The transition to a sustainable role - Matt Stubberfield, COO, Renewable World

February 3, 2015

As I sit on the train on the way back from a Renewable World meeting with a colleague, I reflect on how I made the transition to senior management in an NGO. 

 It really goes back to over two years ago after a long career in corporate governance. I took redundancy and started a Masters degree at Ashridge business school in Sustainability and Responsibility, which could be described as an alternative MBA for the present and future! Until then my childhood love of the planet and the environment had never been central to my working life. Little did I know how much the Masters would change me. I learnt so much, not by reading books, listening to lecturers or watching Ted Talks, although that was great, but from the people around me and the practices I was able to bring into my everyday life and work. The Ashridge Masters is a practitioner based degree which uses the action research framework and methodology, founded on spiraling cycles of experimentation and reflection. What this means is that you constantly try different things out, and really pause in the moment and afterwards to apply a variety of techniques to reflect. These techniques can vary from what would be considered very mainstream, like journaling, poetry and sketching to others like embodied movement and dance (a bit like acting school I imagine)! The richness of a broader form of knowing through such techniques is shockingly powerful if you can stay with it. I have since become a natural and almost addictive experimenter at home and at work. If the coffee machine is in a different place there may be a reason for it!


One of the first realisations I had is that despite my fervent hopes the planetary environmental crisis is not going to be solved just with technology alone. As Albert Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them”. What this means is you and I are going to have to change the way we look at a problem and even the way we live. I was certain I could not carry on working for organisations that only focused on shareholder return alone and wanted the opportunity to look at a problem with a different lens and challenge an established system.

During my second year my research enquiries focused on my relationship with nature and work. My final project became “My Search for Meaningful Work” as much a spiritual inner journey as an outer one to find a job that suited me. It dawned on me just how unhappy I was in my previous work, including the more fun things I had done such as being a diving instructor whilst on sabbatical. I often made it hard for myself, taking too much responsibility with obsessive goal and outcome focus. My conclusion was that whatever work you do it should work for you and any work can be meaningful,

Working at Renewable World has often been at least as challenging as my corporate career. We have very limited resources and significant organisational challenges, and an existing Renewables sector supporter base going through a challenging period in terms of UK economic policy. However, the energy and goodwill from staff and supporters and great results on our young projects is making our charity an increasingly rewarding place to be.

An interesting paradigm change for me is how Renewable World works in its communities. We’ve all heard about the charity that builds a school in a village without any books or teachers and similar stories. Working on single issues is easier, but can be dangerously misleading. At Renewable World our poverty alleviating Renewable Energy projects typically have a very broad range of impacts such as household pollution, youth empowerment, women in education, personal safety, enterprise and household income. This means they need a long period of community engagement to consult and design.

One of my Masters modules was on systems theory and interventions. Where a charity or NGO works or seeks to intervene in a community this can pose all sorts of risks. What happens to those that are invested in the current system which you’re trying to change, like the lamp kerosene or ice sellers? What will happen when you leave or the programme funds run out? You could choose to conveniently ignore them and focus on the impacts of what you want to report. In contrast Renewable World seeks to be sustainable in the way we act, and we seek to make the communities self-sufficient from us and other NGO’s. On the face of it our work can seem quite complex, with the technology and diverse locations, cultures and communities we are working. I really admire my field team colleagues for their vision and patience; they never take the easy option. There is no standard solution or kit to give out for an easy win.  They engage and really listen to the community and try something different, reflect and do it all again, just like I learnt on my Masters.

Matt Stubberfield is Chief Operating Officer of Renewable World and heads up the head office team in Brighton.