Oddfellows in conversation podcast: Friendship Month special

Updated: 08 Dec 2021

To mark Friendship Month in the UK, guest presenter Dom Burch talks all things friendship with our CEO, Jane Nelson.

Text and headshots of Dom and Jane. The Oddfellows in conversation Friendship Month special!

Listen to 'Oddfellows in conversation' on the OddfellowsUK YouTube channel now.

Interview transcript

Dom Burch 00:12
Welcome along to Oddfellows in conversation with me, Dom Burch. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to introduce Jane Nelson, the Chief Executive Officer of Oddfellows. And we're here to talk about all things friendship and to mark Oddfellows Friendship Month in the UK, which runs throughout September. Jane, welcome along to Oddfellows in conversation.

Jane Nelson 00:33
Many thanks, Dom, lovely to see you.

Dom Burch 00:35
So tell you what, why don't we go back a stage? Tell me a little bit about you, what brought you to Oddfellows, and the role that you do now?

Jane Nelson 00:42
I've been with Oddfellows 26 years now, which seems like a lifetime. I decided I needed a new firm to work for and I applied for a job fairly last minute, to be fair. They were already on second interviews, so I was sent along for interview practice. And I ended up in October 1995, with the job of financial controller for the Oddfellows, progressing to joining the Board in 2000, becoming finance director in 2007 and then took over temporarily the role of CEO in March 2012. And was appointed as CEO in July 2012, which scarily is 10 years ago, next year. So time flies when you're having fun or so they say.

Dom Burch 01:29
I bet, and what a decade to be in the helm? I mean, you must have seen an awful lot of changes over that time?

Jane Nelson 01:35
Yeah, I mean, we've done loads of work with our Branches, which has been fantastic. And they've really, really stepped up. But if you just think I mean, even living through the last 18 months, it's just been, it's just been something that hopefully none of us will ever have to live through again.

Dom Burch 01:51
In terms of the organisation, Oddfellows has a lot of friendship credit in the bank, and members have been able to draw down on some of that. How’s it been for the organisation?

Jane Nelson 02:03
I don't want to say we've benefited from COVID because I don't think anybody's benefited from it. But I think the one thing that the pandemic has done for us as a Society, and more importantly for our members, is really demonstrate that we do do what we say we do.

We have been there for our members, we have supported them, even if they just needed a phone call, we have been in communication with them, we have offered them other things to do, because we haven't been able to do face to face events. And really, the messages we're getting back just really demonstrate that it's really sort of been appreciated by them, because they've known they've had someone to turn to. And it has been, let's be honest, for everybody, been quite a long 18 months. So I think it's really for us demonstrated Oddfellows do what Oddfellows say they do.

Dom Burch 02.52
And as I said at the start, we're in sort of Oddfellows Friendship Month, aren't we here in the UK in September? So one thing the pandemic’s done is I guess, it's reminded everybody really how valuable having friends, good mates around you, to help get you through these tricky times. You know, having that support system, that network around you that can keep your spirits up when you need them to.

Jane Nelson 03:13
Absolutely I think as people, whether members or not members, you know, we all miss people, family, friends. My husband and I had our youngest grandson born just before lockdown and our granddaughter born during lockdown. And it was really tough not to be able to hold your grandchildren in that first 12 months. I think everybody didn't realise how much we needed friends. I think we all probably took family and friends for granted. And all of a sudden when you can't see them and they're not there with you, or they're through a screen, then you realise how important they are. So I think it gave us all an opportunity to really refocus on what's important in life, and maybe get rid of the stuff that's not important.

And I think it's important to realise that we shouldn't go back to maybe taking things for granted that maybe we did before the pandemic. You know, we've had a recent Oddfellows survey which told us that more than half of over 60s the pandemic made them value friendship more than ever. And one in four felt it brought them closer to friends. So I think that really just refocused all our priorities. I think we've probably all lost some of those priorities, but the pandemic just really brought all those back together.

You know, we've had family meetings on Zoom, my mum's nearly 82. She does not like computers at all, even though she used one when she was working. But we got her set up simply on Zoom, that she only had to press two buttons, so that she could Zoom us every day, just to make sure that she was okay as well as the phone calls. But you know, you still need to see people. Friends are there for seeing each other, enjoying each other's company, but also for mental health and happiness. You know, it's been a very isolating time throughout the pandemic. And I think it's important that we realise that our friends, and Oddfellows too, have helped us all through that.

