What’s in a Question (type)?

While on Facebook earlier today (I was connecting with some colleagues on a work-related issue, honest!), I came across a survey for a local non-profit initiative. As someone who both identifies as a researcher and generally likes filling out surveys, I eagerly clicked the link … and found myself looking at ten open-ended, fill-in-the-blank questions.

Now, I don’t have anything against this style of question: indeed, as I noted in an earlier post, it’s good to provide space for respondents to share their own perspectives and stories without being boxed into a particular set of responses. In my opinion, though, inviting only written responses is a move too far in the other direction. Some respondents may not have the time to write down their thoughts, while others may feel pressured to provide insightful, well-crafted responses to each question and decide to take a pass on the survey as a result. I remember a conversation with a community group where one member personally disliked open-ended questions: this person’s view was perhaps a bit extreme, but it brings up the good point that individuals may simply have preferences for one question type over another. Accessibility is also a potential concern: will people who have low literacy skills or other challenges around writing feel comfortable participating? A final consideration is analyzing this type of data, which takes more time and effort compared to compiling statistics from multiple choice or rating questions.

Again, I have nothing against open-ended questions: depending on the intended audience and purpose of the survey, it may even be completely appropriate to only use that type of response. For most general surveys, though, a little bit of variety is probably a good thing.

Buzzwords for Non-profits

From social enterprise to strategy and planning principles, the non-profit sector is borrowing a lot from the business world. Unfortunately, one less positive adoption is what the Harvard Business Review dubs “bizspeak“: their list of words that should be blacklisted, from “actionable” to “win-win”, has definitely made it into our vocabulary. To be fair, non-profits have long had a language of their own, especially acronyms: moving to a new city or province, or connecting with an organization from a different area (youth services compared to health, for example) requires a mental recalibration and some awkward “What does that mean?” moments.

As a lighthearted end to the week, I’d like to hear from you – share some non-profitese that you find particularly aggravating, amusing, or both!

Time to Count

As the one and only person working for Strong Roots Consulting, there are many business elements I have to deal with as part of the trade. There’s various regulatory and legal requirements to fulfill, finances to manage, and – a personal “favourite” on the necessary evil list – time tracking. My general preference is to create a proposal with a set project fee, instead of charging by the hour: however, I still need to determine how much a project should cost. A simple starting point is to estimate the number of hours that I would need to complete the work and multiply that number by a per-hour rate. Time tracking then becomes a data collection method to help me assess the accuracy of my initial estimate – or in other words, the first step in an evaluation.

For many people, conducting an evaluation seems like a complex undertaking. Where do you start? Do you need to create a logic model first? What should you measure? What data collection methods should you use? Quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods? How do you analyze and present the data you collected? A search for “evaluation” books on Amazon turned up over 128,682 results, while a Google search returned “about 357,000,000 results”, so not much help from those sources (or rather, too much help).

One piece of advice I heard recently (and for the life of me I can’t remember where) is that one of the easiest first steps to take in evaluation is counting. It makes a lot of sense: we learn counting at an early age, after all, and it’s pretty easy to come up with questions that can be answered with a number. How many clients are we serving? How many referrals are we making? How much staff time was dedicated to a certain project? How many people indicated through a client survey that they were happy with our services? I bet if you took a minute right now you could come up with similar questions for your professional or personal life (how many hours of TV do I watch a day?) that can be easily answered by tallying up numbers.
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A week or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from a manager who works for a local non-profit agency. She was interested in social innovation and had done some work in that area, and recently learned about the First Tuesday session I had hosted in January on the topic. We met for coffee and had a great conversation, coming up with some ideas on how to promote and support social innovation in Saskatoon. Our next step was to reach out and connect with some other people locally who might be interested in helping out with the planning: although I was already expecting a positive response, I was a bit surprised by the strength of interest expressed and the ease by which we were able to convene an in-person meeting (past experience in the non-profit sector has taught me that finding a date and time for everyone to meet is easily two-thirds the battle!).

