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!

Events

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.

Grants

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!

(Re) Visiting

There’s a lot you can learn when traveling, even (especially?) when you’re going to a place that’s familiar. Earlier this month I made the trek to Winnipeg, the city where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. Although in recent years I make it back on average a couple times a year, I usually don’t break out of the normal routine of seeing family and friends. Funny enough, out of all the cities I’ve lived in I’m probably least familiar with what’s happening in the “for-impact” sphere in Winnipeg, even though I spent more than half of my life there.

Lunch with a Side of Change

To start changing that imbalance, I met up with Kaye Grant, an independent consultant as well as the communication coordinator for Canadian Worker Co-op Federation1. Kaye’s primary focus is management consulting with both businesses and nonprofits, and also has a strong interest in social enterprise. As it turns out, we both were at the Social Enterprise World Forum a few years ago in Calgary: she has also worked with Marty Donkervoort, who presented at the conference on his experiences with Inner City Renovation in Winnipeg.

Our time together started with a late lunch at Neechi Commons. This space, located just north of Winnipeg’s downtown in the Point Douglas neighbourhood, is in many ways a mirror-image of Saskatoon’s Station 20 West. Both buildings house a grocery space, café, and office space for local community organizations: Neechi also includes a small store selling art and craftwork with a focus on local artists.

There’s also a geographical similiarity at play. Like Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods of Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, Winnipeg’s Point Douglas has faced a lot of difficulties over the past decades. Visiting that area after dark was seen as dangerous for someone growing up in the suburbs, a stereotype that, while having some basis in reality, was exacerbated by regular media stories of poverty and crime: I imagine that the core neighbourhoods here in Saskatoon have confronted similar stigma. Although these communities in both cities still face numerous challenges, there’s a renewed sense of hope and energy for creating meaningful and equitable change.

Have Warehouse, Will Innovate

After Neechi, we travelled a few blocks down to Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Centre. Located in a repurposed warehouse just north of the train tracks seperating Point Douglas from Winnipeg’s downtown, the centre houses multiple tenants including neighbourhood groups, a community-university research partnership, a hardware co-op and several construction and renovation social enterprises, including BUILD and Manitoba Green Retrofit (MGR).

Lucas from MGR gave us a tour and shared some of the history of both the building and his organization. He had started working for BUILD, an organization that provides energy retrofits of old homes as a means to improve local low-income housing stock and provide training for people who face barriers to employment. Although successful on the training front, BUILD faced two issues: first, their graduates were having difficulties finding and holding employment in their field, and second, due to funder restrictions BUILD was limited in the types of contracts they could take on.

The solution? Start a new social enterprise, Manitoba Green Retrofit, that could provide the work experience and would be free to pursue different contracts. Graduates trained through BUILD could find meaningful employment with MGR, building their resume and developing soft skills such as learning how to navigate workplace culture. According to Lucas, so far the approach has been successful, with expansion in the cards: the only snag is accessing capital, which is somewhat complicated by their non-profit status.

The City You Visit is Not the One You Grew Up In

What did I take away from this experience?

First off is inspiration. As with many Winnipeggers, I hold a love-hate relationship with our common city of origin2, and it can be difficult to shake impressions rooted in 18 years of memory. These views have been challenged recently by friends and colleagues here in Saskatoon who’ve spoken highly of the city3, but as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. Meeting people from my hometown who are tackling deep-rooted issues with innovative approaches was hugely inspiring: hopefully there will be future opportunities for me to continue learning from them, to share ideas with organizations here in Saskatoon, and perhaps contribute to their work!

The broader lesson that I took away is linked to the importance of a longer term impact and vision. The people and organizations I connected with were all working towards the same end, namely creating positive change for the community and its members, even though they worked under different structures (non-profit, social enterprise, for-profit) and utilized different skills and knowledge bases. There’s the risk in promoting social enterprises of over-emphasizing the importance of business-based solutions: at the same time, saying that all social change has to come from charity or government can be just as limiting. There’s no one-size approach for the change we want to see. In my opinion, so long as we bring similar values, goals, and dreams, that’s a good thing.

