AEA Conference – Connections

Right now, I have a bunch of ideas floating in my writing list from this conference. New tools, new insights, new ideas for programs or approaches that could be useful back home in Saskatoon. I think I could write up one of those topics each week between now and the end of the year and perhaps get through them all, though I still have a half-day left to add to that list.

I’m not going into any of those takeaways right now, because one thing keeps coming up in my mind: the importance of connections at this conference. Over the past few days, the laws of probability have been strained around how often I’d run into colleagues and friends, including one person who (we managed to figure out) I had met at a conference 8 years ago. I’ve had conversations with people from around the world and even ran into a few non-Canadians who know where Saskatoon is. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by other independent consultants, and hopefully provide them with some ideas in return. And last but not least, I’ve had the opportunity to laugh and share some inside evaluator humour, including through the magic of Chris Lysy’s cartooning.

Over the coming days, I hope to produce a more content-focused roundup of the conference, but in the meantime, to everyone I’ve had the chance to discuss and learn from and share with, thank you.

AEA Conference – A Call

Given that this is my third such conference, I should no longer be surprised that Eval 2015 is an amazing, overwhelming, encouraging, and ultimately empowering event! Both of my workshops were great learning opportunities leaving me with lots of ideas to bring back home to Saskatoon, I’ve run into several friends and colleagues already, and I managed to push past the butterflies in my stomach to successfully deliver my Ignite presentation. Seriously, give that format (or its cousin, Pecha Kucha) a try sometime – a set number of slides that change automatically, it’s a rush to present!
AEA Opening Plenary

The theme of this year’s conference is Exemplary Evaluations in a Multicultural World, and if the number of flags on stage at the opening ceremony is any indication, it’s definitely a global audience. I was proud, though perhaps not too surprised, to see that Canadians make up the largest non-American contingent at 139. And yet we don’t have our own badge ribbon? Next conference I should bring some maple leaf stickers.

I was heartened to see the opening ceremony beginning with a traditional welcome from a local Indigenous group. There’s a growing recognition in Canada and apparently the US as well of at least acknowledging the history of the land and people where we are meeting, and I hope this becomes the norm for events generally.

If there’s one take away from my experiences here thus far, it’s that we have the opportunity and the call to up our game as evaluators. Our field is gaining international recognition and legitimacy (2015 is the UN-recognized International Year of Evaluation), our skill sets are increasingly viewed as important and even necessary in creating sustainable social change, and at the same time we’re recognizing that we’re working in increasingly complicated and even complex situations. Our toolkit is growing to incorporate new ways of presenting data, engaging stakeholders, and demonstrating impact. We’re called to be exemplary.

Yes, it can be overwhelming and even a bit anxiety-provoking – who am I to take on these tasks and responsibilities? At the same time, it’s exhilarating to be here at this place and time, and to have this opportunity to learn and grow. I look forward to the rest of the conference, and more importantly, what I can and will do in the weeks and months to come to create a better world.

AEA in the Windy City

Greetings from Chicago! I arrived in town last night to attend the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference, the third such time I’ve attended this massive gathering of evaluators. Taking a quick look through the program, I’m still excited and overwhelmed by the sheer number of interesting sessions and workshops: even after three years, it’s difficult to choose what to take in without burning out!
This year, I’m also presenting in two sessions, one an Ignite talk on my professional path to evaluation, and the other one a more traditional presentation on development evaluation. I’m looking forward to the next few days, but between those talks, two workshops that I’m participating in, networking with colleagues old and new, and of course some time to explore this beautiful city, that time is going to pass by fast.

If you’re at the conference, feel free to drop me a line – I’m always up for a conversation! The best way to reach me the next few days is by Twitter or by email. Note that I am not reachable at the phone number on my contact page between now and the 15th: if you need to reach me by phone, contact me by email and I can send you my temporary US number.

As with past conferences, I will be tweeting regularly and also blogging on a daily basis if possible.

And yes, it’s been windy here!

