News: Saskatoon Capacity Building Grant

Programs and services may be a non-profit’s bread and butter, but these organizations also need to develop their own capacity to make a sustainable difference in our communities. Strategic planning, training, volunteer management – these facets of non-profit organizational life may appear mundane but are essential for long-term survival. Unfortunately, there are few grants that provide dedicated funding in this area, but registered charities in Saskatoon now have one more option.

The Saskatoon Community Foundation has announced a new granting program, the BHP Billiton Capacity Building Program. The Community Foundation has previously provided funding for capacity-building projects as part of their Quality of Life granting stream: with this new program, applicants no longer have to choose between capacity and funding for core programs and services. The details are not yet up on the Foundation’s website, but the information I received indicated that the application deadline is October 15 – I’ll update this post and the Grants section of the site when more details are available. In the meantime, you can contact the Saskatoon Community Foundation directly for more information.

Update: I’ve heard from the Community Foundation that the grants information page will be updated soon, but in the meantime you view the application by clicking “Apply Online” from their grants page and logging in to your account. If you don’t have an account already, you can set one up via the same link.

Strong Roots is all about capacity-building, so if you’re thinking about how this grant could be used to help develop your organization, drop me a line!

Evaluation Planning and Grant Applications

There are tons of great podcasts out there focusing on the non-profit world and evaluations, enough that I can do a full post on that topic sometime. Perusing the back episodes of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Making Change” podcast, I came across a great interview with evaluation mastermind Michael Quinn Patton. He spoke at length about developmental evaluation and the growing movement for accountability, but one story he shared near the beginning (around the 6:30 mark) caught my attention. Patton related a common experience where a non-profit calls him up to say that they need an evaluation and were recommended to him. He asked what kind of evaluation they need, and after a confused silence they replied “A kind?”. He went on to tell the befuddled caller that just like there are different kinds of restaurants and computers and cars, there are different kinds of evaluation. In response the non-profit representative explained that their three-year foundation grant is coming to an end and they just noticed that they are supposed to do an evaluation as part of their agreement with the funder, at which point Patton responded, “I don’t do that kind of evaluation”.

Funders are increasingly asking applying organizations to evaluate their programs and projects: for example, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a major funder in that province, has a dedicated page on creating an evaluation plan. Thankfully, OTF points out that evaluation planning should be incorporated in the program design process and take place before the project starts: as Patton’s story implies, leaving the evaluation to the last minute is not an ideal situation for either the evaluator or the organization.

With the approach of fall signalling the beginning of a new grant application season, now’s a great time to think about how evaluation fits in to the process. Every funding body and applying organization brings unique considerations, but there are three general principles to consider when you reach the “Evaluation” component of a grant.

1. Be clear as to what funder is looking for

This point is crucial, not just for the evaluation piece but the grant as a whole. If you don’t meet the requirements or understand what they’re asking for, all that time planning and writing will go for naught. Fortunately, almost all funding calls will list a contact person who can answer your questions and oftentimes provide some informal feedback on your application (or at the very least let you know if your idea is completely out in left field). Seek clarification on any points of uncertainty – ignorance is not bliss!

2. Know what you’re getting into

From the safety of the planning process, it can be easy to create an elaborate plan – sure, we can survey all of our participants four times during the program and run six focus groups! Although you should ensure that you are meeting the minimum requirements of the grant (following point 1 and clarifying with the funder directly if necessary), it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver instead of vice versa. Make sure you have the capacity to follow through on what you’re promising in terms of staff time and skills to plan the evaluation and collect and analyze data, as well as having access to the necessary tools such as online survey platforms or statistical software. Check whether you can use a portion of the grant funding to pay for tools and additional staff time or to hire an external consultant to conduct the evaluation.

3. Make sure the evaluation meets your needs too!

It’s all too easy to see the evaluation component as yet another hoop to jump through to get access to a pool of funds, but there are many benefits to your organization. What do you want to learn about your program, your participants, and your community? If the funder simply checks that you completed the evaluation and dumps it in a file-drawer with no impact on future funding, was the process still useful for you? An evaluation can contribute to the ongoing planning and development of your program, as well as demonstrate effectiveness and impact to your staff, participants, community partners, and future potential funders. In fact, ideally the evaluation planning should happen independently of any grant: when you get to that part of the application, it should just be the case of tweaking the pre-existing plan to meet any requirements of the specific grant.

Any other advice that I’m missing here? Share in the comments below or on Twitter!

If you represent a non-profit organization in the Saskatoon area that’s looking for help with evaluation planning, drop me a line – the initial conversation is (and will always be) free of charge!

Seeds for Thought: Five and Change

This week’s seed features Chi Yan Lam, a friend and colleague who is completing his PhD in Education at Queen’s University. We share an interest in developmental and collaborative approaches to evaluation, though as you can see from his about page, he comes at it more from the academic and theoretical side.

In support of writing his dissertation, Chi recently relaunched his personal site as a process journal to “chronicle and archive [his] emerging thinking and serendipitous discoveries around evaluation and design”. A recent post brings up the idea of the Stanford $5 challenge, where students in the Technology Ventures program are asked to use $5 and two hours of time to make a profit. Those most successful didn’t end up using the money: that resource all too often turned out to be a trap, too little to turn into anything with taking a huge risk like buying a lottery ticket or hitting the slot machines.

