Five Good Ideas ®
Five Good Ideas for evolving your non-profit’s impact in periods of transformation
Published on 28/09/2022
Over the past few years non-profit organizations have been navigating massive changes related to the future of work, technology, and the breakthrough of social movements into public consciousness. As inequality continues to deepen and accelerate, expectations of how non-profit organizations make a lasting and scalable impact are shifting. There is new pressure to adapt, engage different groups, and be more strategic while building on existing work. With change comes opportunity. In this Five Good Ideas session, Sabreena Delhon, Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, presents her five good ideas for how non-profits can evolve their impact in this period of transformation.
Five Good Ideas
- Measure the obvious
- Challenge the production formula (PDF, tweet, repeat)
- Maximize your resources through partnerships
- Fill knowledge and lived experience gaps
- Make it easy to be your audience
- SAMbot 2021 Federal Election Snapshot
- Democratic life and the generational implications of pandemic school closures by Sabreena Delhon and Vijai Kumar for Policy Options
- Strategists podcast
- Strong and Free podcast from Historica Canada
- Digital tools: Datawrapper, Canva, Typeform, Calendly, Slack
Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth McIsaac: While many of you are coming to us and dialing in from across Canada, I’m speaking to you from Toronto. I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy.
I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. The territory is also covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Ojibwe and Allied Nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.
So today, we’re talking about navigating change. Over the past few years, non-profit organizations have been navigating massive changes related to the future of work, technology, and the breakthrough of social movements into public consciousness. As inequality continues to deepen and accelerate, expectations of how non-profit organizations can make a lasting and scalable impact are shifting. There’s new pressure to adapt, to engage different groups, and to be more strategic while building on our existing work. With change comes opportunity.
In today’s session, I’m pleased to welcome Sabreena Delhon, who is going to present her five good ideas for evolving your non-profit’s impact during these periods of transformation. Sabreena is the Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, which is a nonpartisan civil society organization that is committed to securing an accessible, responsive and inclusive democratic culture in Canada. Prior to joining Samara, Sabreena was the Principal of Signal Strategies and managed access to justice initiatives at the Law Society of Ontario. That’s where I first met Sabreena, and I’m delighted I did.
For Sabreena’s full bio, please take a look at the handout that is in the chat. It also has her ideas and additional resources that she recommends. It’s now my pleasure to stop talking and to pass the mic to Sabreena.
Sabreena Delhon: Thanks, Elizabeth, and good afternoon everyone. I’d just like to add to the land acknowledgement by sharing how critical it is to the work of the Samara Centre for Democracy to understand that Indigenous laws, systems of governance, and ways of knowing are foundational to what we now understand as Canada’s approach to democracy. For us, incorporating Indigenous knowledge and expertise in civic engagement brings critical insight to the work of creating a more participatory and inclusive democratic culture in Canada.
I have been a Five Good Ideas fan for many years, and it’s a real honour to kick off the 20th season today. I want to thank the Maytree team for this invitation. I’m excited to be here, and I hope that what I have to share with the audience today will be useful.
I’m going to talk about how non-profits can evolve their impact during periods of transformation. As Elizabeth noted, over the past few years, we’ve all navigated a lot of change and related challenges. That’s an understatement, really. For non-profit organizations, expectations have really changed – how we quantify our impact, respond to the future of work, and relate to, and respond to, social movements. These are all basis where there’s pressure, but also opportunity.
This has all been top of mind for me as I’ve been leading the Samara Centre for Democracy through a period of renewal for over a year. In terms of our mission, we’re seeing increasing threats to democracy, in Canada and worldwide. As an organization, we’ve been taking a really close and critical look at our work processes. We want to understand what’s working and what is not so successful. Along the way, our team has discovered the value of breaking out of default binary states of mind that have really dominated non-profit culture. This is helping us to move towards more exploratory, creative, but still very substantive approaches to making meaningful change.
1. Measure the obvious
With that context established, I’m going to turn to my ideas. The first one is to measure the obvious. At the Samara Centre, we want to realize a more inclusive, responsive, and accessible democracy. And a key way to advance this is by understanding technology’s influence on our democratic culture. In particular, we want to understand how toxicity in the political conversation online is a barrier to civic engagement. It affects representation and participation in our democracy.
