Tag Archive for: leadership

One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

Gina Robertson from Victoria Native Friendship Centre and Indigenous Focus Cohort 1 introduced me to the work of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. Gina shared that she had gifted dozens copies of his first novel, Keeper ‘N Me (1994), to Aboriginal men who were incarcerated and trying to make sense of their experience. The book had a transformative effect on many of them. Since then, I have become a devoted Wagamese reader, and have been changed through the discovery of his work. As an author and journalist, he has created an impressive body of work including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir. He is also a person that has been deeply affected by the legacy of residential schools – his survivor parents struggled to parent; he and his siblings were removed, separated and placed in many different foster homes; he was adopted into a white home that was unable to provide the support and care that he needed; and his life was very precarious for many years. However his love of language and great talent as a writer and storyteller sustained him as he rediscovered his Ojibway nature.  

His book, Indian Horse (2012), was the People’s Choice winner in CBC’s Canada Reads 2013. It is a story that sheds light on the “alienating effects of cultural displacement.” I think that it should be required reading for anyone training to work in our field. “Saul Indian Horse is a hockey phenomenon. But he is also victim to the legacy of Canada’s residential schools. This story is about Saul’s reclamation of himself after years of hard drinking and the need for all of us to hear all of our own story if we are to heal. At times, harrowing, brutal and sad but infused with the glory of a game, the light of redemption and forgiveness”

As wonderful as these books are, the one that I am drawn to these days – as I try and understand how to ‘live into reconciliation’ – is his collection of essays, One Native Life (2008). He tells stories about the things he has experienced and learned during his life. I can’t begin to do justice to the breadth of his essays and urge you to read them yourself, however, here are a few excerpts that I think are pertinent to the work of building/rebuilding respect, trust, safety and reconciliation through learning more about ‘the other’ and their stories, experiences and perspectives (italics mine):

On language, cultural connection and permanency:

“I was twenty-four when the first Ojibway word rolled off my tongue. It felt round and rolling, not like the spiky sound of English with all its hard-edged consonants. When I spoke that word aloud, I felt as if I had truly spoken for the first time in my life.

“That first word opened the door to my culture. When I spoke it I stepped over the threshold into a new way of understanding myself and my place in the world. Until then I had been like a guest in my own life, standing around waiting for someone to explain things to me. That one word made me an inhabitant.

“It was peendigaen. Come in. Peendigaen, spoken with and outstretched hand and a rolling of the wrist. A beckoning. Come in. Welcome. This is where you belong….The feeling of Ojibway in my throat was permanence. I stood on unknown territory whose sweep was compelling. Peendigaen. Come in. With that one word, I walked fully into the world of my people” (pp. 137-138).

On working towards justice through communication and understanding:

In reflecting on his first reading of Saul Alinsky’s seminal book, Rules for Radicals, Wagamese says, “His book contained less than what its title suggested, and at first I was disappointed. Then I read it over again and I started to understand that radicalism isn’t necessarily the mechanics of anger. Instead it is the need of the people to invoke justice in a system through a certain generosity of spirit. It is, as Alinsky suggested, a process of communication (p. 220).

On the value of being present for each other and through our differences:

“It is not necessary to bridge gaps between communities. Bridges rust and collapse. If, as a people, we work earnestly to fill those gaps with information, filling it in layer by layer with our truth, the gaps eventually cease to exist” (p. 221).

2020 Resources – TED Talks for Enhanced Understanding

Those of you who have participated in leadership 2020 know how much I am a fan of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks. If you are unfamiliar with TED, all you really need to know is that this is a platform, created by a non-profit organization, in which leading thinkers and activists are invited to give the best talk of their lives on something that matters to them and that could benefit the world, in 18 minutes or less (most are between 10 and 18 minutes). In addition to global TED conferences with prominent speakers, there are hundreds of independently run TEDx gatherings that have a similar intention. TED curates the best talks and presents them as TED talks. You can search for specific topics or follow recommended playlists. There are three things I particularly love about TED talks: I am introduced to interesting people and topics in a bite-size chunk of time; I learn from how people present ideas as well as what they present (e.g. through storytelling); I can view talks outside of my primary field of interest which stimulates my creative thinking (the value of obliquity).

