Winners

Remember that social enterprise contest I mentioned a while back? It wrapped up last week, and between the three campaigns, they managed to raise over $90,000. Given the goal was $10,000 for each project, I’d say that Bridge City Bike Co-op, Good Food Junction, and Saskatchewan Environmental Society (and contest organizer Affinity Credit Union) more than exceeded their goals!

[Full disclosure: As mentioned in my previous post about this contest, Strong Roots Consulting banks with Affinity Credit Union and has done some previous contract work with their Community Development team related to social enterprise, but not on this initiative.]

The idea of a solar power co-operative received the lion’s share of votes and funds raised with $59,000 from 630 contributors. That’s a huge vote of confidence for renewable energy in a province that relies mainly on fossil fuels for power generation: hopefully the result will encourage broader support for this and similar projects, such as Saskatchewan Community Wind, that make use of Saskatchewan’s renewable resources. Together with the $50,000 prize from Affinity, the co-op is well-positioned to demonstrate a more sustainable approach to generating power in this province.

Although they missed the top spot, runners-up Bridge City Bike Co-op and Good Food Junction definitely have cause for celebration, raising $17,634 and $13,767 respectively. Together with SES, they will receive free business consulting and support from the United Way, Unite Digital Marketing Co-op, and KPMG to help further develop their ideas.

Beyond the tangible benefits for these organizations, I hope that this contest demonstrates more widely that social enterprises are making a difference in Saskatoon. Since arriving here just over two years ago, I have seen numerous non-profits, co-ops, for-profit businesses, and volunteer groups use innovative approaches such as the social enterprise model to tackle social and environmental issues: these groups, some of which entered the contest but weren’t selected as finalists, all have the potential to improve our community, and in many cases already are. Affinity is planning a second round of this contest for next year, and hopefully this initiative will encourage more concerted efforts to highlight and support local social enterprises and other innovative projects. If one contest can raise $90,000 and a lot of awareness, imagine what a sustained effort in this field could achieve!

One Connection At A Time

How do we make a difference? How do we address problems that seem intractable? What can one person or even a handful of us do in response to the poverty and inequality we see around us every day? It’s a question that many struggle with: both individuals who want to make a difference, and organizations that help those affected by poverty while also “moving the needle” on broader societal issues that leave people in such precarious situations.

Last week, members of those two groups – individuals wanting to help out and non-profits that convert volunteer time and charitable givings into real impact – came together for a short time, in a way that will helpfully leave both transformed. Two groups of coworkers from the Two Twenty, organized by Carrie Catherine from Shift Development and Greer Tilford, each put in a couple of hours at the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre (SFBLC) last week as part of Giving Tuesday. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers, I have some experience with the Food Bank through working with them over this past year on a Capacity Building Project: this was however my first time volunteering at SFBCL.

[Full disclosure: I’m still currently working with SFBLC on this project: however, they did not pay for my time volunteering last week (else it wouldn’t be volunteering, right?), nor am I being paid to write this post.]

SFBLC strives to address the issue of poverty at multiple levels, including but not limited to the provision of food hampers. For example, they operate a separate Clothing Depot where I was assigned to volunteer. Set up as a small retail shop, clients can fill up a bag with donated clothing and also receive some sundry items like laundry detergent. Visitors to the Clothing Depot pay a nominal fee of a few dollars: according to SFBLC staff, this charge was requested by those using the service when it started (as an aside, beyond one employment-related program that is supported by the provincial Ministry of the Economy, SFBLC does not receive any government funding). By receiving some of these necessities at a low cost, those living in poverty can put more of their dollars towards essentials such as food and shelter. Other efforts by SFBLC aim to move beyond “band aid” solutions and help bring individuals and families out of poverty: these include an Income Tax clinic that ensures clients receive the tax credits and rebates that they’re entitled to, nutrition programs for people living with diabetes, addictions counseling, learning programs that prepare individuals for employment, and participation in initiatives such as the Poverty Costs campaign that advocated for the creation of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for Saskatchewan.

Returning to the questions that kicked off this post, what difference did a couple of hours of volunteering make? As Carrie noted in her reflection yesterday, the neighbourhood that both the Two Twenty and SFBLC call home, Riversdale, consists of a “complex and interesting diversity”, where someone shopping for high-quality furniture may share a sidewalk and a conversation with a SFBLC client. This stretch of 20th Street West has visibly changed even in the two years since I moved to Saskatoon, with new restaurants and shops opening and new housing coming up in the area as young professionals eschew car-dependent suburbs for walkable neighbourhoods. The new (re-)development brings up the question of how to balance growth with the needs of those who have been here for decades – people, businesses, and organizations alike – and ensuring that all can benefit from the changes taking place.

