Site Update – New Year’s Grants

I’m sure many non-profit organizations would love to find some additional funding under the tree this year, but barring that, there are some grant opportunities coming up early in the New Year to consider. New to the Saskatoon Grants section on this site are three grants from the City of Saskatoon. The first two, the Community Grant Program and the Urban Aboriginal Grant Program, support local sports, cultural, and recreational programs and are due January 15, while the Environmental Grants support environmental programs with a due date of March 1. Also due early in 2013 are applications for the Saskatoon Health Region’s Community Grants (January 15) and Letters of Intent for the Saskatoon Community Foundation’s Quality of Life grant program (February 1).

All in all, lots of opportunities to start off the New Year right! Remember that Strong Roots Consulting is available to help throughout the process, including overall strategic planning, program development, grant preparation, and program evaluation. I’ll be taking some time off during the holidays but will still be reachable by email: I’ll be back to the normal routine and available to connect by phone or in person starting January 2.

Happy holidays and all the best for 2013!

The Co-Working Life

December marks the five-month anniversary of Strong Roots Consulting (five months and one week, if you use the July 11th date of my first post), and six months since I moved back to the prairies after living in Ontario for twelve years. There are many factors to credit for my surviving and thriving through these twin life changes of moving to a new city and making the jump from regular employment to consulting, but today I’d like to pay homage to where I work, The Two Twenty coworking space.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, coworking is basically shared office space. For a flat fee (daily, weekly, or monthly), anyone can gain access to a coworking room set up with desks, tables, armschairs and couches: amenities include wireless internet, a kitchenette, free drip coffee (there’s also a great coffeeshop, Collective Coffee, on the premises for fancier caffeinated beverages), a set allowance on their black and white printer, storage lockers, and access to a meeting room. Those on the unlimited monthly tier can also get a key to the premises for 24/7 use (access is otherwise restricted to the coffeeshop hours).

The advantages to this type of work arrangement go far beyond these tangibles. By lowering the financial and logistical barriers for space (the most expensive tier is only $200 a month, no lease or long-term agreement required), the space attracts a variety of people: new and established entrepreneurs, students, university professors on sabbatical, and people new to town looking for somewhere more congenial to working than a coffeeshop or library. The building also houses more traditional office space, with tenants including media companies, web developers, an immigration lawyer, a real estate agent, and several non-profit organizations. Staff from these companies will sometimes come out and work in the coworking space for a change of scenary, and many will use the kitchenette facilities for lunch. In other words, there is a wide range of individuals and organizations working in a space conducive to chance encounters, conversations, and networking – perfect for someone like me who’s just starting in town and in the industry.

From my relatively-short time in this space I’ve made a number of connections both professional and personal, and I can honestly say that I’m more productive here compared to working from home. Being at The Two Twenty has also provided me with some insight into the interaction of work and space, particularly for non-profits. A common metaphor in that sector is the danger of “building silos”, where organizations isolate themselves and miss the potential benefits of pooling knowledge and resources with other groups. Silos in this analogy are usually viewed in terms of organizational practices and the influence of historical interactions: for example, two groups may ignore the potential to work together because of a past conflict, even though the circumstances have changed and the principal actors in that past incident are no longer involved with either organization! However, silos can also be created and sustained by physical and spatial factors: a space like The Two Twenty that encourages informal interaction can help break down barriers and encourage the sharing of information, and ultimately the development of collaborations and longer-lasting relationships.

Co-working and hub spaces like The Two Twenty are still a relatively new phenomenon in North America, so the availability of such spaces and how they’re set up may vary widely from city to city. Also, the model may not be amenable for all types of non-profit organizations, such as those that provide direct services to a large number of clients. That being said, non-profits should keep watch for opportunities to “break out” of their silos and connect with colleagues from other organizations, even those outside the specific area of focus: these connections, even just over a cup of coffee, can spark new ideas and lead to creative solutions for those complex issues we see in our communities every day.

When Does It End?

