Site Update – No Updates

No, this isn’t a “Six o’clock and all is well in the world of non-profits” kind of announcement: rather, I’ll be taking a break from posting on this site on both sides of the upcoming long weekend. So, no regular posts or Seeds for Thought this week or next, but I’ll be back with new content the week of August 12. I will be responding to emails during this time, but otherwise taking some well-deserved time away. I hope everyone out there is having a great summer, and I’ll see you back in August!

Seeds for Thought: Volunteer Retention

Volunteers are an important piece of the puzzle for any non-profit organization. Whether they’re contributing to programs and special events, helping out with fundraising and outreach, or providing guidance and leadership as members of the board, good volunteers are indispensable. As these individuals are giving their time and effort without compensation (at least of the financial kind), organizations are increasingly recognizing that they can’t take these superstars for granted.

Along those lines, this week’s entry in the Seeds for Thought category is a case study from the Stanford Social Innovation Review on volunteer retention for Girls Scouts of Northern California (GSNorCal). Like many other nonprofits focused on youth development, GSNorCal relies heavily on volunteers and as a result already uses many best practices in orientation, training, and recognition: however, broader changes within and outside of the organization has made it difficult to keep volunteers returning. In response, the organization hired a consultant, TCC Group, to “mine its data and pinpoint ways to keep volunteers engaged”. Through a survey of 1,371 current and past volunteers and follow-up focus groups, TCC Group identified factors that predicted volunteer retention and suggested improvements to GSNorCal’s practices.

This example demonstrates the value in using multiple sources of information, in this case quantitative data from a large survey, qualitative insights from small groups of volunteers, and general principles from scholarly research on the topic. If you don’t have the resources that GSNorCal (or even if you do) and want to learn more about your volunteers, what can you do?

  • Start by counting. How many volunteers do you currently have, how long have they been volunteering, how many new volunteers have come onboard recently and how many have left? How many hours are they contributing? Are there differences in these numbers based on demographic factors or what tasks they’re doing for your organization?
  • Use some simple questionnaires with both current and former volunteers. I could spend a full post or three on what a volunteer questionnaire could look like, but at the very least it should include questions around overall satisfaction, support from the organization (or lack thereof) and what keeps them volunteering and what makes them leave. Just remember to use a mix of question types and watch out for potentially misleading numbers.
  • Take a participatory approach. Include volunteers in the discussion, both long-time contributors and those who are new or in a temporary position, such as through a World Cafe: as a bonus, this approach can help improve retention by demonstrating to volunteers that their opinion is valued by the organization. Another idea – have a staff member step into the shoes of a volunteer for a shift to get a firsthand perspective!
  • Partner with organizations that can provide a broader view. Many cities have a volunteer centre (either standalone or part of a larger organization like the United Way) or a professional association of volunteer administrators such as PAVRO liaisons in Ontario that can link you with resources on volunteering and keep you in the loop about new developments in the field. Volunteerism is also becoming increasingly recognized as a topic of scholarly research, so look into partnerships with universities: programs related to community development, organizational studies, public policy, and even business are good starting points.
  • A bit of self-interest here: consultants can help! If resources are tight, use consulting expertise for specific tasks that may be impractical to do in-house, such as analyzing complex statistical data or acting as a neutral party to collect feedback (current and even former volunteers may be hesitant to provide criticism directly to staff). Volunteer management, especially as it relates to research and evaluation, is one of Strong Roots’ strengths, so drop us a line if you want to have a chat about how to learn more about your volunteers!

Question: What are some strategies that you have seen successfully used to engage volunteers and improve retention?

Seeds for Thought: Five and Change

This week’s seed features Chi Yan Lam, a friend and colleague who is completing his PhD in Education at Queen’s University. We share an interest in developmental and collaborative approaches to evaluation, though as you can see from his about page, he comes at it more from the academic and theoretical side.

