Reinvigorating the Strong Roots Blog


Last year marked six years of operations for Strong Roots Consulting. I’m happy to say that the business is going strong, but there’s been one area that is way overdue for some re-development – this blog. A quick trip to the archives will show a variety of different post types, formats, and posting schedules, ranging from near-weekly to the year-long hiatus between the 2017 and 2018 Canadian Evaluation Society annual conferences.

This past summer, I spent some time reviewing where I see Strong Roots Consulting as a company growing and developing into. As part of that planning exercise I reflected on the role of this website generally and the blog specifically, identifying potential audiences and purposes and starting to sketch out what a posting framework would look like. What I realized was that I want this site to both serve as a general resource on evaluation, strategic planning, and related topics that can be useful to anyone who stumbles on this website, as well as a place to share relevant information and news for non-profits based in and around Saskatoon. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that the blog framework would be feasible in terms of time, so I could maintain a regular posting schedule and not let it lie fallow as in the past.

So, here’s what the blog will look like going forward. Every month will see a more in-depth post on a topic related to the skillsets here at Strong Roots Consulting. That monthly post can be an exploration of an approach or framework, a book review, or a walkthrough of a specific tool or technique. With a less-frequent schedule, I can take the time to focus on the topic and link in other resources so that the post will stay “evergreen” for some time.

In between these monthly deep-dives will be shorter posts on a variety of topics. Quick commentary on an article from another website, sharing a resource, and news about Saskatoon events of interest to the local non-profit scene would all fit in this category. These will be posted on ad-hoc basis but I’ll take care to space them out, especially for the sake of email subscribers to the site.

The key word for me in this new framework is being adaptive. As I go along, maybe I discover that the monthly posting schedule is too frequent and it’s better to more time to get it right – or conversely, that I can post twice-monthly at the quality level I expect. Similarly, perhaps the infrequent posts naturally cluster into certain types: local news comes to mind, and I’ve also seen other websites post a “I wished I wrote that” list on a regular basis. In any case, rather than creating something elaborate right now that could stumble coming out of the gate, I want to get a minimum viable product (to borrow the startup industry term) rolling and build it up as circumstances and my capacity dictate.

Here’s to a more blog writing in 2019!

February 13, 2019 News

Fun fact: -40 is the point where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge. Do not ask me why I had reason to figure this out!

Saskatoon Events

The University of Saskatchewan’s Community Relations and Engagement Office is hosting a talk and workshop on February 27 with Jayne Malenfant on the topic of “Youth, Lived Experience and Inclusion in Community Research”. More details in the poster.

Technically not in Saskatoon, but Tamarack Community Institute is hosting a workshop in Edmonton on Asset-Based Community Development May 28-30. I’ve heard that there are some folks here in Saskatoon who are looking to register and travel together to save on costs and thus help build capacity in this area locally – if you’re interested in attending this workshop, drop me a line and I can put you in touch with those people.

Online Events

Kylie Hutchison will be leading a webinar on February 26 on hosting data parties.

Mark Cabaj and Galen MacLusky are hosting a Tamarack webinar on the Systems Change Evaluation Canvas on March 12.

Resource of the Week

Leadership Saskatoon is now accepting applications for their flagship 10-month leadership development program. I’m a grad of the program (Class of 2014) and have since co-facilitated a half-day session for the program and also act as a mentor. For more information on the application process, check out Leadership Saskatoon’s website.

February 5, 2019 News

Some great events happening this week in Saskatoon – though if you want to stay indoors with the weather (or if you’re reading this in a place where “snow” and “cold” are four letter words), we’ve got you covered too with a couple of online evaluation-related events coming up.

Saskatoon events

The University of Saskatchewan is celebrating Indigenous Achievement Week this week, with multiple events on campus including an awards ceremony on Thursday afternoon (February 7th).

Also on February 7th, the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership is publicly releasing “12 Bold Ideas to Eliminate Poverty in Saskatoon” at Station 20 West, starting at 10am. Full disclosure: I have participated in some of the discussions and planning work around this document.

Interested in knowledge mobilization? KM in the AM is hosting a morning workshop February 11th on brave, honest conversations.

Reconciliation Saskatoon’s Learning Committee is presenting a KAIROS blanket exercise – an interactive experience looking at Canadian history from an Indigenous viewpoint – on February 15th at Station 20 West.

Online events

SFU is hosting a free webinar on their Evaluation Certificate program on February 12 (which includes past Eval Cafe guest Kim van der Woerd as an instructor!)

Kylie Hutchison (another Eval Cafe alum!) will be leading a webinar on February 26 on hosting data parties.