One local initiative that I’ve recently joined is The Kolo Project, a community focusing on growing Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial roots. At a recent steering committee meeting, we worked to refine our vision and mission and created a blueprint for our activities in the coming new year. Towards the end of the meeting, we were asked to brainstorm what failure would look like – at what point do we know that Kolo has failed, that we’re throwing good money, time, and resources after bad? Hopefully we won’t reach that junction any time soon, but it’s a good question to consider. With capacity to fail coming up earlier this month, I figure it’s a good opportunity to further explore that topic as it applies to non-profits: namely, when should a program, initiative, or even a whole organization call it quits? What signs indicate that it’s passed the “best before” date?
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One resource that I have started to draw on are the websites and particularly blogs of others doing similar work in the fields of evaluation and community practice. Among the useful sites I have found are Chris Lysy’s EvalCentral which brings together several dozen blogs (including this one) that have a common interest in evaluation, the American Evaluation Association’s Tip a Day blog (which will feature a post from yours truly next Wednesday), and the Community Psychology Practice blog, administered through the Practice Council of the Society for Community Research and Action. As a new independent consultant who is still working to build local connections and community, these sites have been invaluable in introducing me to new resources and prompting reflection on my practice.

A recent post from Emery Evaluation (via Eval Central) asks which of five standards from the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation is “most essential, relevant, and central to your everyday work as an evaluator”. Before reading this article I wasn’t familiar with these specific standards, but they look to be a good starting point for discussion. Of course there are many standards and values, even within this one field: for example, the American Evaluation Association and the Canadian Evaluation Society have their own values / ethics statements. Deciding on one (or several) statements to declare adherence to is an interesting point for future debate, but for today’s reflection I’ll stay with those brought forward by Ann Emery.

My first thought when reviewing the list is that it’s hard to pick just one as the “most” important. These standards work together: for example, the Utility of evaluation findings will obviously be diminished if its Accuracy is in question. Conversely, there will be tension among values or standards – spending time on meta-evaluative activities (Accountability) can take resources away from the actual evaluation and thus can decrease Feasibility – so perhaps there is some benefit in choosing one to help provide guidance when they clash.

I was originally leaning towards Utilty. After all, my thinking went, evaluation cannot be done for its own sake, there has to be some purpose in telling the story of what happened to provide guidance for current development or future work. Before doing anything with that conclusion, I then read a blog post from Community Psychology Practice on the impact of “Big Data” for our practice. That post suggests that community psychology practioners can make use of their training as social scientists to help interpret the huge amounts of data being generated in our world while connecting with and respecting the unique experiences of individuals and communities, an idea that resonates strongly with my past work and future aspirations.

So, I think the most important value for me, the first among equals, is what JCSEE labelled as “Propriety” but may be better referred to as “Ethics” or simply “Respect”. For me, evaluation has to recognize the rights of those affected by the research – program participants/clients, staff, partners, organizations, communities – and be responsive to their needs. Another way to view this approach is ensuring that the whole evaluation enterprise with its data, models, and theories continues to reflects the human scale and has a positive impact on the ground level. As with any set of values, there will inevitably be tensions and the need to seek balance between competing demands, but this basic value of respect and understanding is one that I want to keep first and foremost in my mind when working in the community.

Quick Thought – Capacity to Fail

Chris Lysy over at Fresh Spectrum posed an interesting question: Do you have the capacity to fail? Venturing outside of “the way things are done” could lead to amazing success and a new approach to a previously unsolvable problem, but the more innovative and unproven the idea, the greater the risk that it falls flat. In the nonprofit sector, the failure of a new idea could mean loss of credibility in the community, cuts to already scarce resources and funds, and ultimately a decrease in the capacity to make a positive difference for individuals and communities. Although this (understandable) aversion to risk can help maintain current programs and service, will it help create the lasting change that we want to see in our world?

My approach with Strong Roots has always focused on helping groups and organizations build capacity (if you don’t believe me, look at the top of this page!). Chris’ post reminds me that capacity includes having the confidence to try new approaches, learning from the development of innovative ideas (such as through developmental evaluation), and being able to recover and move forward when things don’t work out as anticipated.