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Upcoming GrantStation Webinar with Tom Klaus

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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.

Collective Impact 3.0: Big Ideas from CI Summit in Toronto

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I’m a really lucky guy. I got to spend a week with my Canadian friends earlier this month and, once again, they both affirmed and pushed my thinking. Boy, did they affirm and push! The occasion was Tamarack’s inaugural Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Featured plenary speakers included Melody Barnes, John Kania, Brenda Zimmerman, and Jay Connor. In this space I want to highlight the five biggest ideas that came out of this event for me. The concept of a “big idea,” of course, is relative. What is big to me may not be big to you so I will explain my criteria. The five ideas that follow were big to me because they both confirmed what I have been learning through my own work with Collective Impact since December, 2011 and inspired me to go even deeper.

Elayne Greeley, from St. John's, Newfoundland and the CI Summit "Artist in Residence," illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.

Elayne Greeley, from St. John’s, Newfoundland and the CI Summit “Artist in Residence,” illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.

In the opening session of the summit, Tamarack’s Mark Cabaj set the theme and tone by arguing that the Summit was marking a new phase in the development of Collective Impact. The first phase, Collective Impact 1.0, was marked by experimentation with the approach. Collective Impact 2.0 saw the framing of broad parameters  and the emergence and development of practices related to it. Collective Impact 3.0, though, would extend and build upon these previous two phases as it deepened  understanding of the practices, capacities and ecology or context required for CI. The CI Summit did a great job of focusing on Collective Impact 3.0 and, as a result, these five big ideas emerged for me.

Big Idea #1: “Collective Impact” Does Not Need to be Applied to Every Collaboration. This idea represents a major leap in the maturation of the Collective Impact framework. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized “Collective Impact” as #2 in their top ten list of philanthropic buzzwords in 2011. In doing so, though, it suggested that CI was merely a new term for an old way of working together. Shortly thereafter the term was applied to every sort of collaborative effort. My regular readers will know that I am one who has been frustrated by the wholesale application of the “Collective Impact” label to every group effort. New ideas can benefit from such publicity but they can also die when, as a result, they are misunderstood as simply “new and shiny” objects. When a new idea’s label is, therefore, misapplied it can be devalued and its benefit to the field lost. I think Collective Impact 1.0 and 2.0 was at risk of devaluation as a result of its popularity.

At the CI Summit, Brenda Zimmerman delineated known, knowable, and unknowable problems. Isolated efforts and traditional collaborations are usually sufficient to address the known and knowable problems. Complex social issues, which is the realm of Collective Impact, are unknowable problems. That is, the problems are difficult to define and the solutions are even less clear. The appropriate application of Collective Impact 3.0 is to complex issues.

Big Idea #2: “Context Experts” and “Content Experts,” a 50/50 Proposition. The CI Summit introduced new language, as well as a new understanding, for how to think about the residents with lived experience that CI initiatives are trying to serve. “Residents with lived experience,” for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who are living directly with the issue a CI initiative is trying to address and are, therefore, likely to be the people who see the greatest benefit from a successful initiative. Context Experts are residents with lived experience, including children and youth. Typically, they are the people who experientially know about the issue. Content Experts are professionals, providers, and leaders with formal power who have knowledge, tools, and resources to address the issue. Typically, they are the people with the technical knowhow. The language is new and quite friendly to use though the concept of having both types of experts in a collaborative effort is not.

The really big idea is with regard to achieving the right mix of the two types of experts. For too many years and in too many collaborative initiatives, Content Experts have far outnumbered Context Experts, to the point of tokenizing them. The information coming out of the Summit, though, argues that it needs to be a 50/50 split to achieve Collective Impact 3.0. This reformulation of the equation has profound implications, particularly, I believe, among CI initiatives in the United States. In future blogs, I will try to unpack some of those that are most significant.

Big Idea #3: Ownership and Buy In are Not the Same Thing. This idea has an important correlation to the previous one: the more we involve Context Experts the more likely it is that we will facilitate “ownership” and not merely “buy in.” Why is this? The explanation lies in understanding how these are defined in the context of Collective Impact 3.0. “Buy in” means that Content Experts have come up with an idea and now have to get Context Experts to “buy in” to it, if it is going to stand a chance of working. This, I argue, is the sad status quo for most social change and public health initiatives I have both seen and been a part of in the United States. “Ownership” means that the idea comes from the Context Experts and, as a result, it is theirs from the outset and, therefore, need no convincing. We Content Experts are infamous for coming up with ideas for doing good to or for others, but not with them.

