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 needed.

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 talked about best practices stifling innovation. She explained that because complex problems do not have known solutions, best practices from past experience have very limited value. When best practices are applied, they stifle creative processes 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. The list goes on.

For me, what became very clear is that whatever framework we adapt or adopt, we a 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.”

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.

Learn More:

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.

Oct 09 2014


Toronto’s Vital Signs Report for 2014 is out. The diagnosis laid out by the Toronto Foundation’s annual snapshot of the city’s quality of life lists out enough reasons to put residents of Canada’s largest city in a self-congratulatory mood.

In their message, John Barford, the chair, and Rahul K. Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the foundation, urge Torontonians to stop having self-doubts about “whether we’re a world-class city.” The city is near top of the class, they write, citing The Economist which has declared Toronto the fourth most liveable city in the world for the sixth year in a row, the Intelligent Community Forum which named the city the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year, and the YouthfulCities Index which declared Toronto as Youthful City of the Year. These were among the many leading indices that continue to rank the city high.

These rankings only reinforces the message in The Many Faces of Leadership in a Thriving City: A Rethink of the Toronto Narrative, in which Alan Broadbent asked readers not to believe chatter about a deeply dysfunctional city without a leader at its helm.

Losing shine

While the feel-good prognosis should put an extra spring in the collective footsteps of most Torontonians, they should also ponder over the issues thrown up by the city’s sustained growth. Toronto is losing on the social front because progress occurs variably across neighbourhoods, between people, and over time. Too many people live in poverty and can’t find work or adequate and affordable housing. Like the Toronto Star editorial reads, “A city that isn’t striving to better itself for all its residents is a city that is losing ground. That’s not the city we want to be.”

After a six-year decline, Toronto’s child poverty rates are on the rise again. In 2012, 29% of children were living in poverty. In 14 Toronto neighbourhoods, the rate was over 40%.

Youth unemployment has hovered at 15% or higher for a decade.

The city and its surrounding region ranked as “severely” unaffordable in an annual housing affordability survey of 360 markets worldwide. At the end of 2013, more than 77,000 households were on wait lists for affordable housing.

Exorbitant housing costs lead to too many people lining up at food banks. For the fifth year in a row, over one million visited them in the Greater Toronto Area. Visits to food banks in the inner suburbs of Toronto have increased by 38% since 2008.

Talking of visits, places Torontonians have not been lining up of late are polling centres during municipal elections. While almost 7 in 10 amongst them reported a strong sense of belonging to their community in 2013, it did not translate into voter turnout on election days. In 42 of Toronto’s 44 wards less than half of all eligible voters cast a ballot in recent city elections. Although this democracy deficit is cause for concern, civic engagement is not a lost cause – just like the other issues facing the city.

The first collective step Torontonians can take to resolve their city’s problems is to become informed about them  and get engaged in the community. It’s the best investment they will ever make – as the Toronto Foundation’s leaders point out. And, as they say, it’s about time.


Sep 25 2014

On September 3, 2014, the Ontario government released Realizing Our Potential: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (2014-2019), its second five-year plan that renewed its commitment to reduce child poverty by 25% (using 2008, when the first plan was released, as the base year). The strategy includes measures to help the long-term jobless access education, training and employment and discusses the need to address poverty among adults. The new plan also sets a long-term goal of ending homelessness in Ontario.

With a $12.5 billion deficit, Ontario’s attempt to break the cycle of poverty will be closely watched. The task is mammoth but not impossible. Here’s a quick glance at what the anti-poverty plan faces:

  • 1.5 million Ontarians or 20% of its families live in poverty.
  • Over 150,000 households are on waiting lists for affordable housing.
  • A lone-parent on Ontario Works lives on $9,122 less than the Low Income Measure.
  • Ontario had two of the three urban centres with the lowest share of employment income as a percentage of total income — Peterborough and St. Catharines, at 67% and 66.6 %, respectively.
  • Unemployment rate for 15-to 24-year-olds has reached 16.4%, compared to Ontario’s overall rate of 7.5%.
  • Ontario’s child poverty rate is the fourth highest in Canada — 44% of all low-income children in Canada live in Ontario.
  • 393,000 children live in poverty in Ontario, i.e., one of every eight.
  • 37.5% of food bank clients in Ontario are under the age of 18.
  • Only 1 in 5 families has access to regulated child care.

