A Little Help

If nothing else, my recent Achilles’ tendon injury is providing some good food for thought (and blog posts). One obvious effect of being on crutches is that I can’t do everything I used to: driving is right out, going long distances on foot is not an option (and even a short trip outside is dicey given icy sidewalks), and transporting anything that can’t fit in a backpack won’t be happening. At the same time, there are some things I can still do, but I have to ask myself: should I be using up my limited energy and risk further injury? It’s been a learning curve for me to realize that sometimes it’s better to take up an offer of help even if I could theoretically do it myself.

Earlier this week I was having a conversation about the role of non-profit boards of directors and realized the same lesson could easily apply, especially to relatively young and growing organizations. As a non-profit experiences some initial success, starts developing a structure, and becomes incorporated, its founders often become the initial members of the board. At this stage, even when the organization has a staffperson or the resources to contract someone for certain tasks, the board members may be tempted to do the work themselves. Although well-intentioned, this approach can lead to underutilizing the organization’s resources and wasting the time of the board.

As an example, one board I sat on a few years ago was coming out of a time of change and had recently hired a new executive director. At one of our meetings we were talking about an upcoming event and the discussion turned to the relative merits of various floral shops to supply flowers for this event. One of my colleagues on the board became a bit exasperated at this point and asked (quite rightly in my opinion) why we were spending time talking about flowers when we had a capable staff person who could look into the various options and provide a recommendation or even go ahead with a decision? From that point on, whenever our board meetings started going in the direction of doing work that could easily be delegated to our ED or volunteers, somebody would crack a joke about flowers as a reminder of where to spend our time and energy.

There’s a dichotomy between “working boards” that get more involved in day-to-day operations and “strategic boards” with a focus on the bigger picture: a board may play either role through its lifetime as the situation dictates. Regardless of what role it’s currently playing, a board is made up of a finite number of people with finite time and energy, and as an organization and its activities and responsibilities grow, it can only do so much. That’s not to say that board members shouldn’t be contributing their specific expertise or skills for the betterment of the organization. However, just like I’ve had to reach out to others for help with tasks that I could theoretically do myself, a board should likewise take a good look at where it should spend its time and energy and don’t hesitate to ask someone else for a hand when needed.

Another View

“Walk a mile in my shoes.” It’s a common metaphor, almost to the point of cliche, but one that I’ve been living, quite literally, for the past few months. Back in November, a moment of inattention on a set of stairs sent me tumbling and ended with a fractured metatarsal on my left foot and me in a walking cast for a month. Just as I was finishing my recovery from that injury, I ruptured my Achilles’ tendon in my other foot playing badminton: that incident was a bit more serious, requiring surgery to repair (which I had just last week) and me looking at a six-month recovery period before I’m back to one hundred percent.

Both of these injuries have had an impact on my daily life, particularly my mobility. Normal tasks became much more difficult, especially with the Achilles’ injury as I’m not yet at the stage where I can put weight on that foot. I’m adjusting to life with crutches, and while I can go short distances, walking to work won’t be an option for some time. Both injuries also created difficulties with events or routines that I had previously taken for granted: take a community event or networking night, which often takes place in crowded spaces with few options for sitting. I also started noticing barriers in the world. Those two steps into a building that I would be hard-pressed to notice before turned into an obstacle. When the local transit agency substituted an older bus onto a route that usually had low-floor vehicles, I noticed (and cursed). Searching for an elevator only to discover it’s out of service (or non-existent) would definitely knock the wind out of my sails.

These two injuries have provided me with just a tiny bit of insight into what life is like with a physical disability that impacts mobility. Unlike many others, I know that this status will (hopefully!) not be permanent, and I have many supports that can help me through the next few months. However, the lessons from these experiences won’t leave me soon – while physical accessibility was always on my checklist when planning an event I’ll definitely be more conscious of those barriers, both now and after I’m back to walking on two feet.