This experience of going from a couple of blog posts and a one-off session on the topic to finding an ally, developing some concrete ideas, and quickly connecting with a group of co-conspirators reminded me of the concept of emergence, as described in Getting to Maybe. One of the social innovation examples that the authors drew on was Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s work organizing the Live Aid concert to help alleviate famine conditions in Ethiopia. In describing his experience, Geldof noted that once he started on the project, momentum and energy flowed in, almost beyond his control. “No one particularly stood in my way,” Geldof recalled; “On the contrary, doors impenetrable a week earlier swung open effortlessly.” In Getting to Maybe, this and similar experiences are held up as examples of emergence. Based on ideas from complexity science and in contrast to traditional views of the heroic individual or the deliberate plan that is followed inevitably to a logical conclusion, emergence recognizes that disparate actions from a variety of actors can unexpectedly come together and multiply one’s efforts. New and surprising outcomes often result, while cause and effect can become hopelessly tangled.

In a similar vein, this developing movement on social innovation in Saskatoon has demonstrated emergent properties. Did I plan that my blog posts and the First Tuesday session would be found by someone who would contact me, and that we would subsequently find such a good reception amongst others? Although I may have hoped for such an outcome, I saw my work as simply laying the ground and waiting to see what happened. The situation could have turned out differently – someone else could have contacted me, or perhaps at a different time, or maybe someone else in the city might have started something similar that I would have learned about later and joined in. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that I had no impact, that this issue was fated to happen regardless of my individual action. If I didn’t write those posts and hosted that discussion, would anything have happened?

Although emergence can seem like something inherently uncontrollable, there are some means to encourage it, or at the very least to be prepared to recognize and act on the opportunities that come along. Getting to Maybe articulates a number of principles in this regard, several of which jump out at me: speaking passionately about the issue, practicing and developing the expression of one’s vision, and supporting intense interactions, networking, and information exchange among those who are interested. I think I was (unconsciously) following those principles through writing on this blog, holding the First Tuesday session, developing my own learning and understanding on the topic (such as by reading and commenting on Getting to Maybe), and building connections with like-minded people in Saskatoon.

Going back to our ideas and plans, I’m going to hold off on sharing specifics for the time being because we’re still very much at the beginning stage: I’m hoping to have something more concrete to announce before the end of the month. That being said, if you are interested in supporting and promoting social innovation in Saskatoon (especially if you are or have connections with powerful strangers), please drop me a line! I think there are some real possibilities here, and I’m excited to see where this venture will lead.

A Little Help

If nothing else, my recent Achilles’ tendon injury is providing some good food for thought (and blog posts). One obvious effect of being on crutches is that I can’t do everything I used to: driving is right out, going long distances on foot is not an option (and even a short trip outside is dicey given icy sidewalks), and transporting anything that can’t fit in a backpack won’t be happening. At the same time, there are some things I can still do, but I have to ask myself: should I be using up my limited energy and risk further injury? It’s been a learning curve for me to realize that sometimes it’s better to take up an offer of help even if I could theoretically do it myself.

Earlier this week I was having a conversation about the role of non-profit boards of directors and realized the same lesson could easily apply, especially to relatively young and growing organizations. As a non-profit experiences some initial success, starts developing a structure, and becomes incorporated, its founders often become the initial members of the board. At this stage, even when the organization has a staffperson or the resources to contract someone for certain tasks, the board members may be tempted to do the work themselves. Although well-intentioned, this approach can lead to underutilizing the organization’s resources and wasting the time of the board.

As an example, one board I sat on a few years ago was coming out of a time of change and had recently hired a new executive director. At one of our meetings we were talking about an upcoming event and the discussion turned to the relative merits of various floral shops to supply flowers for this event. One of my colleagues on the board became a bit exasperated at this point and asked (quite rightly in my opinion) why we were spending time talking about flowers when we had a capable staff person who could look into the various options and provide a recommendation or even go ahead with a decision? From that point on, whenever our board meetings started going in the direction of doing work that could easily be delegated to our ED or volunteers, somebody would crack a joke about flowers as a reminder of where to spend our time and energy.

There’s a dichotomy between “working boards” that get more involved in day-to-day operations and “strategic boards” with a focus on the bigger picture: a board may play either role through its lifetime as the situation dictates. Regardless of what role it’s currently playing, a board is made up of a finite number of people with finite time and energy, and as an organization and its activities and responsibilities grow, it can only do so much. That’s not to say that board members shouldn’t be contributing their specific expertise or skills for the betterment of the organization. However, just like I’ve had to reach out to others for help with tasks that I could theoretically do myself, a board should likewise take a good look at where it should spend its time and energy and don’t hesitate to ask someone else for a hand when needed.