This is a very broad and complex location to be working from, and this kind of terrain can feel overwhelming. One way forward for us has been to measure the obvious – taking something small, simple, looking at it in detail, and then using that to tell the bigger story.
In our SAMbot Project, we measured toxicity received by candidates on Twitter during Canadian elections. We carved off a small slice of the political conversation online, and then we used it to assess the state of the political conversation more broadly. In this work, we used AI for civic inquiry, a bot that can measure both the volume of toxic tweets and the sentiment in those messages.
The scale is really powerful here. In the 2021 federal election, we monitored over 2.5 million tweets in five weeks. We looked at tweets received by about 300 candidate accounts, and tracked approximately 550 toxic tweets per hour. We also found about 290,000 tweets contained threats, 210,000 tweets contained identity attacks, and over 140,000 tweets contained sexually explicit content, most of which was misogynistic and personal, and directed towards just 88 female-identifying candidates.
We already knew that harassment is a reality for candidates and politicians in Canada, and we already knew that social media plays a major role in accelerating and amplifying the hate received by this group. But putting numbers to that made it tangible, relatable, and it established a baseline that improvements can be measured against.
Journalists and those in the political community like this work because it legitimizes their experience. They’ve told us that they’re actually exhausted from having to explain what they’re dealing with, simply for doing their jobs. So in addition to quantifying, we’ve also been able to illustrate working conditions for those in the political arena. We’re showing a broad audience that what happens online affects your sense of safety in real life.
2. Challenge the production formula (PDF, tweet, repeat)
Now the second idea. Challenge the production formula. PDF, tweet, repeat. For the past decade or so, non-profit organizations have all used this formula to share their work. Teams go underground. They put their heart and soul into creating a giant PDF. And when it’s deemed complete, the team emerges to share a tweet about it. And, inevitably, they’re disappointed by the reception. It’s not what they were hoping for.
I’m being a little bit flippant here, but I think what I’m talking about is familiar to a lot of people in the audience. Non-profits are often tasked with challenging large bureaucratic institutions. And in doing that work, in engaging with those spaces, there can be a tendency to mimic the inefficient work culture that you’re meant to critique. This results in processes and routines that are constraining, slow, and can result in organizations missing their moment. This approach limits progress, and it can lead to a feeling of being stuck. And you can hear it in the phrases, “How we do it, how it’s always been done.”
The sensibility generally runs counter to what is likely to be a non-profit organization’s expansive, inspiring, and aspirational mission. One way that this mindset gets entrenched is by coding it as being risk averse or prudent. It can feel so important to apply such a heavy, opaque, and slow approach to work. It makes it feel serious. But depending on the organization and their goals, this might be masking a lack of confidence, fear, or trepidation. And that really needs to be interrogated, because the PDF-tweet-repeat model is very resource intensive. If there’s one thing that non-profits have in common, it’s that we don’t have very much to waste.
We need to be really strategic about how we manage our resources, and leverage them to make an impact. This is a pernicious hallmark of non-profit life, and it’s not how change-making should feel. The weight of this approach really limits what you can put towards your future. Changing the way we work to be more nimble and responsive can open up opportunities for influence, and also enable you to better honour your organization’s past work. The shift is about building on those accomplishments, rather than being held back by them.
Rethinking the way you communicate, particularly with research, can allow your organization to continue producing the conscientious, complex, and responsible work that has always been done in the past, while also drawing in new audiences and encouraging novel or unexpected collaborations.
With our SAMbot Project, we opted to share weekly “snapshots” of our findings during the federal election. This was new and kind of scary. We qualified our data as a snapshot, and explained that a larger report, the PDF, was forthcoming. Previously, we would’ve tracked everything and shared our analysis, well after the main event. This approach, weekly updates with just a small amount of data, put us right into the election conversation, making our work relevant to the public, journalists, and the wider political community.
This exposure helped inform our analysis of the broader election, which we released several months later. We were able to have input from digital rights, gender-based violence, and political experts, because they’d heard of our work. They’d seen the snapshots. These were new relationships, and they were guiding how we positioned ourselves on the democracy and technology landscape. This sharpened our analysis, and it increased our relevance.