  1. Hat tip to Victor Das for making the connection!
  2. Check out the forward to an aptly titled book, “Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg” if you want further insight into this duality.
  3. Just not during the CFL season.

Borrowed Terms

Pop quiz: What is the basic aim of any non-profit organziation? (or for-impact, a term I’m growing attached to more and more)

  1. Use force or the capacity for force to protect one's nation-state and secure its international policy aims
  2. Generate financial profit for the organization's owners / stakeholders
  3. Create positive change in our communities

The answer is obviously the third option. Yet, many of the ideas and concepts in our sector have been borrowed from the military and business worlds. I was reminded about this fact not long ago by an article in the Harvard Business Review that encourages for-profit businesses to stop using battle metaphors: make customers, not war. In our line of work, we aim to make change, but we talk about tactics and strategy (as pointed out in the HBR article, originating from the ancient Greek term for a military general), cost-benefit analyses, and after-action reviews, among others.

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely good ideas and concepts we can borrow from these areas. Both have had to grapple with balancing efficiency and impact, planning for and adapting to complex and changing situations, and avoiding mission creep (oops, there’s a borrowed term again!). In some ways, the stakes are higher when we start talking dollars and firepower: just take a look at the worst-case scenario in the three spheres, what happens if they don’t bring their best game to the table. For the military, it’s death and destruction. In business, financial ruin for individuals, companies, even whole financial systems. Non-profits? Well, people and communities don’t grow and improve, or even end up backsliding, and individual organizations may have to shut their doors. On the other hand, charity and government funds will continue to come through in some form, even with the sector increasingly under the microscope. I’m being somewhat flippant here, but in many ways non-profits haven’t faced the same degree of challenge as our colleagues in arms and in suits.

Are there any terms that we use regularly that have a non-profit or for-impact origin? One that comes to mind is program evaluation, with Michael Quinn Patton noting that “Evaluation, like the urban poor, grew up in the projects – large government structures aimed at concentrating limited resources on seemingly unlimited problems”1. We don’t have straightforward metrics of success like territory held, market share, or financial bottom line (pervasiveness of the overhead myth notwithstanding). Building better communities and changing people’s lives requires a different approach, one that both provides accountability and facilitates learning.

Again, I’m not advocating for us to drop useful military and business terms from our vocabulary. Instead, let's be aware of where those ideas come from and what baggage they bring, recognize our own contributions, and continue developing our own ideas – perhaps in the near future we’ll start seeing non-profit terms enter others’ lexicons!

What are some other terms that have a non-profit origin? What for-impact ideas are ripe for introducing to other sectors? Share below or on Twitter!

  1. Patton, M.Q. (1994). Developmental evaluation. Evaluation Practice, 15, 311-319.

News – Flurry of Events and Road Trip!

As far as I know, Saskatchewan does not have a resident gopher to prognosticate on our weather chances. We’re pretty sure that, flirtations with spring-like weather a few weeks ago aside, winter won’t be leaving any time soon – it’s -23 as I write this, with the windchill making it feel like -32! Fortunately, the sun is out, the sky is clear, and there’s plenty happening in Saskatoon to keep busy and warm.

More events!

Lots happening in Saskatoon this week!

Station 20 West, a great community space in the west end, is holding a Winter Celebration open house this afternoon from 3-6. The event includes music, food, kids activities, and an opportunity to connect with the organizations that call that space home.

Also today, the Children’s Discovery Museum is hosting an open house to discuss the ideas for their new space at the Mendel Art Gallery, opening in 2017. The event takes place at the Mendel from 10-8, with presentations at noon, 4:30, and 7pm.

Previously mentioned in my last news blast, a reminder about the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre’s Community Engagement event happening Wednesday, February 4 at Station 20 West from 10-1 and again from 5-8.

Sheena Greer is hosting another #sknpchat this coming Thursday, Feb 5 at 11am CST for Saskatchewan based nonprofits on the topic of corporate partnerships. I’m sure that non-Saskatchewan Twitter peeps are welcome, as long as you can properly pronounce and spell “Regina”.

Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation is hosting their annual awards gala this Thursday at the Roxy Theatre on 20th Street West. I know two of the recipients via the Two Twenty, namely the Poverty Costs Campaign (an initiative of SFBLC, Upstream, and the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition) and Reyn Lauer, and I can’t think of who else would be more deserving! Free and open to the public (RSVP’s appreciated). Doors open at 6 and the program starts at 6:30.