In support of writing his dissertation, Chi recently relaunched his personal site as a process journal to “chronicle and archive [his] emerging thinking and serendipitous discoveries around evaluation and design”. A recent post brings up the idea of the Stanford $5 challenge, where students in the Technology Ventures program are asked to use $5 and two hours of time to make a profit. Those most successful didn’t end up using the money: that resource all too often turned out to be a trap, too little to turn into anything with taking a huge risk like buying a lottery ticket or hitting the slot machines.

This example really resonates with my experiences in the nonprofit field. The first question that’s usually raised after generating a new idea for a program or service is where will the money and resources come from: in response, many organizations will “gamble” staff time and resources on preparing a grant application. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, the idea is dead in the water, morale drops, and staff are discouraged from coming up with innovative solutions in the future.

Instead of focusing immediately on what we need for success, oftentimes we need to take a step back as Chi suggests and first determine the need for a program (or to borrow from the business world, whether the “market” is there), and then whether our theory of change (the steps from here to there) matches our plan of action. These two steps can help identify faulty assumptions or leaps of logic in your plan, but more importantly, they force you to question if there is a better path to success. For example, is it possible for the program to take advantage of existing in-house resources such as a spare room and some dedicated volunteers, or draw on connections with community partners such as a university community service-learning project? A successful program will at some point need dedicated resources, just as a successful business venture will need capital to go to scale: however, if an idea can show some initial successes on $5 and two hours of time, it’s an easier argument to make that investing more time and money will be worthwhile.

(A quick shameless self-promotion here – my approach to supporting project development takes a similar approach, working with organizations to better understand the need and context, clarify how the program will work, and identify potential resources. If you’re at this stage of a program design and not sure how to proceed, drop me a line!)

Question: Think about a cause or issue you’re passionate about – what would you do to start creating change with $5 and two hours?

News: Cornerstone of the Community

The Saskatoon Community Foundation has opened nominations for their Cornerstone of the Community Award. The award seeks to recognize a resident of the Saskatoon area who has demonstrated a “significant history of service to the community” through volunteerism, building community partnerships, contributing leadership or mentorship, creating a sense of community, engaging in philanthropy, or other forms of service. Personally, I can think of several deserving individuals – I’m happy that I don’t sit on the nomination committee, as it would be difficult to pick just one winner!

To nominate someone for this award, download and complete the form at the link above. Nominations also require two letters of support and a one-page writeup explaining why the nominee is a Cornerstone of the Community. The due date is in in exactly one month, Thursday, August 15, at 4pm: winners will be announced at the Mayor’s Cultural Gala on September 21. For more details, please contact the Saskatoon Community Foundation directly.

One Year

Today, July 11, marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, this website, and Strong Roots Consulting as a whole. The year saw me face some challenges, but overall I’m happy with how things have turned out. I helped out with several interesting local projects, connected with a number of awesome people and organizations (both in the real world and online) and shared ideas and resources through the site and beyond. All in all I have a lot to be proud of and I’m looking forward to what will come this year!

As my professional practice through Strong Roots Consulting has grown and adapted, so has the content on this website. Most notable is a new section, Key Activities, that provides a clearer description of how Strong Roots can work with your organization or initiative, particularly in the areas of Project Support and Organizational Development. The site also has a more succinct listing of the strengths and skills that we bring to the table, clarification of how we work with non-profits, and a new page on the story behind Strong Roots. As always, I’m open to feedback on this site and my practice more generally, so please be in touch if you have something to share!

What’s on tap for the next few months? For starters, I’ll be continuing to connect with the non-profit and working-for-good sector, here in Saskatoon and beyond. Two ideas I’m considering towards that end are a survey for local change makers to learn more about the opportunities and challenges we face, and a “mailbag” feature for the blog where I’ll answer reader questions on topics related to community-based research, evaluation, planning, and program development. Another goal I’m pursuing is to continue my own professional development, especially in the area of developmental evaluation – keep an eye out for new posts on that front in the near future! Finally, I’ve been collaborating with some awesome people locally on a project that fits nicely with Strong Roots’ capacity-building focus: we’re still in the very early stages, but I’m hoping to make an announcement here before the end of summer.

