Dec 12 2014

Canada with multicultural faces

  • When you look at the current situation in Canada, what catches your attention?
  • What keeps you up at night? What energises you?
  • What important upcoming decisions will Canada have to make? What are the upcoming forks in the road?

These are some of the questions the Possible Canadas project is asking for an insight into the country’s future as we approach the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Created by Reos Partners for The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a coalition of philanthropic and community organizations including Maytree, the idea is to seed a national dialogue.

In a series of interviews, insightful Canadians from across civil society, business, and government discuss the major challenges facing the country and how best to address them.

The issues range from making pluralism work, renewing democratic institutions, taking our proper place in the world to using natural resources wisely.

On making pluralism work, Khalil Shariff, Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, is curious to know how Canada and Canadian institutions will continue to adapt to an increasingly diversified population. “How will Canada manage its position as a demographic crossroads of the world? I have great optimism and confidence that Canada will manage this test, but we will have to be imaginative about how it will happen. Also, how will Canada employ its diverse population in reaching out to the entire planet? What kind of economic and cultural ties will we establish?”

Striking a similar note, Gabrielle Scrimshaw, Co-Founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, voices her concern at the lack of attention to relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people. “The aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada… Three out of ten aboriginal people are under the age for fourteen. We have a tremendous opportunity to educate and equip these young people from a place that’s culturally centred. If we don’t talk about this opportunity now and work to get it right, we’ll be living with the consequences of our inactions for generations to come.”

‘Forever a work in progress’

Among others joining Shariff and Scrimshaw on making pluralism work is Jean Charest, former Premier of Quebec who focuses on tolerance and says Canada will forever be a work in progress. “The challenge for our leaders is to lead Canadians in appreciating what we have, acknowledging that nothing is forever, and accepting that we need to be more ambitious and challenge ourselves more.”

On renewing our democratic institutions, Armine Yalnizyan, Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, admits that the transforming views about immigration keeps her up at night. “An unsettling trend has emerged in Canada. Public policy now favours a rise in temporary foreign workers over permanent economic immigrants. When companies say they face a skills shortage, all too often the solution is bringing in a foreign worker temporarily for what is often not a temporary shortage.”

Yalnizyan says this is a recipe for growing friction between “us” and “them.” She goes on to say that this problem arises from a common view that low wages and low taxes are “good for business.” Middle-class jobs are being cut, replaced by more low-paid and some higher-paid work. “We pay tribute to a large and resilient middle class as the mark of a flourishing economy around the world, but our own middle class is being squeezed in every way, ironically in the name of economic growth.”

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is among those who weigh in on the democracy debate. She bemoans the lack of people’s participation in the running of the country. They have become passive consumers. “It’s very hard to wake people back up to the fact that they have power. Forty percent of Canadians don’t vote. In the by-election in Fort McMurray-Athabasca last June, only 15% voted!”

About taking our proper place in the world, we have a range of opinions from academics and business leaders. For instance, Janice Gross Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, warns against smugness. Stein says we know from good research that our big cities are not doing as well in opening doors to employment and advancement to immigrants as they were two decades ago. “Yet if we’re going to thrive, we have to attract even more immigrants than we have in the past. To many people around the world, we are the most attractive country to come to. We have to live up to that record.”

A sentiment echoed by Suzanne Fortier, Principal of McGill University when she says, “We’ve done a good job with the fundamental things that are important in society. Of course, we always have to think of how we can do better….” Turning our attention to creating a smart and caring nation, Fortier says one of the most important decisions Canada has to make is where it chooses to invest. “It’s not only investment of money; where we decide to invest our intelligence and time will also shape our country and our future.” She warns that if we are not careful, there will be more disparity and Canada will be a more divided, less tolerant, and less safe country.

On using natural resources, Tzeporah Berman, author and environmental activist, talks on the issue of resisting climate change. She worries that Canada is now doing less on climate change and has a weaker regulatory system to address environmental threats than any other industrialized country. Joining her in this section, among others, is Preston Manning, President of the Manning Centre for Democracy. Preston believes we can’t continue to engage in a polarized environment-versus-economy argument. “Nobody is out to destroy the environment or the economy—you need both—but a lot of people are willing to take one side or the other.”

You too can join the debate by reading, commenting on, and sharing these interviews on the Possible Canadas website. Media partner The Globe and Mail is also publishing selections in print and online.

Dec 10 2014

City Vote logo

By Desmond Cole, project coordinator, City Vote

The push for permanent resident voting in municipal elections is a very Canadian combination of local, national and international realities. It’s easy to focus on the bigger picture considerations such as citizenship applications or global migration patterns. Our understanding of voter eligibility is highly influenced by notions of national attachment. However, as we enter 2015 and the four-year terms of city councils across Ontario, we must continue to focus our vote reform efforts on our most local level of government.

