Tuesday Thoughts – The Beginning

I’ve decided to steal borrow inspiration from another Saskatoon freelancer, Sheena Greer of Colludo.ca, and start a weekly miscellaneous post. These Tuesday Thoughts will summarize recent happenings on this site and elsewhere related to community-based reseach, evaluation, and planning, as well as upcoming events and initiatives in Saskatoon. Unlike Sheena I won’t be providing muffin recipes, though if anyone is interesting in providing such goodies I would be more than happy to review them as part of this series.

Without further ado, let’s start!

From Last Week

  • The second update on my planning for Strong Roots, where I move beyond the abstract and start Getting to Goals.
  • Don’t just accept that your program or service won’t reach all of its intended audience! Ask Who’s Not Here, and why – the answer may be more useful than you think.

Around Toon Town

  • Personal plug – I’m a co-founder of Social Innovation YXE, a network of individuals and organizations interested in connecting, sharing, and learning more about social innovation in our fair city. Our next meetup is Wednesday March 5 at Station 20 West, visit the Picatic page for more info and to register!
  • The City of Saskatoon is seeking public feedback for planning growth up to half a million people (double our current population!). There’s an event tonight if you read this in time, otherwise sign up on the Growing Forward website to learn about future events more than an hour in advance.
  • Speaking of Sheena Greer, she’s looking to start online chats for non-profit folks in Saskatchewan.

Around the Web

Have some constructive feedback on this format? Got content for future posts? Let me know!

Who’s Not Here?

A social service or program is almost always designed with a target group in mind: for example, newcomers to Canada with limited English skills who are looking for employment, female students graduating from high school who cannot afford the traditional prom experience, or people who have a family member with a disability and want to share their experiences and find mutual support. Regardless of the specific issue, the idea is that there is a population out there who could benefit from your initiative.

In an ideal world, everyone who could participate would do so: of course, we do not live in an ideal world, and there will always be a proportion (small or large) of that group who are missed. Given this reality, why bother trying to learn more about these non-users? The reasons fall into two main camps: incremental improvements and developmental insights.

Incremental improvement

Your program is great but something in the execution is off, such as:

  • Potential participants don’t know about the program
  • They don’t believe they could benefit
  • The program is not held at a convenient time
  • The location is not easily accessible, either in the geographic sense (poor public transit service, lack of parking) or physically (lack of barrier-free access for people with disabilities)
  • Childcare is not available

If one or more of these barriers are present and keeping people away, the solutions tend to be relatively straightforward and usually don’t require changing the basics of the program itself. Awareness or beliefs can be addressed through an outreach campaign that raises awareness about the service and convince participants that the program will provide a benefit. Resources permitting, issues related to time, location, and basic enabling supports like childcare or transportation can be modified. One important factor to note is that these factors are all easier to change before the program is launched, so it’s best to reach out to potential participants as early as possible, even during the planning stages, to make sure barriers are removed or minimized.

Developmental Insights

Sometimes, there’s a deeper reason why someone chooses not to use your services: namely, there is a mismatch between what you’re providing and the needs of your potential participants. This challenge can be difficult to notice as your program (presumably) has at least some people coming out and benefiting. Once you’ve accounted for the barriers described above, what’s stopping others from attending?

One point that I remember from Michael Quinn Patton’s workshop on development evaluation is that a group which outsiders may at first glance see as unitary often consists of smaller sub-groups. We may believe that all newcomers or people in poverty are, if not exactly the same, similar enough that a program can capture all of them. However, even if we narrow the focus and create a support program for, say, single mothers living in poverty, we may still see sub-groups that are often context-dependent: run the same program in another city or another year and these groups may be drastically different.

Although these sub-groups can complicate service planning and delivery, understanding their perspective can help identify additional partners and resources, as well as suggest new approaches or initiatives. For example, an immigration-related program may not be relevant for individuals who have previous experience in the country as a student or visitor: instead of dismissing them as “non-users”, the program can be modified so that these experienced hands can volunteer as mentors for other newcomers, while at the same time building their own social networks. Other immigrants may be more willing to rely on family members, close friends, and ethnocultural associations and networks for support upon arrival: rather than reinvent the wheel, a settlement agency can connect with and offer information and training to these community sources of support. Somewhat paradoxically, non-users can help strengthen the work of your organization!

Regardless of whether you’re looking for incremental improvement or embarking on a developmental journey, learning more about these non-users is not an easy task: since they are by definition not participating, it’s often difficult to reach them and get their opinion. Next week, I will share some ideas on how to reach out and find some useful answers, but in the meantime feel free to share your own ideas and resources in the comments below, through social media, or traditional means.

Getting to Goals

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. This post is the second update in the process.

When planning, it’s incredibly useful to create a higher-level vision and mission, if for no other reason than to answer the self-posed question “Why am I doing this?”: to paraphrase Nietzsche, organizations with a “why” can endure pretty much any “how”. My first update in this three-month exercise provided a draft set of such statements, and I’m still satisfied with them a month later (though if you have any comments or suggestions please feel free to share them!).

Mind the Gap

Vision and mission looks at the long-haul through an aspirational lens. These broad goals can take a lifetime of work to accomplish, making them great for motivation, but not so much for shaping daily work. Task lists and short-term plans fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, supporting specific actions but running the risk of “getting lost in the weeds” with no obvious connection to the abstract aims of the vision and mission.

Intermediate goals help bridge the gap between the broader mission and vision on one side, and concrete actions and plans on the other. Specifically, the seven goals listed below will (hopefully) help translate the big picture to more manageable chunks and provide direction for decision-making. For example, if I come across an opportunity, such as an invitation to join a community initiative or participate in a professional conference, I can assess the prospect based on how it fits in with the goals. These objectives can also form the basis for assessing intermediate-term outcomes by going beyond a simple count of my actions and direct outputs: at the same time, it’s easier to see the impact I have made towards the goals compared to the overarching vision.

Strong Roots Consulting Goals

Without furhter ado:

  1. Promote the adoption of transformative and systemic approaches, models, and mindsets in the for-impact sector
  2. Support the internal growth and development of for-impact organizations, particularly in the areas of learning and evaluation
  3. Encourage and collaborate with others working to support non-profit and for-impact groups and organizations, especially those new to the field.
  4. Develop my skills and knowledge base on a continual basis, and in turn contribute these insights back to the community.
  5. Bridge knowledge from all its sources, including academia, practitioners, and especially community members with lived experience
  6. Connect people, groups, and organizations around issues that affect the for-impact sector and our community, in Saskatoon and beyond
  7. Follow sustainable and ethical business practices, and support companies and organizations that act similarly.

As with the mission and vision, I welcome your thoughts and feedback, either in the comments below, on social media, or through regular channels.

The last step of this puzzle will be creating some specific plans for this coming year. I want my actions and desired outcomes to be concrete and measurable but with some flexibility built in, recognizing that success or failure can often depend on factors beyond one’s control and changes in external context can provide unanticipated opportunities and challenges. Watch for the full plan to appear on this site next month!