Here are a few wonderful talks that might help to uncover, understand or further challenge our hidden biases and beliefs – more yoga for the mind!

Bryan Stevenson:
We Need to Talk About an Injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who works with the poor, incarcerated and condemned in the United States. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (http://www.eji.org) and they have won legal challenges to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerate innocent prisoners on death row, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children who have been prosecuted as adults – throughout the US.

“In this engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.”

 Although the talk focuses on the US system – which is markedly different than the Canadian justice system – there are underlying themes that confront us in Canada. Most notable is the over-representation of Aboriginal people, the poor and people with mental illness and addictions in the justice system. This is a beautiful talk that can encourage empathy for those who are most marginalized in our communities

Verna Myers:
How To Overcome our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them

Vernā Myers is a diversity consultant and “recovering lawyer” and leads an organization that breaks down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation in workplaces. She is also the author of Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing.

“Myers encourages us to recognize our own biases in order to actively combat them, emphasizing a “low guilt, high responsibility” philosophy. In her work she points to her own inner biases, because, as she says, ‘People relax when they know the diversity lady has her own issues.’”

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Part Two)

Last week I shared Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s premise that we all carry hidden biases (blindspots and mindbugs) resulting “from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality”. I suggested that – as self-aware leaders – it is important that we uncover and understand our biases. In this week’s issue we will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors suggest that, “effective methods for removing mindbugs that contribute to hidden biases have yet to be convincingly established” (p. 149). Nonetheless, we can ‘outsmart them’ even if eradication is challenging. Awareness alone does not change our thinking or behaviour – we have to get engaged and we have to stretch our thinking through counter-stereotyping experiences and images. For example, to counter the dominant negative images and stories that affect us every day, we can choose to search out and display contrasting images, e.g. a construction worker in hard hat breastfeeding her baby, to counter stereotypes related to gender and jobs; or highly esteemed and inspiring Indigenous leaders – elders, youth, women – to counter the images in the media and stored in our mind of Indigenous people as being victims; seniors joyfully engaged in physical activities or learning new things to challenge our ideas about aging and infirmity.

We also have to seek out contact and begin to get beyond the ideas we carry about ‘the other’ to building empathy for ‘the other’ through personal contact, as Tessa suggested in her feature article last week. The suggested TED talk by Verna Myers speaks to the idea of walking towards our biases without shame or guilt.

In Leadership 2020 we aim to build cultural agility – this means moving along a learning path from awareness to understanding (empathy) to agility and humility. I will come back to this in a future communiqué. This topic is particularly alive for me as I review the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released this week. This is an amazing time in our history. How will we show up to live into the promise of reconciliation? I believe that we can be more skillfull if we are open to being more self aware of the judgments that hold us back.

Reflective practice questions:

How will you ‘walk towards’ the judgments and biases that you are uncovering in 2016?
In what practical and concrete ways can you build relationships with members of groups that are less familiar to you?

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

This week’s suggested read is one of my favourite books of the past year. Blindspot – Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) was written by Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Anthony Greenwald of University of Washington to share their extensive research and learnings about “the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality” – and what we can do about them. I am going to review this book in two communiqués. This week, I will describe the premise of the book and the importance of understanding biases, and encourage you to take an online (free) Implicit Association Test to prepare for next week’s issue. Next week, I will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which helps reveal stereotypes or ‘blindspots’ in our ways of thinking about and perceiving ‘the other’. Having completed a number of them myself I can attest to the positively disruptive experience – as I became more aware of my own biases (and there were some that shocked me) I felt better equipped to begin to realign my thinking and behaviour with my intentions (e.g., to be an open-minded and empathic person, to be more culturally agile).