Sources: Statistics Canada and other reports

Reaction to the strategy was mixed

While the strategy has been broadly welcomed by anti-poverty advocates in the province, many have raised questions about its implementation. The lack of clear targets, timelines and new resources were the common complaints.

“The strategy recognizes that poverty is bad for our economy and for our collective health. It makes important commitments on child poverty, good jobs and homelessness that open up opportunities to advance the cause of fairness in our province. What’s missing is the plan for making it happen, including clear targets and an investment strategy,” said Greg deGroot-Maggetti, spokesperson for 25in5, an Ontario multi-sectoral network for poverty reduction.

Ontario Campaign 2000, a group advocating to end child and family poverty in the province, said the biggest commitment made in the new strategy is to the long-term goal of ending homelessness. “Achieving the goal… will not be possible without additional expenditures to boost incomes – including for people receiving social assistance – and robustly address the need for affordable housing,” the group wrote.

Immediate steps needed

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), a province-wide anti-poverty network, said it is encouraged by the pledge of $50 million over five years to a Local Poverty Reduction Fund to support local efforts to help lift people out of poverty. The new plan’s commitment to provide health benefits, such as vision care and prescription drugs for children and youth in low-income families, is another positive.

“We’re heartened by the government’s recommitment to confront the tragedy of so many of our neighbours and their children enduring hardship day after day,” said ISARC coordinator Elin Goulden. “However we need to take some immediate measures to provide immediate relief to people. Affordable childcare is another key element in lifting low-income families out of poverty, yet the new strategy offers very little in this regard.”

Besides the pledge to end homelessness, ISARC is also encouraged by the plan to create 1,000 new supportive housing units for Ontarians facing mental health or addiction challenges.

Welcoming the government’s commitment to provide health benefits to low income children, the Association of Ontario Health Centres (AOHC) urged the government to ensure access to prescription drugs and oral health care for low income adults as well.

“AOHC strongly supports the new focus on ending homelessness, but we are disappointed that the strategy includes no targets, timelines or implementation plan to achieve this goal. We urge the government to set an interim target with a timeline and immediately begin discussions with stakeholders so that programs and funding can be identified for the 2015 Ontario budget,” said Adrianna Tetley, CEO of AOHC.

The Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), which works to address issues of income security and poverty in Ontario, said one of the tests for the government’s second strategy will be how it tackles poverty experienced by people on social assistance. “We have long maintained that Ontario’s social assistance programs – Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – should be pathways to health, dignity, and opportunity. These programs continue to fall short of this goal.”

The new strategy commits to continued transformation of social assistance, and to removal of barriers to employment for vulnerable groups through partnership programs. However, no new funding commitments are made beyond the 2014 budget or new programs included in the strategy.

Poverty as a threat to health

To understand the hidden costs imposed by poverty, medical opinion is an eye-opener. The Ontario College of Family Physicians is clinical about tackling poverty. It univocally says that poverty requires intervention like other major health risks. Its poverty intervention clinical tool for primary care in Ontario states that poverty is a risk to health equivalent to hypertension, high cholesterol and smoking. “We devote significant energy and resources to treating these health issues. Should we treat poverty like any equivalent health condition? Of course.”

Addressing poverty’s risk to health, Margaret Hancock of Family Service Toronto said “there is plenty of evidence available to show that investing in anti-poverty measures saves much more in the long term and makes it possible for Ontarians living in or at risk of poverty to build better, more stable and meaningful lives.”

