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!


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.

Mr. Strong Roots Goes to Ottawa

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed last night some tweets with the hashtag #evalc2014 – representing the Canadian Evaluation Society’s 2014 National Conference. It’s my first evaluation conference since the American Evaluation Association event almost two years ago, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to connect with my evaluation colleagues on this side of the border!

In the past, I’ve benefitted a lot from being exposed to new ideas, interesting insights, and fascinating conversations (many of them unplanned!) that are the hallmarks of these conferences. This year, I’m happy to formally contribute to this learning and sharing by giving a presentation later today on my developmental path as a developmental evaluator (If you’re attending the conference, it’s today, part of Concurrent Session 2 starting at 1:30 in room 209). What’s neat about this presentation is the use of the Ignite format, where 20 slides advance automatically every 15 seconds for a grand total of 5 minutes. It’s been an interesting challenge to condense everything I want to say into that format, and I look forward to presenting later today!

Similar to previous conferences, I’ll do my best to post updates throughout. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed, and feel free to join the conversation!

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, 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!