As the authors describe, we are social beings that, by evolutionary necessity, have formed social groups, and have developed an array of ways of defining our groups and characterizing other groups. We are also ‘meaning makers’ – as information comes in, we sift and sort this information into categories in order to make sense of it. These categories include value assessments such as good/bad; trustworthy/not trustworthy; smart/stupid, etc. In fact, we bring this need to belong in a social group and the need to make meaning together by trying to figure out what the members of our social group think about things and how they attribute meaning. Indeed, “other minds matter to us enough that regions of neural real estate are uniquely engaged for the purpose of making social meaning” (p. 13). What this means is that we are heavily influenced by what we think others in our social group/cultural environments think.

Biases are comprised of “bits of knowledge about social groups…[that are] stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments…[They] can influence our behaviour towards members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence” (italics added, p. xiii). In other words, we think we know something about ourselves or others as truth/fact (e.g. “I am not racist”, “I embrace people who are different than me”), and yet our minds can (and do) operate at an unconscious level and we behave according to these hidden biases.

Banaji and Greenwald describe these as ‘social mindbugs’ that act unconsciously to influence our views and behaviour towards others. At their very worst, these mindbugs contribute to actions such as the murder of innocent people based on a perceived (internal) – but not actual – threat. But in the day-to-day, they operate in the construction of beliefs and judgments we make about others – the people we serve, the people we live with, and the people in our communities. “Understanding how mindbugs erode the coastline of rational thought, and ultimately the very possibility of a just society, requires understanding the mindbugs that are at the root of disparity between our inner minds and outward actions” (p. 20).

The authors speak about two minds – our reflective mind and our automatic mind. The reflective is our conscious mind and the one which drives what we say to the world (and ourselves), e.g. “I value and respect Aboriginal peoples”. The automatic mind however is “a stranger to us. We implicitly know something or feel a certain way, and often these thoughts and feelings are reflected in our actions too – the difference being that we can’t always explain these actions, and they are at times completely at odds with our conscious intentions…Our automatic preferences steer us towards less conscious decisions, but they are hard to explain because they remain impervious to the probes of conscious motivation” (p. 55).

However, we don’t need to be held captive by the automatic mind. If we can shed some light on the unconscious, implicit preferences and biases we hold, we can create a cognitive dissonance between our two minds and through this dislodge some of them. This is where the IAT comes into play.    

Practice opportunity: Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu and you can sign in as a guest or register and then will be given the opportunity to take a number of different tests. You’ll have a choice of seven tests as a Canadian (included are Weight, Age, Gender, Sexuality, Nation and Race IATs), but not before reading a disclaimer: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.” This is an invitation into self awareness!

The Mission of Intergroup Relations

Contributed by Tessa Charlesworth (tet2113@columbia.edu)

In our sector, group divisions – between government and community agencies, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and organizations, as well as between “modern” and “traditional” experiences – have been, and continue to be, sources of misunderstandings and prejudice. Such attitudes ultimately result in compromised services for children, youth, and families in BC. As such, one of the missions of Leadership 2020 is to help bridge these pervasive divides.

The approach employed by L2020 is grounded in both current and historical research on intergroup relations, stretching back to Gordon Allport’s “On the Nature of Prejudice” (1954). In this pivotal publication, Allport delineated the conditions that give rise to intergroup prejudice and conflict, as well as the conditions that give rise to the reconciliation of conflict and reduction of prejudice through positive contact. He suggested that, in order for two groups to rebuild their relationships, they must experience contact (i.e. proximity and interaction), that is supported by (1) a common goal; (2) cooperative interdependence to achieve that goal; and (3) support from authority.

Contemporary research has largely confirmed the benefit of these conditions in reducing prejudice and promoting reconciliation (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Indeed, research has shown that positive contact with these satisfied conditions reduces prejudice by (1) increasing awareness and knowledge of the “other”; (2) increasing empathy towards the “other”; and (3) decreasing anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the “other”.

In considering such research, it becomes clear that L2020 offers a unique platform for group reconciliation. At the most basic level, the program provides an opportunity for dialogue and contact (via both online platforms and in-person at residencies) between groups that may be otherwise disconnected. To ensure positive contact, the L2020 program also fulfills Allport’s three aforementioned conditions.

