Reflecting on Stories of Impact


2018 Annual Report Thumbnail

Each year we pause and reflect on the best way to communicate the work of the Tamarack Institute. The result of that reflection is an Annual Report which outlines our team, our learners, and our supporters, and what we've focused on for the past twelve months. The biggest question that comes out of this process is "How do we find and share the impact of our work?". To answer that question, this year we've decided to showcase ten stories of impact from our friends, learners, and collaborators. 

In addition to providing information regarding Tamarack’s growth and events over the past year, we have chosen to highlight the work of ten organizations that have worked with us to create community change. These stories touch on topics from Poverty Reduction, Asset-Based Community Development, Collective Impact, and much more. Each story demonstrates the possibilities that come from working and learning together.

We are grateful to our nearly 900 donors, members, learners and consulting partners who have supported our work financially. In 2019, we are especially excited about a new four-year, $2 million partnership agreement with Employment and Social Development Canada, which will support cities to develop Collective Impact skills, address issues of deepening community and align efforts towards poverty reduction in Canada. We are also thrilled that this year the Suncor Foundation grew their commitment to our Deepening Communities work with a five-year $1 million commitment. This type of visionary support allows us to take risks, go deep and truly focus on large scale impact.

We are appreciative of our nearly 25,000 learning partners across 2,300 cities - over 1,000 of these cities are in Canada - who are making their communities great places to live for all. As a supporter, you know that Tamarack and Vibrant Communities help communities when they desire to change and are seeking guidance from us as they embark on the path to becoming healthier, more resilient Cities improving the quality of life for all its citizens.

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Evaluation: Stop, Listen, and Change



Evaluation takes courage and the willingness to change. When everything seems to be going well, it is especially important to take the time to reflect, to ask the tough questions and to be willing to hear inconvenient answers. What if the work you are doing is popular but not achieving its intended outcomes? What if you learn that the good work you are doing is actually increasing vulnerability and stigma for the people it’s intended to help?

Yes. Evaluation takes courage. However, when coupled with a healthy dose of curiosity and a commitment to put ego aside, evaluation can also lead to new innovations and ensures that programs, services and the work you are doing remain alive to changing trends and emerging priorities.  

Eight years after implementing its first Neighbourhood Action Strategy, the City of Hamilton has taken the bold step of reviewing their work. While the Neighbourhood Action Strategy was successful in many ways, an external evaluation found ways that the City’s neighbourhood building efforts could be enhanced.

Reflecting on their original purpose, the City of Hamilton has refocused its efforts on health equity for all its residents. This means, rather than focusing on specific neighbourhoods, the City will work with all neighbourhoods throughout the city to ensure that everyone has access to employment, education, health care, groceries, health care, recreation and other services and programs.  This move to expand their neighbourhood work was prompted by learning that singling out neighbourhoods was unintentionally creating stigma; realigning their efforts to support all neighbourhoods will help to alleviate any stigma attached with neighbourhood development efforts.

A key aspect of the original Neighbourhood Action Strategy was working with neighbourhood Planning Teams on Neighbourhood Action Plans. Through the evaluation the City learned that there was a need to expand the community and neighbourhood engagement efforts to include more groups and individuals to ensure everyone’s voice is included in neighbourhood decisions. They also learned that priorities shift faster than Neighbourhood Action Plans are revisited and have since evolved their model to work on one or two emergent neighbourhood priorities at a time with resident champions.

Evaluation takes courage. By taking the time to stop, listen and change, the City of Hamilton was able to refine and enhance their neighbourhood work. They were able to refocus on their goal of health equity for everyone across the city and in doing so address the unintentional stigma arising from the Neighbourhood Action Strategy. Their process has led to innovations in how they engage neighbourhoods and ensure that their neighbourhood development efforts remain relevant and responsive to changing realities.

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Can Failure Lead us to Impact?


Failure Exam

Last week I engaged in an online conversation with colleagues about failure. There was an online post that asked the question about whether the current culture has a preference for failure over achieving outcomes. Shortly after, I was following a complexity workshop where the panel discussed the importance of failure as a mechanism for learning. There were several tweets about failing forward. 

