Shame, growth & hope: 15 years as a social sector designer

Nick Stanhope
8 min readNov 7, 2023


I’ve worked as a designer and social entrepreneur within civil society for the last 15 years, having worked as a youth and community worker before that. Two years ago, I made what felt like a big change, moving on from the organisation, Shift, that I helped set-up in 2012, and from the family of ventures that we’d built over that time.

With a bit of distance from that move, I wanted to share some of the things I feel I’ve learnt as a social sector designer (service, product and organisational design) and entrepreneur, in an honest and open way.

I’m proud of a lot of the work that I did with others, but, yes, a good chunk of these lessons are rooted in some feelings of embarrassment — even some shame — about what I have, at times, embodied, advocated for and contributed to. But they’re also rooted in feelings of growth and hope about what I’ve learnt and how I work now. Here are 3 to get going with.

1. Being overvalued and failing to acknowledge it

I’ve always been overvalued in my work. And this reflects, of course, the fact that a white, middle-class, non-disabled (etc etc) male with an Oxford degree is over-valued in every area of society. The spaces and institutions through which I’ve travelled my whole life have been designed by people like me, for people like me. I get all the passes.

Failing to fully acknowledge this for a lot of these 15 years, within myself and within my relationships, as part of my everyday work and role, is a source of embarrassment for me. It has caused harm, there’s no doubt. And it has most definitely diluted or undermined the role I’ve claimed to be playing within civil society. And there’s no excuse. The over-valuing of people like me and the under-valuing of people and groups that diverge from the dominant norms is the problem.

It plays out everyday, in what we regard as low status activities in society (like care) and high status (like financial speculation); in who is not trusted (parents buying state-funded food for their children during a crisis) and who is trusted (like private companies buying state-funded food for other people’s children during a crisis); in who is considered illegitimate (like the Windrush generation) and who is considered legitimate (like elites that avoid tax); and in what is considered acceptable (like the passing on of advantages, access, favours, and benefits from and to members of dominant groups) and what is not considered acceptable (like any indication of care and attention for marginalised groups to redress deep historic injustices and inequalities).

These forms of over and undervaluing are central to everything that a designer works on, so failing to acknowledge how and why those designers are valued in certain ways is deeply problematic.

Some things I’m trying to do differently:

  • Work mostly behind and in support of others — who are infinitely better placed to be the voice of most things I work on
  • Help teams design equitable internal principles and structures for valuing each other— such as untethering pay from external perceptions of value or the proximity to money within a team
  • Build my value within communities and systems more authentically and mutually — from the free weekly breathwork sessions I do in our local area to the transitionary and bridging roles I play better as a designer now

2. I’ve not spent most of my career being a good leader

I had an experience of being deeply harmed by leadership for one of the first times in my career in 2022. That, in itself, is a shockingly privileged thing to say and reflects my race, class, education etc as much as anything else — as does the fact that I haven’t had a manager or boss of any kind since I was 27.

On this project, which consisted of a series of academic partners working on questions relating to poverty, inequality and mental health, I witnessed forms of regressive leadership that:

  • Demanded absolute deference to hierarchy — to the point where suggesting agenda items for meetings with this leader was an affront; and the first time I heard the phrase “I am your leader” repeated as if was a source of inspiration
  • Combined distance from the everyday work with random interjections that demanded to be centred — these interjections could not be questioned, regardless of the (profound and constant) lack of understanding they represented
  • Monopolised and manipulated relationships with funders and Boards — distorting or, more likely, making up feedback from these sources of power to reinforce subjective demands
  • Brought hyper confidence and hyper fragility — this shouldn’t be surprising, (given that’s how it always works), but any challenge was met with a torrent of self-justification, which could last for hours and dominate entire workshops
  • Regarded the subjects of work with disdain — perhaps the most disgusting and disturbing part of this leadership was the language and tone of conversations about — and, excruciatingly, with — those that were the focus of the work were just gross. The degree of inequality involved represented “an exciting research challenge”, racism was “mainly hard on white people”, young people had “very little contribution to make in comparison to the existing evidence” — on and on.

The effect and damage of this form of leadership shocked me, but have I really been that different as a leader? Or, rather, is this just a more old school, high profile and poisonous version of leadership that I often exhibited? I think probably the latter.