With SAMbot, we’re using AI for civic inquiry. This is experimental work, and our openness about that, while initially uncomfortable, has ultimately enabled us to develop a really strong methodological foundation and relationships that are enhancing the quality of our work. It’s also put us in a space where we can share data with authority, and build solutions with others as peers and collaborators. This is a really energizing and rewarding way to work, and it’s a contrast to having a secret project that’s only revealed once all the seemingly perfect answers are confirmed. We’re working on very complex issues in the non-profit space. There really aren’t any perfect answers, so sharing as you go is key.
3. Maximize your resources through partnerships
This brings me to my third idea, which is to maximize your resources through partnerships. As I mentioned earlier, non-profits do not have resources to spare. Even if you have the most compelling and perfect solution, it’s not going to go very far if you’re the only one talking about it. Partnerships can be formal. For SAMbot, we worked with Areto Labs, a startup technology company based in Edmonton. They helped with our data collection.
But partnerships can also be informal. You can just be friends. As we face intersecting challenges to secure a just society, it’s important that we work with a range of groups and individuals. You don’t have to have the exact same mission or abilities. You don’t even need to have any defined commitments. It’s about common ground and being able to fill gaps in expertise. Some organizations might be better resourced in terms of communications and media relations staff. They would be a great partner for a group that has substantive policy work or data that they need to get out into the world. You can each play to your strengths for mutual benefit, while building your social capital.
Partners can also help us to evolve our internal operations. At the Samara Centre, we’ve started to swap lunch and learn sessions with friends from peer organizations. This is a cost-effective way to support team learning, and it’s also building community. It can feel awkward to email someone asking for a brief chat, but challenge yourself and know that people are very generous and keen to share what they know with others.
As we face increasing polarization in the political conversation, it’s important for non-profits to model the behaviour we want to see. There’s no shortage of work, so make change in coalitions, in partnerships, and through alliances. Speaking in concert is going to bring more heft to your message.
4. Fill knowledge and lived experience gaps
My fourth idea is to fill knowledge and experience gaps. The relevance of non-profit organizations and their ability to make a meaningful impact today lies in diverse teams. This can be diversity in terms of lived experience as well as training, knowledge, and expertise. Attracting the right people to your team and to your board requires being out in the world, producing work that gets attention from key stakeholders, emailing individuals that you’d like to get to know better, or simply being present at events like this one and connecting with others.
If your organization is serious about diversifying its engagement, start to track the data. How many coffee meetings are happening each quarter? How many events have team members attended? This will give you a sense of your investment in outreach, and you can set some goals from there. You can also assess how your current outreach is or isn’t serving to address key gaps within your organization. This outreach will pay off for a range of reasons, and the key one is that you’ll soon have access to a network of networks for your job postings or calls for directors. Once that outreach habit is built in, the diversity of perspectives will flow to you.
Another way to fill knowledge and experience gaps is to simply ensure information about your events. Job postings and other notices are on public boards on LinkedIn, or shared with universities or colleges whose alumni might be interested in your work. This all takes little time and no money. If you’re struggling for diversity and only sharing notices in your newsletter, don’t be surprised when you only get homogenous responses. Finding diverse views and retaining them, along with establishing an inclusive work culture, is a constant work in progress.
At the Samara Centre, we’ve recently started to share a daily update or a “standup” on Slack, where we briefly list our priorities for the day, anything we might need extra support with, and anything else we’d like to share with the team. It could be something fun. We’ve also shifted all of our internal communication to Slack, and have our conversations there, organized by project or theme. These are examples of really simple ways to stay connected, work in the open, and be aware of each other in a responsive way.
5. Make it easy to be your audience
Finally, the work of a non-profit is important and, at times, arduous. So in spite of this, or maybe because of it, it’s really important that you make it easy to be your audience. It’s respectful to present information in an accessible way, for it to be written in a clear and straightforward manner, for there to be colours and illustrations that bring your work to life. Taking the time internally to really distill things down will pay off. It’s clarifying for the team, and makes your organization relevant and interesting to a broader group.