In the non-profit and social services sector, we don’t often have the opportunity to take a literal walk in another’s shoes (though there are some neat roleplaying exercises that try to provide those experiences). When we think about evaluation or program feedback or research, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a questionnaire or survey: while these set questions have their uses, there is the risk that we’re reducing people to a couple of numbers on predetermined scales, boxing them into our predefined concepts, and ignoring important contextual differences. If I was running an organization that helped people with mobility issues but based our practice solely on my experience with temporary injuries, our service would be of little use to seniors, single parents, or people with multiple health issues (just to provide a few examples). Although there would be some commonalities, I would not claim that they will follow the same path, or that what helped me would help them.
Continue reading

Retreat Is An Option

It all starts with an idea. A new way of doing things. A risk, but a calculated one: if it pays off, it could change the whole game. After gathering some information and learning a bit about the context, we’re off and running, first in one direction but always adapting in response to conditions and changes that could not have been predicted. We’re making progress and success can be seen in the far distance … but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, and one has to entertain the possibility that we’ve been running in circles. At some point, it makes more sense to stop for a minute or two, determine where we’ve been and where we want to go, and chart out a new course.

This extended analogy aptly captures the course of a social innovation, namely its combination of reflection and activity, taking stock and taking action. It can also be used to describe the course of a new business or enterprise that starts with a set plan but requires an eye to trends that may affect the bottom line. With my intention to run Strong Roots Consulting as a social enterprise – a business that prioritizes social and environmental bottom lines on an equal footing with the financial – I fall under both camps. In either case, it’s not enough to merely be aware of how the world is changing, I also need to know where I’m coming from and where I need to go.

At one point last week, I realized that I have been doing a lot recently, including work on several projects, general outreach and networking, and the infographics course, but my schedule has lacked that time to reflect on what I’m doing. My solution? A one-person, one-day strategic retreat. Those with a specific vision of what a “Retreat” is would have been disappointed – no heading for the woods (too cold in the prairies this time of year!) or a hotel meeting room, just setting some time and boundaries to get away from the daily routine.
Continue reading


Earlier this week I came across an article in the New York Times on a third option for resolving the fiscal cliff in the United States, though in my opinion they could have been talking about any financial challenge, be it individual, organizational, or communal. When there’s a shortfall, the solutions tend to be framed in one of two ways, cutting back spending or bringing in more income (through taxes in a government scenario): article author David Bornstein suggests that investing in programs that pay long-term dividends to society is the better approach. He provides the example of the Transitional Care Model (TCM), developed at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing over the past two decades, that supports chronically-ill older patients after leaving the hospital. These patients and their families face a plethora of challenges when returning home: following medication regimes, accessing local services, watching out for (and interpreting) potential warning signs of complications or relapse. Evaluation evidence cited by Bornstein suggests that the planning and followup support provided through TCM reduced re-hospitalization rates by 30 to 50%, saved $4,000 per patient after program costs, and if replicated across US would save Medicare $10 billion a year without any reduction in benefits.

I can think of two similar examples from my own experiences. Pathways to Education, a national program that provides support to high school students at risk of dropping out of school, was independently evaluated by the Boston Consulting Group to determine the program’s impact and effectiveness. The report found a number of benefits, but the one that stood out for me was the return on investment for the program: for every dollar put in, society received a “return” of twenty-four dollars, based on higher education leading to better paying jobs (and therefore more income tax collected) and lower usage of social assistance (reduced cost) – and that estimate doesn’t include other benefits like better health (strongly correlated with education) and reduced crime rates. Pathways to Education is therefore an example of a both-and solution.

My second example comes from Cambridge (Ontario). During my Masters program, I participated in a tour of a converted social housing unit that played host to youth programs run by a local community health centre. The program served approximately 200 youth per year, with the cost for the space and programming (including staff time) running about $100,000 a year. The representative of the health centre made an apt comparison about value: to keep a youth in the justice system through sentencing and incarceration costs society on average about $100,000 a year, the same annual costs for the youth space. So, if this initiative prevents just one youth a year from entering the justice system, it’s already paid for itself – and again, this analysis ignores any other benefits to health, education, quality of life, and future potential.
Continue reading

The Co-Working Life

December marks the five-month anniversary of Strong Roots Consulting (five months and one week, if you use the July 11th date of my first post), and six months since I moved back to the prairies after living in Ontario for twelve years. There are many factors to credit for my surviving and thriving through these twin life changes of moving to a new city and making the jump from regular employment to consulting, but today I’d like to pay homage to where I work, The Two Twenty coworking space.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, coworking is basically shared office space. For a flat fee (daily, weekly, or monthly), anyone can gain access to a coworking room set up with desks, tables, armschairs and couches: amenities include wireless internet, a kitchenette, free drip coffee (there’s also a great coffeeshop, Collective Coffee, on the premises for fancier caffeinated beverages), a set allowance on their black and white printer, storage lockers, and access to a meeting room. Those on the unlimited monthly tier can also get a key to the premises for 24/7 use (access is otherwise restricted to the coffeeshop hours).