This series of online posts made me consider the idea of failure in the context of community change for several days now.  Is testing and failing of equal value as getting to impact? To begin to resolve this, I turned to the website Fail Forward.  On this site, the causes of failure are identified as a continuum from moral lapses to experimentation: 

  • Moral lapses
  • Incompetence and ignorance
  • Uncertainty of future events
  • Task challenges
  • Experimentation

Moral lapses, incompetence and ignorance fall into the category of failure which is labelled as blameworthy. While uncertainty, task challenges and experimentation are characterized as failure which is considered praiseworthy. Fail Forward identifies the causes of failure as both losses and gains which impact self, others and the need for recovery time to move forward from the failure. 

As I read this, I remain perplexed about the causes of failure. Lack of knowledge about the future or task challenges and experimentation are not how I would define failure.  In fact, these three ‘causes’ present more as opportunities to lean into ambiguity or the unknown. These causes are less about failure, because as you undertake to resolve these, you may have not failed, yet. 

But what about leaning forward to impact? Do we have to experience failure to achieve impact?  These two themes of praiseworthy failure and achieving impact are not necessarily mutual or mutually exclusive. Where they are connected is in our ability to lean in and learn. To move forward, we need to be observant, to leverage opportunities and to challenge conventional ways of doing things. 

Achieving impact is the promise of community change. It is our intentionality as changemakers, to understand the systems holding problems in place and then working, both individually and collectively, toward shifting elements those systems which will lead to better outcomes for citizens.  This is the potential. 

Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote that “insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. If we failed over and over again, does that mean we would get a different outcome or would we become oriented toward always failing? The experience of prototyping solutions does not always lead to failure. Sometimes prototyping or experimentation leads to success and impact. 

Community changemakers don’t necessarily have to fail to impact community outcomes. But sometimes they do. We must be comfortable with that fact that failure does happen. Perhaps an orientation toward always being curious with a focus on learning and innovation is the sweet spot.  And then, when failure happens, having the bravery to be reflective and move forward. 

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Shifting the System for Collective Impact



In April, we hosted a webinar with Erika Wiebe and Pam Sveinson of the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council (WPRC) to share their experience of applying a systems-change model to collective impact work; specifically, in embedding it within their Indigenous Youth Employment (TRC92) action plan and engaging in employer consortiums.

Community consultations in Winnipeg revealed not a lack of desire or will to be part of the solution in increasing Indigenous youth employment opportunities, but a lack of ‘know how’ to effectively do so, particularly within the private sector. WPRC’s work has helped to bridge the gap through leveraging champions in the business community and providing connections for engagement with organizations and participants in community-based job training programs, approaching it as a relationship-based learning journey.

Working together to address Call to Action #92, the business consortium has a goal of ‘a journey toward truth and reconciliation, incorporating business-to-business learning.’ The action plan incorporates three strategies: raise awareness (about the history, the legacy and issues facing Indigenous youth), promote and support workplace education, and create new conditions for employment; the aim is to provide positive work experience within an informed, inclusive environment.

Though a number of frameworks can be useful to apply to the work, the presenters described how the Six Conditions of Systems Change resonates and that although all six conditions are important, truly transformative change can only happen when we move beyond focus on structural aspects – the policies, program and resource flows - to consider power dynamics, relationships and mental models. It is these latter components that are most powerful at ‘shifting the conditions holding a problem in place.’

Key learnings emerging from WPRC’s work:

  • Changing mental models is possible and can be transformative; challenging underlying assumptions means stakeholders understanding how their own way of thinking and acting may need to change.
  • Relationships set the stage; this includes building meaningful and respectful relationships amongst all actors.
  • Addressing power dynamics requires being thoughtful in processes, helping to build relationships, understanding, and in opening up space for growth and change.
  • The framework allows for identifying gaps in policies, programs and resource flows and conditions for success; this includes inserting an equity lens, ensuring equitable access to opportunities and removal of barriers to participation.

The work in Winnipeg has shown that making the effort to adapt this model can be both worthwhile and impactful when applied to poverty reduction initiatives. An approach that casts a wider lens on systems change can better enable inclusive collective impact.