NextUp, a youth leadership program, is hosting a Human Library – instead of taking books off a shelf, you engage in conversation with human “books” and get to hear their stories! The theme of this library is “History of Women and Transgender People Making Change in Saskatchewan”, and will take place at Station 20 West (lots of events there!) next Monday, February 9, from 6-8:30pm.

Last but not least, Innoweave has some webinars and online workshops coming up in the next few months, including on Social Enterprise and Collective Impact. Some of the events require registration with dates coming up soon – see their Events page for more details.

Applications!

Saskatoon Community Foundation is accepting applications for their Youth Empowerment Saskatoon (YES!) grants, with priority given to projects focusing on Support for Economically Disadvantaged Youth, Arts and Culture, Healthy Living, Youth with Disabilities, Social Support for Youth, or Education and Employment. Applications are due March 1.

Leadership Saskatoon has opened nominations for their Community Leader award – more details available on their site. They’re also starting to accept applications for their Leadership development program – I was part of the 2013-14 cohort and it was a great opportunity to reflect on my leadership journey, stretch my abilities, and learn from individuals across the public, private, and nonprofit spheres. The deadline for the application is June 1, but if you’re interested, best to apply soon as possible.

Finally, a quick reminder about the Social Innovation Residency application that I wrote about a few weeks ago – it would be great to see some Saskatchewan-based innovators in the inaugural cohort!

Strong Roots on the Road!

Are you a non-profit based in Winnipeg ? I’ll be in town next week, primarily for a family visit but I’m also up for connecting with individuals or organizations for conversations around evaluation, social innovation, social enterprise, or non-profit capacity building in general. Have coffee, will chat!

Anything I missed? Upcoming news to share about happenings in Saskatoon? Let me know!

Meeting with Purpose

Annual General Meetings (AGM’s) are a staple of the nonprofit world, even if they tend to be somewhat dry affairs – and I’m being charitable in that description! Once a year we come together, shuffle our way through reports, endure calls for more dollars, volunteers, and board members, pass motions, quibble over figures in the audited financials, vote in a slate of directors, and finally approve the blessed motion to adjourn until next year.

A board that I sit on had its AGM last night, which I duly attended. It started by hewing to the time-established formula: a welcome from our president, approval of the agenda, reports from the auditor, and acceptance of our financial statements. Then our executive director took the stage. He’s always a great storyteller, especially when he has the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for our organization and the cause, but last night he was firing on all cylinders. Slides of numbers and charts, guaranteed to be an enthusiasm-killer in less-skilled hands, came alive. He effortlessly weaved together stories of our past challenges, recent accomplishments, and future dreams and aspirations. His words went beyond our four walls and programs to encompass our place in the community, both what it had been and what it could be. I don’t know what others thought about his spiel, but I know that it made me feel a bit of pride – pride in our accomplishments, pride in the (small) contributions I had made so far in my year as a board member – and excitement for what would be to come for our organization.

AGM’s, at their best, can be an opportunity to engage community members and stakeholders, provide oversight and accountability, and demonstrate the relevancy of programs and services. At their core, these meetings are a time to share: share data points and insights (good and bad!) about the year that has passed, share stories of success and adversity, share hopes and visions. Done well, they can inspire, energize, and open the door for future partnerships and opportunities. Next time you’re involved with planning an AGM, whether as a board member or staff, take a minute to think what the purpose of the event will be, beyond fulfilling legal requirements for another year. What can you do to make staff, volunteers, board members, and community members walk away with an extra spring in their step, hopeful and excited for the next year? What’s the narrative that you hope they’ll take away and share with their friends and colleagues? Will they understand the organization’s vision and what it will need to succeed?

Taking this approach doesn’t require a lot of extra work: just a slight shift in mindset away from the AGM as a chore and towards AGM as an opportunity.

News: Funds, Retreats, Conversations, and Growth!