Each new city council in each municipality represents a fresh opportunity to explore permanent resident voting. Supporters should study and replicate the processes that brought the issue before city councils in North Bay, Kitchener, Guelph, Halifax, and Saint John. Each effort began with conversations between local residents and their elected officials. Those conversations led to motions at local councils to study the impact of permanent resident voting. Councillors and mayors could then vote on the merits of the proposal for their respective jurisdictions.

Based on this model, cities in three Canadian provinces have now formally requested the right of permanent residents to vote in their local elections, and several others are poised to follow suit. Supporters can now draw on a host of consultations, media, and staff reports that have already been generated. City Vote, the campaign to connect and coordinate all of these efforts, established itself in 2014 and will continue to support local reform efforts.

City Vote now boasts a network of hundreds of supporters and advocates in at least 15 Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Hamilton, Windsor, Kingston, Edmonton, Vancouver, and several cities in the Greater Toronto Area. We’ve identified supportive city councillors, many of whom were re-elected last month and others who have gained office for the first time. We’re connected with community agencies who work with and for newcomers to Canada. These are the right ingredients for continued progress.

We’ve also made connections with jurisdictions outside Canada that practice non-citizen voting at the municipal level. During a trip to Chicago in September, we met with Local School Council authorities. LSC Director Willie Montes de Oca shared his city’s experience in engaging all parents and local stakeholders, regardless of citizenship status, in education planning, budgeting and accountability.

Our new website,, is a hub for relevant media and updates from other cities. Soon, the site will include extensive research on non-citizen voting in nearly 30 international jurisdictions. Also, volunteers who wish to organize around specific local opportunities will host and update sub-pages within the site.

In recent months, the issue of permanent resident voting has earned news and opinion coverage in the Guelph Citizen, the Hamilton Spectator, CBC Nova Scotia, and the Toronto Observer, to name a few publications. And in a pre-election survey of local candidates in Waterloo region, over 95% of respondents endorsed the idea of permanent resident voting.

The post-election period is a renewed opportunity to advance our mission, city by city, council by council. If you have not already done so, now is the time to sign up for the City Vote campaign and get connected to ongoing efforts in your municipality. Every advancement in the municipal government process signals to provinces, who must ultimately decide on permanent resident voting, that local residents are ready for change.

City Vote’s progress in the last year would not have been possible without the ongoing support of Maytree and the dozens of volunteers who have assisted with the website, event planning, media and research. We thank you for your support, and look forward to continued success and partnership in 2015.


Dec 04 2014

By Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Video by Drew Morey, Drew Morey Productions. Narrated by Bernadette Hardaker, LifeStories

Ten principles of a successful community builder

I live in a pretty special place. My husband and I were intentional about choosing the kind of community that we wanted to live in and raise our family. Today, more than a decade later, our kids regularly let us know that they can’t imagine living anywhere else, and truly, neither can we. Clearly we made a good choice.

What makes where we live great? Well, for one thing we have easy access to lots of green space and trails; a vibrant, walkable downtown with unique shops and restaurants; fantastic artisans, theatre, and music as well as great community spaces – that host farmers markets and festivals where neighbours meet up and visitors are welcomed.

But, more important than the physical assets, what makes where we live a great place are the people. Like most communities across Canada, ours is blessed with many dynamic people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work together to make good things happen.

Service clubs and dedicated volunteers regularly champion projects that are beyond the mandate of any one organization – mobilizing people and funds – to work together on projects that contribute to making our community a great place to live.  In my community, there is no greater community-builder than long-time Rotarian Doc Gillies. Like countless others throughout the region, I have been fortunate to work with, and be mentored by Doc. Recently a group of Doc’s friends commissioned this great video to share Doc’s wisdom, so those of you who haven’t had the good fortune to work along-side him first-hand can still benefit from the wisdom he generously shares by example.

Doc’s ten principles for being a successful community-builder are:

  1. Personal Credibility – Doc is active and well-known in the community. He volunteers his knowledge, skills and connections out of love for the community … not personal gain.
  2. Sense of Humour and Fun – Doc is easy-going and makes working together a lot of fun.
  3. Pick Winners - The projects that Doc contributes his leadership and energy to have strong community support that many would be willing to contribute to.
  4. Do Your Homework - Doc always comes to a project having done his homework. He has thought about what needs to happen, who needs to be involved and who will benefit – and can be engaged – in making the project a success.
  5. High Energy – Doc is enthusiastic and motivated about the projects that he champions. He is actively involved in them and inspires others with his enthusiasm.
  6. Persevere – Doc is well-known for his tenacity. If he sees a need in the community, he doesn’t rest until he moves it into action. When challenges arise, he is creative and ingenious about generating alternative solutions.
  7. Model Commitment – Doc is someone who leads by example. He is the first one to commit his time and his own financial resources to the projects that he is championing.
  8. Finish the Job – Doc finishes the projects that he starts and makes sure that they are finished well.
  9. Hand-Pick Key People – Doc is a community connector. He knows who he wants and needs involved in each project and he brings them on board to lead the project with him.
  10. Mentor the Next Generation – Doc is very deliberate about building a leadership team and mentors those he engages by working with them so that they learn how to get things done in the community.