Big Idea #4: Best Practices are the Enemy of Emergence. The CI Summit highlighted that Collective Impact 3.0 is designed to address complex problems with emergent solutions. As noted earlier, complex problems do not have known solutions therefore evidence-based and best practices from past experience have very limited value. While they may offer clues, they cannot provide the definitive answers we expect of them. When best practices are applied, in fact, they stifle the creative thinking and adaptive responses needed for the solutions to emerge. Here is the danger of best practices when applied to complex problems: If we are convinced we already have the solution through an evidence-based or best practice, we stop thinking about and seeing other solutions when they emerge. As a result, we keep pounding the square peg into the round hole. Collective Impact 3.0 asks us to take the leap of faith that our Context Experts and Content Experts, when working together in a close relationship based on respect and trust, can allow the solutions to emerge and, together, see them, test them, and implement them.   

Big Idea #5: Change Happens at the Speed of Trust. “Change happens at the speed of trust” refers to comments made by FSG’s John Kania when he was speaking about the mind shifts that are needed for Collective Impact 3.0. Among the mind shifts John identified was the need to establish deeper relationships among CI partners to support the movement needed for progress to occur. It is not clear to me whether John actually used the phrase “change happens at the speed of trust” or whether this was an interpretation given to his actual words by another. I heard one of the members of my Learning Lab use this during our final meeting together of the Summit. It immediately resonated with me. The following week I used the phrase in my keynote presentation at the Iowa Department of Human Services Breakthrough Series Collaborative meeting in Des Moines. It strongly resonated with the group there as well. Wendy Rickman, Administrator of the Division of Adult, Children and Family Services, was so taken by it that she proposed that “change happens at the speed of trust” be carried forward as the theme for the next phase of the Iowa Breakthrough Series Collaborative, a five-year-old initiative of Iowa DHS and Casey Family Programs to improve the state’s child welfare system.

Regardless of the origin of the phrase, it says a lot about the look of Collective Impact 3.0. As one of John Kania’s slides did said, “typical social sector mindset and behavior has it backwards.”  It is not about pre-determined solutions and emergent interactions and relationships; it is about pre-determined interactions and the relationships and solutions that will emerge as a result.

The many pieces of information I gleaned from the Summit that congealed into these Five Big Ideas came so fast and furious that I am not sure I can accurately cite any single source. Some came out of the plenary sessions, some came out of the workshops, and some came out of the interaction with Learning Lab #20 (you know who you are and thank you for all I learned from you) which I had the honor and pleasure of facilitating. Regardless of the source, I am deeply appreciative of the insights and ideas that were shared at the Collective Impact Summit. I hope to meet you there next year!

Be greater, do good…every day.

T.W.K.

In the Care of Saskatoon Ketchup Pushers

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Recently a friend of mine told me that I’m “hopelessly Midwestern” and he is right. In fact, I’m not only hopelessly Midwestern, I’m proudly hopelessly Midwestern. To learn more about this condition, click on the link above and enjoy The String Doctors as they explain it to you. I can, though, explain one thing it means: I like ketchup…on steak…on many foods…which I’ve observed is an affront to many Easterners among whom I now live.

Photo:  "Heinz Tomato Ketchup" ©2011 by Dave Toussaint (retrieved from www.flickr.com)

Photo: “Heinz Tomato Ketchup” ©2011 by Dave Toussaint (retrieved from https://www.flickr.com)

Imagine my joy, then, while in Saskatoon last February, on the coldest day in 20 years (-41 degrees with wind-chill), that I ran into ketchup pushers. The ketchup pushers were the wait staff in the restaurant at my hotel. The wait staff, with bottles of Heinz ketchup in hand, asked every single person coming in for breakfast the same question in nearly the same lilting way:  “Good morning. Would you like a bit of ketchup with your breakfast?” (You’ll have to add your own lilt.) At first it was a bit surrealistic as I watched and listened as they posed this question as if it were part of a perfectly typical greeting like, “Good morning. How are you doing today?” Instead they skipped the “how are you doing” part and went directly to the ketchup inquiry. I also observed that nobody else seemed to think it was an odd way to be greeted. So I quietly marveled and listened in, chalking it all up to an idiosyncratic culture clash between the United States and Canada.

