s not just us either. Campaigns like #CharitySoWhite, Non Graduates Welcome, Show the Salary and #NotJustNCVO have done great work to highlight inequality across the charity sector. All are well worth following and supporting.

The thing I took from our report and everything that came out of it more than anything else was how important it is to listen to, believe and stand up for your colleagues when they have raised that something isn’t right about their experiences at work.

Policies and processes are important but they’re nothing without people committed to backing them up. And (believe me on this one) it really does not feel good to learn that others have been harmed by the place that you work.

8. Community is vital

I’ve written a lot about colleagues and a little bit about users in this so far, but I also benefited massively in this role from other networks. Most notably the Content Design London content club, other content events like Content Teatime, and little bits of interaction (mostly from other content people) on Twitter.

As the most senior content person at NCVO, I can’t put into words how much these networks and groups helped me. They made my work better and helped me get the best from my job even in the toughest times. Perhaps most importantly, they helped me find a new job (the one I’m about to start).

I’m a bit introverted, and this year was very busy, but wow do you get out what you put in when it comes to communities of practice. I could not be more grateful.

9. The work is never done

We got a lot done in my time at NCVO. But none of it was perfect. And there was always, always more we could have achieved.

Eventually I got over this (sort of). Or at least, I think I finally accepted than done is better than perfect. Because, at least when it comes to content, done isn’t really a real thing anyway. Not when things are out of date almost as soon as you publish them, or when the world can change in an instant in ways you can never see coming (why hello there covid-19).

So you might as well just crack on because there will always be a chance to make things better. It’s just a process. And it doesn’t really stop.

10. I really do like content design a lot

The one (the only?) good thing that came out of last year’s uncertainty for me was being forced to think about my future career. I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about my role, the times when everything felt great no matter how how tough things were, and how I could find more of those moments.

It turned out (perhaps unsurprisingly) that it was always when working on difficult content problems with colleagues and other stakeholders that I felt happiest. This was closely followed by all the times I got to help other people do this, and also when I got to help them help each other (for example, when we started doing crits).

I’m not sure my colleagues from other teams were always as into this as me (most clearly demonstrated when one of them suggested getting tattoos to mark the end of a particularly tough bit of content editing involving lots of complicated charity law). But they still took part in the process, and the things we built together were better as a result. And no-one got a tattoo about charity governing documents, thank actual goodness.

Eventually I decided that this stuff is all I wanted to do, so now I’m off to the Royal Borough of Greenwich to be a senior content designer and do just that.

NCVO colleagues (past and present) I miss you already. Thank you for being brilliant, and good luck to you and the incredible sector you support. I will be watching from the outside and wishing you the best.

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Eleanor Dean

Senior content designer at the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Formerly at NCVO, the BMA and Refugee Action.