Every town has people with the creativity, the energy, the commitment and the vision to make good things happen. “You need somebody that will bring people together, that people will rally around and say, “Come on, we can do this!” because otherwise we are in a world where less and less gets done.”

Who are the community-builders in your town? Maybe it’s you!

Learn more: 

Originally published in Engage!, Tamarack’s free monthly e-magazine.

Nov 26 2014


Coming after a string of leading indices ranking Toronto high as a world-class city, a new report released on November 14 takes some shine away from its laurels. Quoting latest Statistics Canada data, The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto (PDF) said the city, along with Saint John, New Brunswick, leads 13 major Canadian cities in child poverty. Equally troubling is the fact that at 29% it is on the rise again after gradually decreasing to 27% in 2010 from a high of 32% in 2004.

Providing all children equal opportunity to thrive and succeed – regardless of income, race, gender or disability – is a deep-rooted Canadian value. Yet this latest report shows that not all children in Toronto start life on an equal footing:

  • The number of low-income children increased by over 10,000 between 2010 and 2012, to 145,890.
  • There is stark inequality in children’s lives across its neighbourhoods. Low-income rates ranged from 5% to over 50%, reflecting the massive and growing polarization of income.
  • Poverty has colour as it varies significantly by race and ethnicity. Data from different sources show people of African and Middle Eastern backgrounds are about three times more likely to be living on low incomes than are those of European backgrounds.
  • Children of indigenous heritage and from recent immigrant families, children with disabilities and those with parents who are disabled, and children living in female-led lone-parent families are also more likely to live in poverty.

‘Double whammy’ for children living in poverty

The writers of the report recognize that child poverty is not separate from family poverty. It persists because family income from employment, social assistance and other income transfers is too low, and because access to services and programs is unaffordable. However, they choose to shine the light on children because poverty delivers them a double whammy. While affecting their present, it affects their future as well.

The report lists four “opportunity gaps” that impact children living in poverty:

  • Access to nutrition: Inadequate nutrition can have devastating and enduring impacts on behavioural and cognitive development, capacity to learn and reproductive health.
  • Access to housing: Quality housing is a critical determinant of child and youth health and has been shown to impact immediate and long-term physical, mental and social health.
  • Access to education: “Readiness to learn” is a proxy for optimal children’s developmental health at school entry and is assessed by the Early Development Instrument (EDI). It is a critical marker for future academic success. Students who are vulnerable on any one of the EDI scales are more likely to perform below expectations in later school years.
  • Access to Recreation: Recreation serves multiple purposes in healthy child development. Children from lowest-income families are about half as likely to participate in extracurricular activities compared to those from highest-income families.

Report is a ‘wakeup call’ for Toronto

The reaction to the report has been overwhelming in the media (see links below).

Mayor-elect John Tory was quick to promise to lead the fight against poverty. “If ever there was a wakeup call, this would be it,” Tory said in an interview in advance of the report’s release. He added it would take the work of citizens, unions, churches, politicians and other organizations to make a dent in these latest figures. “We cannot and we will not be able to solve this problem solely on the basis of resources coming from municipal taxpayers.”

The report also comes at an opportune time for City Hall. In April 2014, Toronto City Council directed City staff to partner with communities to develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy for release in late 2015. They can be guided by the following suggestions offered by the report:

  • The strategy should be driven by broad-based resident engagement, and should address the root causes of poverty, including inadequate access to market incomes, income support programs, and community services and supports.
  • The strategy should have specific timelines and targets for reducing poverty, regular public reporting on progress, and adequate funding and staffing to ensure effective coordination.
  • The strategy should be informed by solid, publicly available research on the geographic and demographic distribution of poverty in Toronto, and effective interventions to reduce poverty and its inequitable distribution.
  • Finally, since the City cannot reduce poverty on its own, the strategy needs to build a strong partnership with leaders of all sectors of society, including business, labour and community. It needs to advocate strongly for provincial and federal policies and programs to reduce poverty.


Links to reports

Links to opinions and media articles

Nov 19 2014


Fresh from passing the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014, the Ontario government is open to considering new measures to ensure fairness for vulnerable workers.