Community View

Good news for non-profits: there’s a ton of information and data out there to help you understand your community and the people who live in it. Bad news for non-profits: there’s a ton of information and data out there. It can be hard to find what you’re looking for across multiple sites and agencies, especially if you aren’t certain who hosts which indicators. Even if you know where to look, it often takes a lot of time to gather that information and convert it into a useful format.

Given these challenges, I was happy to learn about Community View, a catalogue of data for Saskatoon and area. Developed by Saskatoon Health Region and supported by several local partners including the University of Saskatchewan, it’s an online tool that provides free access to a host of community-level indicators.

Community View

Last week I attended a workshop on using the tool, and a couple things stood out for me:

  • There’s a great range of reliable data sources – mostly census1 but also other sources such as from the Health Region and the school boards
  • The “data cart” feature sounds like an odd idea at first, but once you start using it to select indicators, it makes perfect sense.
  • Data can be easily filtered, including down to the neighbourhood level in Saskatoon for most stats. Filters can be applied to individual data sources or to the whole cart of indicators2.
  • Mapping tools are included, with options to show data (again on the neighbourhood level for most indicators) as either colour gradients or sized circles.
  • Data can be viewed in tabular form in the web browser as well as exported to Excel.
  • For the stats nerds among us, there are advanced features to play around with including setting different cutoffs for colour gradients on the map, creating new variables based on mathematical expressions (such as percentages), and uploading your own geocoded data to be mapped.
  • To bolster the amount of information available, documents such as written reports and articles are also included. Fortunately, it is easy to filter these documents out from listings and search results if you’re just looking for data sets.

Overall, Community View is a great resource for Saskatoon-based community researchers. For someone new to the world of community-level data and the online platforms that house them, it may be a bit intimidating at first: efforts such as the workshop I attended were clearly designed to alleviate the learning curve. Otherwise, I just wish that I had known about this tool sooner, and as one of the workshop attendees commented, that it was available for data across Canada!

What do you think about this tool? Are there similar websites out there that similarly bring together multiple datasets for community researchers? Share in the comments below, through Twitter, or the usual contact means.

  1. Including the infamous National Household Survey ↩︎
  2. Notwithstanding some peculiarities when mixing and matching different data sources ↩︎

Change in the Air

Shorts have been replaced by jackets, there’s a chill in the air, and leaves are starting to change – fall is definitely here in Saskatoon!
Rather than lament the end of summer (and the short time before we’ll be talking about the frozen white stuff hitting the ground!), I would like take a minute to look back with gratitude. Overall, it was a great summer, balanced between work and relaxation, travel and time around Saskatoon, looking back and looking forward. I had the opportunity to meet up with friends and colleagues in Vancouver, convened my advisory group for the first time, and created a strategic document to help guide my work over the next 12 months. Most importantly, I was able to spend some timing in reading and reflecting on what exactly is the core or heart of my work: what is the change that I want to see?

I’m really excited about the months to come, with some awesome projects starting up, the American Evaluation Association’s conference in Chicago to prepare for, and the opportunity to grow what Strong Roots can be – look for more on that in the weeks and months to come!

Over to you – how was your summer? What’s got you excited for the fall? Comment below or through Twitter!

News: Crowdfunding and Bunnyhugs

Lots on the go! If you’re based in Saskatchewan and work in the area of poverty reduction (or even if you don’t and simply care about the issue, which really should apply to everyone!), I strongly recommend you check out the survey link in the second item below related to the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy. The survey closes this Friday, so don’t delay!

Webinar on Board Diversity: Ideally, non-profit boards of directors are reflective of the communities they work in: this goal is not often met in practice. This Thursday, May 14 at 11am Sask time (1pm Eastern), a free webinar on Building Board Diversity and Inclusion (hat tip to Sheena Greer at Colludo!) will focus on “how to bring more diversity to your board and create a board culture that values diversity beyond the check box.”

Poverty Reduction Survey: Saskatchewan is one of two provinces in Canada without a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. Last year, efforts by the Poverty Costs initiative brought this issue onto the public radar, leading the provincial government to form an Advisory Group on Poverty Reduction to provide input into the formation of a strategy. That group is now asking for public feedback from both individuals and organizations through a brief online survey. Act fast, as it closes this Friday, May 15.

