The Heritage and Evolution of Volteface

by Paul North

The word Volteface comes from the French word Voltafaccia, a combination of voltare, meaning ‘to turn’ and faccia ‘face’. In English it therefore describes a sudden and complete change of opinion or policy, the UK’s legalisation of cannabis in 2018 being a perfect example. From the outside a Volteface can look reactionary and at times be a surprising turn of events, but it does not necessarily mean the change of position is not considered or wreckless. 

Seven years ago I joined Volteface, ironically on a Volteface of my own: leaving my full time role as a manager at a drug treatment service in North Yorkshire, moving my life to London and joining a diverse team of professionals all working towards drug policy reform in the UK. It was the biggest professional risk I have ever taken and one which looking back has changed my life forever.

During those first few years the job was beyond anything I could have imagined. It was a rollercoaster of experiences, a crash course of how government and the media really work, a reality far from the textbooks and lectures of my Criminology degree.

At Volteface I found an approach and philosophy that was unique and bold. The idea that progress is achieved through disruption rather than going with the status quo – that to achieve change you need to see the world as it is, not how you want it to be. You need allies whom you might disagree with or at first think hostile to your cause. You need to be prepared to be unpopular and met with great resistance from those who are ideologically inflexible.

Despite the turbulence it was an opportunity too good to not give everything, and in 2018 I became a Director and formed a new non-for-profit which carried forward the Volteface mission. The company has over the years changed its model to adapt to the circumstances around it and people that worked for it. We have historically been funded through philanthropic donation and industry sponsorships – both models which have challenges in execution and maintenance, particularly during a global pandemic. 

During Covid I was joined by Katya Kowalski, an incredibly driven, bright and emotionally intelligent colleague, who shared my vision for working out how Volteface evolves from a frustrating and challenging donation model, yet does not lose its core beliefs and values.

Our challenge was to avoid falling back into the “think tank” world – an arena which we felt (with drug policy) fails to do anything outside of its echo chamber and relies on funding which comes with an ideological framework you must operate within. We wanted to be free from that model and its constraints and allow us to problem solve quickly and directly. Yet we wanted to take with us all the learnings and fundamentals outlined above since our inception, and ultimately continue the work we have been doing for years.

We also wanted to do something which could help address the challenges faced by the medical cannabis sector and utilise our content platform which has continued to go from strength to strength in terms of its reach and SEO. Structurally we also wanted a company which could grow and scale through investment and procurement of new work (something which was impossible with the old donation model and structure).

We also had the reflection that the commercial world and advocacy world speak past each other and struggle to communicate. Overnight a medical cannabis industry emerged but it has and still is struggling to effectively engage complex stakeholders and navigate the deep stigma associated with a widely used recreational drug.

Finally, Katya and I think the media and political landscape is rapidly changing and those old models of communication via national papers and press releases are fading – replaced with fast moving direct communication with your stakeholders. We think companies should take charge of their communications and use technology to build rather than rely on other institutions or models to distribute their messages.

After months of consideration and discussion with our advisers and allies we landed on Volteface Strategy. A commercial company seeking to bridge the gap between the industry and its key stakeholders, providing tools and strategy for companies to develop their business in a way that is good for the sector and inline with our values as advocates.

We are unique in that we have our own content platform – which will remain in place and will continue to be a home for journalists and commentators to share ideas and insights – our new model allows it to grow even further and champion good practice and industry developments to our audience. We see our platform as a perfect opportunity to speak directly to stakeholders and with a global audience of over 45,000 people per month share work being done here in the medical cannabis industry.

Already we have a diverse portfolio of clients whom our values align with, and in the coming months will seek new opportunities within the UK and European market. Joining Katya and I we have a diverse team covering a vast skill set, who will be working behind the scenes on our commercial projects.

So, somewhat of a Volteface in that we are now a commercial vehicle, no longer reliant on donations – but a commitment to use our learning, skills and assets to build upon what has gone before us and work with the industry to improve the sector through bold, considered and smart communications. 

Check out our new commercial website Volteface Strategy. Paul North is the Director of Volteface. Tweets @Paul__North. 

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