Tuesday Seeds for Thought – Home

Last week saw me in the Big Smoke for a family event. It was great to reconnect with relatives and friends, but as always with travel, it’s nice to come back home. This week’s Seeds (loosely) follows that theme of home, whether it falls under developments in my geographic neighbourhood or what constitutes a professional identity “home”.

From Last Week

I had hoped to get last week’s Seeds written and posted before I left, but that didn’t happen. However, I did submit a conference proposal with my friend and colleague Chi Yan Lam. If accepted, we’ll be co-hosting a “Birds of a Feather” gathering at this fall’s American Evaluation Association conference to bring together people interested in developmental evaluation. We’re not calling it a Community of Practice ( … yet) but hopefully we can help connect practitioners who may be otherwise isolated in promoting this approach.

Around the Web

  • I have considered the non-profit sector to be my home for some time, even though I’m technically on the for-profit side now (with a social purpose, but still a business). Gordon Brown provides his take on What You Need To Know About Working For A Non-Profit – I don’t agree with everything he wrote, but it’s a good overview.
  • During last week’s trip I had a conversation with my sister-in-law about experimental designs, and the next day came across this Chris Lysy cartoon set on the closely-related Randomized Controlled Trial. Given that I “grew up”, academically speaking, in traditional research psychology, I have seen how experimental designs can be elevated as the best (if not only) way to conduct research: however, my understanding of what constitutes knowledge and ways to understand the world has expanded since then. That being said, feel free to call me out if I ever call someone a “randomista”.
  • Helping people understand research and evaluation is often about finding metaphors that resonate. Charles Gasper at the Evaluation Evangelist uses the analogy of picking your March Madness bracket: I’m not a basketball fan, but hey, if it helps you understand evaluation, I’m all for it!

Around Toon Town

  • Leadership Saskatoon is holding a Lunch and Learn session tomorrow (Wednesday) on the topic of innovation in organizations. The session takes place at the Saskatchewan Abilities Council site on Kilburn starting at 12:05 and participants are asked to RSVP.
  • Leadership Saskatoon is also accepting nominations for their Community Leadership award (due April 1) and applications for next year’s leadership development program (due June 10, but as there’s usually a wait list so best to submit ASAP!) – more information on their website.
  • Next Wednesday (April 2), catch the Fuze Conference on marketing and communication, which includes some great speakers on community engagement.
  • Shameless plug: the Saskatoon Community Band (I play trombone in their wind ensemble) is welcoming the arrival of spring with a concert next Wednesday at 7:30 at the Broadway Theatre. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students) – contact me if you’re in Saskatoon and interested!

Feeling at home with this format, or ready to pack up and move on? Either way, let me know through comments below, on Twitter, or the standard contact means.

Tuesday Seeds for Thought – Snow to Slush

A new pond at the corner of 9th and Broadway

After last week’s crazy-cold weather, spring has definitely arrived in Saskatoon. Temperatures are hovering just around the freezing point, which has allowed us stoic prairie folk to shed a couple of layers: on the downside, we’re now facing potholes and puddles. I’m sure winter has at least one parting storm up its sleeve for us this year, but I think we’ll be firing up the grills, hitting the patios, and soaking up some sun not long from now.

On to the news!

From Last Week

Around Toon Town

  • As mentioned in the previous instalment, this week marks the launch of the Poverty Costs campaign. There’s a Poverty 101 session this Thursday night and a benefit concert at Amigo’s Saturday!
  • Also listed last week is the Brain Blast educational event, taking place on Sunday March 16 between 12-3 at City Hospital. Sounds like a great opportunity to see how much I forgot remember from Psych 100 all those years ago.
  • In case your schedule wasn’t full enough, the University of Saskatchewan is hosting Aboriginal Achievement Week to celebrate Aboriginal achievement, reflect on traditions and ceremonies, and connect with the community. Tonight I’m hoping to catch Buffy Sainte-Marie’s presentation at the Broadway Theatre!
  • More happenings at the Broadway: Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc is hosting a screening of”Beethoven Lives Upstairs” on Friday March 14 starting at 7pm, with an interactive discussion following the film.
  • Saskatchewan Co-operative Association is hosting a webinar next week (March 19th) with Vanessa Hammond on the topic of co-operative governance.

Around the Web

"How's your Developmental Eval presentation coming?" "It's still in development ..."