Finding out what works elsewhere

As the province reviews options to implement the new strategy, it might as well know what works elsewhere in the fight against poverty. The Mowat Centre, a public policy think-tank, prepared the report What Works: Proven Approaches to Alleviating Poverty for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The report examined poverty reduction initiatives generating promising results in key peer jurisdictions including Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Mowat Centre’s report, while not an assessment of the current Poverty Reduction Strategy or an evaluation of the effectiveness of existing initiatives within Ontario, made several key recommendations on useful innovations, proven programs and approaches to fighting poverty.

Related links

Links to report and announcements



Sep 19 2014


By Rachel Brnjas, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Understanding community has always been central to Dr. Joe Schaeffer’s work. As an academic and teacher he has asked thousands of people, from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, to answer a single question: What would people be like, within and with each other, in a world you would like to be part of? In Living Community: Thirty Think Pieces for Moving from Dreams to Reality Joe has distilled the responses he heard into five qualities of character that are exemplified by people who demonstrate the capacity to create resilient, strong communities. The five “qualities of character” at the heart of communities that are alive and flourishing are:

  • Genuine Interest – which emphasizes self-understanding and deep interest in understanding others.
  • Acknowledgementwhich highlights the critical importance of seeing and knowing diverse points of view without accepting all of them as right.
  • Deep Empathy – which makes it possible for us to become as others, to see through their eyes in the deepest sense possible.
  • Altruismwhich is a powerful quality of character that allows us to achieve self-actualization and to support others as they do so, too.
  • Mutual Trustwhich brings together trust of others and trust of self in the presence of others.

A sense of oneness is the “tie that binds” these qualities together.

As we work to deepen each of these qualities within ourselves, and alongside others, we begin to live out the fullness of community. The role or job of community becomes clear and simply begins to happen as we nurture and practice these qualities with one another.

In the foreword of this book, Paul Born writes, “Joseph Schaeffer understands, more than anyone else I know, the essence of community and the qualities of character of living community… The world needs this book.”

Learn More:

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

Sep 15 2014


By Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement
Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement
Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement
Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Since the debut of the first article about Collective Impact in the winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review,Collective impact has gained tremendous momentum as “a disciplined, cross-sector approach to solving social and environmental problems on a large scale.” Today, the work of Collective Impact is alive across America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and South Korea and it has also started to influence funding and public policy. For example, the concept has been written into grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the Social Innovation Fund, a White House initiative, as well as various provincial ministry initiatives in Canada.

Collective Impact is still an emerging field of practice. Our shared understanding of it as a framework and approach continues to be refined and deepened by insights generated by practitioners as they share their own experiences with implementation. Collective Insights on Collective Impact - a new resource profiled in the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review – synthesizes the latest reflections about Collective Impact from 22 practitioners, funders, community organizers, and thought-leaders. Sponsored and curated by the Collective Impact Forum, the nine articles within Collective Insights on Collective Impact are a must-read for anyone curious about or working with Collective Impact.

The article Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, co-authored by John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown and Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSG, is particularly thought-provoking. Reflecting on several diverse Collective Impact efforts, the authors acknowledge that the five conditions of Collective Impact are not always sufficient to achieve large-scale change. The work of collective impact is very often counter-cultural. This is fundamental to its effectiveness but consequently requires those engaged in the work of Collective Impact to embrace a fundamentally new paradigm when thinking about how action unfolds. Beyond tending to the three pre-conditions and five conditions of Collective Impact, to be successful practitioners, funders and supporters of Collective Impact initiatives must embrace some important shifts in mindset regarding “who is engaged, how they work together, and how progress happens.” These mindsets are “fundamentally at odds with traditional approaches to social change” and include:


The nature of complex problems which are the focus of Collective Impact cannot be solved by any single organization or sector alone. To be effective, these efforts must meaningfully involve critical partners in government, the non-profit, the corporate and philanthropic sectors as well as people with lived experience of the issue. As this diverse group learns about one another’s perspectives, their collective understanding of the problem – and their shared sense of mutual accountability – are created. Authentic engagement with people who are experiencing the problem first-hand is critical to ensuring that strategies are effective.