However, I just could not shake the experience from my mind or memory. Here’s why: the ketchup pushers reminded me of two important lessons on how to do our work in the social sector.

Create a Warm Welcome: Though a bit quirky, the ketchup pushing was an incredible act of welcoming that not only warmed the soul but seemed to warm the body. It tended to counteract the stunning cold that was outside. It was, after all, the coldest day in 20 years in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (have I already mentioned that?). Later in the day, after it warmed up to -19, I would go outside to walk across the street to the mall. Even then, I followed the lead of a native Saskatooner, whom I had observed walking backwards against the wind, to avoid frost bite. It is a bit challenging to cross a busy street walking backwards but in that kind of cold it seems a toss-up between freezing to death and getting run over. At breakfast, though, when it was -41 outside, this wait staff warmed up the place several degrees with their joyful hospitality.

Some nonprofit front offices can be the coldest places on earth. In these frigid places people are not greeted properly, if at all. They may have complicated forms pushed on them to complete without the courtesy of a friendly greeting or the benefit of instructions. In too many cases even the forms are not in their first language. The signage in the office may not answer even the most basic questions, such as the location of a restroom that clients and visitors are welcome to use. Visible signage may, however, include prohibitions (e.g., NO public restrooms, NO cell phone use, NO media use without headphones, NO complaining about our lack of hospitality, etc.) and other lists of policies and procedures…again, not always in a visitor’s first language. Chairs in the waiting area may have originally been designed to coerce compliance in the Spanish Inquisition and are placed so closely together to all but eliminate any sense of personal space. What is it about this kind of experience that warms anything except overheat one’s sense of disrespect and indignation? We can learn from the ketchup pushers just how important it is to create a warm welcome for everyone.

Anticipation: Through their ketchup pushing the wait staff was heading off future conflict. There just are not that many conflicts over ketchup, to be sure. However, put yourself in the apron of a wait staff member. You get out of bed at 4:00 AM, walk backwards to your car to avoid frost bite, hope it will start in the horrific cold, and then arrive at work by 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM restaurant opening. You walk into the chilly restaurant to begin your shift and realize it is so cold outside that the furnace is having a hard time warming the room. You are there to serve people who are visiting Saskatoon, maybe for the first time, who will be waking up hungry, crawling out of a nicely warm bed into a colder room, only to find there is no way they will really feel warm again all day in a strange city. The Cranky and Grouchy Customer Alert System just went to 5. What would you do? I think you and I would do exactly what the wait staff did…consider how little it would take to get on the bad side of a customer first thing on a really nasty cold morning and then anticipate even little ways to head off problems. Our first effort, therefore, becomes a lilting greeting: “Good morning! Would like a bit of ketchup with your breakfast?” (This link is for everyone who just cannot bear to think about pairing the words “anticipation” and ketchup without reference to the iconic Heinz commercial.)

Think of the ketchup pusher’s anticipation as “strategic conflict management,” if you will. Really, think about it. When you have home fries (which I did) or French fries or something else for which you want ketchup, you usually have to ask for it. Then, if the wait staff is busy, they may or may not get your ketchup to you before your food gets cold. Frosty home fries and ketchup are not a pleasant combination, mind you, and the experience of eating them cold can chill you inside and out, releasing your inner grouch. By anticipating even this small need, my ketchup pusher put me in a frame of mind that made it easy to appreciate my breakfast experience and hard to find anything to criticize.

I have been thinking a lot about strategic conflict management over the past few months as I developed and tested a new training event for nonprofit leaders, staff, and community stakeholders. Strategic conflict management seeks to forecast areas of potential conflict in order to either avoid it altogether or at least minimize its collateral damage. Many nonprofits, especially those that work on controversial social issues, never see the conflict coming until they are in the middle of it. Then there is only time to be reactive and the opposition is already two steps ahead of the nonprofit’s next move. In research I have done on the ongoing conflict over sexuality education in the United States, I have found that nonprofit leaders tend to go on “automatic pilot” when conflict erupts. As a result they tend to take a series of actions that merely escalates and entrenches the conflict long term. I debuted the strategic conflict management training in July to rave reviews and very strong, positive evaluation results. (If you’d like to learn more about it for your organization or community, email me at twklaus@nonprofitgp.com or use the contact form below).

