Beyond the Comfort of What We Think We Know

Has an over-reliance on “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices struck a deathblow to our ability to think creatively and our courage to be experimental?

My mind is still mulling over my experience at the inaugural Collective Impact Summit last October in Toronto. No individual presenter had a greater impact on my thinking in that meeting than Brenda Zimmerman. Dr. Zimmerman, who died tragically on December 16 last year in an automobile accident, was a leading thinker in the application of complexity theory to both for profit and social profit (aka nonprofit) organizations and our understanding of change. She is widely known for her book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, written with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation and workshop at the Summit challenged, stirred, and animated my thinking in a number of ways. One that has been most Powerprofound has been pushing me to rediscover the value and validity of experimentation. I think of experimentation as the courage to ask “What if we tried…(fill in the blank)?” rather than rotely following the recipes, formulas, and checklists of “best practices” and “evidence-based” approaches.

I know better than most the safety of recipes, formulas, and checklists. The ability to apply or replicate evidence-based solutions to problems is often the surest course to achieving the measurable outcomes demanded by many funders. However, the unintended consequences of fidelity to our recipes, formulas, and checklists can be horrific.

For example, under pressure to meet some funders’ timetables to apply the best evidence-based solution to a complex social problem in our community, we ignore, in our haste, those who have genuine expertise with the problem and whose wisdom we need: those who live the problem every day.

Ignoring these, whom Dr. Zimmerman called “context experts,” can lead us, in turn, to an over-reliance on evidence-based solutions which appear to have demonstrated success in addressing similar complex community problems. As a result, we identify an evidence-based solution that worked for another community, but which does not really work for our community, or even at all. We assume the solution will work because the problem over there looks very similar to the one we are trying to solve right here. We even try to “tweak” the solution with various approved adaptations to make it fit better. In the end, we discover we have simply forced the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” In our shame, we write-up carefully worded reports for the funder to make the evidence-based solution sound more successful than we know it was and, in some cases, our reports merely add to the myth of that particular evidence-based solution.

However, we are not the only ones who know that the evidence-based solution we selected to do to the community did not really work. Those context experts know it, too. Their secret knowledge of the solution’s poor fit and its failure significantly weakens the likelihood of sustaining the solution in the community. After all, the community might not have wanted or needed our solution in the first place and may be glad to see it now, finally, go away. Sustainability stems from successful solutions owned by the community; and ownership grows out of trust, respect, and meaningful participation of the context experts – which we did not demonstrate from the outset.

Nonetheless, we climb further into the “best practice” and “evidence-based” trap. We are confident the next time we will find the right fit if we just follow the formula a little more carefully.

What if the problem is the formula? What if the process is flawed? What if our assumptions about expertise, best practices, and evidence-based solutions are all wrong? What if we have allowed our blind trust in best practices and evidence-based solutions for complex social problems kill off our human capacity for genuine creativity, thoughtful experimentation, and the ability to simply ask, “What if….?”

I am going to leave you with these questions but I plan to continue this conversation soon. In the meantime, take a moment to complete the poll at the bottom. I would like to know what you think.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Developing Nonprofit Story Worth Following

The Nonprofit Quarterly daily online newsletter, Newswire, has been covering a story in the state of Maine that bears watching by every nonprofit leader. Governor Paul LePage’s tax and budget plan coming before the state’s Legislature levies taxes on nonprofits and eliminates the charitable gift tax credit, even as it cuts taxes for higher income individuals. However, Governor LePage is not alone. Several other governors and states are pressing for variations on this plan. Maine, however, might be a “bell weather” for things to come, hence it deserves the attention of nonprofits throughout the United States.

Some readers of this blog may know that I also write for the Newswire and this Maine story is one that I and few other NPQ writers have been following closely. My latest article on Governor LePage’s promises that a “flood of money” will come into nonprofits under his plan appeared in the Newswire today, February 23rd. In the first paragraph of my article you will find links to four other articles that have recently appeared in the Newswire highlighting different aspects of this story, including an earlier one that I wrote about the impact on Maine’s nonprofit summer camps, which are a major economic driver for the state.

The NQP Newswire stories are generally quick reads, less than 500 words. However, if you cannot get to them today, please book mark them and come back to them at your earliest convenience.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Shared Experience: The Crucible of Community

This week I had a chance to meet up with a special group of my lifelong friends. They are not my best friends and we have known each other for barely five years. However, we have a bond that knits us together in a way that ensures our friendship will endure through the rest of our lives. What is that bond? Suffering. At least, that is what one of my friends says it is. In fact, we bonded through the shared experience of a grueling paper chase. For over five years we have lived together in the crucible of higher education in pursuit of the Doctor of Philosophy in Organizational

(L to R) Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory celebrating Daniel's successful dissertation defense at Minella's Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.
(L to R) Seven of the 15 lifelong friends, Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory, celebrating Daniel’s successful dissertation defense at Minella’s Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.

