Online and Learning

Without denying the various challenges affecting the non-profit / for-impact sector, it’s good to recognize the strengths, capabilities, and resources that we have access to today that would have been beyond our reach as recently as a few decades ago. In particular, I’m thinking about the explosion of online learning resources, ranging from blogs to webinars to full-fledged courses. Offerings in that last category, usually referred to as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), are led by instructors from around the world and can include thousands of participants: for example, the Infographics course I enrolled in last winter reached its enrollment cap of 5,000 participants, representing students from 133 countries.

Like any educational method, MOOCs have both strengths and drawbacks, including a “one-size” approach that might not work with your style of learning. However, online learning has two big advantages for the busy non-profit with a small budget: they are usually free, and they can be done on your own timeline. At the very least, a MOOC can provide an overview of a topic as well as help identify knowledge and skill gaps.

If you’re in the for-impact sector, there are three online courses starting in the next week that might be of interest:

  • Principles of Project Management (Instructor: Sue Dawson, Polytechnic West [Australia]). An important topic for anyone in management or supervisory positions, but I think it would be generally useful for anyone in a non-profit setting given how much of our work is project-based. This course started this past week, so if you’re interested it’s best to sign up sooner than later!
  • How to Change the World (Instructor: Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan University). If your ambitions stretch beyond an individual project, check out this six-week offering starting January 20th. Based on discussions from the Social Good Summit, topics include poverty, climate change, disease, and education, with a focus on what we know, why should we care, and what we can do.
  • Introduction to Learning Technologies (Instructor: Heather Ross, University of Saskatchewan). A local offering that’s being called (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, given the season) a TOOC, or a Truly Open Online Course. The focus is on using common online tools and platforms to support teaching and learning, including blogs, podcasts, wikis, Twitter, and more. Although the primary audience is the higher education sector, it looks like a great course that could provide useful insights for changemakers, especially since education and awareness-building activities are crucial for creating broader impact. This course officially starts January 21st, but in line with the “truly open” ethos, all materials are already online. (Full disclosure: My signficant other works in the same office as the course instructor.)

Looking for other options? Lifehacker has a list of interesting courses coming up, as well as sources for finding more options if those listed don’t suit your fancy. Personally, I’ve signed up for the Learning Technologies TOOC with the hope that some of the skills I develop there will be useful in growing Strong Roots’ web and social media presence. I might sign up for one or both of the other options, but I want to make sure I don’t over-commit and I can give the material the attention it deserves.

Are you enrolled in any MOOC’s or other learning opportunities? Share them in the comments below!

Evolving Plans

On December 16, 2013, I embarked on a planning exercise for Strong Roots Consulting, specifically in the areas of mission/vision/goals, business practices, and activities for the year ahead. Today marks the one-month point of that process, and with it an update.

If I had followed the traditional New Year’s approach, I should have spent the past couple of weeks thinking about what I want to accomplish with Strong Roots Consulting in 2014. Instead, my mind has been on the bigger picture: what is my vision of success, and what is the mission that Strong Roots is working to follow? The former is by its nature more blue-sky thinking – abstract and long term – while the latter starts bringing the ideals back to earth. I think I found a good balance:

Vision: Changemakers – including individuals, community groups, non-profit organizations, charities, social enterprises, and social-purpose businesses – have the resources, knowledge, skills, and courage to work together and better our world.

Mission: Build the capacity of the for-impact sector to create positive change in our communities through developmental, empowering, and participatory approaches to research, evaluation, and planning.

Now, these are draft statements, so if you have any feedback (positive or negative), I would love to hear them in the comments below, via social media, or more traditional channels. In particular, I would like to know whether “for-impact sector” is understandable. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I first heard this term (perhaps at the Social Enterprise World Forum?), but the idea behind it has been a powerful influence on me: rather than defining people and organizations by what they are not (not-for-profit or non-governmental), the focus is instead on what they are doing, namely making a difference in our world. The term is also more inclusive, as it can include social entrepreneurs and social-purpose businesses that blend for-profit methods with social and environmental aims.

Clear as mud? Too apt to cause confusion? Let me know!

Cue the “Under Construction” GIF

There are always lessons in the journey, and two in particular came up this past month:

  1. This kind of planning is not quick – or easy. I would like to say that I followed some clear-cut process for developing these statements, but the truth is that I spent a lot of time reflecting, writing, and whiteboard sketching to get to where I am now. For organizations with more than one person involved, additional time and resources would be needed to engage staff, leadership, and stakeholders in the process.
  2. Reflection – and adjusting in response – is key. These ideas didn’t spring out of nothing: going through notes and journals, I can trace a line of thought going back several months (if not longer). For example, this past fall I put in a number of hours drafting up a long-form blog post that ended up being consigned to a dusty corner of my laptop, but the essential ideas from that draft have been extremely helpful this past month in moving me forward. Even now I’m not 100% sure that the ideas presented above will be the final versions: I’ll be field-testing them in conversations, reflecting further, and likely changing in response.

The Next Month

I’m still working on coming up with goals that strike the right balance between immediate-future, concrete-abstract, and achievable-aspirational. In writing up this blog post, I came to realize that my vision sets out some of the longer-term ideas, while an annual review and planning process would help generate specific objectives within the timespan of a year or two. From that insight, my organizational goals would find a home between those two poles with outcomes that can demonstrate some progress over a 5-10 year framework.

Another consideration is whether to declare an explicit set of values for Strong Roots. Through my participation in the Leadership Saskatoon professional development program, I recently attended Robin Mueller‘s excellent session on personal and organization values – revisiting my notes from that event is definitely on my to-do list!

Examining business elements has been on the backburner so far, as this first half of January has kept me hopping. With the vision and mission in place to help guide my thoughts (and goals coming soon!), I’ll be reviewing and reflecting on aspects such as the role of this website, my use of social media, space arrangements, and my membership in various professional orgs.

All in all, I’m happy with my progress so far in this planning. Watch for my next update on or before February 16th!

A Taste of Evaluation

Hanging out in a coworking space – like the Two Twenty in Saskatoon, Strong Roots’ home-away-from-home-office – provides many benefits, but one of the greatest is the mix of people and ideas in the space. As an example, over lunch today I overheard a conversation about writing restaurant reviews, which (being the research nerd I am) got me thinking about evaluation. Two pieces of advice came out of that chat that are just as applicable for non-profit programs as they are for lunch plates:

  • Find a balance between positive and negative. An honest review or evaluation is not the same as free PR: thoughtful and constructive critiques should be the standard. On the other hand, highlighting every minor problem or shortcoming can be equally problematic, especially if this form of reporting overshadows legitimate strengths and successes.
  • Keep context in mind. There should be a difference between a $5 sandwich from a food truck and a $20 sandwich served in a high-end restaurant: likewise, a newly-formed grassroots organization may not have the same scale of impact as an established service provider with a budget that’s larger by several orders of magnitude. While keeping the first point in mind, a reviewer could provide the smaller program with some leeway for shortcomings (especially if it shows potential in other areas), while the larger organization should demonstrate stronger impact given the resources and experience it has at hand. The hope is that both types of organization will “punch at its weight”, if not above it.

Both of these concepts ultimately point to the purpose of a review or evaluation. Undoubtedly, there is an informational aspect: interested parties, be they potential restaurant patrons or funders and other stakeholders, would like to know whether something of value exists to invest their time and money in. These reports, however, also have a second audience, namely those who falling under the microscope. An evaluation that identifies both what’s working well and where the program falls short, along with suggestions for appropriate and achievable improvements, will be the most useful for supporting high impact and encouraging development.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to grab a bite!