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

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?

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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!


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!


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!


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.