Leadership. Together we have been afraid, angry, hurt, exhausted, frustrated, on the edge of total collapse, and ready to walk, no, run away. Also, together, we have wept, laughed, comforted, celebrated, supported (even with calls and texts in the middle of the night), forgiven, and lovingly kept one another close so that running away was not possible. In this crucible we forged a friendship, a community, to which we will belong and cherish for the rest of our lives.

Much of my career’s work has been in community social change efforts. I have been in innumerable meetings in which someone would raise the question in that hushed, quasi-philosophical tone, “So, what do we mean by…community?” What usually ensues is a debate about geographic boundaries, homogeneity, ethnicity, etc., etc. Too rarely have I heard “shared experience” raised as a means of defining community. Considered individually, there is little that our group of 15 lifelong friends has in common. We are racially diverse, professionally diverse, and geographically diverse (Calgary to Addis Ababa to Malawi and all points in between). We are from different generations and different faiths. And yet, we have among us a single shared experience that is unique to us as a group. It is this crucible experience that has forged us into a community.

In fact, is it not shared experience that defines a community more than any other characteristic? For this reason, when we attempt community social change it is important that we understand that shared community experience. There is no better place to begin to increase our understanding than with the people who have lived the experience personally. These are also known as “context experts” because it is their first-person knowledge and understanding of that experience that helps us understand the community context. Without the context experts and an understanding of that shared experience in the community, our efforts will always be less effective and more short-lived.

In our next community change initiative…whether it is focused on poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence prevention, or something else…let’s call in the context experts first to help us understand what the community is really all about.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

T.W.K.

The Golden Rule of Dr. Martin Luther King

This morning National Public Radio gave us a rare glimpse at a national holiday, Martin Luther King Day, through the eyes of a child and it was a rich experience. This is very special because we adults get to select the national holidays and everyone celebrates them by decree. With the exception of Christmas and other gift giving holidays, we often do not take time to view the holidays, especially national holidays, from a child’s perspective. This is a wonderful story and I hope you will take time to read it or listen to it.

What Does Martin Luther King’s Legacy Look Like To A 5-Year-Old? : NPR.

May we all become better practitioners of Dr. King’s Golden Rule, not just today in his honor, but everyday.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

T.W.K.

New Teen Pregnancy Prevention Funding Opportunities Posted

Good Saturday morning!

The U.S. Department of Health Human Services Office of Adolescent Health posted four new teen pregnancy prevention funding opportunities last weekend (January 10) and one just before the holiday break on December 23rd. These are major funding opportunities for organizations that are working in teen pregnancy prevention. Each of the five opportunities has a different focus and funds very different activities. Please be sure to read them carefully. Each also requires a letter of intent to apply for the funding as well as a full application. In addition, each opportunity has a different timeline for receipt of letters of intent and applications.

To learn how to access detailed information on each of the opportunities, click here or on the “Funding Alert” link above. To learn more about how we can help, click here or on the link above to “Evaluation Research.”

Best wishes for a successful application!

Be greater, do good, everyday.

T.W.K.

Is the answer, after all, simply “kindness”?

Today I am doing something I do not usually do and it is not something I plan to do as a habit. I am publishing the same brief article I wrote for my newsletter as a blog, though I have expanded on it a bit more here. My sole reason for doing so is that I saw a short video today that moved me so much I wanted to make sure I shared it with as many people as I can. I hope you will take a look for yourself and share it as well. Who knows? Maybe we will change the world! Here’s the article:

What makes a “happy” new year?

As I was preparing to open a consulting practice exactly a year ago at this time, I began to wrestle with the question, “What will make me happy in this new year as my practice starts up?” The question of what makes one happy, new year or any other time, is not a simple one at all. Of course, the consummate answer to the question is “it depends.” However, to answer the question at a personal level, we are pushed to consider our values and then consider how our actions align with those values. In the end, according to many happiness researchers, we are likely to discover that our happiness is anchored in an overall satisfaction with our values and how we live our lives in relation to those values.

In this past year I have come to acknowledge and own that my core value is a belief in the “greater good,” which I understand to be the idea that each of us have an ethical obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it when we arrived. Further, I have come to understand that I live out this belief best when I do good for someone everyday. Now if this sounds a bit familiar (and I hope it does) it is because I have tried to capture this philosophy in the tag-line I use for my practice and which appears regularly in my on-line and print material: Be greater, do good, every day.

Recently I came across an incredible video that captures and powerfully illustrates the essence of this idea. It is the six-minute story of Josh, a young man from London, Ontario, who was bullied by other students in his high school. In one simple act of doing good to others, he stopped the bullying and transformed his school and his life. Josh’s story is a testimony to an important truth about doing good: it changes both the recipient of the act and the doer. Since I did not know what I could give you for the holidays, please accept this amazing video as my gift to you. May it inspire you to be happier and greater by doing good, every day in 2015.