“Bill 18 [the act’s short name] lays a good foundation for further labour reform, and we will continue to work with organizations like the Workers’ Action Centre. It is not an end to conversation on issues,” said Labour Minister Kevin Flynn. He was speaking at a forum for temporary workers organized by Scarborough-Agincourt MPP Soo Wong just days after the bill passed its third reading with all party support in the Ontario legislature on November 6.

MPP Wong said Bill 18 is a “springboard to other opportunities” and was built on work such as the United Way/McMaster University “It’s More than Poverty” report and the “Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work” report by the Law Commission of Ontario.

The bill’s passing comes at a time when almost half of all jobs in Ontario are precarious: part time, temporary, or contract work. It was first introduced in 2013 as Bill 146 but when the minority Liberal government fell it “died on the order paper.”

On re-election with a majority, the Liberals quickly resurrected the bill with some changes suggested by workers’ advocacy groups. The new act supports Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and builds on the 2014 increase to minimum wage from $10.25 to $11 per hour.

Among other things, the act:

  • Sets longer time limits and removes caps for the recovery of wages rightfully owed to workers
  • Ensures unpaid co-op students and other unpaid learners get protection under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
  • Pegs the minimum wage to annual increases in cost of living

The act is the first such legislation in Canada that holds both temp agencies and their client companies accountable for workplace injuries, overtime and public holiday pay, and unpaid wages. The new rules make it easier for workers to seek redress when they are short-changed on their wages.

While some labour activists may not see the new act as going far enough, most welcomed Ontario’s Bill 18. Activists will expect the government to maintain the current momentum and add further measures to safeguard workers in precarious jobs. In the meantime, we can see the act as an important milestone in protecting workers as it lays the foundation for more change.

Nov 07 2014

Signpost: Make Change Happen

By Enrique Robert, Executive Director, Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre

In the second week of October this year, thanks to Maytree, I had the opportunity to attend the Collective Impact Summit hosted by the Tamarack Institute. The five-day conference was intense and overwhelming and yet I would not want anything less from it.

I have been struggling with what to say about a conference that had every minute filled up with learning and teaching activities. It’s difficult to choose one category over another when everything related to the events – even the most innocuous of conversations – was a source of learning. One such encounter was on an elevator with a delegation from Kanehsatàke in Quebec. I felt an incredible affinity with them as we shared our experiences, they as First Nations in Canada, and me as an immigrant.

Thus if everything was a learning experience with exciting interactions, why am I having difficulties sharing my experience? Perhaps because the intensity of the event didn’t take away the familiar trend I felt from the first keynote speaker to the most humble side conversation. After few weeks meditating and reading the presentations online, I decided to share the impression the conference gave me.

To do that I need to tell you a little story first.

From the early nineties to the first few years of the 21st century (sounds great when I say it like that), I have worked as a support and community development housing worker with the homeless and hardest to house in south east downtown Toronto. My initial work was with the Rupert Hotel Coalition as a support worker and ten years later as the last Executive Director of the Open Door Centre and Room Registry. The experience was interesting to say the least.

It was at the time when the conversation on how to revitalize Regent Park was beginning. Shelters were becoming permanent solutions for many as not-for-profit housing was not being built. It was a time of severe cuts to social services and the devolution of services from the federal government down to the province and from the province to the city. Social service agencies and service providers were struggling to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor. Within that context I had access to a partnership initiative by a group of service providers and policy makers including St. Michael Hospital and the Public Health Department addressing the needs of south east Toronto.

The ‘odd’ coalition

The initiative was called the South East Toronto Project (SETo) and came into being in 1989. In the words of Lorraine Purdon, Founding Director, “from the beginning it [SETo] took the form of a ‘high level focus group,’ in which leaders among major service providing agencies jointly advocate for improved services, find ways of better coordinating services, and develop projects to address key areas of need.

“This work is taking place in an area of Toronto that has very high and complex service needs. The area covered by SETo has a high ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, high rates of mortality and high school drop-outs, and the second lowest-income postal code in Canada. SETo strongly believes that it is important to bring together people who know issues and barriers with people who can help to implement desired change.”

This “odd” coalition, and I’ll explain the term “odd” in a moment, was addressing homelessness in an integrated manner having not just the traditional voices but also having the most “important” voices at the table. Professional voices always have had a seat at the proverbial table. The concept of “important” in this case were the homeless people themselves. Executive directors of not-for-profits agencies and senior vice presidents of hospitals sat as equals among equals with community development workers and service recipients addressing issues concerning service providers finding common ground to address poverty, harm reduction, determinants of health, food, etc. to make services accessible to the most vulnerable.