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Making Change Easy: Lessons from the Prepaid Envelope



Community Innovation is all about change - change at the individual, group, and organizational levels. Whether we’re trying to get a new policy adopted, encourage businesses to contribute more to local community, or create more spaces for community members to meet and play, we are in the business of trying to create positive change in our community. An important part of that process is that people also need to change as well. Politicians need to change policies, business leaders need to decide how best to work with community, and community members need to come out and use the spaces we create. 

Often our approach to these types of changes is to appeal to hearts and minds - convincing people of the need to act and change. How much of your time as a changemaker is focused on telling stories, convincing, and appealing to those you hope to change?

Now, consider the opposite. How many messages to change do you receive in your personal life? How many places are telling you to exercise more, drink less alcohol, eat more fruits and veggies, donate to local charities, contribute to a volunteer organization, and so on? If you don’t do these things, is it because you don’t care about them or believe they’re important?

What if we shifted our focus away from convincing people of the importance of change, and instead worked to make those changes as easy as possible? There is a strong body of evidence in the field of Behavioural Insights that suggests that people’s decisions are far less motivated by belief and preference than we assume, and much more by situation and circumstance. By making change as easy as possible, we might see much greater success than if we tried to convince people of the need to change.

The prepaid envelope is a simple example of someone thinking about how to make change (in this case, responding to a letter) as easy as possible. We don’t have to find a stamp or write down the address ourselves, it’s already done for us. Some direct mail campaigns even go so far as to pre-check the boxes they want you to complete. All you need to do is fill in your information and put it in the mailbox.

If you’re feeling stuck in trying to convince people in the community to change, switching your focus to making those changes as easy as possible might be a helpful way to move forward. Fortunately, behavioural psychologists have been extensively studying what makes things hard or easy for people, and this field of knowledge gives community changemakers a fantastic set of tools to approach encouraging individual change. To learn more, check out Tamarack’s recent paper on Behavioural Insights: Small Changes for Big Impacts.

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change

May 22-23 | Ottawa, ON

Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change is a two-day workshop designed to help you integrate innovation and design techniques with developmental evaluation. By combining both design and evaluation techniques, you'll return to your organization with a diverse toolset that will boost your capacity to drive and evaluate changes to the systems that form the base of complex community challenges. This event will feature a special guest address from evaluation pioneer Michael Quinn Patton.

Equip Yourself for Systems Change

2019 ESC Square

Community Change Festival 

September 30 - October 3 | Vancouver BC

Join changemakers from near and far to deepen your knowledge of the 5 practices needed to move your community change agenda from idea to action to impact. Learn the latest thinking, understand your role as a changemaker, and replenish your toolkit with practical ideas and tools you can use in your own community.

Equip Yourself as a Community Changemaker

2019 CCF Square


Upcoming One Day Events

Respectful Engagement: Strategies for Engaging Equity-Seeking Populations

May 14, 2019 | Guelph, ON

This workshop will provide an opportunity for you to learn more about the theory and practice behind engaging equity-seeking populations in your community, identify the community connections and relationships that are required for effective engagement, and share resources and learnings with each other.

Engage with Equity-Seeking Populations

2019 GRE Banner Thumbnail

Upcoming Webinars

Building Inclusive Communities

Date: May 9, 2019
Guests: Jim Diers
Jim Ders Webinar

Overcoming Power and Privilege in Community Change

Date: May 28, 2019
Guests: George Aye
2019 Webinar Overcoming Power and Privilege in Community Change

Bridging the Gap: Repairing Relationships for Stronger Community Change

Date: June 11, 2019
Guests: Lisa Attygalle and Galen MacLusky
Webinar Bridging the Gap

Applying Principles-Focused Evaluation

Date: June 13, 2019
Guests: Michael Quinn Patton and Mark Cabaj
Webinar Applying Principles-Focused Evaluation

Innovating from the Middle Space of Community Change

Date: June 25, 2019
Guests: Gary Nelson and Liz Weaver
Webinar Innovating from the Middle Space of Community Change