Can you imagine what our neighborhoods, communities, and world could be like through simple acts of kindness like Josh’s? In this space I often write about strategies for community and social change and, frankly, I sometimes forget that the simplest, smallest acts are often the most effective. Relationship building is a key to facilitating social change and simple, small acts of kindness – done over and over again – are often the most effective relationship building tools. Many of us who are working on Collective Impact and other social change initiatives are eager for change to come and it cannot come quickly enough for us. We cannot, however, let our impatience convince us that we do not have time to be kind, for it is through kindness that our initiatives can be propelled at greater speeds to achieve greater impact.

Josh’s story reminds me of something I heard a couple of years ago when I was doing interviews in a research project on organizational leadership. I asked each interviewee this question: “What is the most important lesson you have learned in your years of leadership?” I will never forget this one response I received because for it has forever changed my own interaction with people: “It is always better to be kind than to be right.”

For me, this wise counsel and the illustration of its truth in Josh’s story raises this question: In all of our searching for the right frameworks, the right programs, the right strategies, and the right tactics to change our communities for the better, might the answer, after all, be found in kindness? 

My apologies to friends and colleagues who receive both this blog and my e-newsletter. If you receive this blog and would also like to receive my e-newsletter, please click here to subscribe.

Be greater; Do good; Every day,

T.W.K.

P.S. Please join me for “Creating Change with Collective Impact,” a GrantStation.com webinar on February 12, 2015. Whether you are new to the idea of cross-sector collaboration to solve complex social problems through Collective Impact or have been working with Collective Impact initiatives, I think you will find this webinar useful and valuable. In 2011 “collective impact” was identified as the number two philanthropy buzzword of the year by a writer in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Since then the “buzz” around collective impact has only continued to grow. In this webinar we will take a closer look at the collective impact phenomenon, tackling some of the most important questions: What is collective impact? How does it differ from other collaborative approaches? Is it merely a new name for collaboration? How does collective impact work? How has collective impact changed since its introduction? How do you decide when a collective impact approach is the best fit for your project and your funder? This webinar is designed for grant writers, executive directors, project managers and staff, as well as development staff. The webinar will be held on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 2:00 PM Eastern (U.S.). There is a cost involved, payable to GrantStation.com upon registration: $89.00 per person OR $150.00 per site for multiple participants. To register, click here or click on the title of the webinar above. I hope to “see” you there!

Upcoming GrantStation Webinar with Tom Klaus

Since you have your brand new 2015 calendar already to go, here’s something to put in it.

Creating Change with Collective Impact – A NEW Webinar from GrantStation.

Collective Impact is a term coined by FSG, a social change consulting group, to describe a cross-sector collaboration that focuses on solving complex social problems by embracing a common agenda. In 2011 “collective impact” was identified as the number two philanthropy buzzword of the year by a writer in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Since then the “buzz” around collective impact has only continued to grow. In this webinar, Tom Klaus will take a closer look at the collective impact phenomenon, tackling some of the most important questions: What is collective impact? How does it differ from other collaborative approaches? Is it merely a new name for collaboration? How does collective impact work? How has collective impact changed since its introduction? How do you decide when a collective impact approach is the best fit for your project and your funder?

This webinar is designed for grantwriters, executive directors, project managers and staff, as well as development staff.

The webinar will be held on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Visit the link above to register or click here.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015

Time: 2:00 PM Eastern Time (U.S.), running for 90 minutes

Fee: $89.00 per person, $150.00 per site.

About the Presenter:

Dr. Tom Klaus (PhD in Organizational Leadership) is a nonprofit/social profit consultant who has worked at all levels of nonprofits from direct service, to executive leadership, to heading complex national initiatives. Tom is a “pracademic,” steeped in both the study and practice of nonprofit organizational leadership, collaboration, and community engagement. He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University (Philadelphia) in the School of Leadership and Development, where he is a pioneer in teaching collective impact. Tom is a frequent keynote, plenary, and workshop speaker and trainer. He is also a prolific writer, blogging on community engagement and collective impact on his own site (www.nonprofitgp.com) and Tamarack, a Canadian institute for community engagement, and contributing to the NPQ Newswire.

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I am pleased and honored to be working with GrantStation on this new webinar. GrantStation is an organization dedicated to creating a civil society by assisting the nonprofit sector in its quest to build healthy and effective communities. GrantStation.com offers nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and government agencies the opportunity to identify potential funding sources for their programs or projects as well as resources to mentor these organizations through the grantseeking process. GrantStation provides access to a searchable database of private grantmakers that accept inquiries and proposals from a variety of organizations; federal deadlines; links to state funding agencies; and a growing database of international grantmakers. In addition, GrantStation publishes two newsletters highlighting upcoming funding opportunities, the weekly GrantStation Insider, which focuses on opportunities for U.S. nonprofit organizations, and the monthly GrantStation International Insider, which focuses on international funding opportunities.

If you are new to GrantStation, please take a few minutes to learn more at grantstation.com. GrantStation is an important resource for nonprofit organizations seeking to create and sustain the greater good in their communities.

I hope you are able to join me and GrantStation for this webinar on February 12, 2015.

Be greater; do good; every day,

T.W.K.