You know, we've got a member up in Aberdeen and her nearest branch is probably at least 100 miles away. She lives on her own and she now has, through Oddfellows, friends all around the country, because she has joined so many of the Zoom events we put on, that she literally has got friends everywhere.

Dom Burch 05:25
It's interesting, isn't it that we living now in this hybrid world, and how quickly we've been able to adapt to it through necessity? And as things begin to open up and we're able to get back into the real world, and we're able to meet and gather with friends and family, and new connections that we've made through Zoom, actually sometimes just hanging out with people, even without conversing, is a really important thing, isn't it? As social creatures, as human beings, just being in one another's company sometimes, is what you need to prevent that sense of loneliness?

Jane Nelson 05:58
People need people. And I would say even people who say they don't need people actually do. You need that company. You need, like you say, it's just about being around people and enjoying their company, even if they're not necessarily with you. It's like being in a warm environment, isn't it because we have all been so isolated for so long throughout the pandemic? And I think that people are coming out of it as the restrictions ease, but I think we will all come out of it at a different rate. So there's some people who are ready to come out and start meeting people and go to restaurants and go to pubs, etc, etc. And there's others who aren't quite there yet, they just need a little bit more time. And I think as more and more people come out, it's important for us as an organisation to still remember that not everybody's ready to come out and start meeting up face to face. But actually, we can just still supply online events for them and they can generally just gradually come out as they want to knowing that they will be welcomed by anybody who's there. So I think it's important because, you know, we've continued to make contact with all our members throughout the pandemic and being there for everybody is the important thing.

You can be lonely, even in a room full of people as we know, but actually, you need to know somebody on your side. And I think that, you know, we have a lot of members who live on their own and it has been a real challenge for people, especially people who were less tech savvy, for want of a better word, and that includes my mum.

But I think one of the other things we've done is we have tried to support our members. So, some of our Branches, for example, have run sessions on Okay, you've got a smartphone, or you've got an iPad or whatever, we'll do a session with you so that we can show you how to use it even though we can't be there in the room. And again, that's just another way of getting people back in contact with people, and I think that's really, really important.

Dom Burch 08:00
It really is. And sometimes people, as you say, can be lonely even in the company of others, but noticing them, seeing them and them feeling like you're there to listen and to understand sometimes that's all that's needed, isn't it? It's somebody who has that empathy, to be able to notice that somebody is quietly shouting out for some support.

Jane Nelson 08:20
When we first went into the lockdown back in March 2020, which does seem a lifetime ago, then we felt it was really important for us to reach out to all our members. So we did a letter from myself which either our Branches could send or we sent for them, which basically went out to every single member and said, Okay, we're in this situation, but don't worry, because we're still here for you, we're still going to support you. And we did that a couple of times. And then between those times, Branches made contact by letter by phone, as well as on their events. And it was about their saying we're still here, we've got that support for you, ring us to just to talk to us, ring us if you've got a problem, contact us because we're here to support you through this time, which you know, is unprecedented.

You know, both centrally at Manchester office and throughout the Branch, the Care and Welfare Teams, have really stepped up. A lot of people live quite a distance from family. So that isolation was more so because they didn't even have somebody to do the shopping.

Early on in the lockdown when it was, in those days where we're all queuing up for an hour outside Asda to go in the shop, you know, my husband and I spent about four and a half hours doing the shopping. By the time we'd queued, done everybody's shopping, and then delivered it all around the various houses, Graham's parents, and my mum, and sometimes our kids who are grown up and married, and then came home. But it was important that we were there for everybody. And I think the way our Branches, and the team in Manchester, have stepped up to just really show that we are basically friends for help, whatever that means. And if they, if there's something that they need, and we can do it for them, then if it's within our power, we will endeavour to do that. And I think that has really made a difference.

Simply things, one of the things we've done right from the start for any new member that joined or anybody who enquired, we sent a handwritten card, a puzzle book and a pencil out to them, which is a really simple thing to do. And a number of our Branches did it to their members after we'd started it. But the feedback we've got from that about how much difference just receiving a card, a puzzle book and a pencil make to their lives is just actually unbelievable. Some of the messages we've had just show sometimes it's just a really simple act of making people know there's somebody there who cares. And I think that is something that has really come out during the pandemic.