There are a lot of great free digital tools that can help with audience engagement. Typeform allows you to create online forms that look great and are really easy to use. This is a great tool for surveys. Canva is a graphic design tool with a wealth of templates for social media posts, presentations, and reports. Datawrapper is a great way to create sharp graphs, tables, and charts, so you can tell the story with your data. And Calendly is also great for scheduling meetings, whether that’s a coffee or organizing a large group of participants. So these are some tools that can help you tell a compelling story about your organization, how it’s evolving, and how it’s having an impact.
A lot of what I’ve shared today is aimed at opening things up and being strategic about the story that you’re telling about your organization. This orientation will enable you to observe how other organizations, non-profits or otherwise, are getting things done. This helps you determine what you can adapt for your own space.
Historica Canada’s Strong and Free podcast is a really great example of how to tell a complex story about social justice, in this instance, the history of Black Canadians, in a way that is accessible to so many. I also recommend, in my list of resources, checking out The Strategists podcast, even if you don’t work in the political space. It features three political strategists breaking things down and playing out different moves to do with current events in the political arena. There’s a lot in these episodes that can guide non-profits in terms of framing, messaging, and understanding public sentiment.
This work means something to us, so we owe it to our missions, and to ourselves, to evolve how we’re making a meaningful impact. Change is healthy, but it’s not always easy. It’s hard to resist slipping into that default binary mode. But varied perspectives and a fresh set of processes and tools, along with some reflection, can help your non-profit seize this time of transformation.
Thank you so much for your attention, and I hope what I’ve shared today will be helpful to you.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you, Sabreena. There’s a lot in there, a whole lot. So I think you packed in many more than five good ideas, and I think that we’re going to have lots of questions coming from the audience. There’s some already in the Q&A box. I would remind, not remind, I forgot to mention at the front end, if you have questions for Sabreena, please put it in the Q&A box at the bottom of the screen. If you type it in there, I will be looking there for questions, not to the chat room, so please direct your questions to that area.
Right out of the gate, I’ve got some questions as well, but I’m not going to take my prerogative. I’m going to reach into what people have already asked. First, when you talked about the snapshots, and I was thinking the same thing, and I’m going to call out Annie in the audience who’s a friend of Maytree, Annie Kidder. She represents an organization that does a lot of data collection and true to methodology and all that sort of thing, and her question is, “With the share-as-you-go model, did you have concerns at all around the small sample size that you would’ve been reporting on?” Were there issues around that in terms of the reliability and generalizability of the data?
Sabreena Delhon: Yeah. Hi, Annie. That’s a great question.
So, we were using AI in this instance, and so volume was sadly not a concern with looking at toxicity in this instance. The sample size was fairly decent because we were looking at 300 candidate accounts. So, that was part of our learning. In a non-AI instance, that kind of research design, you would send someone a survey and they would have to fill it out and get it back to you. But in this instance, because we were collecting abundant publicly available information, we knew there was going to be a lot to report on right away. We didn’t expect it to be in the thousands. I reported on the hundreds of thousands because that’s the whole five-week period in its entirety. But we had a few thousand here and there along the way.
It was a lesson to me because I didn’t need a number that was enormous. I needed to just have something about the pulse in the moment, that this is what happened to Chrystia Freeland this week, or this is what’s happening to women Liberal candidates. We ended up having a lot of media attention while we were releasing those weekly snapshots, but we also had engagement from policy and academic spaces as well. It was helpful for people to just kind of have a sense and a cue about what we were working on. And we did say this is a weekly snapshot. We mimicked how polling firms operate, and they say this is just where things are at today. And then we made sure to update our website accordingly, as we were able to refine our analysis and say, “Okay, this is accurate for this period of time. If you want to look at something that is confirmed and finalized, here’s that bigger PDF that you can see.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: There’s another question that builds on that a little bit, and some of, I think, what you’ve already addressed, but there might be more to add here. The question is, “Given that share-as-you-go means that information is changing and evolving, what communication channels did you use to keep everyone informed?” So you just mentioned the website, but did you find a need to retool, and this goes back to the question around your production formula, how did you retool getting that out and timely and sort of course-correcting or adding on in a meaningful way?