It’s mid-January, and while we’ve hit a warm patch (at least by Saskatoon standards), it’s still a blah time of year. This month’s update looks at funding for nonprofits in Saskatoon, an awesome social innovation residency, and some great local events to encourage you to get out of any midwinter ruts! (Note: This post will not help you get out of any literal ruts, of which there are many here at this time of year.)

Social Innovation Residency

What could be better than spending a month in Banff? Spending a month in Banff with other change makers and leaders on an intense retreat to explore social innovation concepts and work on developing your own ideas! Did I mention that it’s free? More details including an application form (due March 1) are available on The Banff Centre’s website.

Quality of Life Grants

The deadline is quickly approaching for the Saskatoon Community Foundation’s Quality of Life Grants! Amounts in the range of $5,000-10,000 are available for registered charities in any of the Foundation’s seven areas of focus, with an emphasis this year on early childhood development. A brief Letter of Intent form is due through their online system by February 1: applicants selected from this stage will be invited to complete a full application for March 1.

Financing Survey

Also from the Saskatoon Community Foundation is a brief survey for local charities related to debt financing. From the survey preamble and questions, it sounds like they’re investigating opportunities to support charities through low-interest loans and other forms of social financing. Taken together with Affinity’s successful social enterprise crowdfunding campaign late last year, there’s definitely some momentum in Saskatoon for supporting for-impact organizations in new ways!

Salon Colludo

My co-conspirator Sheena Greer is hosting another Playdate later this week for a select group of local nonprofiteers. I was part of the inaugural group back in August – it was awesome then, so I can’t wait to hear what she comes up with this time! There will be a Salon Colludo networking event following the Playdate, open to anyone “working for or interested in the nonprofit & social sectors in Saskatoon”. It’s a come and go event running from 4-8pm on Thursday January 22 at Mediterranno on 3rd Avenue. Hope to see you there!

Community Consultation

The Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre (SFBLC) is hosting a Community Conversation for community members and local organizations alike. Taking place on Wednesday February 4 between 10am-1pm and again from 5-8 (short presentations at 10:30 and 5:30) at Station 20 West, this event is an opportunity to learn more about the work that SFBLC does in the community, how it views the issue of food security and poverty, share your feedback on its current approaches and ideas for the future, and connect with staff, volunteers, and other people interested in this issue. RSVP’s are appreciated (contact info on the Facebook page) and everyone is welcome.

[Full disclosure: I’m currently working with SFBLC on a related project and have provided some assistance with the planning for this event.]

Strong Roots is growing!

Couldn’t share an update on happenings without talking about Strong Roots, right? There are some exciting changes afoot, starting with a transition at the end of this month from the home office/coworking space split into a commercial office space that I’m sharing with a friend. It’s still at the Two Twenty so I get to keep all the privileges, perks, and social connections I’ve developed there, but now with a bit more, well, rootedness.

Got something interesting happening in Saskatoon and area to share? Drop me a line!

The City and The Non-Profit

The city shapes us & we shape the city.

The line above adorns the new coffee mugs at The Two Twenty, reflecting both the coworking space’s openness to a range of people and organizations, and its influence on the surrounding neighbourhood of Riversdale and the city of Saskatoon as a whole. Whether those mutual influences are beneficial or harmful (or both) doesn’t come into the equation of that simple sentence: it’s taken as a given that we cannot separate the two, that even if one has more “power” at any given moment, the influence will be inherently reciprocal.

The city shapes us & we shape the city

The city shapes us & we shape the city


If the “we” in that line is used to refer to your non-profit organization or the “for-impact” sector in your city (or town or village or region), does the idea of mutual influence and change hold true? In asking that question, I don’t mean the surface level factors of who we serve, who we collaborate with, and which funders we apply to. I’m not talking about the metrics of how many individuals or families came through your door and participated in your program and escaped poverty as a result. Understanding community demographics and trends is a good start, as is realizing that a successful program model created for downtown Toronto cannot be imported whole-cloth to suburban Saskatoon (or vice-versa) without some modifications. But that’s only a start.

What would it be like if we opened our ways of acting and being in our communities to allow ourselves to be shaped and to shape in return? Wait, let me start with a different question – how many times have you learned about an interesting program or model being used elsewhere and immediately set out to figuring out how to implement it in your context? Don’t be shy, I’ve been guilty of this one too, and there’s nothing wrong with learning from others and adapting good ideas. The problem comes in starting with the solution and a vaguely-defined problem: we’re not longer shaping the city, we’re imposing a specific idea of what should be on it.