The ketchup pushers at my hotel on that frigid February morning are one of the reasons I love Saskatoon. I have had the privilege of being there a couple of times in my life and hope to go back many more times. For me, Saskatoon exudes a sense of welcome. Before going to breakfast I watched some of the local news as I was dressing (in layers, of course) for the cold day. I heard a story about an event held the previous day (on the second coldest day in 20 years in Saskatoon) that featured the cuisine of immigrants who were being welcomed into the community. Several of the people interviewed for the story talked about the importance of creating a sense of welcome and “place” for Saskatoon’s newest residents. I now find myself wondering, as these new Saskatooners sampled the various foods, how many times they must have heard, “Would you like a bit of ketchup with that?”

Be greater, do good…every day,

T.W.K.

Driving the Rusty Spike – A Free Teleconference for Stuck Writers

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On Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 7:30 to 8:30 PM (Eastern), I’m offering a free quickee teleconference titled, Driving the Rusty Spike: Lessons Learned in the True Life Adventures of Dissertating and Other Nasty Writing Projects.

This is a one-hour teleconference on how to make progress toward successful completion of a dissertation, thesis, or other weighty writing project that feels like it is stuck and just hanging around haunting your life. If you, or someone you know, is in the midst of one of those writing projects and would like a respite, mixed with a bit of witty encouragement, please join me. This is especially good for folks who have decided to inflict one of those graduate degrees on themselves that require a lot of writing.

Here’s a brief description:

You sailed through the course work, the comprehensive examination, and daily grind of pursuing a graduate degree or advanced study. Now it’s time to write that dissertation, thesis, or even book, that seemed a long way off when you started your program. Uh-oh. Brain freeze! Energy loss! Reactor core melt down! (“And don’t ask for any more warp 9 speeds, Mr. Spock. Our star drive is completely burned out. The only thing we have left is impulse power.”) How can you possibly find it within you to get over this last hurdle and sprint to the finish line?

In this teleworkshop you will receive:

  • At least 10 strategies for refueling your spirit, refocusing your mind, and reclaiming your drive to finish that dissertation, thesis or other major writing project
  • Inspiration to start moving forward again and to keep moving
  • Affirmation of your effort and support from others who are on a similar journey

I will be leading the teleconference. Here a little about my own experience that informs this presentation: Tom Klaus (Ph.D., Organizational Leadership) infamously described the doctoral journey with this appalling metaphor, that was nonetheless often quoted by others at the university whenever he was introduced: “It’s like tapping a rusty spike slowly through your forehead, into your brain, and yet finding it weirdly exhilarating.” Tom did finish driving the rusty spike and has been a prolific writer throughout his career, including books, articles, curriculum, and blogs. He is a nonprofit business and leadership development consultant based in Laurel, Maryland; an adjunct professor at Eastern University (Philadelphia) in the School of Leadership Development and Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership programs; a blogger for his own site, Non-Profit GP, and Tamarack, an institute for community engagement based in Canada; and a nonprofit leader with deep and wide experience.

There is no cost for this teleconference. You only pay the cost of long distance charges to call into the teleconference line. However, advance registration is required.

To Register: Click HERE to register (or cut and past into your browser this link: http://tinyurl.com/DrivingTheRustySpikeOR  you can use this contact form to register as well:

Between September 1 and September 12, you will receive confirmation of your registration and the conference call number and access code. Please note: Your registration information is confidential and will not be shared.

If you have questions, please contact me at info@nonprofitgp.com

Yes, please feel free to share this information with others you believe may be interested.

Be greater, do good, every day.

T.W.K.

“The Least of These”

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My life is haunted. Some of the things that haunt me are the ghosts of stupid things I have done over the course of my life. Many, though, are the spirits of compelling ideas that just will not let go of me. One of those ideas is captured in the phrase “the least of these.” The phrase “the least of these” comes to me from the Christian scriptures, the spiritual text with which I am most familiar, though it refers to an ethos to be found in many cultures and faiths. The ethos is that members of the human race, and the societies they form, have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for “the least of these” in their communities. “The least of these,” in one sense, is a relative term as it can refer to those whose needs are greater than our own. However, it more generally refers to those who have found themselves in great need and difficult, even desperate, circumstances, through no fault of their own. They are often known to us by their status in society: marginalized. The failure to care for these others, in fact, is a failure of our humanity and to the whole of humanity, and some would also believe, to God.