Sabreena Delhon: Our team was very small. There were about five of us, and we had all hands on deck for this project. We had also engaged an external graphic designer who helped with our website. We needed to make a separate website for this project, which is bad practice, but we needed it so that we would have the flexibility to present the information that we wanted to get out there in an efficient manner. Our existing website was a little too dated and heavy and weighed down for us to work with in this way.
Samara Centre for Democracy is 15 years old, so our newsletter list is really good. Our social media presence, we already had a great audience on LinkedIn and Twitter. We just were able to disseminate the information through those channels. We also put out a press release at the start of everything. So that kind of primed people. But we know journalists are really strapped and stretched right now, and so I don’t think it was the press release that got us the media attention, because journalists simply don’t have time to be looking at materials like that necessarily. It was the fact that we were presenting numbers in a bite-sized fashion that made it very easy for people to grab onto this information. It wasn’t buried on page 47 of the PDF. It was up front, and if you wanted more information about how we did it and why we did it, I was happy to talk to you.
The website also had other pages where we talked about our methodology, and that’s something that we’ve refined over the last few months. We also laid out just context about the motivation behind exploring online toxicity as a barrier to civic engagement. So, I think the moment and our approach really was key in getting the word out and having people be very receptive to our findings.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Great. I’m going to just dig a little deeper on some of that. You opened by saying, “We had a separate website, which is bad practice.” Why? What does that mean? And then also, just to tag onto that, I just want to delve into a few other social media tools.
I hear from younger people, if you’re not on TikTok, you’re missing it. If you’re not on these other platforms. As you think about disrupting then the same old patterns and the same old tools, do we need to move into other social media tools as well? What are your thoughts on that?
Sabreena Delhon: I’ll look at the website question first. If you’re going to do something that is designed to get everyone to pay attention to you, you want to drive them to your home, your house, your main organizational website, where they can subscribe to your newsletter and donate and look at all the other wonderful things that you’ve done. We couldn’t work within our website for this project for a range of technological reasons, so we had to create a separate one, which meant that people were going to sambot.ca, instead of samaracanada.com. They kind of were like, “Oh, SAMbot is its own thing,” and that’s very disorienting for your audience, even though we put our logo all over it. You shouldn’t do that.
You should always be driving everyone to your main website, so they can see everything about who and what you are to date, and that’s also a note to keep your website “guest ready.” You always want it to be tidy and current, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. But we couldn’t do that, so we had to kind of make this decision to go down this bad practice path, because it would work better if we could just have a website that we could post to really easily, adjust really easily, edit really easily. That’s why we made that choice. But we did have to go through that logic to get there.
In terms of social media channels, we understand who our audience is, and they are largely on LinkedIn, because we have a lot of professionals who maybe started to be interested in the Samara Centre for Democracy as students, and then over the course of 15 years have evolved into mid- to senior-career professionals. Twitter is also really important for us. That’s also where a lot of Canada’s online political conversation takes place. That’s what we were measuring, so it made sense for us to be on that platform. And, we did not have capacity to start a TikTok, and nor did we have the evidence that would show that it would be worth that investment. But, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t able to get youth engagement. We actually ended up with a lot of teachers coming to us and saying, “The SAMbot work is really interesting. I’m going to use it in my classroom.”
I feel like with social media, there’s a lot of pressure to get your information directly to the user, and we forget that there can be intermediaries that get your message across to other people. Of course, the media attention helped a lot as well. But when you have a media interview, you don’t say sambot.ca, you say Samara Centre for Democracy, and then you’ve got your traffic problem of what people are Googling and where they’re getting to.
Elizabeth McIsaac: There is a follow-up question to this, which is, “How are you measuring your success with communication channels?” This is something I think every organization struggles with, because we can say there was X number, maybe we had a thousand or 10,000 or a hundred thousand impressions of our tweet. What does that mean? How do we measure success against the other numbers, but how do we put them in context and know that, to the point of this, are we having impact? Are we increasing impact?
Sabreena Delhon: Media attention is one metric. It can’t be the only metric. It’s not the one you always want to be reporting to your board about. It’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t make sense. And our work with SAMbot was very time-bound. We monitored the federal election for five weeks. We got enough engagement from the media, as well as invitations to speak in other spaces that we hadn’t been asked to speak at before. Or it was a reconnecting kind of invitation. We were able to present on SAMbot as a project and with our findings, in a range of policy research and academic spaces, because of what we did on social media, and because of the subsequent media outreach that we were able to generate. So that’s attention, that’s not necessarily impact. And it’s a short period project. We can continue to trace whether this is increasing our profile and authority longer term.