First, the program sets a common goal to all participants – to revolutionize and repair the sector so as to provide the best services possible. Additionally, each participant is encouraged to set a personal leadership development goal. Although private, these individual goals become a “common” pursuit as each participant is aware of the other participants’ similar struggles and challenges. Second, the program stresses the need for cooperative interdependence in order to achieve both the common goal, and each individual goal. As one example, the webinar check-ins serve as a source of communal support and interdependence for each participant to share their successes and failures and receive guidance from other members. Furthermore, the unique design of the residencies – with multiple group problem-solving and brain-storming activities – models the cooperative interdependence required for the communal goal of sector change. Third, the program provides substantial institutional and authority support, not only from the design team and facilitators, but also from the government and agencies that encourage their team members to participate.

In this way, the program design aligns with the pursuit of positive intergroup contact and reconciliation. However, the program is also unique in stressing the mechanisms (knowledge, empathy, and anxiety-reduction) that help in reconciliation. Specifically, L2020 targets intergroup knowledge growth by having participants share their experiences and knowledge through stories, as well as by promoting deep conversations and clarifying questions between groups. In a similar way, L2020 increases intergroup empathy by targeting the “humanization” of the other through such stories and personal sharing (again, the webinar check-ins provide a unique resource for empathic responding). Through the propagation of such knowledge and empathy, the program also targets the reduction of uncertainty and anxiety by making the other group more familiar through consistent, positive interactions.

This brief exposé on the intergroup goals of Leadership 2020 has shown how the program is firmly grounded in historical and contemporary research, as well as in application and experience. More importantly, however, it has shown that the program has immense potential in resolving the pervasive intergroup prejudices that hamper our sector and compromise our practice.

For further reading:

Allport, Gordon (1954) On the Nature of Prejudice.

Pettigrew, T. & Tropp, L. (2006) A Meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Social and Personality Psychology, 90(5): 751-83.

Pittinsky, T. & Simon, S. (2007) Intergroup leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(6): 586-605.

Reflective questions: How might this information apply to your work with ‘groups’ that are struggling to work together, e.g. between teams, agencies, disciplines, etc? How might the notion that intergroup relations will be enhanced through having constructive contact (time together), shared goals, tasks requiring cooperation, and ‘top cover’ support and encouragement? What are some small probes/actions that you could take towards improving relations and practice between these groups, e.g. between your team and another team?

Note: If you are curious about the field of intergroup relations and prejudice, Tessa welcomes comments and questions and is happy to share research and references. You may reach her via email at tet2113@columbia.edu.

Strategies for Learning from Failure

11/26/2015 – I am taking a course on entrepreneurial behaviour and practices and one of our key seminars has been entirely focussed on failure – imagine 8 days to explore all facets of and relationships to failure, with people from diverse backgrounds, organizations and cultures from throughout the world! I have loved it as it has helped me uncover and explore my own definitions and fears about failure (lots) and exposed me to new ways of thinking about and embracing failure as part of strong and innovative practice. One of the articles we reviewed is by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, entitled, Strategies for Learning From Failure (April 2011). I thought it was particularly beneficial and relevant to our sector. She noted that, despite being told that ‘innovation and failure is good’ many of us have been conditioned since childhood to avoid making a mistake and failing at all costs. This sets up a dynamic tension between what we are told is necessary in the workplace (e.g., think outside the box, innovate, test out new ideas, fail, learn) and what we have been told for most of our lives (e.g., don’t mess up).

She offers a more nuanced understanding of failure, that lines up well with the 2020 teachings on the Cynefin framework. With problems that are simple or complicated – what she calls predictable or knowable problems – failure should be preventable and avoidable and when it does show up it could be due to deviant behaviour (someone doesn’t want to follow accepted practices) but more likely due to inattention, lack of ability or training, process inadequacy or a task challenge (e.g. the task is simply too much to expect someone or a group to complete with the available resources). Leaders and managers need to act to prevent these types of failures.