Mark Cabaj and Galen MacLusky are hosting a Tamarack webinar on the Systems Change Evaluation Canvas on March 12.

Resource of the week

February is Black History Month, and the Centre for Social Innovation has a great annotated reading list for anyone interested in learning more about both the historic context and present day realities.

January 29, 2019 News

As hinted at earlier this month, one area I would like to (re-)start on this website is regular news updates. While Saskatoon can often feel like a small town, especially in the non-profit sector, it has grown to the point where we have many interesting events happening – and more importantly, we can’t just rely on word of mouth or “being in the know” to be aware of all of them! And of course, there’s a whole sea of online events that can be useful where you are (and which conveniently don’t require you to leave your home or office when it’s -35 out!).

So, I’m trying the regular news format again to help provide a coherent signal amidst the noise for Saskatoon-based nonprofits. It’ll be a weekly update on Tuesdays (to start) and include both Saskatoon-specific items and online events, with a focus on Strong Roots Consulting’s strengths – namely, community-based research, strategic planning, and program evaluation.

This week we have a couple of last minute events in town combined with a good range of evaluation-related online learning opportunities – so if you have professional development funds to be used up before fiscal year end, make sure to check them out! And finally, some good news from CRA (how often can you say that?) for organizations with charitable status who also engage in advocacy or public education work.

Saskatoon events

Tomorrow (January 30) Erin Ryan-Walsh of William Joseph is hosting a free workshop on Marketing for Nonprofits. Seating is limited and registration is required – they have an earlier session that has already filled up, so if you’re interested don’t delay in signing up!

The Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Evaluation Society (CES-SK) is holding a meet and great tomorrow evening (January 30) at the Thirsty Scholar. Open to anyone who is interested in evaluation!

Finally, next Thursday, February 7, the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership is publicly releasing 12 Bold Ideas to Eliminate Poverty in Saskatoon at Station 20 West. Full disclosure: I have participated in some of the discussions and planning work around this document, and I’m glad to see it go forward! See poster for more details.

Online events

CES-SK will be offering the Essential Skills Series for learning the basics about program evaluation through an online format starting February 4.

Another online evaluation-related course, the Art of Evaluating in Complexity, begins February 5 and runs for the four Tuesdays in that month. Full disclosure: Chris Corrigan was a recent guest on Eval Cafe, and Carolyn Camman (co-host on the podcast) is one of the guest presenters for the course.

Later in February, SFU is hosting a free webinar on their Evaluation Certificate program (which includes past Eval Cafe guest Kim van der Woerd as an instructor!).

Kylie Hutchison (another Eval Cafe alum!) will be leading a webinar on February 26 on hosting data parties.

News of the Week

I often joke that I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on TV, but here’s some welcome news from folks who are in fact lawyers: CRA Releases Draft Guidance on New Rules Permitting Charities to Engage in ‘Public Policy Dialogue and Development Activities’ (hat tip to the Centre for Social Innovation’s newsletter). From a brief non-lawyerly read, it seems that CRA is more explicitly allowing activities that were formerly in a grey zone, such as research, representations on public policy, and public mobilization around issues that are related to the charity’s stated charitable purpose. Still prohibited are activities that “directly or indirectly support or oppose a political party or candidate”, including transferring resources to a third party for that purpose. If your charity does any type of work in this area or is considering doing so, it would be worthwhile to read through the above link and consider consulting with legal professionals to ensure your policies and practices are on-side.

Eval Cafe

At the 2017 Canadian Evaluation Society conference, my friend and fellow evaluator Carolyn Camman and I decided to start a podcast on the topic of program evaluation. We were inspired by Kylie Hutchison and James Coyle’s Adventures in Evaluation podcast, which had wrapped up in 2014, and also by the conversations we fell into whenever we met up in person.

Thus, Eval Cafe was born, featuring informal chats on evaluation-related topics – the kind you might overhear at your favourite coffeeshop, if it was frequented by evaluators.

While the two of us eat, live, and breathe evaluation, we do our best to keep the conversation accessible to anyone who has an interest in the field, even if they don’t identify with the term “evaluator”. In our short run thus far (16 episodes and counting!), we have discussed a range of topics, from participatory approaches in evaluation to how Star Trek and evaluation connect.

Our latest episode features Chris Corrigan, where we talk about the intersection between evaluation and facilitation as well as the role of evaluation in community change more generally. I think that if you work at all in the non-profit or social change field, you’ll definitely enjoy this episode!