After the federal election, we deployed SAMbot to monitor the Ontario election. Now, we’re looking at it in some municipal context, and we’re also starting to look at more sophisticated questions we can ask around toxicity and electability. Is there a relationship there, instead of just simply reporting on the numbers? How many groups, decision-makers, people with influence, partners, collaborators, funders want to come with us on this journey as we continue to explore technology’s influence on our democratic culture? And the visibility is a factor there, but it’s also the quality of the work. Are we being cited? Are we being invited to things? Are we able to engage others who are advancing our work as well?
I think one indicator of how far we were able to come within a year was that, when we launched our final analysis of the federal election, we hosted a webinar in the middle of August with three leading minds on harassment online in the digital space. These were experts who had knowledge in terms of law, journalism, and human rights, and they all said yes, and people came. This was a mid-August webinar, and I think this group can appreciate putting something together with just a couple of weeks notice in that time of year. It’s really not setting yourself up for success. But we tried it, and it worked. Then we were able to get a little more engagement and press coverage off of that. So, it’s not, “I did it and then it was good. Here’s my impact.” It’s just, you got to keep building on that and be going in a linear fashion.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Excellent answer, and congratulations. You talked a bit about partnerships as a way to evolve your impact because different relationships will do different things. Some can be message carriers. Some can become allies in the work and advancing the mission. Others can be influencers on you and help shape how you’re thinking and move your direction a little bit. So those are all important functions. The question from the audience is, “Do you find it helpful to divide individuals or organizations that you have relationships with into different categories?” Do you think about them differently? Do you have memorandums of understanding with some and others? As you said, it can just be having coffee and staying connected and just being friends. But, do you treat that in a sort strategic and intentional way perhaps?
Sabreena Delhon: I used to work in the justice sector, so I’m no stranger to having very clear contract and defining engagements and deliverables, so I don’t want to make it seem as if, “Hey, I put something together. It’s no big deal.” But there can be, maybe peers isn’t the right word for it, but just different categories for your relationships.
With Areto Labs, they were our technical partner. That’s a title that we put on that, and we had a formal agreement with them. We ironed out that, “SAMbot is Samara Centre for Democracy’s initiative. That robot is ours. Its data is ours. These are the things that belong to us, and this is what we’ll be doing with it. Here’s also how we want to work with you and talk about you and have clarity about how we describe and present this partnership.” We felt that there was real value, for both organizations, in us turning to technology experts to do our data collection, and for them to be working with a civil society organization to use the data for good. So that worked for us, and it was a major endeavor, major initiative. We got that ironed out, black and white, in writing.
Other partnerships will just be social connections, and you can just use your intuition, your feeling, to figure out what is and isn’t appropriate and safe for you to talk about with this group. Sometimes, there are people you can turn to for edits on a paper or a report, and they’re going to give you really critical feedback. And others, you turn to for different things. I think it’s just more about having the habit of going externally for some input, connection, and also just to have the relationship. It doesn’t have to be so instrumental. And, we also want to give as well. We’re happy to be sharing news about other people’s events. We also give notes on reports and papers. It’s about building a community within our world and being part of other worlds, and that leads to invitations and access and introduction to other spaces.
It is also just walking the walk in terms of what we would like to see. There’s a lot in the non-profit world that pits organizations against each other for funding. The world of philanthropy is changing in a really dramatic way, and the general public’s understanding of how complex social problems intersect has evolved. The way in which we relate to one another has to change, too. I think the way we function in our personal lives of, “This is my neighbour. This is my friend, or this is my classmate,” there’s no reason why we can’t also have that sensibility at work as well.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Absolutely. And I love the sort of sense of looking outward for renewal and replenishing. Your fifth good idea is, “Make it easy to be your audience,” and I really liked that. How well are people responding to your message? Is your message too strident? Is your message too repetitive? Is your message inclusive and welcoming? How have you done some of that testing, or stress testing, the approach that you’re using on being easy to be part of your audience?