On the other hand, when we face complex challenges where there is a high degree of uncertainty and we have not encountered the situation before, failures are often unavoidable – “system failure is a perpetual risk”. Our response should be one of trying to prevent more significant or “consequential” failures by attending to small process failures: “To consider them bad is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive. Avoiding consequential failures means rapidly identifying and correcting small failures.” She strongly encourages leaders to create an environment in which people can comfortably raise concerns and identify the small errors that can be addressed before the whole system is compromised

Edmondson also describes a third type of failure that occurs within the complex domain: “intelligent failures at the frontier”. I love this idea of intelligent failures – where experimentation is necessary and the “answers aren’t knowable in advance because this exact situation hasn’t been encountered before”. Here she suggests small-scale tests to see what might work and continual iteration and improvement – NOT large scale pilot projects! Failure here is “praiseworthy” as it serves learning and development.

Her description of “the blame game” was particularly relevant to our sector where, due to the high risks associated with some failures there is often intense media and public scrutiny aimed at placing blame on individuals or organizations. She would suggest that this generates a widespread lack of “psychological safety” that shuts down innovation and experimentation due to fear of failure – even when the risks are minimal or the benefits of new approaches could be significant. The five elements that Edmondson suggests leaders should cultivate in order to contribute to a psychologically safe environment that can prevent failure where appropriate, and be intelligent and learn from failures in the complex domain, include:

  • Frame the work accurately – what kinds of failures can be expected and how they will be worked through helps to ‘detoxify’ failure;
  • Embrace messengers of bad news, questions, concerns or mistakes;
  • Acknowledge limits – “be open about what you don’t know. Mistakes you have made, and what you can’t get done alone will encourage others to do the same”;
  • Invite participation – “ask for observations and ideas and create opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures and promote intelligent experiments. Inviting participation helps to defuse resistance and defensiveness”;
  • Set boundaries and hold people accountable.

You can gain access to the full article here: https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure and signing into the Harvard Business Review. You can view online or get up to five free articles to download. The 12-minute interview with Amy is also available at this site and offers a good summary.

You may want to consider the following questions about ‘failure’:

  • What is your attitude or approach towards failure?
  • Are all failures equally ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
  • Where is a greater openness to failure and the consequent learning, needed in your own practice?

2020 Reflections – October Alumni Gathering

The Alumni gathering and social impact summit was designed by a small group of graduates and participants and we are grateful to them for their thoughtful ideas and contributions that made the event a success: Rebecca Ataya, Sheila Best, Maria Cargnelli, Connie Epp, Dayna Long, Lynne Mansell, Maureen Mackell, Wedlidi Speck and Annemarie Travers. The event brought together 80 people, drawn from every one of the eight cohorts we have hosted. We also welcomed three guests who served as ‘witnesses’ to the process and learning. Thanks to Stacie Prescott from Options Community Services (and one of the original 2020 advisors), Trilby Smith from Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change initiative and Al Etmanski, social innovator.

Unfortunately our live stream coverage to 25 additional registrants did not work due to problems with the company we retained to provide this service. We are so sorry that this did not work and are now trying to salvage recordings from Al Etmanski’ s presentation to at least share this teaching. Apologies to those who tried to make sense of the live stream!

We had three intentions for the gathering: connection, learning and action:

  • Connect people across cohorts into a broader 2020 community.
  • Provide people with some tangible learnings, skills, practices that will enhance or affirm their leadership toolkit, and with a vision/inspiration and strategies for broader systems change.
  • Engage people in collective work for social impact and build the movement.

To support this, we convened an array of world café discussions, knowledge ‘camps’ and action tables. Over the next week we will complete the proceedings and share this broadly with the broader 2020 community. A number of people wanted to continue connecting to explore ways to work together and differently to bring about positive social impacts in areas that are important to them. The intention here is to work within our spheres of influence and try out small probes that will help us identify ways to – for example – embed trauma informed practice in our work, re-imagine foster care, extend 2020 opportunities to youth leaders, etc. We hope to support the leadership movement by living into the 6 patterns that Al Etmanski referenced in his talk at the gathering and that are detailed in his book Impact (see communiqué 7 for a summary). More next week!