Look for some more insights from this past year in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, thanks again to all my readers, colleagues, friends, and family for your support and encouragement this past year!

Seeds for Thought: Misleading Numbers

Earlier this year, I wrote a post on simply counting as an easy way to start evaluating a program or initiative. Although this approach can provide some good insights, numbers can easily mislead based on the manner of collection or when viewed in isolation from the broader context, as this week’s two seeds for thought (both from the Harvard Business Review blog) demonstrate.

First up, Peter Kriss provided the example of a hotel chain that revamped their guest feedback website to make it easier to access on mobile devices. In contrast to expectations, overall satisfaction with the hotel took a nosedive in response, which on the surface didn’t make much sense: why would a better survey make people dislike their stay? The answer was that improving accessibility to the survey led to more responses from less-engaged guests, and since their impressions tended toward the midpoint (i.e. neither great nor poor), the addition of these datapoints led to a lower average. The lesson here? Whenever you change how participants interact with or give feedback to your program or organization, be prepared for unexpected results!

A time-honoured method of assessing impact involves taking a baseline measurement of participants before an intervention (“pre”) followed by a similar (if not identical) measurement afterwards (“post”): if there’s a difference in scores, you could claim with some degree of certainty that the program made a difference. Now I could probably write several posts about the pitfalls of pre-post measurement, but Ron Shaich’s article on growth illuminated one that I probably would have missed. In the cutthroat restaurant industry, Shaich discovered, you can’t assume zero growth as a baseline: because of the strong competition, a restaurant that does nothing will naturally lose customers.

Adapting this example to the non-profit world, imagine a service or program that aims to improve participants’ lives in some way (e.g. physical health, food security, access to housing) with a corresponding pre-post measurement. If the program is working in a community or with a population facing multiple challenges, the “norm” might be decline rather than stability: in the absence of the service, things may well get worse rather than stay the same. The good news in this scenario is that a lack of pre-post change therefore might not be a complete failure, but program planners may need to set their sights higher to create a positive change.

The general takeaway from these examples is that you shouldn’t blindly trust the numbers or read too much into what they could mean: instead, take some time to look at other factors that could explain what you’re seeing. Got examples of your own when the numbers were confusing or misleading? Share them below!

Seeds for Thought: The Case for Strategic Plans

Ever have the experience where you read a blog post or article online and immediately say “That captures my thoughts perfectly! Why didn’t I write that?”. This week the honour goes to my friend and colleague Natalie Brown Kivell of Common Thread Consulting, specifically her post making the case for the humble strategic plan. Contrasting the view of strategic planning as a quick fix or a pointless activity done solely to please funders, Natalie provides five solid reasons for why planning should be part of your organization’s lifecycle and how both the process and the final product can provide tangible benefits.

For me, the key takeaway from Natalie’s post is that the strategic plan should be co-created through a participatory process, working with your organization’s diverse stakeholders. That term, “stakeholders”, gets thrown around a lot in the social change sector to the point of cliche, but think for a minute about the root of the term. Everybody – program participants, staff, volunteers, leadership, partnering agencies, funders, the broader community – has a stake in the success of the organization and its efforts. Every stakeholder stands to benefit in some way, but they also risk the loss of time, energy, resources, or even hope if things don’t work out. Stakeholders also commit in some way to the project, whether in terms of providing tangible resources, participating in good faith, or by providing indirect support such as a community playing host to a social service. With these diverse groups all having a stake in the non-profit’s success, it makes sense for all of them to be involved right from the beginning in the planning process.

At the end of this article Natalie mentioned that she’ll be writing some future posts on strategic planning, so be sure to keep an eye on her site!