That is what I called an “odd” coalition: the humbleness of the experts and the bravery of the service recipients addressing needs beneficial to the community as a whole, those who were homeless and those who were not.

Perhaps the most iconic of these small successes occurred when St. Michael’s Hospital hired a former homeless person to greet, in the emergency department, homeless patients and provide some sort of interpretation, breaching the gap between the mutual distrust of those hospital staff that see homeless as nuisance and the patients whose experience with institutions have been bad.

Equity at the table

However, what in my opinion was important about the initiative was not the commitment to the work or even the partnership. We all have seen initiatives and good intentions to address systemic problems. What was, at least for me, innovative was the format of the work, the structure of the partnership, the commitment to equality and equity in the input and participation and the “how” that was outlined in a paper called the “Alignment Model.”

The model intended to have at the table all the people SETo would impact. Decisions were arrived as a collective. All the voices that should be heard were heard. All opinions were considered because they mattered as decisions were made through consensus. The Alignment Model was the vehicle to implement what at that moment was an innovative way to deliver services.

The Alignment Model is not a new term, nor is Community Development or Collective Impact for that matter. What the conference or summit did for me was to legitimize and justify what has been, at least for me, a new concept that I have not seen reproduced since. It also gave me a way to express something I had struggled to explain to others: Equity among the voices at the table.

At the conference I asked the same question again and again at my learning table: how is “Collective Impact” able to balance the power differentials among unequal partnerships? Why would a funder align itself with a small service provider? Or why would an expert pay attention to a non-expert? The answer for some was simple: That is what Collective Impact is about! Yet I felt such a standard answer was too simple.

Personal commitment

To implement a concept that simple implies a complex set of rules to facilitate the results. The answer was so obvious and simple that I couldn’t see it. Then came the “aha” moment. It requires a personal investment not by the institutions or the agencies but from the people. Collective Impact is a people commitment not corporate or institutional but personal: one must buy in.

I realized that for the SETo partners the answer had been the “Alignment Model.” Exploring a service approach and personal experience, I realized my personal answer was: Community Development. My understanding of Community Development is in its more pure meaning: Community as synonymous of building strong civil societies and development as synonymous with growing and building equity. Or using another name: Collective Impact.

That is how the magic happened for me at the summit. There were almost daily or even hourly “aha” moments like when Brenda Zimmerman explained that Collective Impact “is not throwing a rock which is predictable but throwing a bird which flies away” or “it’s not a program, it’s not a service, it’s a community engagement.” Perhaps the best quote that I heard at the summit was “Time is too short and things are too bad for pessimism” (Dee Hock.)

The greatest learning of the summit for me was hope for the future, that individual conscience must be part of the decision-making process. One cannot and should not rely on cold, impersonal institutional guidelines but on individual commitment to a better future.

One thing becomes very clear and rewarding for me: the magic happens with Community Engagement as it becomes alive whether it’s called the Alignment Model, or Community Development, or Community Impact.

The great learning is what all of us have known since the beginning of time: success comes from the individual, and the personal commitment to change.

Thank you Margaret Mead for reminding us this:“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Nov 04 2014


This year the lines have become longer again – nearly a million Canadians visit food banks each month. In March 2014, 841,191 people used the service, a 1% increase compared to the same period in 2013 that saw a drop of 4.5% from the previous year.

Canada continues to wrestle with the dismaying fact that 170,000 more people each month are seeking assistance compared to when the economic downturn started in 2008 – a 25% increase. Given that March is an average month for food bank use, it is estimated that 1.8 million people will depend on them for food this year.

This and other troubling trends that contribute to the increase in food insecurity are some of the highlights of the HungerCount 2014 study released on November 4. The numbers would have been higher if access to food banks in the Maritimes had not been restricted due to severe storms and consequent power outages and transportation difficulties in late March this year, the study says.

“The job market is very tough right now,” said Katharine Schmidt, Executive Director of Food Banks Canada, which coordinated the annual study involving more than 4,000 food programs. “The unfortunate combination of low-paying jobs, inadequate supports for the unemployed, and a lack of training opportunities for Canadians is keeping food bank use near record levels.”

Figures from the study show that the changes in food bank use have closely followed the national unemployment rate. As people find work, they are less likely to access food banks. At the same time, 12% of those helped by food banks are working, and an additional 5% are receiving Employment Insurance – showing that a job does not always lead one away from the food bank.

The study found that each month 90,000 Canadians are forced to ask for help from a food bank for the first time. Four in ten of those relying on this assistance are children. The number of single adults helped by food banks each month has doubled since 2001 – from 80,000 to 158,000.

“It has been six years since the recession sent food bank use soaring,” said Schmidt. “It is time to stop waiting for things to improve – it is time to start acting to make real investments in policies that will reduce the need for food banks.”