The relational is as important as the rational

Why do some powerful and well-documented innovations that help cure social ills spread quickly, whereas others do not? This question has been an important point of reflection for systems theorist Atul Gawande. His insight: “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.”

Gawande’s finding illustrates why relationship and trust-building are as important to the work of Collective Impact as reaching consensus on a common agenda or shared measures. As Stephen M. R. Covey noted, “…change happens at ‘the speed of trust’” and therefore those advancing a Collective Impact initiative must be willing and able to invest time to build strong interpersonal relationships and trust across multiple partners. This is essential to enable the work of collective visioning and learning which are core to Collective Impact. To sustain relationships of trust, those involved in Collective Impact initiatives must also be particularly mindful to how credit is shared with one another and avoid temptations to claim sole credit for collective successes.


Collective Impact initiatives are designed to help solve complex social and environmental problems. The nature of this work is unpredictable and constantly changing, and no single person or organization can control them. Because the focus of this work is often not known at the outset, participants must be willing to continuously learn and adapt their strategy using continuous feedback loops, and the coordinated responses of their participants.

In reality this means that those who are supporting and implementing Collective Impact initiatives must challenge each other to surrender their search for “a silver bullet solution” in favour of creating “silver buckshot solutions.”  This is done by viewing their work as part of a larger system and considering how their efforts contribute to supporting positive change within that system.

Funders and policymakers support Collective Impact initiatives when they demonstrate a willingness to shift from investing solely in individual, single-point interventions to include investments in longer-term processes and relationship-building efforts that enable multiple organizations to work, and learn, together.

The widespread momentum around Collective Impact is exciting. It demonstrates a vital shift away from addressing complex social issues with individual, isolated programs towards considering how to best work in ways that is sensitive to the context of a broader system and how to move together towards large-scale change. These shifts have significant implications for how practitioners design and implement their work, how funders incentivize and engage with grantees, and how policymakers bring solutions to a large scale. Without these vital mindset shifts, collective impact initiatives are unlikely to make the progress they set out to accomplish.

Learn more:

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

Sep 08 2014

Keyboard with word "solutions"

Recently, we announced a new initiative between Ryerson University and Maytree to create the Ryerson Maytree Global Diversity Exchange which also includes the transfer of a suite of successful diversity and inclusion programs: Cities of Migration, DiverseCity onBoard, the Flight and Freedom book project and hireimmigrants.

Why would Maytree transfer some of its most successful and well-known programs to a new home? Why mend something that is not broken? As announced, it builds on our long-standing relationship with Ryerson and is consistent with our approach.

First, Maytree incubates a program in an area of vital public interest and garners attention. After nurturing it to a healthy state, we transplant it into a more fertile field where it can grow beyond what Maytree would be able to sustain. Our continued support is a constant throughout this process and after.

While diversity and inclusion are important aspects of Maytree’s work, and will continue to be so, they form only one part. Our mission has always had a much broader focus on the reduction of poverty and inequality in Canada and the building of strong civic communities.

Having found our diversity programs a new home, we are poised to expand our long-standing anti-poverty work. We will continue to identify, support and fund ideas, leaders and organizations that have the capacity to make change for a better Canada

One of the organizations that Maytree has founded and supported for over 20 years is the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, a think tank that provides practical and tangible social policy solutions.

As much as we believe that poverty can be reduced through initiatives that help people break its vicious cycle, we also believe that progressive social policies play a significant role in fighting poverty and supporting the common good.

When Alan Broadbent, Maytree Chairman, got together with Ken Battle to found Caledon, it was with the understanding that Caledon would do high quality work, starting with data and working toward conclusions. The foresight to let data speak for itself has underpinned Caledon’s non-partisan, non-aligned approach ever since.