Dom Burch 10.59
And that handwritten note, that personal touch is just so meaningful for people isn't it? So tell us a bit about Friendship Month because it's been running since 2010. But what's it all about?

Jane Nelson 11:08
So it's all about bringing people together, celebrating friendship. I'd love to have a 12 Friendship Month events, but I'm sure my comms team would say no, it's far too much. But it's about celebrating friendship and making opportunities for people to make new friends. So we all have loads of friends within the Oddfellows, but actually there are people, there's friends we've yet to make, those people who've not yet come along, and found that warm environment that they will enjoy spending time with people and make some friendships that will last a lifetime.

We've got our Branches are hosting online events and in person events. So we've got off the top of my head about 150 face to face events going on in September across the country. And over 100 online events, people who are interested in finding out what it really is all about, they can go on to our website and find out and join in these online events without having to commit to anything, just see what we're all about.

And we've got all sorts going on. We've got walks, we've got pub lunches, we've got quizzes, we've got talks, we've got teas. It's all about enjoying coming together. I mean, we do this all year round, but September is just that month that we really focus on friendship being so important. And that includes making the new friends as well as, as well as seeing old friends.

Frequently a lot of the events with Oddfellows include food and drink, whether that's a cup of tea, or a pint of beer in the pub at the end of a walk. But you know, if anyone feels they need more friendship in their lives or want to meet new people where they live, then, you know, using those taster events that we have running in September, it's just a really good way to just have a go and see whether it's for you.

We've got something, as I said earlier, because we've got both the online and the face to face, we've got something for those who are ready to go out now, and we've got something for those who aren't quite ready, because we will all be coming out of it different levels. So, you know, we have got something for everybody if they are ready to make whatever step they wish to make. But this is all about really focusing on how important friends are and actually showing people what Oddfellows do and what we do so well, which is welcoming people and just making friends, and bringing people together and then offering those, those events that they can take part of and enjoy.

Dom Burch 13:35
And making new friends, you know, you sort of wander through life, don't you, you have your friends from school, and then you have children, potentially you have friends from the parent groups and from the schools then that your kids are going to and so forth. But as you sort of travel through life, actually the number of new friends you make, it can be harder can't it as you get a bit older to keep extending your social circles? Do you find that? Do you find that as people sort of travel through life that actually making new friends can become quite difficult?

Jane Nelson 14:05
Absolutely. And the survey I mentioned earlier, actually echoes that, you know, a lot of people feel that forging new friendships in later life requires a lot more effort. It's not as easy as it was when we're all four and five going to the school yard for the first time. And actually, from that survey, 44% people who responded said it was a lot harder in older age than it was when they were younger.

But it's not just about age though, because there's different things that can knock your confidence. And I think that's an important thing to mark. You could retire, suddenly all your work friends, you're not seeing them every day, you could lose a partner, you could have to move house, you know, and I think a lot of people join Oddfellows because their lives have changed, and they need something that we can provide. And I think for so many people, having people, particularly friendly, people who they can socialise with really makes a difference to how they feel and brings them happiness.

Nobody likes, me included, walking into a room of strangers. I have to do with my job, but it doesn't mean I like it. You know, if you go into a room full of people you don't know, you're sort of a bit like the rabbit in the headlights at the door thinking, oh gosh who can I go and talk to? But actually, in terms of Oddfellows, wherever somebody comes then they will be made really welcome. And if somebody is concerned, well, I don't want to just walk in that room on my own, then if they actually make contact in advance with the organiser of the event, then they'll make sure somebody's at the door, or in the car park. So actually, they don't even have to do that walk in on their own.

And I think in terms of friends, and closer, I think I think it's just really important that, you know, it's about making people feel at home, it's about making people feel welcomed, and it's about giving them more of that sociability and meeting those new people and enjoying the time that they spent together. And there are loads of examples in the Society where, and I can think off the top of my head of four ladies who live in East Anglia and they didn't know anybody. They'd all lost their husbands, they all joined, they are now absolutely such close friends. Yhey go on holiday together. And that's happened because of us. And that really is special, because that just shows that we can provide that catalyst and they get all involved in all the events that are going on. But actually, they developed a really deep friendship between the four of them. They would never have even met if it wasn't for Oddfellows. So I think it's really, really important.