The study proposes key policy recommendations to reduce the number of people who need help from food banks. These include investing in affordable housing, providing more effective supports to low-income families with children, and helping Canadians get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of today.


Oct 29 2014


By Shelley Zuckerman, Executive Director, North York Community House

In early October, I attended Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summit, thanks to the support of Maytree. It was an intensive week of learning, thinking and dialogue. Close to 300 people attended from all parts of Canada and many regions of the United States, and from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Denmark and Israel. I Iearned about a number of interesting collective impact initiatives, ranging from increasing early childhood readiness to reducing poverty to preventing childhood obesity.

I was especially interested in trying to figure out if and how collective impact practices can be used in our community development work in neighbourhoods. I was also thinking about some of the collaborative projects that I’m currently involved in and wondering whether we could have more impact if we adopted a collective impact framework. It seemed like a promising way of addressing complex social problems, but I had a number of questions.

During the week I gained a much greater understanding of collective impact, which is defined as a collaboration with diverse stakeholders that is intended to have large scale community-wide impact. There are five conditions of collective impact that distinguish it from other types of collaboration. They are:

  1. Common agenda with a common understanding of the problem and joint approach to solving it.
  2. Shared measurement where data is collected and results are measured consistently among all participants.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities that are differentiated but coordinated.
  4. Continuous and consistent communication across the many players.
  5. A separate organization to provide backbone support for the entire initiative.

As it’s impossible to capture everything I learnt in this blog post, I will share a few ideas and “ah ha” moments that resonated for me.

One concept that I found useful is what one of the keynote speakers, John Kania, referred to as “mindset shifts.” Kania argued that for successful collective impact, three mindset shifts are required.

Mindset Shift One: Who is involved?

This shift is to ensure that an initiative “gets all the right eyes on the problem” and they bring “new vision.” It is clear that we in community services do not have the capacity ourselves, no matter how well we’re funded, to resolve complex social issues on our own. We need to involve a range of stakeholders including government, corporate and philanthropic sectors and those with lived experience. As Kania stated, “If you want to change the system, you have to get the system in the room.”

Mindset Shift Two: How people work together

Kania reminded us that this was adaptive work, not technical work. Complex problems are unpredictable and constantly changing and no single person or organization has control. Solutions that emerge are not known in advance.

Mindset Shift Three: How progress happens

Those involved in collective impact must think system strategy, not program strategy. It’s not about rolling out a new program, it’s about focusing on strategies to change systems. The change needed is transformational, and Kania argued that there is very little systems thinking occurring today.

As an organizational leader, I was particularly interested in learning more about the type of leadership required for organizations participating and leading collective impact initiatives. Dr. Brenda Zimmerman provided an interesting perspective at the summit. I was first introduced to Brenda’s work in complexity more than ten years ago when I participated in the York University Maytree Management Certificate program. Her work has had a big impact on how I lead.

Brenda’s keynote had several “ah ha” moments that I’m still thinking about. She told us that leaders need to embrace “unknowability” and quoted Eric Bonobeau, a researcher in swarm intelligence: Often “Managers would rather live with a problem they can’t solve than with a solution they can’t fully understand or control.”

Brenda also advised us that in complex situations a leader should be engaging participants (or staff) in collective ownership, not passive “buy-in.” Often it is the leader who has developed the idea, made the decision, designed an action plan and then asks and needs the staff or citizens to implement it. That’s buy-in. Ownership on the other hand is “when front line staff/citizens develop the idea, make the decisions, design the action plan and act on it.” When I heard this, I began to wonder about the times when I confused buy-in with ownership.

Brenda stated that best practices stifle innovation. That was a statement that drew attention from the audience. She explained that since complex problems have emerging solutions, best practices that have worked previously often have limited value in a new situation. When we apply best practices, they often stifle innovation and creativity, and we stop looking for new or different solutions because we think we have the solution.

Some of my initial questions were answered at the summit. I saw that we could increase the impact of some current collaborations if we utilized one or more of the collective impact conditions and/or mindsets. Some of our community development efforts could be more successful if we paid more attention to ownership as Brenda defined it. The summit also raised some new questions for me, such as how social innovation and collective impact can be combined and how we can involve the corporate sector more in our initiatives, besides just asking for funding. Another question that kept arising was how we can use the collective impact framework to address some of the big issues that our newcomer communities are dealing with, instead of just developing new programs. The list goes on.

For me, what became very clear is that whatever framework we adapt or adopt, we all need to find ways to work together to address our complex social problems.

Brenda Zimmerman ended her presentation with the following quote from Dee Hock: “Time is too short and things are too bad for pessimism.”