Some things I’m trying to do differently:

  • Work as part of non-hierarchical and leaderful teams — and create space for others to go on the same journey; this was the most important thing we did at Shift during all my time there
  • Recognise where systems and structures engender toxic leadership and help unpick that — I work with about a dozen young leaders and we work hard to identify when obvious or natural decisions (e.g. about certain forms of legal entity, governance structure and contract), are going to create the conditions for that leader to accumulate unnecessary control, create a “them & us” dynamic and undermine agency and collective energy
  • Check my “space filling” instincts — there were some authentic reasons I was seen as a good leader (taking a wider perspective; helping build a vision; helping groups ride crises etc), but I used them to take up too much space, instinctively. I can still play the same role, while checking those instincts.

3. Sucking up to the system

I’ve often been trusted by those with resources and influence in civil society. This is partly because I’ve been overvalued within these spaces and systems, but also partly because most of the ideas that I articulated and perpetuated for a lot of my career are ultimately ideas that reinforce and even celebrate the status quo, despite being offered up as radical alternatives.

Research and design — these are practices rooted in the assumption that certain groups within society (those with power, status and credentials), can and should set the agenda for and lead processes of learning and innovation that benefit other groups within society, (normally those with little or no power, status or credentials). These approaches expound professional values and methods related to “objectivity”, “neutrality” and “empathy” to justify — even laud — the social and cultural chasm between those doing and those being done to. They are fundamentally conceited, colonial and extractive.

Do these sound like values and methods that might resonate with people in power and holding resources, within government, academic, corporate or charitable institutions built on the same assumptions? They sure do.

And, yes, participation, co-design, co-production, “people in the lead” etc all seek to acknowledge this, but unless the power and directionality of these processes is fundamentally shifted (which I believe is incredibly rare), they’re all performative.

Social tech — “technology is the answer to society’s problems!”, we all said, over and over, to people that had made billions out of extractive tech, to people that were in awe of people that had made billions out of extractive tech or to people that loved how neat and fixable the messy shit of inequality looked through an algorithm. And they loved it.

So you’re telling us that, not only did we get to make vast fortunes, avoid tax and ignore the profound environmental, emotional and social damage of our products, but we also get to be the answer to the world’s problems?! Here’s to us! Thanks mate. Here’s £10k for a data project that ends poverty. Would you mind just telling the media and government everything you just told me? Perfect, ta.”

Behaviour change — this is a combination of words that I used a lot for years to frame our work and it feels gross to have been complicit. In its very use, one group of people are appointing themselves as owners of the behaviours of others, without consent. While I do believe that it is ultimately harmful in both directions (you have to dehumanise others and yourself in order to do this), it has been a source of great comfort and protection for the status quo.

By venerating behavioural science as a solution to everything from health inequality to climate change, we kept the narrative squarely focused on the small actions of people with little power or resources as the problem.

In fact, it’s quite clearly the big actions of people with lots of power and resources that are the problem. When so much of the conversation is about whether all those poor and ignorant people can be bothered to turn the light switch off or look up for a second from their scratch cards to save for a pension, there’s very little space for the conversation about the massive carbon footprints and tax avoidance of the wealthy; government’s pandering to the fossil fuel industry and lack of investment in the green economy; and the structural racism at the heart of modern Britain.

Through all of this, I often used the word “systems change” to describe the work. In fact, most of this work represented forms of system sycophancy. Systems change is used regularly and flippantly, without self-awareness, by people and organisations that reflect and compound the ways that systems work in everything but their language and theories of change. This is more damaging than we realise, as it turns the concept of fundamental change into a funding application USP — this is colonisation.

Some things I’m trying to do differently:

  • Rebuild my design practice — design practice can be useful and powerful, but every aspect of its established mindsets and processes need revisiting, unpacking and rebuilding..that’s an endlessly creative and challenging process that I love
  • Be hyper vigilant of roles and ways of working rooted in massive power imbalances — these are so ubiquitous that they’re part of every project, even as a freelancer with much more choice, but there ways to reveal and work through them, even with big institutions
  • Make our lives simpler and cheaper — this might like an odd one, but my partner and I are committed to trying to make our lives simpler and cheaper every year, so that we can work in the ways and on the things that reflect our values.

I’ve worked with and alongside a lot of wonderful people over the last 15 years and its important to say that these are my experiences and perceptions..and these lessons are my own, not implicitly on behalf of anyone else.

And thank you to so many people for helping me learn over this last couple of years, amongst them Tess Cooper, Tayo Medupin, Luke Billingham, Chan Fagan, Shaun Danquah, Cassie Robinson, Duncan Fogg, Louise Cooper, Duncan Brown, Alvin Owusu, Heba Tabidi, David Robinson and Kelly Bewers.



Nick Stanhope

Designer & Breathwork Instructor. Co-Founder &Breathe. Founder & formerly @shift_org. Co-founder & Board @Historypin @BfB_Labs @shift_co.