Here’s an alternative: start by allowing the city to shape you. Take some time to learn about and connect with the different individuals and organizations who, like you, have a stake in the well-being of the community: local residents, businesses, government officials, neighbourhood groups, and other for-impact agencies, just to name a few. Host a community conversation where the primary purpose is for you to listen to what others think about your organization and the issue you’re trying to tackle, instead of selling your program to donors or trying to recruit new participants. Create organizational procedures and structures that encourage regular (and meaningful!) community input for your programs, strategies, and overall direction. Build on the existing knowledge, relationships, skills, and other strengths that your participants bring to the table, instead of viewing them as a bundle of needs and deficits.

At the same time, look for opportunities for broader change-making. The for-impact sector as a whole contributes more to our country’s GDP than the retail sector and in the same ballpark as mining and oil, but we often fail to leverage our strengths and collective voice to shape our cities and societies. I’m encouraged by the growth of approaches like Collective Impact, promoted by Tamarack here in Canada and FSG south of the border. The model provides a framework for community members and organizations to identify a common issue, determine a shared agenda, and work together to bring about change: this and other approaches can help turn our dreams and visions for what could be into reality.

We all exist somewhere. We all call a community home. That place will shape us, if we let it: in return, we all have the opportunity and the duty to contribute in return.

What’s Your Impact?

How do you kill a nonprofit? According to Mark Hager and Elizabeth Searing over at Nonprofit Quarterly, there are at least ten pitfalls to avoid, including accumulation of debt, trashing your reputation, and the perennial favourite of mission drift. Given my work in evaluation, the one that really interests me is saved for last, labelled as “Think that ‘good’ is good enough”. There are plenty of good causes out there: if you don’t measure and demonstrate your organization’s impact, the authors argue, donors will support other causes that can show the difference they’re making with their dollars (There are other good reasons for evaluating, such as program improvement and development, but let’s roll with this justification for now).

Most people in the non-profit/for-impact sphere understand the importance of showing impact, but how do we go about doing so? In a nutshell, there’s no one way. Let me repeat that – there is no silver bullet, no one statistic that will make donors and funders sit up and shower us with legitimacy, favour, and funds.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take an example from the tech world, home to plenty of numbers and statistics. Ev Williams, CEO of blog platform Medium, noted that commonly-used metrics for social media networks, such as number of active users, unique visitors, pages viewed, or time spent on a site, are all imperfect. Even though Medium uses time spent as its prime statistic, Williams notes that time “[is] not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.” Any single measurement can be mis-used and provide the illusion of success. Quoting Jonah Peretti, Williams further asserts that there is no “God metric”.

If a sector as replete with data as social media does not have a God metric, how can we expect our non-profit world, filled with messiness and uncertainty, to find one?

Donors and funders, unfortunately, have grabbed onto the idea of “efficiency”, defined simply as the proportion of funds spent directly on programs compared to other costs such as overhead and fundraising. Certainly, a very wasteful organization won’t make a large impact: conversely, one that puts all its funds towards programs and none towards the infrastructure that any organization needs (a roof over its head, staff salaries, planning, and IT, for starters) will quickly run out of steam. Others have written much more eloquently about the “overhead myth”: for starters, check out this article by Dan Pallotta from almost five years ago!

Internally, many nonprofits grab onto basic outcome measurements: number of participants (new and returning), number of sessions held, percentage of participants who complete the program. These statistics are a great first step to make sure that the fundamentals of any change effort are in place, but they’re just that: a first step. How do we know that a program is making an impact and that people aren’t just showing up for the free donuts? As an example, a low number of repeat participants could demonstrate many things: lack of engagement with the program, a highly transient population, or an extremely effective initiative where one visit is enough to make a lasting difference. We can’t look at that one number and make a meaningful assessment.

So what’s the solution?

