Meeting with Purpose

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

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

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

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

News: Funds, Retreats, Conversations, and Growth!

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

Social Innovation Residency

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

Quality of Life Grants

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

Financing Survey

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

Salon Colludo

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

Community Consultation

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

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

Strong Roots is growing!

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

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

The City and The Non-Profit

The city shapes us & we shape the city.

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

The city shapes us & we shape the city

The city shapes us & we shape the city

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Your Impact?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the solution?

Back to Williams:

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

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

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

A 2015 Goal

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


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

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

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

The Road From Here

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

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

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