This post was updated on November 5, 2014

Oct 24 2014

Clarity of text through a pair of glasses - iStock

By Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Communities, both rural and urban, are facing an array of inter-related challenges as they strive to create positive futures: under-employment, under-resource schools, insufficient affordable housing, poor health, and more. Those of us committed to affecting positive community change in these situations know that the complexity of our work makes it particularly challenging.

The just-released resource Complexity and Community Change: Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness, authored by Patricia Auspos and Mark Cabaj, is a resource to support those working on community change efforts to enhance their effectiveness by viewing their work through the lens of complexity and adopting an adaptive approach in response to it.

Much of the work of community change is based upon three primary functions: strategy and planning; adaptive management; and learning and evaluation. In the face of complexity, each of these functions require different mind-sets and practices.

Planning and Strategy in Complexity

When traditional approaches to strategy and planning are applied to complex situations, three typical flaws often result:

  1. Excessive Up-front Planning Before Doing – This can result in a paralysis in the face of the complexity, a plan not grounded in context, or a lengthy planning process that tests patience of all involved and preparation;
  2. Weak Learning - This is the result of the emphasis on learning being too heavily placed at the front-end of a project’s planning phase, and some emphasis on learning at the end of the project in its evaluation. Not only is there typically very little learning being captured during implementation, but the learning that does occur in this phase is usually focused on overcoming problems and rarely focuses on reconsidering the nature of the problem and/or reconsidering the strategy; and
  3. Rigid, Inflexible Implementation – Often because of the lengthy up-front planning, traditional approaches rarely encourage adapting the strategy and plan in response to shifts in context or new knowledge, thereby limiting the plan’s ultimate effectiveness.

In developing strategies and plans for complex situations, there is a tension between being focused and intentional and being flexible and adaptive. Practitioners have developed a continuum of strategies which include:

  • Emergent Strategies – The group develops a strategy through a process of learning by doing;
  • Planned Strategies - The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, clear priority areas and boundaries of action, and a well-articulated plan of activities; and
  • Umbrella Strategies – The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, and clear priority areas and boundaries of action, but leaves the details of the strategy to be sorted out by other actors or levels of the organization.

Typically groups facing a complex issue progress from an initial emergent strategy and, after a process of experimentation, develop an umbrella strategy and then ultimately a planned strategy. However, there are many examples of groups that replace their planned strategy with an emergent or umbrella strategy in the face of a shifting environment or new learnings that make their planned strategy obsolete. The work of crafting, testing, and upgrading strategy, is an adaptive process in itself.

Complexity Requires Adaptive Management

Adaptive Management is a complexity-based approach to management which accepts that plans must be held “lightly” and adjusted frequently to reflect new learnings and shifts in context. It assumes that the process of adapting plans is continuous. As an approach it is best described as “a structured, iterative process of decision-making in the face of uncertainty that places a high value on both monitoring and learning about the effectiveness of different interventions.” While managers do develop pathways for moving forward and practical measures for implementation, the difference from more traditional management situations is that it is expected that these plans will be adjusted, often quickly.

Managers who are effective at adaptive management are guided by three simple rules:

  • Plan to Re-plan - Understand and expect from the start that plans will need to be reviewed and upgraded frequently;
  • Plan for Many Scales and Horizons - Plans are usually required for different levels of the organization as well as different time horizons (weekly, monthly, annually etc.); and
  • Plan for Surprise - Strategies may provide a general sense of direction but implementers should watch for and pursue additional opportunities that emerge if they align with the overall mission and strategy.

Adaptive management requires monitoring mechanisms that provide robust, real-time feedback on activities, their effects and their context. This data may be used to adjust plans and it may also generate insights that lead to questioning the strategy itself or the initial understanding of the problem.

The Implications of Complexity on Learning and Evaluation

In the work of community change, evaluations tend to assess programmatic outcomes and population-level changes. However, many such initiatives also monitor the extent to which their work has led to shifts in the complex systems that contribute to community well-being which include changes in policies, culture and or power relationships.

When working on complex issues, it is important that the work of learning and evaluation is designed in ways that practitioners can use to inform their emergent and adaptive work. Evaluations must match their purpose and context and participatory assessment is an important component of learning. Most importantly, approaches to evaluation in complex situations need to be designed in a way that informs rather than short-circuits emergent and adaptive strategy and action.