The advantages to this type of work arrangement go far beyond these tangibles. By lowering the financial and logistical barriers for space (the most expensive tier is only $200 a month, no lease or long-term agreement required), the space attracts a variety of people: new and established entrepreneurs, students, university professors on sabbatical, and people new to town looking for somewhere more congenial to working than a coffeeshop or library. The building also houses more traditional office space, with tenants including media companies, web developers, an immigration lawyer, a real estate agent, and several non-profit organizations. Staff from these companies will sometimes come out and work in the coworking space for a change of scenary, and many will use the kitchenette facilities for lunch. In other words, there is a wide range of individuals and organizations working in a space conducive to chance encounters, conversations, and networking – perfect for someone like me who’s just starting in town and in the industry.

From my relatively-short time in this space I’ve made a number of connections both professional and personal, and I can honestly say that I’m more productive here compared to working from home. Being at The Two Twenty has also provided me with some insight into the interaction of work and space, particularly for non-profits. A common metaphor in that sector is the danger of “building silos”, where organizations isolate themselves and miss the potential benefits of pooling knowledge and resources with other groups. Silos in this analogy are usually viewed in terms of organizational practices and the influence of historical interactions: for example, two groups may ignore the potential to work together because of a past conflict, even though the circumstances have changed and the principal actors in that past incident are no longer involved with either organization! However, silos can also be created and sustained by physical and spatial factors: a space like The Two Twenty that encourages informal interaction can help break down barriers and encourage the sharing of information, and ultimately the development of collaborations and longer-lasting relationships.

Co-working and hub spaces like The Two Twenty are still a relatively new phenomenon in North America, so the availability of such spaces and how they’re set up may vary widely from city to city. Also, the model may not be amenable for all types of non-profit organizations, such as those that provide direct services to a large number of clients. That being said, non-profits should keep watch for opportunities to “break out” of their silos and connect with colleagues from other organizations, even those outside the specific area of focus: these connections, even just over a cup of coffee, can spark new ideas and lead to creative solutions for those complex issues we see in our communities every day.

When Does It End?

One local initiative that I’ve recently joined is The Kolo Project, a community focusing on growing Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial roots. At a recent steering committee meeting, we worked to refine our vision and mission and created a blueprint for our activities in the coming new year. Towards the end of the meeting, we were asked to brainstorm what failure would look like – at what point do we know that Kolo has failed, that we’re throwing good money, time, and resources after bad? Hopefully we won’t reach that junction any time soon, but it’s a good question to consider. With capacity to fail coming up earlier this month, I figure it’s a good opportunity to further explore that topic as it applies to non-profits: namely, when should a program, initiative, or even a whole organization call it quits? What signs indicate that it’s passed the “best before” date?
Continue reading


One resource that I have started to draw on are the websites and particularly blogs of others doing similar work in the fields of evaluation and community practice. Among the useful sites I have found are Chris Lysy’s EvalCentral which brings together several dozen blogs (including this one) that have a common interest in evaluation, the American Evaluation Association’s Tip a Day blog (which will feature a post from yours truly next Wednesday), and the Community Psychology Practice blog, administered through the Practice Council of the Society for Community Research and Action. As a new independent consultant who is still working to build local connections and community, these sites have been invaluable in introducing me to new resources and prompting reflection on my practice.

A recent post from Emery Evaluation (via Eval Central) asks which of five standards from the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation is “most essential, relevant, and central to your everyday work as an evaluator”. Before reading this article I wasn’t familiar with these specific standards, but they look to be a good starting point for discussion. Of course there are many standards and values, even within this one field: for example, the American Evaluation Association and the Canadian Evaluation Society have their own values / ethics statements. Deciding on one (or several) statements to declare adherence to is an interesting point for future debate, but for today’s reflection I’ll stay with those brought forward by Ann Emery.