This example really resonates with my experiences in the nonprofit field. The first question that’s usually raised after generating a new idea for a program or service is where will the money and resources come from: in response, many organizations will “gamble” staff time and resources on preparing a grant application. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, the idea is dead in the water, morale drops, and staff are discouraged from coming up with innovative solutions in the future.

Instead of focusing immediately on what we need for success, oftentimes we need to take a step back as Chi suggests and first determine the need for a program (or to borrow from the business world, whether the “market” is there), and then whether our theory of change (the steps from here to there) matches our plan of action. These two steps can help identify faulty assumptions or leaps of logic in your plan, but more importantly, they force you to question if there is a better path to success. For example, is it possible for the program to take advantage of existing in-house resources such as a spare room and some dedicated volunteers, or draw on connections with community partners such as a university community service-learning project? A successful program will at some point need dedicated resources, just as a successful business venture will need capital to go to scale: however, if an idea can show some initial successes on $5 and two hours of time, it’s an easier argument to make that investing more time and money will be worthwhile.

(A quick shameless self-promotion here – my approach to supporting project development takes a similar approach, working with organizations to better understand the need and context, clarify how the program will work, and identify potential resources. If you’re at this stage of a program design and not sure how to proceed, drop me a line!)

Question: Think about a cause or issue you’re passionate about – what would you do to start creating change with $5 and two hours?

Site Update – Evaluation, Grants, and More Resources!

Strong Roots is continually evolving, so it makes sense that the website would reflect that change too! The section formerly known as Community-Based Research under Activities has been renamed to Research & Evaluation. The rationale for this move is explored in a previous post, but what it comes down to is that I see all of my work (not just research) at Strong Roots as being grounded in the community, and I’m becoming more comfortable with the “evaluator” title, as long as that word is footnoted with an explanation of what evaluation is to me.

On that note, besides getting a new title, the Research & Evaluation section has been expanded to further explain my approach to those activities and also links to resource pages on participatory research methods and a new one on developmental evaluation. If you’re at all wondering how research and evaluation can help your organization, take a look at those pages and drop me a line!

Under resources, the Saskatoon Grants section has also received some TLC to make it easier to navigate. Grants are now listed on separate pages by the type of funder (Collaborative Funding Partnership, Government and Foundations, Non-Profits, and Corporate – the last one includes some new additions to the list). I struggled with how to best sort these funding opportunities; my decision to go by type of funder came from the ease of categorization compared to other schemes such as type of projects funded, which could lead to the same grant being listed multiple times and be subject to change if an organization’s priorities changed. I’ll try this method for now, but may change it in the future if I figure out a better way. Of course, if you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments below!

Funders’ Forum (part 1)

Last week, I attended a forum highlighting grant opportunities for organizations based in Saskatoon. Speakers from seven funding agencies provided an overview of their respective grant programs, with time afterwards for questions to the group and general networking. Although I imagine that this idea of bringing funders and non-profit organizations together is not new, it was the first time that I had attended such an event: as someone new to the city, it was a great opportunity not just to learn about the opportunities that existed but also to meet with representatives from non-profits in the audience.

Before provide some information about the grants available, two take-aways from the event to share:

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Social Innovation Fund

Most funding opportunities for non-profit organizations, regardless of source, can usually be classified in one of two categories: short-term grants provide resources for a time-limited program or specific event, while operational funding supports an organization and its activities over a longer stretch of time. New initiatives can usually tap into the former category with relatively little difficulty, but the bar to entry for more stable long-term funding can be much higher. It’s not enough to have been successful in the past; grantmakers also want to see evidence that an organization has the capacity to continue and thrive. With most early-stage funding focusing on specific activities over organizational development, it’s difficult enough for mainstream programs to make the leap from start-up to maturity; if your program takes an innovative approach that does not have widespread recognition (yet), reaching that next level can be nearly insurmountable.

Fortunately this gap has been recognized by some grantmakers, including the JW McConnell Family Foundation. The McConnell Foundation has supported a number of initiatives in Canada related to social innovation, including the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) group that counts Getting to Maybe author Dr. Frances Westley as one of its leaders. The website of the foundation also contains a number of resources on social innovation including a primer on Developmental Evaluation, an approach to supporting innovative programs through research that was developed by another author of Getting to Maybe, Dr. Michael Quinn Patton; I’ll be exploring this methodology in a future post.

Recently, the McConnell Foundation announced a new fund for social innovation, aptly named the McConnell Social Innovation Fund. Recognizing the chasm between successful one-off programs and long-term sustainability and change, the fund provides support for both “Early Stage Consolidation” that helps move pilot projects to sustainability, as well as “Re-tooling for Growth” that assists established organizations scale-up or modify existing innovative approaches (a third stream, to be launched this coming winter, will focus on funding large multi-sector efforts that focus on broader systems-level change). The types of activities suggested in the granting guidelines (PDF) include strategy formulation, improving internal systems and infrastructure, assessing impact, improving knowledge transfer, developing new business models – not what you normally see in the eligibility section of a grant!

I’m personally excited about the difference that this grant could make, and hope that non-profits around Canada generally and Saskatoon specifically will be able to strengthen themselves and grow as a result. If you think this new fund represents a great opportunity for your non-profit but aren’t sure how to best make use of it, let’s talk! Strong Roots provides services that fit well with the objectives of this grant, especially around strategic planning and community-based research, and can also help with the preparation of the grant application itself.