2020 Reflections – Bittersweet endings

We have had an extraordinary 6 weeks of 2020 learning and connection. In October the Blended 3 and 4 cohorts completed their final residencies and graduated in style. The Blended 5 cohort launched in early November, and we also hosted our first Alumni gathering and social impact summit on October 21-22.

The ‘endings’ of cohorts are always bittersweet. It is an honour for the design and hosting team to see how people reconnect in the final residency and to bear witness to what has happened for them over the 10 months of learning. Sometimes the shifts are significant and obvious – new roles and jobs, new communities served, new learning and degree programs initiated, etc. Just as important however, are the less obvious shifts, such as increased confidence and belief in self as a ‘leader’, new perspectives and openness, new and positive ways of working and supporting others, volunteering for special projects and committees, trying out new ideas, failing in something and recovering, revitalized connections, improved self care and wellness, greater mindfulness, etc. These shifts speak to the three pillars of great leadership: it is personal, participatory and practice-based. Participants continually affirm through their actions that all three domains matter and that the journey is ongoing.

As much as we love the second residencies, it is also sad to end this part of the program, and the bi-weekly connections with such amazing leaders in our field. In some ways we are just beginning the work together – as we explore social impact and changemaking in the final residency it feels like we have to keep going. As we build our graduate community and create cross-cohort connections I do hope that each of you that have graduated (recently and in the past cohorts) can make the space in your schedules to stay connected and to “ask for what you need and offer what you can” from this broader community.

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Impact

Al Etmanski’s new book is Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Impact bring social innovation to life through stories and makes it accessible. He invites us in: social innovation “always begins with what you care deeply about” (p. 36). It “is the latest descriptor of the ageless human pursuit to make the world a better place. It is a bundle of new learning, technologies and methods blended with the best traditional approaches to social change” (p. 24). In this, I am reminded of Wedlidi’s wise teachings about bi-cultural practice and ways of being – bringing traditional and contemporary knowledge and practice together to meet the challenges of our time.
This reimagining and connecting is needed because, as Al goes on to say, “what is new is the recognition that many of our toughest social and environmental challenges have had time to develop deep roots that are resistant to just about anything we throw at them…If we are to be innovative about anything in the future, it must be about how we work together…as wise travellers. Social innovation spreads through sharing, not selfishness. The heroic, “great man” model of social change makes for a great story, but it isn’t true in practice. It is only through generous, respectful interactions across sectors, expertise and roles that social innovation achieves lasting impact” (pp.24-25, bold type mine). He goes on to quote my favourite definition of social innovation from Tim Broadhead, “social innovation is both a destination – the resolution of complex social and environmental challenges – and a journey – devising new approaches that engage all stakeholders, leveraging their competencies and creativity to design novel solutions” (p. 25).
I can’t do justice to Impact in this short post, but I do want to share the six interconnected patterns that Al illuminates in the book and focus on several that resonate for us in 2020:

  1. Think and act like a movement:A movement is composed of a million small acts. It is impossible to predict which one will ignite a spark or cause the next surge. And it doesn’t really matter” (p. 48).Al notes five characteristics of progressive social movements and illustrates them with examples from diverse sectors. He suggests that they: ignite our imagination; are multi-generational; comprise small acts; are self-organizing; and marry art and justice (pp. 50-53). In this way, they are ‘messy’ and don’t lend themselves to the project plans and predictability that many of our systems love, which creates a tension that we need to manage skillfully. He invites us to discern what movements we are already a part of and “make our contribution, no matter how small or insignificant we think it is”(p. 58).
  2. Create a container for your content:  Make it easier “for people to do the right thing” by attending both to content and framing so that people can grasp what you see and feel. So often we turn people away from the discussion and the work by making our aims unclear or inaccessible. Al illuminates some more patterns of effective content containers. They: are playful and fun; are non-judgmental; ignite the imagination; personalize the abstract; and tell a story. How might we invite and share stories and ideas in a way that mobilizes and inspires people to act?
  3. Set the table for allies, adversaries and strangers: This one resonates most strongly with what we have tried to design into and convey in 2020, “changing the situation requires more than the usual suspects at the table. Dialogue and convening are more than means to an end. They give structure to our need to belong, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. They broaden understanding, puncture assumptions, change authority flows and allow us to cultivate new relationships. Solutions spread when we move beyond blame, competition, misunderstanding and mistrust” (p. 27). Al points out that working together on tough issues is no picnic at times – even when we work with friends. However, some of the qualities of effective convening that he notes do, in our experience, enhance the likelihood of connection. Civility, hospitality, and curiosity are key, as is personal agency: “Convenors strive to bring out the best in everyone. They convene around gifts… If convenors usually enter a room composed of leaders and followers, they hope to leave a room full of leaders, people who are emboldened and willing to take responsibility for what they say and do. Front-of-the-room leadership isn’t enough. Neither is leadership that suggests they will do it all for you” (p. 84). He notes that Paul Born (Tamarack) asks the following question in any gathering, “Why is it important that you are here?” as it invites people to be ‘doers’.
  4. Mobilize your economic power: This one is a harder pattern for me to get my head around and activate as I/we have grown up with a sector-wide scarcity mindset – scrambling for funds and support. There are 2 considerations here. The first is, what is the economic power of our constituencies that we might leverage? Certainly many of the people we serve have limited economic means, but when you consider the broader constituency of people working in the field, family members, social justice advocates, etc. we can have a stronger collective economic impact. The Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), which Al was instrumental in establishing in Canada, is a case in point. The second idea is that social innovators are getting better at disrupting typical business models for their agencies or causes and are looking beyond government or grant funding and creating new partnerships with unlikely allies in order to spread innovation ideas.  
  5. Advocate with empathy: I have been strongly criticized in the past for not being harsh enough as an advocate, and this pattern spoke to what I have felt in my heart: Most people are doing the best they can within the system that they are operating within and if I can’t have empathy for their situation they may not be able to have empathy for mine. “Strategic inquiry is the process of discovering the priorities, language and tools of the group you are trying to convince” and being solution-focused as advocates (p. 116). It doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t “raise a little hell” as needed; lines in the sand are important; anger and outrage can fuel us. But if we accept the premise that we need to set the table for diverse perspectives, we can’t expect to be successful if we throw rocks and abdicate responsibility for finding solutions to government or others. 
  6. Who is important as how: One of the great takeaways from this book is the concept that the question ‘How?’ is a “killer question. It can stop you dead in your tracks. One way to undermine a new initiative or stop someone from pursuing a big idea is to ask them how they are going to do it. How dampens the imagination and favours being practical far too early…More cruelly, how can imply that because you don’t have the answer, there must be something wrong with you…” (pp. 135-136). The more generative question is ‘who?’ and invites us to think about who we can learn from and work with and what qualities the issue will benefit from. “Social innovation is enlightened by who we are – by character, not technique. The conviction of today’s social innovators arises from their emotional and spiritual maturity. They pay attention to what nourishes and replenishes their spirits. And they have the humility to admit their limitations and fears” (p. 28).
Al will be joining us for the 2020 social impact gathering and copies of his book will be provided to all participants.  

Forces for Good

A note on terminology: The term ‘non-profit’ is familiar to us, but as someone who is curious about the impact of language, I wonder what the impact is of our field being defined in the negative? Terms such as ‘non-governmental organization’ (NGO) and ‘non-profit’ don’t tell people what our organizations stand for and what impact they have; they just define us as something that is ‘less than’ a for profit enterprise or government.  What is your reaction if we refer to such organizations as ‘social purpose’ or ‘citizen-centred’? While most of the relevant literature continues to use the term ‘non-profit’ I will use the term ‘social purpose’ where appropriate.