As Alan pointed out in his introductory remarks at Caledon’s 20th anniversary event, “Caledon has both critics and friends across the spectrum, and its work does not fit neatly into a traditional left-right analysis. Much of the work has been myth-breaking, challenging preconceptions of people from various perspectives. Some, such as the exposure of ‘bracket-creep’ in the tax system has been popular among those who have been less enthralled with the design of the Child Tax Benefit, for example. Caledon has been an advisor to governments of different stripes across Canada, and remains prepared to be helpful to anyone with a sincere interest in what is actually happening in social policy, and in developing better policy.”

Being solution oriented is an important aspect of Caledon’s work. While it will always be necessary to analyze a problem to describe issues and problems, Caledon doesn’t stop there. Whether it is giving policy advice to the next prime minister during an election campaign or crafting recommendations on a national child tax benefit, Caledon has always offered practical solutions.

Caledon further shares with Maytree the idea that creating social policy is a shared responsibility. It is not simply something the federal government does, but is initiated by governments at all levels, civil society organizations, corporations and citizens.

As Alan remarked, both Ken and he “agreed that Caledon should be lean, nimble, and independent. That independence extends to maintaining an honourable distance from its primary funder, Maytree.”

It is this independence that underlines many of our collaborations and funding agreements. A philosophy that is being reemphasized by the Ryerson-Maytree initiative.


Aug 28 2014


Photo credit: Sheryl Nadler

The refugee system in Canada has undergone big changes in recent years. It’s now harder for asylum seekers to be accepted in Canada, and more difficult for them to get on their feet when they arrive. Cuts to health care for refugees was part of the reform, now making headlines because a Federal Court judge called them “cruel and unusual treatment.”

Not surprisingly, serious policy changes like these are also complex. They’re hard to talk about. The issues are hard to engage with.

We want to engage Canadians on this topic. How? By telling human stories. We document the stories of 30 refugees who arrived in Canada after an extraordinary journey of flight, in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada. These individuals, a mix of men and women from over 20 countries ranging in age from their early 20s to early 90s, give a detailed account of the events that caused them to flee their home countries, and the decisions that brought them to Canada. Forged passports, thousands of dollars, human smugglers, armed guards, drifting at sea, starvation, rape, death, survival – these are some of the pieces of escape, and a backdrop to a question posed at the end of the book: Would they get in today?

Peter Showler, lawyer and former chairperson of the federal Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), answers the hypothetical question by analyzing how the cases would be handled under Canada’s new refugee system. By telling stories first, the policy discussion turns tangible. The loss of appeal for certain categories of asylum claimants, for instance, is not a legal labyrinth of Convention rights and government responsibilities – it’s a simple wrong.

It’s wrong that Sabreen would not have the right to appeal if she lost her asylum case today. But a few years ago, she did have that right, and she successfully appealed a negative decision to become a status refugee in Canada.

Storytelling simply works, on many levels. It’s a book you won’t want to close. The experiences of all 30 characters will break you down, their equanimity will pull you back together.

The release date is set for 2015. Sign up for updates here.

We look forward to sharing our work,

Ratna and Dana


Aug 21 2014
“Toronto is a beautiful picture of diversity," says Maroun Aoun, the CEO of IFS or the Swedish Association of Ethnic Entrepreneurs, while on a quest for ideas to promote diversity and integration in business.

“Toronto is a beautiful picture of diversity,” says Maroun Aoun, the CEO of IFS or the Swedish Association of Ethnic Entrepreneurs, while on a quest for ideas to promote diversity and integration in business.

He was a like child in a candy shop. For Maroun Aoun, CEO of IFS or the Swedish Association of Ethnic Entrepreneurs, Canada’s largest city presented a sensory overload of things to take back home.