A great first step is to simply build connections between everyone who has a stake in this neighbourhood and this city. Even a brief experience in volunteering can help break down stereotypes and misconceptions of who lives here and who uses services at organizations like SFBLC, and help us recognize that we all basically are looking for the same thing – food, safety, the opportunity to make a difference for our families and our world – but some of us through circumstances beyond our control have to struggle for what others take for granted. The problems are big and complex, but fortunately the people at SFBLC, the Two Twenty, and in Saskatoon generally are amazingly creative and passionate people who have the ideas and energy to make a difference. So, what can come from a couple of hours of volunteering? Hopefully, a great relationship that will spark change and lead to a more equitable neighbourhood and city!

Business for Good in Saskatoon

Business bottom lines, social missions, and environmental sustainability. These diverse aims have been traditionally cast as antagonistic, but the growing field of social enterprise includes numerous examples of successful ventures that meet a “triple bottom line” of people, profit, and planet. As written previously on this blog, people and organizations in Saskatoon are starting to explore this exciting area: even better, funders are stepping up to support local social enterprises, perhaps best exemplified by Affinity Credit Union’s Business For Good Social Venture Challenge.

(Full disclosure: Strong Roots Consulting banks with Affinity Credit Union and has done some previous contract work with their Community Development team related to social enterprise, but not on this initiative.)

Earlier this week, Affinity announced the three finalists for their challenge. At stake is a $50,000 prize for the winning organization (Bridge City Bike Co-op, Good Food Junction, and Saskatchewan Environmental Society) to start or scale up their social enterprise idea: a community-owned secondhand bike shop, a cooperative grocery store in one of Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods, and a solar power cooperative farm, respectively.

Adding a neat spin to the usual contest model, you “vote” for one of the three finalists by making a contribution to their IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign. Although only one will walk away with the grand prize, all three finalists get to keep the money raised on IndieGoGo to use towards their respective projects. A “vote” costs $1 minimum, but being a crowdfunding campaign, there are all sorts of perks for donating more, from virtual high fives to having a veggie cooler named after you.

Saskatoon is a small town, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I know people connected with all three initiatives: I can honestly say that they all deserve your love, support, and donation dollars! It’s going to be difficult for me to decide which one to support. Fortunately, the rules do allow for supporting all three campaigns, so if you don’t believe in playing favourites you can still participate.

For more details, check out their respective IndieGoGo pages and drop a dollar (or more!) before December 8. Since Monday, the three finalists have collectively raised almost $15,000 – here’s hoping that the momentum will continue!

Six Words To Live By

If you followed my previous dispatches from the 2014 American Evaluation Association conference in Denver (or my rapid-fire tweeting during the conference), you can guess that I really enjoyed the experience. It was great to meet some evaluation social media celebrities in person -Chris Lysy, Sheila Robinson, and Kylie Hutchinson, to name a few -, re-connect with friends and colleagues including Sarah Farina of Broadleaf Consulting, Elizabeth McGee, and my co-conspirator Chi Yan Lam, and of course build new connections with people around the world doing neat work in the field of evaluation. There were tons of great sessions and plenary discussions and the visit to the Women’s Bean Project provided great inspiration and ideas for social enterprises (as well as a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans to keep me going through the long days!). Although I returned to Saskatoon physically and mentally exhausted, I feel inspired and excited about the developments in this field.

One common thread for the conference was the sharing of six-word stories, inspired by a challenge to Ernest Hemingway (his response: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn”). At a session on the last day of the conference, we were challenged to come up with a six-word story describing our personal experiences with the intersection of systems thinking and evaluation – the following (slightly modified) is my contribution:

Bring open mind
Open heart
Mindfulness

On further reflection, I realized that these six words encapsulate the approach that I aspire to live out in my practice. Open mind, for new ideas and perspectives that could provide new insights, as well as new partnerships and resources to draw on to create community change. Open heart, to listen to and share stories, to be attentive to values and the ways in which research and evaluation can privilege or disempower individuals. Mindfulness (inspired by a great session on Mindful Evaluation!), to be aware of my own background and ways of thinking and doing, and to be able to step back from over-analyzing and just take in what I’m seeing and hearing.

(Orignally, the last word was “Aspirin”, to reflect that too much systems thinking can lead to headaches – I think “Mindfulness” is a more positive approach to the issue, though my first choice of words brings a bit more humour).