You can listen to the audio directly in your browser (below), or simply search for “Eval Cafe” in your podcast app/platform of choice and you should be able to find us.

Also, a quick plug for Chris’ upcoming online course, The Art of Evaluation in Complexity, starting February 5th and featuring Carolyn as one of the presenters!

Spring Growth

Greetings from Calgary! I’m in town for this year’s edition of the Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) conference. While I’m excited as always to be participating, during my trip preparations I realized that my last post online was from last year’s conference! Though the site may have been quiet these past twelve months, Strong Roots Consulting has been anything but, filled with both interesting client projects and some initiatives to develop our own capacity. On that second topic, here’s a quick run-down on where we’ve been and where we plan to go.

Learning and Sharing Events

If this past year had a theme, it would have been “Learn and Share”. In addition to last year’s CES conference in Vancouver, I presented at the biennial conference of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) and attended learning events hosted by Tamarack Institute on Cities of the Future, Evaluating Community Impact, and Asset-Based Community Development. While all of those events were great, the most personally-meaningful workshop I attended was right at home on the topic of Decolonizing Evaluation. Led by Kim van der Woerd and Billie Joe Rogers from Reciprocal Consulting and featuring a case study of Reconciliation Saskatoon, the two days featured thought-provoking content and great discussions on how evaluations can be designed to be culturally-responsive rather than perpetuating inequitable and harmful relationships.

For some time I’ve had the idea of hosting introductory evaluation workshops in Saskatoon. Thanks tofellow consultant Micheal Heimlick of Two Bridges Consulting, the Saskatchewan chapter of CES, and the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership, this dream was realized when we hosted a free half-day “Eval 101” session at Station 20 West in Saskatoon. Based on the positive feedback and requests received since then for a repeat event, I hope to continue offering these workshops in the future!

Online Activities

Although the blog was quiet, I have definitely been active online! As usual, my Twitter account lit up during the learning events I attended – expect the same during the next few days at CES. The website also saw a bit of a refresh, taking down some old pages and streamlining and updating existing content.

What I’m most excited about in this area is Eval Cafe, a podcast that I co-host with Carolyn Camman. At its heart, the podcast is two evaluators having a casual chat on different topics. So far we’ve covered “serious” topics like participatory approaches and evaluation ethics, along with more whimsical affairs such as boldly going where evaluation and Star Trek intersect (thanks to Kylie Hutchison for joining us for that one!). Carolyn and I will be recording an episode at CES this year, and we both look forward to sharing our discussions in the months to come.

Now that I have the mic and some experience recording, I’ve been thinking about a solo podcast project to go alongside Eval Cafe – stay tuned on that!


One of the biggest developments for the business this year has been hiring an associate. I’ve always enjoyed working with others who have a similar passion for supporting community initiatives and organizations, but up until now it’s always been on a partnership or subcontracting basis for specific projects. Earlier this month, Strong Roots Consulting welcomed Lindsay Herman as a term associate for the summer. Lindsay recently finished her Masters degree in Urban Planning at the University of Saskatchewan and brings a strong focus on community to her work. In addition to working on client projects, our hope is that we can both contribute to the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership’s efforts in creating and evaluating a municipal poverty strategy.

A few months ago, I started the application process for the Credentialed Evaluator (CE) designation through CES. The program serves to recognize education and skills related to specific evaluator competencies and promote ongoing professional development. While I didn’t quite meet my aim of submitting the full application before the conference, my hope is to get it in within the next few weeks.

Finally, the business is coming up to its sixth anniversary and we’re using the anniversary to take stock of where we’ve been and how we can continue supporting non-profit organizations and community change initiatives. Oh, and last but not least, I’ll be testing a new approach to the blog to ensure more regular content and fewer months- (or year-) long gaps between posts. More news to come as these pieces come together: keep your eye on the blog here for the latest!

That’s it for now. If you’re at CES this year, come find me and say hi!

Action, Innovation, Reflection – CES 2017 Day 1

For those who have read my posts from previous conferences, you wouldn’t be surprised that I get a lot out of these events – hearing great ideas, learning about new tools, connecting with friends and colleagues, and re-igniting the passion for the field I’m working in. Less than two days into the Canadian Evaluation Society’s 2017 conference, all of those positives are definitely here: if anything, it’s all heightened this year. There’s a feeling that my professional interests and skills are strongly aligning with those of my colleagues and the field as a whole, and that altogether there’s increased emphasis on what difference we as evaluators can make not just in our practice but for our communities and society as a whole.