Sabreena Delhon: It is much easier to do that kind of work now in terms of graphic design and layout and scheduling things and all of that. There’s just such a wealth of tools available today than there was even five or ten years ago. I am definitely not on the cutting edge of tools you should be using. I turn to people on my team who are at different stages of age and career, and they help me understand that we should try this. There’s also a sensibility there that if the perfect tool doesn’t work, it’s okay.
What’s interesting about younger generations in the workforce is that they haven’t worked in environments where they’ve had to buy an enterprise version of something and make it work no matter what. So they don’t have that fear that a lot of us do of like, “Oh, I can’t use this tool because it’s going to cost thousands of dollars, and then it’s not going to work because it’s not really meant for a non-profit anyway. And then it’s going to be a disaster and then we’re all going to be stuck filling out these forms and it’s going to be awful.” They don’t have any of that baggage. They just know that there’s a range of different tools available. You can try it or not try it. There’s paid versions of the tools I talked about today, but even still, the fee is very nominal for the efficiency that you get out of it.
Also, back to partnerships, other organizations will tell us, “Oh, we use this, or we use Typeform.” Then, when you’re going to events or reading someone else’s work, you’ll start to tell, “Oh, they didn’t use SurveyMonkey for this. They used this. With that, it looks different.” Then you’re just kind of tuned into being open to trying new tools, and you don’t have to have a long-term relationship with them if they’re not working for you. You can just try them and move on if you need to, and then just normalizing that within the team. But it’s okay to experiment with those types of tools and move on if they’re not working for you.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Great answer. You very gently pointed to the fact that, as some of us are aging, the need to surround ourselves with younger people who think differently and interact differently with new technology and can sort of imagine what it can do is critical. Because I think it’s being able to imagine what’s possible, and that’s part of what you need in the mix.
Sabreena Delhon: Yeah. I’ll also add that consultants are generally at a different age and stage, career-wise, and they also are tuned into using these tools because they’re tasked with being a kind of organization of one. And so, as that’s increasingly common condition of work, that can also be a really good source for efficient tools as well.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Sabreena, you’ve talked a lot of just great experience and advice on some of the tactical elements of evolving your practice, and evolving your ability to be impactful through the technology, through the messaging, through doing it in real time and that sort of nimble, responsive piece. This is something, I think, that you’ve been moving through with Samara, is setting the new course. In terms of the larger strategic direction of an organization, are there ways, are there learnings that you’ve had from the last, is it two years already or is it a year and a half?
Sabreena Delhon: No, one year.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Oh my god, it’s only been a year. In the last year.
Sabreena Delhon: Yeah, 14 months.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Okay. So, you still qualify as new. But is there already a sense of course correct, or taking stock in, is this really the right course, or do we want to shift a bit in this direction, or we want to give this enough time to prove itself and to get a sense of, is this the right direction? How are you balancing? Maybe that’s about your relationship with your board and thinking out loud with them. What are some of your reflections on that process? Because I think you’re in a really unique position because you’ve come in and done so much. But are you open to saying, what else or different?
Sabreena Delhon: I think it’s challenging when you’re in a period of renewal to have a sense of perspective and proportion. I think, like a lot of non-profit leaders, I came in with tons of energy about all the things I was going to do because I’m going to fix everything all at once and things need fixing, which is a binary default way of thinking, which isn’t very healthy. And then you just don’t know what you don’t know. So you have to just be very open about that with your team and with your board. I’ve been very explicit that 2022 has been a year of experimenting, testing, and building. We’re going to try a few things, and then we’ll see what works best and we’ll carry that forward with us. But we should always have some element of experimentation in what we’re doing.
In building a new team and renewing our board, people are coming into the organization with different levels of familiarity, of me, of the previous work, of what we’re doing right now, what we’re planning for the future. So, establishing common ground for everybody is up to all of us to be working on that, and developing our norms. Of course, there’s the pandemic layer on top of all of that, and the fact that we couldn’t have events and meet in person and things like that for the first half of my first year with this organization. And so, how are we going to build relationships with that? You just kind of have to try different ways of engaging and connecting and take it from there.