“The least of these” are the reason for my career. It was a calling to serve “the least of these” that led me to ministry within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) when I was a young man. It was the same call that led me into mental health counseling and then the field of adolescent sexual health. It is the call that today has guided me to focus my work with social sector (non-profit) organizations, including faith communities, in order to help them become the best guardians and providers of “the least of these” that they can be.

This blog often finds me writing about community engagement and Collective Impact. “The least of these” has also been haunting these subjects for me as well. Yet it is with regard to these two topics that my thinking is still forming and for which I hope to receive greater light from others. Therefore, I am just going to put my ideas out here for your consideration and invite you to have a conversation with me.

Why Find a Cure 2

Bumper sticker seen in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, April, 2014

If a social change movement is not about “the least of these,” then it is just a business and social change is just another industry providing greater benefit to those working within the industry than to those whom it is supposed to serve. Earlier this year I was working on an organizational study for a client and in my research came across a compelling article[i] in which the authors made this point with what they called the “health disparities industry.”  The authors cited the literature that defines “industry” as a sector of the economy that manufactures goods or products or provides a service. An industry has an elaborate infrastructure, a specialized set of activities, and stakeholders. Then the authors made the case that the health disparities movement had, in the United States, become an industry that more often used the issue of disparities to sustain itself than to help those who actually experienced the disparities. My own research has similarly found that an industry has grown up around the issue of the sexuality education of young people in the United States, the field in which I have worked for many years. The industrialization of the field has meant, among other things, that concern for its own sustainability has contributed to the institutionalization of the decades’ long intractable conflict over sexuality education in U.S. public schools.

Collective Impact is a framework for social change that has really caught on since its introduction in 2011. Actually, that is an understatement. More accurately, and metaphorically, it has taken off like a rocket and it is yet to be seen just how high it will fly. Through it community change initiatives of all sizes and many organizations have been introduced to its five conditions, the concept of emergence, and the power of backbone organizations. Some are taking time to learn, understand, grasp and implement the ideas undergirding Collective Impact and others are simply slapping the cool new name onto their existing work to impress funders and garner media attention. I am an early adopter and fan of the Collective Impact framework and have used and extended it in my own work.

Yet, I worry.

I worry that “the least of these” are left out of many Collective Impact initiatives. Yes, I know leaders of these initiatives would likely argue that my worry is absurd. “After all,” they might argue, “the initiative exists to help ‘the least of these,’ does it not?” Okay, so it might. HOW it does this, I argue, is at least as important as WHAT it does, especially if sustainable community change is to be achieved.

  • Does it invite “the least of these” to the table where the COMMON AGENDA is created that impacts their lives?
  • Does it train and equip “the least of these” with the skills and knowledge to participate effectively with other initiative partners?
  • Does it build and maintain a culture among all partners that values the participation of “the least of these” in the selection of the BACKBONE ORGANIZATION, SHARED MEASUREMENT strategies, and MUTUALLY REINFORCING ACTIVITIES to be undertaken?
  • Does it use an inclusive decision-making process that ensures the voice and vote of “the least of these” counts?
  • Does it have CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION systems in place that ensure equal and equitable access and participation of “the least of these?”

Collective Impact initiatives that leave out “the least of these” are just the same old coalitions involving the usual same old players doing the same old things in the same old way. As such, it is business as usual and business as usual is not social change.

I believe community engagement that values “the least of these” and seeks to include them as full partners holds the promise of keeping Collective Impact on track as a powerful framework for social change. Yet, there is still a need to keep “the least of these” at the heart of community engagement. Without “the least of these,” I worry that community engagement merely becomes the industry of marketing.

Hoping this will be a conversation that continues to shape my thinking on these issues, here are my questions for you:

  • What worries do you have about either leaving out “the least of these” or, conversely, fully involving them in your Collective Impact initiative or community engagement work?
  • What is working for you to keep “the least of these” at the forefront of your Collective Impact and/or community engagement work?
  • What would you like to do more of in the future to ensure “the least of these” stay front and center in your work?

Thanks for allowing me to think aloud in this space. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Be greater; do good; every day,

T.W.K.