I’m still thinking over everything I’ve seen and heard so far, from the great workshop on Developmental Evaluation led by Nora Murphy, Kate McKegg, and Nan Wehipeihana to a bumper-crop of thought-provoking Ignite presentations. This morning’s keynote speakers, Indigenous evaluation consultant Kim van der Woerd, co-founder of the Moosehide Campaign Paul Lacerte, and Elder Roberta Price, really helped set the narrative for this conference and our field in general – that we all need to work towards reconciliation, and as Lacerte said, we are at a precious moment in the history of our country (and the world!) to face forward towards a shared future. Outside of the formal program, I’m incredibly grateful to both connect with like-minded conspirators and co-create with them. As an example, I’m writing this post at the lunch table with someone I’ve known for several years now as well as someone I’ve just met: we all connected via Twitter to make this time to write and reflect happen, and I won’t be surprised if other ideas and initiatives arise from these planned and spontaneous gatherings in the days to come.

If you’re wanting to see some specifics about ideas and concepts, check out Twitter – I’ve been live-tweeting pretty regularly and the conference hashtag (#EvalC17) has seen lots of activity and discussion. 

As a final thought, a tweet that summarizes my feelings so far:

“My take-away from #EvalC17 so far: we as evaluators do not work in a vacuum – we must attend to history and culture including our own”

Evaluate As If Nobody’s Watching

Two quick announcements before today’s post. First, as I mentioned last week, I’m heading off to the annual conference of the Canadian Evaluation Society, taking place April 30 – May 3 in Vancouver. I’m looking forward to connecting with friends and colleagues during that time, so if you’ll be in attendance, look me up! I’m hoping to write some blog posts while out there and will likely be active on Twitter. Important to note – while I will have email access, I may be delayed in responding to emails, both during the conference and the following week (up to and including May 10) as I’ll be taking some vacation time in the area following CES.

The second announcement is more of testing the waters. Vu Le, non-profit unicorn extraordinaire and the man behind the thought-provoking site Nonprofits with Balls1, recently suggested Thursday May 25 as a day for non-profit agencies and funders to meet (jump to the end of the post) – not with any formal agenda, but simply to connect as individuals and chat. I’m thinking to arrange this kind of meetup in Saskatoon – any of my readers interested? Drop me a line if you this is something you’d like to see.

(As a side note, I had drafted up the post below before learning about this event – chalk it up to coincidence and/or fate that it’s related to funders and evaluation!)

Evaluation and accountability: for many non-profit organizations, these two concepts are inextricably linked. Granting bodies, in providing funds for programs and services, expect that their resources are used to create positive change, whether it’s improved test scores for children, stabilized living situations for those in crisis, or fewer people living in poverty. As part of the application process, most funders ask would-be recipients to provide the goals and objectives of their program, along with outlining how they will demonstrate whether these goals are being met. Successful applicants are then required to report on these metrics to show that the funds were used effectively.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is an important function for evaluation, both for the funders and the organization themselves. After all, why spend money and staff time on a program or service that is not creating its intended effect? At the same time, evaluation can provide multiple benefits for non-profits, including through means that wouldn’t prompt comparisons with a visit from financial auditors.

Uncertain about how evaluation can be useful beyond satisfying funder requirements? Follow along for a quick thought experiment. Take the phrase “dance as if nobody was watching” and apply the general principle – namely “Evaluate as if no funder or key external stakeholder would see the results” (not as succinct as the original, but you get the idea). What if we evaluated for a purpose beyond accountability? What would the process look like, in what ways would it differ from previous evaluations completed solely for a funder, and how would we use it?

Continue reading

CES 2017: Evaluation and Change

I find it interesting that the two major evaluation conferences I attend are usually scheduled in spring and fall (respectively), the seasons of change1. At its heart, the field is about change: both in terms of understanding and cataloguing what has transpired as the result of an intervention or program, but also supporting new developments by providing feedback and ideas for further improvements and refinement. There’s one more reason why change is central to evaluation, though – our work is not immune to it either. We have to be aware that our contexts and those we partner with also face change regularly, requiring us evaluators to identify and understand what’s happening around us and respond in kind.

The two sessions I’m presenting at the upcoming Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) conference in Vancouver both touch on this idea of being aware of and responsive to our contexts2. Kirstie Gibson, a former placement student with Strong Roots Consulting, and I will be presenting on research that we conducted with local non-profits that examined their perspectives on evaluation. My other session, with Craig Moore of South Shore Evaluation in Nova Scotia, is a thematic breakfast roundtable that invites other consultants from smaller cities and regions in Canada (loosely defined) to chat about the benefits and challenges related to being “the only one in town” when it comes to evaluation consulting. Two pretty different topics, but I think there’s a common thread around the importance of communication and collaboration to successfully navigate situations that are much more complex than the safe examples we practice with in workshops or classroom settings.