We’ve all been forced to adapt and try new things in that regard. One thing that has been useful is the internal team shifting all of our communications to Slack, which is a way to have instant messages with each other, share documents, and organize our conversations by project or theme. I wanted to add that it’s not all just work talk. We also have a theme for appreciations, or just share news or events and being connected with each other. In around January, February, we had someone join our team who could be in person for the first few months, but then would be remote after that, and that seemed like an inconceivable proposal at the time. It’s really not a big deal because we were able to build out our digital engagement infrastructure, and everything’s okay.
So, just along the way, ensuring that everyone understands, it’s a period of transformation in the world, and within the organization. Then just checking in about where things are at with the team, with the board and with others, with yourself. Having a sense of proportion is really important. And also, we’ve done things like set up a strategic plan that gives us three years to figure things out on this front, and taking advice from elders and others who have been in this role and making space for that and listening to them. Generally, their advice is to slow down, calm down. So, I’m trying to pay attention to that as well.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I like that. Slow down and calm down. I think everyone can use a bit of that sometimes.
Sabreena Delhon: Yeah.
Elizabeth McIsaac: You’ve touched on a couple of themes of the transformation environment that we’re in, and that we’re all navigating. I think, much of your work is actually focused in substance on the transformative climate of political culture and the divisiveness and polarization of our public discourse. You’ve also touched on the practicalities of transforming how we do work, the hybrid realities, the remote realities, the adapting to all of that. That’s a fairly significant one that we’re all figuring out, some days better than others. Are there other themes of transformation that you feel are really shaping how you’re leaning into the work? The theme of this is: how do you have more impact? How do we have greater reach during these times of transformation? What other themes are impacting it?
Sabreena Delhon: I think the future of work is something that I’m mindful of as an individual, and also as just a social and economic reality that we have to be attuned to, as an organization, for how our team functions and what our culture is like, but also how we apply that lens to our analysis of the lived experience of elected officials and conditions of civic engagement that need improvement. I think the form of impact that we are maybe used to pre-pandemic seems just so rigid and narrow, compared to where we’re at now, where we have practical experience of having to work in less-than-ideal conditions and get things done anyway and are better or worse or both from that.
I think it’s just having that sense of context, just broader global transformation and an understanding, “Okay, well, this is a non-profit of seven people.” A lot is changing in the world. Everyone’s navigating a lot with their loved ones and with themselves. I think, for a lot of us, our own identities have evolved and shifted. We’re still in the pandemic. We haven’t really grieved or processed the pandemic. Everyone is at a different place right now, and that’s resulted in pressures on our institutions and our ways of thinking.
As you mentioned at the top of our event today, social movements are breaking through into the public consciousness in a different way.
I don’t have a perfect response for that, Elizabeth, but just that there’s a lot of huge things happening right now, and to just kind of have a level of awareness to that, but also to just take good care of yourself at the same time and encourage those around you to do the same.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think that’s a wonderful place to bring us because I agree with that a hundred percent. I look around and I think everyone, the psychology of our community, of our society, is needing to process much of what’s happened in the last two and a half years. That can’t be underestimated.
And it’s people that make up our work. It’s people that are the focus of our work, of the change that we’re trying to make. It’s people who do the work.
I think that’s a wonderful place to bring this to an end.
We’re coming close to the end of the hour. I want to give you the last word if there’s anything else you want to add, and then I have a couple of closing comments.
Sabreena Delhon: No, I don’t think I have anything else to add. It was really great to have the opportunity to do this reflection and prepare for today. The team helped with honing and refining the ideas and resources that I shared with everyone. I hope what we have learned, which has been hard-earned over the last year and a bit but also fantastic, is useful to this group, and I look forward to keeping in touch with everyone.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you, Sabreena. That was some just wonderful and thoughtful comments and insights on how we manage through all of this. Just really terrific. So thank you.
Sabreena Delhon is the Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, a non-partisan civil society organization that is committed to securing an accessible, responsive, and inclusive democratic culture in Canada. Prior to joining Samara, Sabreena was the Principal of Signal Strategies and managed access to justice initiatives at the Law Society of Ontario. She has directed research studies that examine public perceptions of legal technology and the justice system; results have informed the work of Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General and can be found on law school syllabi. She is a Fellow with Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and Massey College.