If I take nothing further away from the conference that those six words, I would still be satisfied. As it is, I have many resources, business cards, and sparks of ideas to pursue – stay tuned!

If you were at AEA2014, what were some highlights for you? Share in the comments below or via Twitter!

Three quick insights from #eval14

This is my second time attending an AEA conference, which should theoretically have prepared me for the size and sheer energy that comes with these events: that being said, I’m still a bit overwhelmed! After a great workshop yesterday on systems thinking, the opening plenary provided a insightful keynote by AEA president Beverly Parsons introducing the theme of Visionary Evaluation For a Sustainable and Equitable world, together with a panel discussion including 14-year old Indigenous activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Earth Guardians. I didn’t attend any further presentations after that, but did connect with colleauges from the Community Psychology, Systems in Evaluation, and Evaluation Use Topic Interest Groups (TIGs) at a social event last night.

In this whirlwind, I’ve consistently noticed three key points:

Evaluators need to look at the bigger picture

From the systems thinking perspective, inter-relationships between elements of a system can have large impacts that are often difficult to control for. While we need to draw boundaries around what’s in and what’s not for an evaluation (else we would quickly run out of time, money, and sanity), we need to recognize that a program supporting high school students is affected by factors including families, neighbourhoods, schools, and public policy.

Evaluators need to think about design

I attended a great session this morning, which included presentations by Cameron Norman and Chi Yan Lam on the intersection of design and evaluation. The creativity and tools used by designers to understand their users and create applications to meet their needs fit well with the evaluation focus on articulating models of change and determining impact. During the session, I came up with an equation – Design Creativity + Evaluation Rigour + Vision and Principles = A More Sustainable, Equitable World – does this ring true for you?

Evaluators need to reflect and be critical

By critical, I don’t mean focusing on shortcomings exclusively, but asking hard questions about program purpose, who benefits, who has access to resources, and whose knowledge is valued. The workshop yesterday introduced the Critical Systems Heuristic tool which I look forward to introducing to clients, as well as turning inward on my own work as a consultant and change agent.

I’m about to head off on the field trip to the Women’s Bean social enterprise, but keep an eye on Twitter for the latest insights and ideas from the conference!

Why Conference?

Among the things I’m thankful for (note to my American readers, we celebrate Thanksgiving a bit earlier than you!) is the opportunity to attend the American Evaluation Association’s conference this year. As Chris Lysy pointed out in one his evaluation comics, the reasons for bringing upwards of a thousand people together is constantly evolving, especially since we can easily share information and insights online with a much larger audience on a much smaller budget. So, aside from having the chance to see new locales – this will be my first trip to Denver – what are my reasons for going?

Continue reading

Webinars, Grants, and (no) Snow!

The signs of fall are clearly in evidence here in Saskatoon – leaves starting to turn, a chill in the air (though fortunately we missed the snow that hit our neighbours in southern Alberta!), and a calendar rapidly filling with events and grant application deadlines!

Webinars

Innoweave, a national initiative supporting social innovation, has several webinars scheduled for the coming weeks, all free:

What counts as “political activities” for registered charities in Canada? Imagine Canada is offering a free webinar on this topic on September 23, including “practical steps … to reduce the possibility of a negative outcome in the event of an audit by CRA.”

Granting Deadlines

Affinity Credit Union has launched a Social Enterprise Competition for non-profits based in Saskatoon, Warman, and Muenster: applications for Phase 1 are due October 6.

Saskatoon Community Foundation has several grants coming up soon:

Any other deadlines or interesting webinars on the horizon that I missed? Need some help with the evaluation component of an application? Drop me a line!

Play

I love my work as an independent consultant working with non-profits and for-impacts … however, as a solo entrepreneur, it can be isolating at times. Working at a coworking space like the Two Twenty provides some regular “water coooler” social interaction, and coffee meetings with other consultants and people in the non-profit field keep me connected and grounded (not to mention slightly over-caffeinated, but that’s a blog post for another day). These conversations are great, but one thing I have missed is the opportunity to sit down with like-minded folk and talk about big-picture issues. Not quite on the “What is the meaning of life” level, but somewhere between that and “What’s keeping you busy these days?”

To the rescue came Sheena Greer, another Saskatoon-based freelancer working for social good through her company, Colludo. With the idea that play paves the way for change, last week she brought together six awesome people who work in the non-profit sphere here in Saskatoon (including yours truly) for a day of creative exploration. We explored pain points around working in the sector, personified through yarn pom poms (though mine ended up looking more like a purple puli), shared our strengths, and talked about what we could do individually and collectively to make things better for the sector.