Developmental evaluation – an approach to evaluation that is designed for emergent and adaptive change efforts, and strategic learning – an approach that encourages practitioners to draw on multiple sources of data to inform their constantly evolving strategy, are two methodologies for learning and evaluation that encompass the following complexity-aware practices:

  • Use Evaluative Processes to Inform Strategy Development and Theory of Change – Evaluators can help practitioners track the learnings and results of their multiple actions and use them to craft a more robust theory of change and outcome expectations, a point at which more traditional evaluation practices may be appropriate.
  • Focus on Providing Real-time Feedback for Practitioners – The pace at which practitioners operate varies and shifts all the time. To be useful, evaluation should be designed to provide feedback that fits practitioners’ window of usefulness rather than an artificially scheduled midterm and end-of-project reporting period.
  • Facilitate Processes to Help Practitioners Make Sense of and Use Data – The volume and diversity of data in emergent and adaptive work can be overwhelming. Evaluators can help facilitate the translation of data into useful messages and link them to decision-making processes.
  • Adapt the Evaluation Design to Co-evolve with the Emerging Strategy - As practitioners’ strategy and interventions emerge, so too will their evaluation questions and requirements. Evaluators should continually adapt their evaluations to match the evolution of practitioners’ information needs.
  • Embed Evaluators into the Change Process – The complex nature of place-based community change makes it easier for evaluators to help practitioners learn and adapt in real time if they are working alongside the practitioners and have frequent opportunities to communicate, rather than drop into the process periodically at predetermined dates.

Over the years, a range of practices have been developed that are better suited to the strategy, management and evaluation of complex contexts. These include:

  • Employing a continuum of strategies, from loose to tight, that reflect the uncertainty of their context;
  • Adopting different models of flexible planning and implementation; and
  • Using an evaluation approach that encourages experimentation and learning.

Our shared challenge is to build the capacity of the field to integrate these practices, and the lens of complexity, into our work. This capacity-building effort must span beyond community change workers and ultimately encompass the broader network of funders, researchers, and community and organizational leaders who create an enabling environment for community change to occur.

By making the ideas and practices for working with complexity more explicit and robust for the field of community change, we will see them become more readily recognized, accepted, and supported as legitimate and enlarge the repertoire of adaptive practice in community change efforts. Complexity and Community Change has contributed to the development of a common framework and vocabulary that will make it easier to understand and communicate about complexity and adaptive practice to others.

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Originally published in Engage!, Tamarack’s free monthly e-magazine.

Oct 15 2014


Canada’s tolerance of systemic poverty has no excuses. Among the richest countries in the world, we clearly have the financial resources to end poverty. It is now an urgent task as after 20 years of continuous decline from the mid-1970s, both inequality and poverty rates have increased rapidly in the past decade and crossed the OECD average.

Maytree, as part of its stated mission to fight poverty, works with many partners to achieve its goal. Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement is one of its most established partners in this fight. Founded in 2001, the institute develops and supports communities to collaborate and generate knowledge that solves complex challenges that affect their well-being.

“Tamarack’s genesis can be traced back to Paul Born and his involvement with the Opportunities 2000 project in the Waterloo region,” says Alan Broadbent, Maytree Chairman, who co-founded Tamarack along with Paul. “Paul had bold plans to working with communities to see if there was a systematic way of helping them develop collaborative processes and protocols.”

The Kitchener-Waterloo region was a laboratory of sorts for Tamarack as it proved to be a microcosm of Canada. Alongside economic prosperity, a surprisingly large section of its residents lived in poverty and that number was growing. In the transition to the new knowledge-based economy, many people had been displaced and were unable to regain their footing. Social policies developed during the early postwar period were ineffective at helping people face new challenges. While they provided an invaluable financial safety net, these policies did nothing to help people rejoin the mainstream of economic life.

The growing number of people reliant on government income assistance programs testified to the limits of existing programs and services. While this situation was apparent across Canada, it was particularly well illustrated in this region.

Testing ideas

Tamarack tests ideas about community building, poverty reduction, collaboration and engagement, and generates knowledge based on what works best in practice. The Institute sponsors projects and provides learning resources, training, coaching and strategic consulting that enable people to collaborate and learn with and from each other.

“[Our] deepest hope is to build a movement for change that ultimately ends poverty in Canada. We believe that when people are engaged, working and learning together on just about any issue that strengthens their communities, they are contributing to the building of a society without poverty,” Paul wrote in the Institute’s 2013 annual report.

Vibrant Communities Canada – Cities Reducing Poverty, in collaboration with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, is Tamarack’s signature work. It is a collective impact movement that aims to link together a learning community of 100 Canadian cities – each with local poverty reduction strategies championed by multi-sector leaders. The goal is to collectively reduce poverty for one million Canadians.

Members of the network play a significant leadership role by participating actively in all aspects of the learning community’s design and implementation. They also share engagement in the learning community through an annual membership contribution. In 2014, the network plans to grow the number of endorsements for the Cities Reducing Poverty Charter, launch the Business Case for Cities Reducing Poverty and announce registration for its May 2015 summit in Ottawa titled Reducing Poverty Together: Every City, Every Province, Every Territory.

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