My first thought when reviewing the list is that it’s hard to pick just one as the “most” important. These standards work together: for example, the Utility of evaluation findings will obviously be diminished if its Accuracy is in question. Conversely, there will be tension among values or standards – spending time on meta-evaluative activities (Accountability) can take resources away from the actual evaluation and thus can decrease Feasibility – so perhaps there is some benefit in choosing one to help provide guidance when they clash.

I was originally leaning towards Utilty. After all, my thinking went, evaluation cannot be done for its own sake, there has to be some purpose in telling the story of what happened to provide guidance for current development or future work. Before doing anything with that conclusion, I then read a blog post from Community Psychology Practice on the impact of “Big Data” for our practice. That post suggests that community psychology practioners can make use of their training as social scientists to help interpret the huge amounts of data being generated in our world while connecting with and respecting the unique experiences of individuals and communities, an idea that resonates strongly with my past work and future aspirations.

So, I think the most important value for me, the first among equals, is what JCSEE labelled as “Propriety” but may be better referred to as “Ethics” or simply “Respect”. For me, evaluation has to recognize the rights of those affected by the research – program participants/clients, staff, partners, organizations, communities – and be responsive to their needs. Another way to view this approach is ensuring that the whole evaluation enterprise with its data, models, and theories continues to reflects the human scale and has a positive impact on the ground level. As with any set of values, there will inevitably be tensions and the need to seek balance between competing demands, but this basic value of respect and understanding is one that I want to keep first and foremost in my mind when working in the community.

Quick Thought – Capacity to Fail

Chris Lysy over at Fresh Spectrum posed an interesting question: Do you have the capacity to fail? Venturing outside of “the way things are done” could lead to amazing success and a new approach to a previously unsolvable problem, but the more innovative and unproven the idea, the greater the risk that it falls flat. In the nonprofit sector, the failure of a new idea could mean loss of credibility in the community, cuts to already scarce resources and funds, and ultimately a decrease in the capacity to make a positive difference for individuals and communities. Although this (understandable) aversion to risk can help maintain current programs and service, will it help create the lasting change that we want to see in our world?

My approach with Strong Roots has always focused on helping groups and organizations build capacity (if you don’t believe me, look at the top of this page!). Chris’ post reminds me that capacity includes having the confidence to try new approaches, learning from the development of innovative ideas (such as through developmental evaluation), and being able to recover and move forward when things don’t work out as anticipated.

Powerful Stranger

It’s been a while since I blogged about one of the chapters from Getting to Maybe. I think now is the right time to return to that book after getting a refresher on developmental evaluation (which has been described as the “practice” to Getting to Maybe’s “theory”) and because the chapter on the Powerful Stranger might resonate with organizations preparing grant applications right now. 🙂

Any social innovation that begins to show results will inevitably encounter what the authors of Getting to Maybe refer to as Powerful Strangers. Power as defined in the book refers to the control of resources, be they physical (money, space), social (connections, networks), or human (effort, talents): any of these forms can be used to maintain the status quo or to instigate change. Social innovators usually start with a surplus of personal energy and enthusiasm, but at some point they will need to focus on how to unlock resources to further their cause, including money and support from powerful individuals that can open doors previously impenetrable.
Continue reading

In a Word

As pragmatic as I usually am, I sometimes get hung up on words – see here and here for two examples where I debate over the meaning and connotations of words that I use to describe myself and my work. More recently, before my trip to the American Evaluation Association conference I was grappling with the word “evaluator”:

On that note, you may have noticed that my website does not mention evaluation strongly, nor do I describe myself as an “evaluator”. Like my previous discussion about calling myself a “consultant”, identifying with the field of evaluation carries with it certain connotations and assumptions, especially in a climate where money is tight and funders are increasingly asking recipients to identify program outcomes and demonstrate that their initiative has met certain goals. Ideally, evaluation should provide useful feedback that helps programs grow and evolve in response to changing circumstances, but to non-profit organizations, it can seem more like a standardized test administered by someone who has little (if any) knowledge of the local context and yet has the power to grant life or death to a program.

Continue reading