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Reindeer Sex

I've known about the Old Fire Station since I was a student, indeed I was one of those that enjoyed one of the gigs here in the very grungy era. I got re-involved around 2015 when I was reaching out to organisations within the city as part of a University initiative to facilitate local community links and OFS came across my radar. I was at that point in my life where I wanted to give something back to the city. And I wanted something that was a little bit outside my comfort zone. Keri Gorton, the city council’s culture manager, said OFS was looking for more trustees. She introduced me to Jeremy, everyone knows Jeremy of course, and he and I had a talked about what might be meaningful and how I could contribute. I applied, was interviewed, and somehow it just kind of smoothly progressed onwards. 

I went along to the first board meeting not really knowing what to expect. Jeremy had baked a cake. A very nice fruitcake. And I learned that he came from a family of bakers. Eating cake together, I felt like I was part of the collective already. I was employed at the University, and somehow that seemed significant at the time, because nobody else there had any links with the University. So even in that first board meeting, I realised that there were things I could bring to the organisation around connections and contacts that they didn't have. The other thing in those early days, there was a Christmas show, I can't remember which, but it sticks in my memory because we ended up singing about reindeer sex  in the show! I've arrived, I thought. I’m involved in something different! 

Being part of OFS is a very different experience to working for a University, which has an entirely different attitude, so much of which is centred around academic production. OFS allowed me to explore and develop another part of my identity, centred on a desire to give back to the community and be useful. And like Jeremy has said, being part of a different community can give you additional insights into how you do other parts of your life. That point has come back to me quite often over the years. The other thing I had really wanted to explore is the depths and subtleties within OFS’s mission. One of the most fascinating things about being a trustee is learning about all the fabulous work that goes on in this place. And you also became a part of it by providing support and advice and whatever else you were doing to help the people in the place to achieve wonderful things. 

I think a lot of the work of a trustee is around providing assurance, listening and mentoring, feedback and providing other perspectives and challenges. But my real contribution, I like to think, was helping the organisation to prioritise setting up wider fundraising that took a broader perspective on giving than our existing – very generous – funders, which ended up with a small team of fundraisers and a more diversified strategy. That’s really important for an organisation like this, because the sorts of funding that we apply to, in terms of trusts and foundations is great, we're so successful. But at some point, we may not be. Finding those personal donors and new supports is really important. If there's one thing that I'm glad I've left, it's been an active fundraising community in a way that I think colleagues would say was not there when it started. There were a few missteps in doing all of this. I learned a lot about boards and how you have to influence them. I remember giving a paper to the board and a couple of the trustees kind of pushing it back and saying, this is not right, or there's too much oversight here, too much detail. One takes the learning and goes back. 

I've never lacked self-confidence, but now I'm more self-aware in my confidence and the soft skills I can bring to an organisation. I’m also committed to the concept of being a trustee as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. I've learned a lot from watching Jeremy. He's always had the key to find the right words, at the right time, for anybody. I remember talking about strategy with him. And he said, it doesn't actually matter what you write in the strategy, so long as you're pointing in roughly the right direction and moving forward. I've also learned what it means to be in an organisation that has such a culture of meaningful work, and to see it quite so obviously owned by everybody. And I think I’ve learned subtlety as a trustee. Though others may disagree with that! 

It's meaningful to me that all this is within the city of Oxford, a city which has been my home for practically the whole of my adult life. Being a part of something that also has a strong identity in the city has reinforced my belief that OFS is important, that supporting people who support this place is also important. I don't know where else I could have expressed that in the city. My identity is even more rooted in Oxford now. And that is a legacy of both OFS and the role I played in the University. I moved around an awful lot as a child. And so being rooted now in one place is a personal pleasure. I understand now that I can contribute. And the way I think of myself is that I will always have some role, where I feel I'm making a difference. I will continue to do anything I can to provide support for places that interact with the city in a meaningful way.  

And what really makes a place feel welcoming is of course the people here, Jeremy, Becca, and many others that have, through their own actions, shown me how I can act. That’s what’s influenced me the most. Back in 2015, when I started, I don’t think at the time I felt I was the right person. But I worked it out. And I think that perhaps that’s another little theme here. This organisation allows you to work out what your best fit is, because it offers you that kind of openness. You can explore and find out for yourself what you’re best at.  

Here's a confession, I'm not really much of a playgoer. And I certainly don't like comedy. Even the art side doesn't exactly float my boat very much. So it has been interesting that I've made myself do some of those things. I guess my enjoyment of the of the organisation has not been fundamentally about what it does on an arts side of things. But I've shown my support, I’ve sat through some things which I perhaps wouldn't have chosen to spend my time on otherwise. Because I felt it was important to do so. You need to be seen to be part of the organisation. So there's a confession for you. Not every trustee will say that they absolutely enjoy everything that goes on here, but you don't need to, to be a valuable partner of the organisation. 

People's personalities develop over their entire lives. And being involved in OFS has allowed me to stretch both myself and the way I think about myself as a person. I've had the freedom here to recognise parts of myself that perhaps wouldn't have come quite so much to the fore otherwise. It’s that belief in helping an organisation, belief in helping individuals within it, and enjoying what they do. I like my day job, but not in the same way I have enjoyed interacting with OFS. The people here have meant an awful lot to me. And I’ve met people I would never have otherwise met. Watching how others grapple with challenges, and how they grow and develop, and where I can contribute advice or support, has been so meaningful. 

Isn’t it interesting how cultures develop? This organisation could have gone in many directions. But the fact that it has self-nurtured into such a pleasant place to work  that’s part of its mission, allowing everyone to come and find their own place and space. That's been part of the journey, coming to that conclusion. The Old Fire Station has so many different moving parts. It’s this place where people feel they can come whoever they are and find something that they want to do. But trying to distil that down into words is really quite hard. How about one word? Joy.


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