A Heal 2nd birthday blog, by Jan Stannard, Co-founder and Chair of Trustees, Heal Rewilding
I remember the moment when I realised that the exciting party we had planned in London for Heal’s launch on 30 March 2020 was doomed.
The Heal Trustees had had their inaugural Board meeting at the start of the year. We were still waiting for the Charity Commission to give us the green light at that point. We had applied to be registered as a charity in October 2019 but had been warned that even a problem-free application (which ours turned out to be) could still take months. The confirmation came in the nick of time in March, a long five months because not having a charity number holds up having a charity bank account and a host of other essential founding arrangements. [I’ve told a couple of would-be rewilding charities since about this lengthy process, much to their dismay.]
I’d kept an eagle eye on the progression of the virus in its early, virulent form over January and February 2020 and before any government diktat came in, it became obvious a few weeks beforehand that packing a hundred sociable people into a small room in Soho was a recipe for disaster. I consulted the Trustee Board and we pulled it just before we would have had to anyway. On 23 March, lockdown began.
None of us knew what would happen when we launched but it had to happen in some form. “Are you still going ahead?” people asked. Of course, I said. We weren’t embarking on some trivial pursuit. Heal’s entire reason for coming into existence was to take the most urgent direct action possible in the face of the intertwined emergencies of catastrophic nature loss in England and climate change, not to mention the worrying national trends in mental health which may have much to do with our disconnection from the natural world.
A single article in the Guardian by Alex Morss lit the blue touchpaper. I know that this piece, entirely accurate other than saying we’d already launched, transformed how the Heal launch went.
Image © The Guardian
Then we began to realise that the arrival of the pandemic, a tragedy for so many, would give nature and Heal an unexpected advantage. People had already been shut in their houses for five days by the time the article appeared. The prescribed daily walk took many people into nature. The commentary about hearing birdsong in the silent land – no planes, no cars – was becoming a thing. Experiencing the solace of nature was starting to be mentioned. People had been furloughed, so they volunteered in droves. People were on their phones and computers all day, so they saw what we were doing.
From the moment the article in the Guardian appeared, a few days ahead of launch day, we were off. We’d just got our website up in time, thankfully, and we were inundated with messages and people offering to volunteer. Before long, the article had had many thousands of views (they’ve taken the counter off now, but it was wonderful to see the views clock up). The timing of Heal’s launch, by complete chance, was optimal. The other key factor was the growing understanding of the restorative potential that rewilding could offer, as a result of Isabella Tree’s wonderful book about the Knepp Estate, Wilding. This seminal work rooted a desire to replicate Knepp’s work in thousands of minds, but who could afford to do anything at scale? And in that thought had been the genesis of the Heal idea – finding a way that everyone, together, could make a difference for wild things and for all of us.
What’s for certain is that in a pre-email and social media world, using print media, the phone and actual physical letters (I remember this world, so I speak from experience), Heal would have taken ten years, twenty perhaps, to get to where we’ve reached in two. It would also have meant having a huge budget for PR, advertising and marketing to raise awareness. As it is, we find ourselves in an amazing position, an established brand within 24 months and we’re really proud of the progress we’ve made, particularly as the core team was only two people over most of that period.
We’ve had well over a quarter of a million pounds in donations. Several of these have been for ‘only’ a few pounds. Those were really pleasing however, as they were proof of concept – we had wanted everyone to feel they could do something, no matter how little. We now have a small but solid base of regular giving, though can always do with more. Individual donations are boosted by increasing amounts given to us by companies, who partner with us in a range of ways. Two major corporate donors have given us significant backing since early on, which has been vital. For all the people who sit behind these early donations, we hold a special gratitude. They have backed us before we have our first rewilding site and their belief in our work has not only been the encouragement we needed but has literally kept the (virtual) lights on.
On social media, we are active on four channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. We have grown our following across these to over 12,000. A brilliant piece of work was done for us by a volunteer social media expert, and part of her advice was that we make Instagram our focus until we were better resourced.
We have built a newsletter subscriber list to almost 2,000 (add yourself here if you are not already receiving Heal Highs). We have welcomed over a thousand people to our webinars and live events, and we’ve been delighted that Olivia Colman, Cel Spellman, Caitlin Moran and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have publicly supported us.
Two ‘best of all’ achievements: we secured a £3 million pound loan from Direct Line Group towards our first two sites, a hugely generous act, and signed up over 230 volunteers who help with desk-based tasks.
We’ve also just received some wonderful news in time for our second birthday: the prestigious Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have awarded us a £30,000 grant to help support our day-to-day operations over the next year.
Everything we've done in the last two years has been focused on single milestone - finding and financing our foundation rewilding site. We thought the former would be relatively straight forward and the latter much more of a challenge, but we had no way of knowing that would be the other way around. We know the right site is out there somewhere and we really hope we will find it this year. The wait will be worth it.
We've come a long way since and it’s only been possible because of the kindness and generosity of everyone who has helped us in countless ways. Thank you.