Resources Thoughts

SPECs and Vision

As the end of the year rolls closer, I have been taking some time to reflect on the work I have accomplished so far through Strong Roots Consulting and where I hope to go. My recent post about Amazing YXE got me thinking about the strengths-based approach that has consistently served as one of my guiding principles – in case you missed it, here’s the pertinent part:

In supporting for-impact groups and organizations, I have always preferred to take a strengths-based approach that recognizes, celebrates, and builds on existing skills and assets. Although it would be foolish to deny that there are real needs and challenges in our communities today, focusing exclusively on deficits can lead to disillusionment, cynicism, and hopelessness: looking at strengths and existing resources (which may not always be measurable in dollars and cents) can help create confidence and point a way forward for individuals and neighbourhoods. More than that, this approach affirms the fact that every individual has something to contribute and some way of making a difference for our world.

In the above quote, I bolded the line about deficits-focus because the trend to emphasize needs and challenges is all too prevelant in our world today, including (and perhaps especially) in the traditional non-profit sector. Charities and service providers often work to address some type of problem, such as the effects of poverty, illness, violence, bereavement, or family conflict. Blame it on the prevailing Western model of medicine, where our idea of “health” has been formulated as the absence of illness, but even organizations that aim for a more positive and affirmative outcome like helping children achieve their potential can end up working to address impediments over encouraging well-being.

Very few people I know who work to make the world a better place want to focus exclusively on slapping bandaids on the wounds of individuals, families, and communities. While recognizing the necessity of dealing with acute problems that comes from living in an imperfect world, we want to build capacity, nurture strengths, and empower people and neighbourhoods. Over time and in the face of shrinking budgets and a never-ending flood of problems, it becomes too easy to focus on immediate needs and leave those aspirations for broader change on the back burner until that near-mythical future point where funds, time, and the will to use them are abundant.

Taking A Look at SPEC

My first advisor for my Masters, Dr. Scot Evans, recognized this paradox between ideals and reality in the non-profit sector and unpacked it into two competing acronyms. The inclination of most individuals and organizations in the field is to work towards SPEC, standing for Strengths-focused, Preventative, Empowering, and Community-oriented: unfortunately, over time our work starts slipping towards a DRAIN-ing approach that’s Deficits-focused, Reactive, Alienating and INdividual-oriented. Each letter in the acronyms corresponds with one in the other:


As the image suggests, there’s a continuum between each extreme, and organizations may find themselves to be, for example, very Community-Oriented, moderately Strengths-Focused and Empowering, but more on the Reactive side. Depending on the organization’s focus and the context in which it operates, this balance may be appropriate: however, many groups do not take the time to assess where they are and where they want to be.

One resulting benefit of this model is to provide organizational staff and stakeholders with the concepts to have conversations around where the organization is currently and where they want to be. In a workshop highlighting this model, Scot provided the example of a shelter for homeless youth. On the surface, this organization’s focus on the DRAIN side may be wholly appropriate: they are Reacting to a crisis situation in a population that is defined by their Deficit (in this case, safe housing), specifically with Individuals who, because of their status as minors, cannot make full legal decisions for themselves. Facilitated dialogue around the ideas of SPEC and DRAIN helped shelter staff realize that they wanted to shift more towards the SPEC side, with further conversations identifying steps they could take such as Empowering youth to contribute to the running of the shelter (building on their Strengths in the process) and building stronger Community connections to Prevent the youth from needing to use the shelter in the future. The shelter still responds to emergency needs, but they have started to go beyond the bandaid and create lasting change.

A View to Follow

If this idea resonates with you, take a look at the SPECway website for more resources, or drop me a line: I can facilitate conversations in your organization using this model to identify discrepancies between mission and day-to-day work, generate ideas for shifing where your group falls on the spectra, and evaluate efforts for evolving your focus.

Returning to the idea of reflecting on my practice, to date I have not explicitly defined a mission or vision for Strong Roots: this approach of working with for-impact organizations to help them move towards a SPEC focus is a useful insight in defining how I want to make a difference for our communities. Keep an eye on this space over the next few weeks as I delve further into what I hope to accomplish in 2014 and how I plan to be the change I want to see, both in Saskatoon and our world.

2 replies on “SPECs and Vision”

Great post, Brian! Great food for thought. It’s such a difficult climate for non-profits right now, having to react so often to deep-rooted systematic problems. It is my hope that Upstream can help reframe the overall conversation about social change in “SPEC” terms, and create demand for broad, evidence-based and people-centred change. Thank you for your work in our city!

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