With CES approaching in less than two weeks, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to connect with colleagues from across Canada and even other continents (I’m attending a workshop that includes presenters from New Zealand!). More importantly, these events always provide an opportunity to expand my thinking, identify new approaches and methods that I can incorporate into my practice, and most importantly, remind me that when change happens, there’s a community there to help me make sense of it. For my friends and colleagues who will be in attendance, I’ll see you soon in Vancouver! Everyone else, keep an eye on this blog and the Strong Roots Twitter account the week of April 30 as I share insights and ideas from the conference.

  1. Yes, I understand that there are only so many months in the year to hold a conference, that traveling during the winter sucks and many people would rather be on vacation in summer than sitting in a convention centre somewhere – it’s a metaphor, just let me roll with it! 
  2. I’d like to pretend that this was intentional – perhaps subconsciously? 

Sharing and Connecting: Innovation at CES 2017

It’s most definitely fall in Saskatoon – nights dip below freezing, the trees have shed most of their leaves, and it’s only a matter of time before the snow hits1. Another sign of fall? Upcoming due dates to submit presentations for conferences, including the Canadian Evaluation Society’s 2017 conference in Vancouver.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the conference and its theme of Facing Forward: Innovation, Action, and Reflection. Today, I’d like to focus on Innovation – but instead of looking at innovation in evaluation, let’s talk innovation in conferences. My experiences at evaluation conferences (both in Canada and south of the border) have been overwhelmingly positive: at the same time, I’m aware that these events can be criticized for not being the most effective use of time and resources. Indeed, there are numerous ways today that we can learn from others without having to leave the comfort of home – including blogs such as this one! As a result, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether it’s worth spending hundreds of dollars (if not thousands, when you account for travel and accommodations) to make the trip.

One of the key benefits I have taken away from conferences is the opportunity to connect with others walking a similar journey. These events give me the chance not just to learn from others, but to share my own experiences and have a real dialogue where ideas can arise from the space between. True, we can have this two-way communication through words or video, but there’s something about being in the same room together or perhaps pitching ideas over a meal (or pint) that contributes to the generation of innovative ideas.

Although most of these connections are informal, the conference organizers can set things up to encourage such dialogue. For CES 2017, the team behind the conference have provided some interesting presentation types that I’m excited to both see in person and also participate in as a presenter. One type in particular, called “Consultation and Collaboration”, is a highly interactive format that asks attendees to work in groups in response to a problem, issue, or topic brought forward by the session organizers. Giselle Patrick, Carolyn Camman, and I have submitted a proposal under this format on the topic of evaluation capacity building (ECB), with a focus on how ECB can be conceptualized and put into practice for different types of organizations. We look forward to bringing some unique engagement activities to our session and seeing what comes out of the conversation!

There are several other interesting presentation types this year, including Storytelling, Thematic Breakfast Roundtables (I’m thinking to host one on consulting in small and mid-sized cities), and Lightning Round Tables that sound like a mix of speed networking and information sharing. And of course, there’s my perennial favourite, Ignite presentations, where your slide deck automatically advances through 20 slides, 15 seconds a slide, for a total of 5 minutes. I’ve found it a fun challenge to craft a coherent presentation to fit within these limitations, and likewise have enjoyed seeing what others do with this format!

One activity that I’d love to see at CES conferences is based on an idea from our American colleagues, specifically the Community Psychology Topic Interest Group (CP TIG) of the American Evaluation Association (AEA)2. At the annual AEA conference, this TIG hosts an event called “Walk the Talk”, where conference attendees can sign up for a tour of a local community agency or group to learn more about their work, see how they use evaluation, and provide ideas and suggestions for the agency to move forward in accomplishing their mission. Vancouver, like communities across this country, is home to numerous agencies of all stripes and sizes doing amazing work, and I think it would be worthwhile to go beyond the conference venue to learn more and contribute back to these organizations.

So suffice to say, I’m looking forward to this conference, both as a participant and contributor – the hard part is deciding what ideas I want to present on! Fortunately, I still have another week and a half to finalize and submit my proposal(s). Over to you now: What are you planning to present on, if you’re going? What are some innovative presentation formats that you’ve seen at other conferences? Share in the comments below or on Twitter, or drop me a line!

  1. That is, until the snow hits again: Saskatoon saw an extended preview of winter at the beginning of October.
  2. Apologies for the acronym soup in this post!