Dom Burch 16:51
And that must make you feel so proud?

Jane Nelson 16:52
It does. I'm like a proud mama bear!

Dom Burch 16:54
And there's nothing more generous is there than noticing somebody in a room that wants to be part of a conversation, but just is on the fringes or just feeling left out? And being bold and brave, actually, and going over and, and allowing them access into that group, and that sense of community?

Jane Nelson 17:07
I think it's hard for some people both ways. I think it's hard if you're the person who's trying to get into the conversation, and sometimes it's hard for people to go over to that person on their own. But all it takes really is to know that actually put yourself in that position and if you were on your own in a room full of people, would you want someone to come over and start talking to you? The answer is absolutely completely and utterly yes. So it's about just bringing them in and introducing them to people, if it's the first time at an event, putting them with a group of people who have really been members for a while and are really warm and welcoming. And actually, it's once that's happened, that first step, that's what needs to just happen. And I can say if people are cautious or anxious about coming along to things, then contact an event and somebody will meet you in the car park or at the bus stop to make sure that you don't even have to walk through the door on your own. But even if you do get as far as the door, then there will always be somebody there to be looking out for you to bring you in and say okay, can I introduce you to and really sort of bring you into the family. Because Oddfellows at the end of day is a big family.

Dom Burch 18:26
Now it's often said, isn't it, that you should be able to count your closest friends on one hand? Is that how you see it? Is that the case for you?

Jane Nelson 18:33
I think it is actually. I was thinking about this over the last few weeks and I would say because I've been in Oddfellows for such a long time that my husband and I have lots of friends, and we have lots of acquaintances. But probably we've got four or five who are really, really close friends, maybe six, but you know, two of those we've known probably for about 36 years. And three, four or five of them we've known for over 20 years. So, you make lots of friends, but those friends that become really, really close to you that are always there and no matter what you need, you know you could turn to for help and support or a shoulder to cry on or whatever. I would say yeah, between myself and my husband, we probably have six or seven close friends who we know whatever we do, we will be able to rely on them completely and utterly.

But even the other friends who are still friends with us, but maybe not as close, and just to try and give an example. A number of years ago now, our youngest son was going to university. I actually knew that wherever he chose to go in the country, if he'd have come into any trouble or needed help, I'd have been able to ring somebody that I knew in that particular area of the country to go and help him and I know that they would have stepped up and gone and given him whatever support he needed, whilst we've travelled and got there. And I think that's really invaluable. And it's like the lady I mentioned from Aberdeen, you know, she has now got friends all over the country that she can contact. They don't have to wait for an event to Zoom. If they want to arrange their own Zoom and Zoom together and have a coffee then they can do and I think that's really, really important. And Oddfellows is all about friendship, and September's just an amazing month to celebrate it.

Dom Burch 20:25
I mean, what a wonderful conversation it's been Jane, you can just hear your passion for the Oddfellows just sings through and every answer. And it's so humbling to hear the stories, the real stories of people around the country who, through Oddfellows, and the catalyst. I love that phrase that you used earlier that Oddfellows is the catalyst that allows people to come together. And then this amazing community that that flourishes off the back of it. There will be people listening who are now thinking, I'd love to join Oddfellows or maybe give it a try? Or maybe they know somebody who they think would really benefit from getting involved, what should they do?

Jane Nelson 21:02
Get in touch with us any time of the year, it doesn't just have to be September. You can telephone the Manchester office on 0800 028 1810 and they will be able to tell them what's going on wherever they live because we have access to all the events. Or people can head to our website at www.oddfellows.co.uk and on the website, you can put your address in or your postcode and search for the nearest Branch of Oddfellows, and then that will bring up their local contact so that they can get in touch with them directly.

I am passionate about the Society. I love the Society. I love what we do. And I just want to see it grow and just give more friendships and more things to more people. So, even if you want to come along and try there's nothing to lose. Just see if we're for you. And if whether it's an existing member, or any newcomer, everybody will be absolutely made completely and utterly welcome.

Dom Burch 21:55
Jane Nelson, Chief Exec of Oddfellows, thank you so much for joining us.

Jane Nelson 22:00
Thanks Dom. It's been a pleasure.

End of interview.