Party Favours

Besides some crafts to adorn my home office, I left the “playdate” with three main takeaways.

Monitor and desk not included.

Not pictured: purple puli, Neil Diamond.


Building deep connections is not just a “nice to have when we have time” perk, but crucial to sustaining ourselves, our organizations, our sector, and ultimately our communities. Our group identified the need to nurture meaningful relationships through events and spaces that would allow participants to share not just successes, but also uncertainties and failures. In a context where resources are increasingly scarce, the temptation is all too great to hide weaknesses or stick to the “safe” options of grousing about shrinking funds and increasing demands. This approach, while understandable given that we may be talking with competitors for grant funds and government contracts, prevents us from exploring common pain points and discussing how we can use our individual skills and resources to support each other. I’m hopeful that opportunities like these playdates (and the open Salon Colludo networking event afterwards), Social Innovation YXE, and other initatives in town will allow people in the nonprofit sphere to connect in a space uncoupled from specific projects and issues.

The second takeaway for me was around leadership. As Sheena noted in her wrapup of the event, “We talked about the need for strong, active leadership : ensuring that this remains a verb, and not a passive noun. The best way we could think of was to be active leaders ourselves – in our organisations, and in the broader community.” Last year, during the open retreat for the Leadership Saskatoon program, I had to ask myself what I was doing there as an independent consultant with no subordinates. I came to realize that I can play a leadership role both with the clients I work with and more broadly in the community, whether that’s locally in Saskatoon, in the professional evaluation sphere, or worldwide through this blog: the conversations that arose in the playdate helped to re-affirm those insights and provided encouragement for me to keep moving forward.

Finally, I came away with gratitude for spending time with awesome people doing amazing work here in Saskatoon. There’s a great sense of possibility in town right now, and those I met at the playdate and the networking event afterwards exemplified that energy. As an example, I met the manager and a member of the board for the Saskatoon Children’s Discovery Museum, which is using a small space in a mall right now but is planning for a flagship space in 2016.

Thanks again to Sheena for organizing and hosting the event – I look forward to continuing these conversations! If you’re interested in building community for those working for social good in Saskatoon, drop me a line and let’s see what we can accomplish together.

Data of New York

As an amateur photographer and a seasoned people-watcher, it probably comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of the Humans of New York photo blog. What makes the content really engaging is that photographer Brandon Stanton goes beyond the portrait by engaging in conversation with the person and sharing something insightful, amusing, or just plain off the wall from that chat alongside the photo. As of today, the Humans of New York Facebook page has over 8 million “Likes” and has led to countless homages across the world, including a Humans of Saskatoon.

What can Humans of New York teach us about research and evaluation? First, check out Stanton’s presentation in Ireland about his technique on approaching people in a city known (fairly or not) for being cold towards strangers: how do you move from “an atmosphere of fear and strangeness … to one of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose”?

Breaking the ice this way with strangers is definitely an important skill for community researchers and evaluators, especially when trying to gather opinions and stories at public events. Stanton also provides some good examples of how to dig beyond everyday, pat response through the use of story-telling: for example, if somebody responds to a request for advice with “be optimistic”, the next question could be “Tell me a time where it didn’t pay to be optimistic”.

What got me really thinking about the connection between Humans of New York and my practice, though, is this recently-posted portrait (go take a look, I’ll wait): more specifically, his comment that “You can make about 75% more money with a cat on your head than you can with a cat on your shoulder” (see, I told you to look at the photo!). All I can say is kudos to this guy for doing some research and adapting his practice in response!

Return

Since I started Strong Roots Consulting just over two years ago, blogging has been an important component of my work. For me, sharing ideas and resources through this website is not just a way to introduce myself to the community and demonstrate my knowledge and strengths (though it has helped in that regard!): I also hope that it can be a source of knowledge, inspiration, and support for those working in the non-profit sector and elsewhere to create positive change.

Over the past few months, my pace of posting has definitely slowed down. Recent travels and an increased workload have cut into time I would spent writing: I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an inverse relationship between the number of active projects on my plate and my posting frequency! However, if blogging is an important task for the reasons outlined above, I would be able to find the time to do so. What I came to realize is that over the past few years, I had spent too much time writing and not enough time reflecting.