Leadership Saskatoon is holding a Sandbox Lunch and Learn on Wednesday May 27. Using a World Cafe approach, participants will learn about the Canada300 project and discuss the future of Canada over the next 150 years. Given the scope of the topic, it’s a longer session than usual, running 11:30-1:30 at the Affinity Credit Union’s St Mary’s branch (20th Street West and Avenue P). RSVP’s are required by May 22 – contact information and more details on the poster.

Still on Leadership Saskatoon, the application period for 2015-16 Leadership Saskatoon cohort is open until June 1. If you’re interested in applying, don’t delay!

Crowdfunding! Two amazing Saskatoon initiatives are running crowdfunding campaigns – check them out, as they’re both worthy of your support!

Next Up, a great youth leadership program focusing on social and environmental justice issues1, is looking for support to host an intensive session for First Nations and Métis youth. This is the second time for this specific session, and last year’s offering saw an amazing response. Money raised for this year will help provide program supplies, honoraria, and travel and childcare subsidies.

Treaty 6 Justice Collective has launched a campaign in support of a new community space called The Stand. Located in the Nutana community, this space will become the new home for independent bookstore Turning the Tide and provide coworking and meeting space for community organizers and grassroots organizations. Money raised will go towards renovation and equipment expenses with additional funds going towards initial operating costs and an organizing fund to support new community organizations.

Kudos! Speaking of crowdfunding, you may remember that Affinity Credit Union ran a social enterprise contest last fall that combined traditional grant making with a crowdfunding approach that raised over $90,000. That success was recently recognized with a National Credit Union award for Community Economic Development from Credit Union Central of Canada. Congrats to Affinity’s community development team – looking forward to this year’s contest!

And just in case you need a laugh, Vu Le over at Nonprofit With Balls provides some great templates to answer that perennial grant application question: how will your program be sustainable after our funding ends? The “poetic existential” and “short and simple” versions at the end are my favourite, but I have to give bonus points for including bunnyhugs2 in the Canadian version!

  1. Full disclosure: I was a volunteer presenter at one of Next Up’s sessions this past year.
  2. A Saskatchewan term for a hooded sweatshirt, or hoodie – I’m surprised that an American is familiar with a term, as I have never heard that term used elsewhere in Canada!

Learning Experience

While I won’t go into the origins of Strong Roots here (sounds like a superhero backstory), suffice to say it was a bit of a twisty path going from wide-eyed student to the slightly less wide-eyed but more experienced consultant you see before you. Along that path, I was helped by numerous amazing people who acted as mentors in some way and provided opportunities for me to learn and grow. Early on in building Strong Roots, I recognized that I wanted to pay that support forward to those new to the for-impact field, be they students, newcomers to the city or country, or someone making the shift into the sector after working elsewhere.

Last August, an urban and regional planning student, Shannon McAvoy, came by the Two Twenty looking for an opportunity to work or volunteer here. We talked and determined we could figured something out, with an opportunity for her to see first-hand what life is like as a solo consultant, and for me to put my principles in action as well as to learn more about the field of urban planning.

One obstacle came up immediately: I didn’t have enough regular work at the time for Shannon to join in on or the funds to compensate her time, aside from paying for her Two Twenty coworking membership. Although the laws in Saskatchewan around unpaid internships are somewhat vague, my position was that I wouldn’t ask her to do work that I would normally pay somebody to do. Instead, we ended up creating a hybrid model that combined a job shadow with volunteering together on a community project.


Discovering a mutual interest in improving public transit in Saskatoon, we started an initiative called Better Transit YXE1, with the aim to encourage dialogue around the role that transit plays in a growing city. We blogged, handed out candy canes on a cold December day, and had many coffee meetings with transit staff, city councillors, and leaders of related organizations like Bus Riders of Saskatoon and Saskatoon Cycles. Those conversations in particular had an unexpected impact, bringing together a small group of committed people who recently held a citywide event, 10 Days for Transit, to spark change around how we think and talk about transportation in our city. While the long-term effects will undoubtedly play out in the months and years to come, the fact that we could contribute in some small way was a huge win for this partnership.