“Toronto is a beautiful picture of diversity. And it is not just confined to the subway. I see it everywhere; in offices, in businesses and in homes with mixed-race families,” said Maroun, not too worried that his quest for diversity and integration ideas was gnawing into holiday time with family while on a private visit. He was busy checking out the various initiatives in the Greater Toronto Area that aim to put the region’s diversity to work.

“Equal opportunity increases growth” is the IFS motto that guided Maroun on his mission. “It is a truism. A lot can be accomplished when the doors are opened for people with initiative and they are given the chance to realize their visions,” he said during an informal chat with members of the Professional Immigrant Networks (PINs), an initiative of TRIEC.

Economic imperative

Maroun was impressed by ideas like TRIEC and PINs, and the presence of many ethnic chambers of commerce and associations that are active in pushing the business case for diversity. He was also full of praise for Canada’s structured approach to integration and inclusion that is more grassroots than Sweden’s top-down approach. “Unlike Canada’s multi-cultural approach, many in Sweden want immigrants to assimilate,” he said. “Either way, economic integration and prosperity should come first.”

It is this economic imperative that made him keener to focus on jobs and entrepreneurship rather than on how to “integrate” immigrants. “Let’s talk about the reasons why immigration benefits Sweden in the long run, and that the country needs a rather large number of newcomers to function.”

Maroun pointed out that in 2020 Sweden will have two million seniors. “To meet the consequent labour shortage, we actually need to open our borders even more. And we will have to compete with other countries for attracting people that we today tend to see as a problem.”

Sweden should be learning from North America, he said. “I would say that it’s not that the conditions in North America have been so much better than in Sweden. It is the attitude that has been different, and they have benefitted tremendously thanks to immigration.”

Need to attract immigrants

Hailing Canada’s attempts to attract immigrant workers and entrepreneurs, Maroun said Sweden too needs to do its best to attract immigrants and allow them to flourish, work, innovate and build more enterprises. “Entrepreneurs with a foreign background are often a key to international markets. Knowledge of business culture and language along with networks in other countries removes many barriers to exports. I have personally experienced the power of the mix of Swedish and Iraqi contractors on a trip to Kurdistan.”

Staying with Iraq, a country from which a large number of Sweden’s immigrants originate, Maroun held out the example of Namir Zetali. A successful entrepreneur of Iraqi heritage, Namir arrived in Sweden with his entrepreneurial instinct intact. Today he and his brothers run several businesses that together employ over 100 people and have sales of over 200 million kronor (around $30 million).

But despite the many successes among them, would-be immigrant entrepreneurs face unforeseen hurdles when it comes to contacting financiers and raising capital. This happens mainly because they fail to present their business concept and plan in a convincing manner.

Founded in 1996 to help immigrants overcome these barriers, Maroun’s IFS aims to stimulate and increase entrepreneurship and raise competence among individual business owners. It also initiates projects to create networks between migrant businesses and mainstream businesses and organizations in Sweden.

Ideas from Canada

But what were the ideas he intended to take back from Canada? “I would be taking back at least three ideas that would be of help for newcomer entrepreneurs,” said Maroun. The three ideas are:

  1. The Connector Program in Halifax, Nova Scotia that helps newcomers to build professional networks by connecting them with established community, business and government leaders.
  2. The Next 36 project that aims to solve Canada’s deficit of high impact entrepreneurs and nation-building business leaders. It plans to do this by turning the country’s top students into its most successful future business leaders and innovators.
  3. The Newcomer Centre of Peel, a multi-service agency that assists the entire newcomer family to settle down, including getting them ready for jobs or starting a business.

Maroun was confident these three ideas can be replicated well in a country still coming to terms with immigration. “It is a new phenomenon for many Swedes. They do not understand why people move,” said the first-generation Swede of Lebanese heritage. “It may be because the country has been ethnically homogenous for so long and does not have a significant colonial legacy unlike other immigrant magnets.”

preload preload preload