[i] Shaw-Ridley, M. & Ridley, C. R. (2010). The health disparities industry: Is it an ethical conundrum? Health Promotion Practice, 11(4), 454-464.

Take a Ride on the Wild Side of Leadership

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Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.

Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.

The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.

This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.

What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.

The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.

The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.

The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.

It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?

Be greater, do good, every day,

T.W.K.

[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.

Community Needs Assessment or Community Understanding?

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I have a tolerate/hate relationship with community needs assessments. I really wanted to write that I have a love/hate relationship with them but that would be dishonest. I do not love them at all, but I do understand their importance and will tolerate them…barely. In fact, I have designed them, conducted them, and used them to inform and guide work on community projects and initiatives.

So, what’s my problem with community needs assessments? In part, it has to do with my research orientation. I am a qualitative researcher at heart and by preference, and too many community needs assessments focus on just the numbers. I can do the numbers, but they do not “chat to me” as they do to my quantitative researcher spouse who becomes positively giddy over statistics. Even more, I think the importance of numbers are overblown since they do not tell the whole story. They are good for describing a situation or issue, but not explaining it, which is really the key to community change. Until we understand why or how something is happening in a community, we usually cannot influence and change it.

Okay, so I have owned my part in my problem with community needs assessments and I have come to accept that community needs assessments are a necessary evil. Yet there are still other problems with community needs assessments that have little or nothing to do with my research orientation or preference. I believe they can be improved and made more useful both to those that must conduct them and to the residents of communities that are subjected to them. Here are my recommendations.

First, I propose we lose the name “community needs assessment” and replace it with “community understanding study.” The name “community needs assessment” has come to assume weaknesses, problems, negatives, and deficits in the community. Therefore, we are imposing our belief that a community has problems and biasing the outcome from the outset. We need to consider that our perspective may not be what the residents of the community see at all. They may, in fact, see strengths, benefits, positives, and assets in the community. They may see their communities as incredibly, infinitely resilient and able to overcome any challenge. Community “needs assessment” assume communities are doing poorly with regard to one or more issues. As a result, some needs assessments effectively double bind residents into responding to the assessment questions in ways that only reveal the deficits. Recently I participated in a community needs assessment that had several of these types of questions on it. For example, it asked me to choose from a variety of responses with regard to a health related issue, without first asking me if I actually had that health issue. To respond at all was to admit to an issue that I did not have. (In fact, although I did not have the issue, I might have developed it had I allowed myself to dwell too long on such a poorly constructed survey.)

Second, I recommend we pay closer attention to how and why we do studies of communities in order to be more thoughtful and intentional. Funding often drives community studies. Funders may require a community needs assessment to justify an “investment” in the community. Recipients of funds, even when they are not obligated to conduct a needs assessment, may include a study in their work plan merely to assure the funder that they know what they are doing and to establish their credibility with the funder. These real or perceived expectations too often produce hastily undertaken studies that, for example, may use poorly designed survey or interview questions, convenience samples that are not representative of the community (often even excluding residents with valuable lived experience with the issue being studied), engage in a wild flurry of busy data collection activity (aka “going through the motions” to create the impression of a “good” study), or other such things that result in an overall poor quality effort. Studies done in this way neither provide actual benefit to the funder nor grantee and certainly provide little value to the community. At worst, a poorly done needs assessment may turn up community “problems” that are completely unrelated to the real issues facing a community, sending both the funder and grantee off on a chase to fix “problems” that are either insignificant or nonexistent.

The Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: It looks soft but it still smarts!

The Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: It looks soft but it still smarts!

Third, I suggest we more forthrightly and clearly admit our findings are based upon assumptions that may not be correct. Whether a community study uses a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method approach, the information gathered is always limited by key core assumptions that we are asking the right questions in the right way of the right people to get an accurate picture of the community. Good researchers are always aware of such assumptions and worry about the limitations of their research. They will take care to describe the limitations and hope that they are thoughtfully considered before the findings are applied to an unsuspecting community by the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: “You need this, see? And you’re going to get it whether you want it or not!” I have been guilty of wielding the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness myself as a leader who did not always understand and respect the limitations of data collection and analysis. More fully aware of my own limitations today, it is painful to see others who still swing the sledgehammer at communities.