All good things come to an end, and that’s true for this experience as well. With her final exams complete, Shannon will be graduating later this spring and subsequently moving to the south of the province. Better Transit YXE, always intended to last only as long as Shannon’s time with Strong Roots, will officially wrap-up in the coming days. The work of Strong Roots Consulting will continue, but I will miss Shannon’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and positive attitude in the weeks and months to come.

Shannon, thank you for all that you have brought to these last seven months! I hope that you found it a worthwhile experience, and I wish you all the best in the months and years to come.

  1. Like most other Canadian cities, Saskatoon’s three-letter airport code begins with “Y” and has no obvious relation to the city’s name. In this era of hashtags, it’s become a convenient and quirky shorthand.

News – In The Community

Although the 30 cm of snow that walloped Saskatoon this past weekend may not seem particularly spring-like, by tomorrow it should all be a soggy memory and we can enjoy the rest of the season in peace. Good thing, as there are a bevy of upcoming community events to get you outside and moving!

A Tale of Two Neighbourhoods

Two of Saskatoon’s historic neighbourhoods, Nutana and Riversdale, are separately holding community engagement events this coming week. As it happens, I live in the former and work in the latter, so I’m incredibly thankful that they are scheduled for separate nights so I can attend both!

First up is Nutana Talks: An Evening of Creative Community Building, hosted this Wednesday, April 29, by the Nutana Community Association at École Victoria School. The focus seems primarily on arts and culture, with a presentation by a theatre group that has been interviewing local residents about life in the community. The event starts at 6:30pm and the poster promises dotmocracy!

Skip across the river the following evening (April 30) for Riversdale Love’s kickoff event. Riversdale is the home to my home away from home, which gives me a front-row seat to the rapid changes happening to the neighbourhood. Riversdale Love is a response to these developments that aims to “connect diverse people in conversations about the future of Riversdale”. Twelve speakers, including representatives from local non-profits and businesses, artists, developers, and community members, each get 6 minutes and 40 seconds (20 slides x 20 seconds) to answer the question “What is your vision for the future of Riversdale?”. I have heard from a reliable source that there will be audience participation involving sticky notes: how could a community-engaged researcher not attend?

Jane’s Walk

Created in honour of urbanist Jane Jacobs, this worldwide event supports citizen-led walking tours that encourages people to tell stories, connect with neighbours, and learn more about their cities. This year, there are 15 such walks being hosted in Saskatoon from May 1-3, covering everything from urban forests to history of LGBTQ activism to the impact of infill. Maybe next year we can organize a walk highlighting the history of for-impact people and organizations in our city?


The weather should be nice, so let’s keep walking! On May 6, Colludo’s Sheena Greer, together with Paul Nazareth of Canada Helps and David Kravinchuck of Fundraising Pharmacy, will host a Nonprofit “Netwalk”. Networking while going for a stroll along the beautiful South Saskatchewan makes perfect sense – well, at least at this time of year! Show up at the Farmer’s Market next Wednesday, May 6 at 7:45 with comfortable shoes.

Now that spring is here, how are you (re-)connecting with your community, however you define it? Share in the comments below or continue the conversation on Twitter!

Exploring Beliefs, Listening for Change

Research, even in a community-based context, is often associated with providing evidence and providing some degree of certainty. Can we prove that poverty is increasing? Can we show that our organization’s efforts are making a difference (and thus we deserve more funding)?

There are other aspects of research that get less attention but are equally as crucial. Exploratory work may not “prove” something in the traditional sense, but can help sketch out a map of what direction to take next. Likewise, research can help disconfirm previously-held ideas: as the cliche goes, one black swan is all that’s needed to disprove the belief that all swans are white. Through these two approaches, research can challenge established ideas and ways of effecting change.