Thoughts? Accolades? (Constructive) Criticism? Ideas for future posts? Please share!

The Right Questions

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of learning more about those individuals who aren’t accessing your services or programs. Before sharing some ideas on connecting with these groups, I wanted to raise an important point: more than mere “wordsmithing”, the way you ask the question matters.

Let’s back up a second. How many times have you heard something along the lines of “How do we attract more [...]?” The blank can be “youth”, “women”, “newcomers”, “low-income participants”, “visible minorities”, “people with disabilities” or any other label. On the surface, this question appears innocuous: you’re simply asking what can be done to reach out to a group that’s not present. That phrase comes with some troubling undertones though. People are reduced to a single overarching identity, ignoring their unique experiences and (as discussed in the original post) the potential that what you see as a unitary population may in fact consist of multiple subgroups with different strengths and challenges. At its extreme, it can make you seem like you want them in your program just to check off the box that you have sufficient representation from whatever identity you’ve labelled them with, making your outreach efforts seem tokenistic.

That type of question also has a paradoxical relationship with action. On the one hand, you’re predisposed to doing something (anything, perhaps?) to pave the way to increased participation. Simultaneously, this approach often comes with an underlying assumption that, although your organization is the one acting, the people you’re trying to attract are the ones with the problem. [Sarcasm alert] Perhaps they need to be made aware of how awesome your service is, or maybe they face some type of challenge or barrier that you’ve decided to graciously accommodate.

Good research, planning, and evaluation always begin with good questions. Instead of asking how do we get more people, start by asking an open-ended question: “why”. Why would they make use of your service or program in the first place? Why aren’t we seeing them here? As mentioned in the first post in this series, perhaps they’re drawing on strengths and resources you hadn’t considered. Maybe your organization has a bad reputation in the community, such as from previously taking a “How do we attract” approach that gave off the vibe of “We want you because you’ll make our program numbers look good”. Maybe your program or service isn’t so awesome after all, and you need to spend more time building relationships with the community instead of leaping immediately to action based on assumptions of what’s needed.

The answers from asking “why” may not suggest an immediate course of action. They may bring up uncomfortable truths about how your organization is viewed in the community. They could even shatter preconceived notions you may have held about those you work with and (nominally) serve. It’s not an easy process to ask why, but you need to trust that your organization can work through the difficult answers and ultimately become more responsive to the community as a result.

The next post will suggest some specific methods for reaching out and learning more about individuals and groups you may not have pre-existing connections with. In the meantime, let’s continue the conversation: share your thoughts below in the comments, on Twitter, or through the usual contact methods!

Tuesday Seeds for Thought – March Lions

It’s March, but if you live in Saskatoon you wouldn’t know it from the weather. With temperatures hovering around the -50 Celsius mark with the windchill this past weekend, winter clearly shows no interest in vacating the premises anytime soon. That being said, with the new month and the longer days there’s definitely a shift in the air, anticipating that spring is just around the corner. Fittingly, there seems to be a lot of neat local events in the works: shake off the winter doldrums and check out what’s happening!

From Last Week

I was originally planning to post the followup to Who’s Not Here this past week, but a random brainwave related to an Internet meme sent me in a slightly different direction – watch for this unplanned-but-insightful part 1.5 to hit the blog this week!

Around Town

  • As advertised last week, the Social Innovation YXE March Meetup will be taking place tomorrow (March 5) at Station 20 West. There are still spots available, so if you’re interested register now!
  • CHEP Good Food Inc is hosting a screening of urban agriculture film Growing Cities this Thursday, March 6, at 7pm at the Broadway Theatre. (Hat tip to EcoFriendly Sask, a great source for local environmental news!)
  • This coming Saturday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and the Saskatoon community is marking the occasion with several events around the city (via The StarPhoenix).
  • Saskatchewan is one of two provinces in Canada that lacks a comprehensive poverty reduction plan: Poverty Costs aims to change that and build awareness of the impact that poverty has on everyone. Their campaign launches next Monday, March 10 at 1pm at Station 20 West.
  • Next week is also Brain Awareness week, culminating with a Brain Blast educational event on Sunday March 16 between 12-3 at City Hospital. I’m thinking there should also be a Brian Spelling Awareness week: you wouldn’t believe how many people have flipped the “i” and “a” in my name. Including myself, naturally.

Around the Web

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

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!

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!