Fourth, I suggest we find a better way to study the life of a community continuously in real time. Community needs assessments are too often a “still photo” or “snapshot” in time that fails to provide ongoing “real time” updates. Snapshots become dated very quickly, though we may cling to them as if they really do represent the present. Even worse, I have been involved in some large community needs assessments that take so long to produce findings (sometimes more than a year) that when they are delivered, the original conditions it found are no longer present. As a technical assistance provider who was supposed to use that data to tailor my assistance, I found it to be an absurd, crazy-making requirement that was both useless to me and the community initiatives it was supposed to serve. I think my colleagues involved in community based participatory research (CBPR) are trying to figure out how to study a community in real time and I appreciate their effort. I would still ask them to look beyond just the numbers and to shift their focus from community problems and deficits to positives and possibilities.

Fifth, I strongly suggest that we professional do gooders (PDGs) who conduct the studies stop trying to be experts in other’s communities. One of the biggest problems I have with community studies of any kind is that they shift the balance of “expert” power from the community residents to the PDGs who are doing the study. Here is a very hard truth: we PDGer’s have too often used our community studies for two terrible deceptions. The first is our own self-deception. Some of our community studies result in such massive amounts of data on communities that we first conclude we must be the true experts. I have been in meetings with PDGs who have asserted (one even pounded the table for emphasis) that they were the experts in the community they were serving, not the people who lived in it. Unfortunately, the deception does not stop there. We, who have claimed expert status by virtue of our reams of data, too often commit a second deception on the residents with lived experience in the community we are studying. We use our new self-declared expert status and data (see the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness above) to convince residents that we know them better than they know themselves. When this happens, community engagement  work, then, becomes a process by which we convince the community residents what their needs really are and get them to agree to let us do an intervention to them – an intervention we have often designed just for them without their input.

Finally, I recommend that our community studies be expanded beyond an examination of “needs,” to include an assessment of community “wants” and “will.” It is just as valid to ask residents of a community what is wanted as it is to ask what is needed. Some will argue that it is hard to trust that people will want what is best for them. To that I ask, “Could we possibly make that sound any more condescending?”  Others will argue that people may not even know what they want. To that I say, “So what? Will it kill us to find out?” I think we will be surprised what happens when we actually trust people to tell us what is important to them. Okay, maybe people will tell us they want a new car or a new cell phone or something else that seems ludicrous to us given our “expert” observation of the many other greater “needs” in the community. However, what if we then ask them why it is important to have a new car or new cell phone? Maybe we will learn that they need transportation to take a chronically ill child to a hospital for regular treatment or they are unemployed and need a contact phone number to list on job applications.

Both a wants and will assessment require us to go beyond surveys, questionnaires, and interviews to engage people differently to gain a deeper understanding. A community “will” assessment is a bit more complex and requires the most creative engagement strategy. What are residents of a community actually willing to do? People do not always act in the best interest of their needs. For example, I may need to maintain my weight but I still enjoyed my share of that large Polynesian pizza from the Lost Dog Pizza Cafe last Friday night. They may also describe their wants but then do something entirely different, including something that meets a need that is more important to them than their wants (e.g., I still want Polynesian pizza for lunch today, but I will have yogurt and granola instead.)  How do we know what people are willing to do? One of the best indicators of what people are willing to do is discovered through an Appreciative Inquiry process. Through Appreciative Inquiry people identify the most positive moments and experiences that they are not only willing to experience again but will intentionally plan to experience again. This process can be used to help us better understand what residents and communities are willing to do.

If community change is going to be effective, we need to align community needs, community wants, and community will with our understanding of how these are interconnected. No assessment is ever perfect, whether it is a needs, wants, or will assessment. Communities are complex adaptive systems which are dynamic and in constant flux, which is all the more reason to create community understanding studies that allow us to remain aware of the fluctuations, both great and small.

An Update on For Barbara: The Power of One: On May 5, 2014 I posted a blog about my long time friend and colleague, Barbara Huberman, that generated many comments from readers. Barbara passed away in hospice care on Saturday, May 17th. Barbara had asked me in March if I would assist her family in planning a celebration of her life. Before she passed away, Barbara got to read that blog and I got to have one last visit with her. On June 3rd, in Washington, DC, more than 150 people from around the United States attended the celebration and memorial for Barbara Huberman. It was one of the most profound honors of my life to lead that celebration. We miss you, Barbara. Rest well.

More later…

T.W.K.

 

 

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