The literature that is specific to the non-profit/social purpose sector is extremely limited compared to the bounty of books, articles, journals and resources specific to the business sector. Nonetheless, there are some valuable references out there, one of which is: Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits  (2007) by Leslie Critchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. The authors have strong pedigrees in the social purpose field, and their 4 years of research was supported by the Ashoka Foundation and the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, which speaks to the integrity of the work. The limitations are that it is very US-centric, focuses more on larger-scale agencies, and of course the world has changed significantly since 2007. I cringed at some of the references made to collaborative partnerships between the featured organizations and businesses (e.g. with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offering sub-prime mortgages to low income families). Nonetheless, there are some useful concepts embedded in the text.

They analyzed thousands of social purpose organizations, interviewed the leaders in hundreds and did in-depth investigations into 12.  They debunked a number of myths and discovered six recurring patterns in high impact organizations, including that they:    

  1. Both serve people and advocate for better public policies. Most started doing one or the other but realized that these 2 roles are interdependent. As providers of direct service they learned more intimately what was needed and why, and they built grassroots support, a strong evidence base, and credibility, such that when they went to advocate for public policy or funding shifts they brought strategic expertise to the decision-makers.
  2. Leverage market forces to achieve social change on a larger scale – including influencing business practices, building partnerships with business, and developing social enterprises to generate new revenue streams.
  3. Use volunteers well – not just as free labour but as advisors, story-tellers and ‘evangelists’ that advance the cause.
  4. Nurture nonprofit networks and help other social purpose groups succeed.  In so doing they advance the field – which also serves their interests. They don’t just pay lip service to collaboration, they ‘live it’. They freely share resources, knowledge and expertise to build alliances and connections that raise everyone involved – and the quality of their services – up.
  5. Master the art of adaptation by being attentive to the constantly shifting context, and being willing to try new approaches – and fail and learn. “They have mastered the ability to listen, learn and modify their approach based on external cues – allowing them to sustain their impact and stay relevant” (p 22). They are constantly moving and sensing the need for new directions. They are willing to stop doing things to make room for new approaches.
  6. Share leadership – there is no room for ‘outsize egos’ in the senior leadership roles in high impact organizations. Leadership is distributed throughout the organization and networks. “They cultivate strong second-in-command, build enduring executive teams with long tenure, and develop highly engaged boards in order to have more impact” (p. 22).

The authors note that these practices are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. For example, in fostering strong social purpose networks, connecting well with volunteers, and sharing leadership with Boards, they build a foundation for greater influence on public policies, and are thus more effective advocates.
All of these patterns are relevant to leaders in contemporary social purpose organizations, but two were of particular interest to our work in Leadership 2020: nurturing networks, and mastering the art of adaptation. High-impact nonprofits – and leaders – nurture a “network mindset”. They don’t see others as competitors for scarce resources but rather as potential allies. “They understand that only by working collaboratively with like-minded allies can they have more impact” (p. 126). They aim to build the larger field by freely sharing knowledge and ‘growing the pie’ by advocating for enhanced public policies and investments in the social sector whether or not their organization will directly benefit. This is messy work when we bring together different personalities, mandates, histories and priorities, but when we do find common ground and a platform for working strongly together we can become a force that can’t be ignored.
With respect to mastering the art of adaptation, much has been written recently about social innovation and impact. However the patterns noted by the authors are still relevant. They suggest that great nonprofits:

  • Constantly adapt and modify their approaches
  • Find the balance between stifling bureaucracy and unbridled creativity
  • Master each step of the cycle of adaptation including: listening, experimenting and innovating, evaluating and learning, modifying and enhancing
  • Pay close attention to the tough and tedious tasks of implementation

What is interesting to me about this enduring pattern is that over the past decade we have talked a lot about the need for innovation in government and the social purpose sector, while simultaneously experiencing an increasingly ‘risk adverse’ and stifling climate that is reluctant to change. Many of the featured social purpose organizations have chosen to develop creative solutions outside of their primary, government-funded contracts and then brought them forward to their funders. But what would it take for us to work differently and collaboratively in the ‘spaces between’ our social purpose and government ministries to develop and test new ideas and solutions for those issues that continue to challenge us? In the next communiqué I will share insights from Al Etmanski’s wonderful new book on Social Impact.