I can’t remember who came up with the (slightly tongue-in-cheek) idea that “ready, aim, fire” should be changed to “ready, fire, aim”, but it’s stuck with me as an encouragement against overplanning to the extent where it inhibits action: getting stuck on the “aim” phase, but never taking the shot. If I waited until that perfect moment, I would not have completed 70 posts to date, or perhaps not even started consulting! That being said, I’m starting to think that I drifted too far towards the other end of the spectrum where I was constantly firing without asking myself exactly what I was aiming at.

As a side note, I have an idea for a post about the abundant use of military and business terminology in the non-profit sector – this post may serve as an incentive for me to finally expand it and get it online!

Who’s My Audience?

In an example of serendipitous timing, evaluation blogger Chris Lysy recently released a guide on how to start blogging, with tips that to my eyes are equally applicable for re-starting the habit. One question that stuck with me is “Who”. Who is my audience? Chris suggests thinking of a real person to write the post for: who would that be for this blog? Three people come to mind:

  • A former colleague working in the nonprofit field who has some responsibilities around programming and planning, who recognizes the importance of research and evaluation to the work but does not have a formal background in evaluation.
  • A fellow changemaker connected to the nonprofit field who sees the good, the bad, and the ugly in the sector, and wants to act as a catalyst for change and growth (including by serving as a “critical friend” voice when necessary).
  • Myself – if I won’t ready my own blog posts, who will? In all seriousness, I have found blogging to be a great tool in my own professional development. Taking new ideas and concepts, integrating them into my own knowledge, and summarizing them for a broader audience is great mental exercise. I’m not alone in recognizing this benefit: Chris Lysy’s guide quotes nonprofit blogging superstar Beth Kanter, who likewise uses blogging as personal learning and reflection time.

(Note that I don’t mean for this list to be exhaustive: for example, I hope that my writing will appeal to other practitioners in the evaluation and community-based research field.)

Something to Talk About

Although figuring out “Who” was useful, it was not enough to get me back on the bandwagon. For that, I needed the “What”. It wasn’t until I randomly found a blog post planner on Productive Flourishing that my loosely-connected thoughts came together around the idea of categories. What kind of posts have I been writing thus far, and what do I want to include going forward? Some preliminary ideas:

Evaluative thinking. I want to help build capacity in organizations to incorporate sense-making and interpretation into their everyday work by helping them ask “What is the data (be it statistics, stories from clients, or trends in the broader context) telling us?” We do it all the time in our day-to-day lives, and posts in this category aim to show that evaluation isn’t as scary and unfamiliar as one might think. A Taste of Evaluation and Time to Count would both fall in this category.

Research and evaluation tips and methods. Pretty straightforward, with some ideas and techniques to try, along with pitfalls to avoid. Are you asking The Right Questions? What are some good approaches for conducting Summertime Evaluations? I hope to share my own ideas and experiences, as well as great resources available I find online.

Planning, strategy, and design. Like I wrote above, fixating on the “fire” stage of “ready, fire, aim” can be great for overcoming that initial inertia, but not sustainable in the long run. Planning in my mind has a close link with research and evaluation, especially in innovative approaches like Developmental Evaluation that bring evaluative thinking into the program design process. Asking questions – Who’s Not Here? When Does [the program] End? And most importantly, how do you fill out that “evaluation” section of the grant application? – can help contribute to the development of sound plans and strategies, and also provide support when those plans don’t survive their first encounter with reality.

New Developments in the Non-Profit / “For-Impact” sector. Simply put, it’s an exciting time to be working in this field! While we face challenges around funding (a perennial issue for sure), calls for accountability, and increased complexity of social issues, there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm around approaches such as social enterprise, as well as new models of conceptualizing our work, such as the SPEC model. I hope to contribute to the conversation, both online and in person, around these new ideas and concepts.

Of course, these aren’t perfect categories: there will be overlap, and some items won’t fit in at all, such as company news and developments (like this post). I’m also thinking to try out some new formats like “Ask Strong Roots” or interviews with other changemakers which likewise stand alone.

What Next?

So, now I have a Who and What to fit in with the Why I identified above: next step is the How. I have some post ideas on the backburner that I can see slotting into these categories, and using a tool like Productive Flourishing’s blog post planner will help me get a start on them. I may also go back and try to retrospectively categorize the posts I already have, but that’s low on my priority list right now – I’d rather spend the time writing!

Let’s hear some feedback! What do you think of these categories? I’m also brainstorming ideas for a blog name that fits this renewed focus, and will come up with a reward for whoever comes up with the name I end up using.