Last night, I came across an article about an exploratory research project on auditory hallucinations, originally reported in The Lancet Psychiatry. Cleverly titled “Hearing the Voice”, the research group behind the project decided to use a survey to learn more about what people actually experience, even if they did not have a clinical diagnosis.

Using open-ended questions, they found some results that countered previous research and long-held assumptions. For example, in contrast to the idea that most voices are violent or potentially harmful, most respondents described them as being helpful or benign. Although the research has its shortcomings, such as no way to verify participants’ self-reported experiences, the results suggest that what we previously thought about “hearing voices” may not be totally correct.

What beliefs do we hold onto in the for-impact sector about the people and communities we work with?

  • Seniors / newcomers to our country / low-income individuals and families don’t use social media, so we shouldn’t bother to advertise our events and programs on Facebook or Twitter
  • Our clients have poor education and skills
  • Participants and local community members don’t have the time or interest to play a leadership role in our organization

Some of these beliefs may in fact be true for your context, while others should put thrown in the same bin as “If you’re hearing voices, they’re most likely saying bad things”. Holding on to these old beliefs in absence of evidence could easily lead us to miss opportunities to create a broader impact.

Fortunately, the solution is pretty straightforward. Ask your participants open-ended questions, watch what’s happening in the community, and connect with partners and local leaders around your issue. Most importantly, approach this research not to confirm what you already know (or think you know), but to challenge your beliefs and learn something new.

News – Chats, Culture, and Change!

Welcome to a new month! Prepare yourself to hear (and perhaps initiate yourself) random small talk around the office of “Wow, can you believe it’s March already?”. Lots happening this month, so on to the content!


A new month of course means another #SKNPChat – this month, hosted by yours truly on the topic of evaluation. For those questions you’ve had about program evaluation but were afraid to ask your funder about, now’s your chance. Join us this Thursday at 11am Saskatchewan time!

To recognize the upcoming International Women’s Day, International Women of Saskatoon (IWS) is hosting an event on Friday, March 6, at the Hilton Garden Inn. Running from 9:30 to noon, the event focuses on women as change agents and will feature two panel discussion, one on women in politics and the other on the workplace. Check the link above for further details and RSVP info.

Also this Friday, KPMG and the United Way of Saskatoon and Area are hosting a panel discussion for local non-profits on the topic of community engagement and sustainability. The discussion starts at 3:30 and takes place at the Sheraton Cavalier’s “Top of the Inn” ballroom.

Leadership Saskatoon is hosting a Sandbox Lunch and Learn on March 18. Alleson Mason, from the Saskatchewan Open Doors Society, will be presenting on “Intercultural Communication & Cultural Diversity in Saskatoon”. More details including location and RSVP information available here.


Applications for the Community Initiatives Fund’s Community Grant and Community Places and Spaces programs are both due April 1. These funds are open to all Saskatchewan nonprofits (charitable status not required): unincorporated groups can apply if endorsed by an eligible organization (nonprofit, municipality, health region, school, school division) that will handle the funds on behalf of the applicant.

SaskCulture is providing funding assistance for organizations participating in Culture Days (September 25-27 this year). Registered Saskatchewan non-profits with a cultural mandate can apply individually for event funding or as a group (minimum three organizations) to host a Cultural Hub. Due date is April 15.

New @Strong Roots

New office

Two quick pieces of Strong Roots news. First, it turns out my announcement earlier this year about moving into an office was slightly premature: good news, things have worked out and I am now the proud lessee of suite 213 at the Two Twenty! It’ll be a few days before I’m moved in fully and settled (as you can see in the pic, I’m going for the whole lean startup look1, but feel free to drop by and say hi.

Second, I’ve been playing around with a bit of a website redesign, featuring a new logo – check out the teaser! Besides having a fresher look, the new site will be reorganized to highlight the core work I do with for-impact organizations.

How are you holding up into the third month of 2015? Share below, drop me a line on Twitter as practice for Thursday’s tweet chat, or send an email!

  1. Thanks to my new neighbour Joanne from the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council for lending me a desk for today!