Back to Williams:

If what you care about — or are trying to report on — is impact on the world, it all gets very slippery. You’re not measuring a rectangle, you’re measuring an multi-dimensional space. You have to accept that things are very imperfectly measured and just try to learn as much as you can from multiple metrics and anecdotes.

All of us – organizations, staff, donors, and funders – need to work on our comfort with messiness. We need new ways to conceive of measuring impact, such as developmental evaluation which shifts the conversation from “prove” to “improve”. We need to improve our collaborative efforts through approaches like Collective Impact, which explicitly recognizes the importance of sharing data between organizations to assess impact. We need to move away from searching for a God metric and instead identify multiple sources of information (numbers and stories alike) that can provide insight on the difference we’re making.

“Good” is indeed not good enough for our field, but we also have to realize that there’s no one clear path, no one clear measurement of “better”. Once we acknowledge this truth, we can start learning and working towards improving our impact.

A 2015 Goal

For many of us, today marks the end of the holiday season and the return to work life. As I tweeted last night, I’m glad to be back in the saddle: perhaps, as Sheila Robinson suggests, I’m a bit odd for that, but I should take it as a good sign that I like my job. Even if you’re not quite at the stage of night-before anticipation, hopefully you’re returning today to something that you enjoy and find fulfilling!
Sunrise in Saskatoon
Yesterday, as I was trying to get a jump on clearing out my inbox after two weeks of neglect, I got thinking of how I wanted to start off this year at Strong Roots. On this journey of a thousand miles, what would be my first step? I quickly realized that I had to first decide where I want to go on this trip and what accomplishments I would be proud of looking back at 51 weeks from now. This past year has been great in many respects, with interesting projects, learning opportunities, and conversations with other changemakers here in Saskatoon and further afield. In what ways could I build on these successes, beyond the default of “keeping doing what you did last year, but better/more”?

Directions

When I started Strong Roots Consulting back in 2012, I wanted to create something that would have a broader impact. Then and now, I see “third-sector” or “for-impact” organizations – charities, non-profits, social enterprises, grassroots associations, and any other group that fall outside of the traditional public-private distinction – as vital to the well-being of our communities and society as a whole. I’m not just talking about the individual services they provide or work they do, such as helping those who are marginalized or advocating for policy change, though that is all important. Beyond that necessary work, “for-impact” organizations can help connect our individual lives and make us aware of what affects our neighbours, whether they live down the block or around the world. In short, they help build community.

As a consultant, most of my work to date has been with individual organizations, providing one-to-one support on specific projects. Hopefully, these groups have found my efforts with them to be useful, helping them understand their clients, their work, and the context they operate in, and adapt and grow in response to these insights. While I will definitely continue this line of work, I cannot expect to see broad improvements for the “for-impact” sector solely through individual interventions, any more than a doctor could hope to eradicate a disease by treating one patient at a time.

Building real and sustainable change requires many things. Connecting with others for meaningful collaboration. Honest conversations that encourage us to take a look where we’ve been and where we want to be. Innovative approaches, not necessarily in how we do our work, but how we conceive of the issues in the first place. A willingness to share our experiences, our fears, and our dreams for what a better world would look like, and what our place in enacting those ideas will be. No set prescriptions, but an openness to learning and changing ourselves and our previous ideas as we encounter the messiness of the world we operate in. These ideas and more are vital for our sector, and if I can play some small role in encouraging fundamental change for for-impact organizations and through them, our communities, I will be satisfied.

The Road From Here

In formulating this objective, the first step became clear: sharing my ideas and my passions through this post, with the hope of inspiring others and starting a conversation. I have some next steps already planned out, from building new connections and communities to more mundane matters like launching a redesigned logo and website. Beyond that the path is harder to see, but I hope that what I’ve written this morning will serve as a guide.

As a New Year’s ritual, Beth Kanter identifies a theme for the year and three words to focus her work. The theme that I have decided on this year is “Transform“: work to bring about transformative change, while also taking a critical look at my own efforts to date and determining how I can redirect my energy and enthusiasm towards that goal. My three words – “Connect“, “Learn“, and “Intentional Practice” (ok, it’s four but who’s counting?) – reflect what I need to do to stay on this path and make the most of the opportunities I’m presented with.

Here’s to 2015. Make it a good year: I’ll do my best from here.