Jenga pieces 5 3 Scaling for Systems Change: Rethinking Planning & Evaluation


One of the most common pathways to systems change is to ‘scale’ a successful small-scale innovation.

The theory is simple. Social innovators develop and test a new model or practice that they think can make a positive difference (e.g., improve grade 3 reading rates, protect wetlands, reduce the racism some people encounter when trying to secure good housing). This is usually (but not always) organized as a pilot project. If the experiment is successful, they then work with funders and early adopters to expand the practice broadly enough that it can ‘change’ a system and generate widespread impact.

In practice, the theory rarely works out that way. Spend a few hours working through the various articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review and you will uncover a variety of reasons that the success rates for scaling efforts are much lower than many social innovators would like. 

One of the reasons is that many social innovators – and the partners, funders and evaluators that support them – operate with a narrow understanding of what is required to grow a successful innovation. Two different teams of seasoned practitioners in British Columbia agree that while the traditional focus on ‘scaling out’ – that is, replicating the model to different contexts and target populations – is critical, it is not enough to be successful (Darcy Riddell & Michele-Lee Moore, Gord Tulloch).  Instead, they argue that efforts to scale out must be complemented with efforts to address four additional dimensions of scaling:

  • Scaling up – changing policies, regulations, rules and systemic practices to support the growth and operation of the innovation;
  • Scaling deep – shifting values, beliefs and paradigms (aka ‘hearts and minds') in society to embrace the innovation;
  • Scaling scree – the creation of additional, sometimes complementary, innovations that seek to address the same challenge as the original innovation; and, 
  • Scaling conditions or infrastructure – creating the financial, technical, network supports required to support conditions for scaling.

These simple ideas provide social changemakers with a more comprehensive lens with which to think about, plan and manage their work. They also require evaluators to widen their own gaze on what activities, results and learning should be tracked when providing social innovators with feedback on their efforts. The just released resource, Evaluating Efforts to Scale Social Innovation, provides a preliminary peek about what that might look like, find the link below to learn more.

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VivoGetting to Impact the Observational Way


A few years ago, I read a book called Trying Hard is Not Good Enough by Mark Friedman. The book talks about how initiatives can be complicated and complex, and therefore this makes it hard to reduce evaluating these initiatives to a set of numbers and equations. Mark suggests that we need to talk about the story behind the data. Look at the stories, anecdotes and accomplishments that explain what the data is saying.   

Last spring, I was introduced to Vivo’s evaluation strategy and learned how they use systematic observation to inform their data.  Vivo is a charity on a mission to raise healthier generations in Calgary and beyond. Their roots are in north-central Calgary where they create local, evidence-based solutions to help individuals be healthier and more active at home, school, work and play.

One of Vivo’s core values is Impact. This means they focus on the things that matter. How do we know that what we’re doing is achieving the difference we want to make? Vivo has explored many different tools for evaluation. One that they keep coming back to is systematic observation. Vivo keeps using this method because it is validated, rigorous, customizable and simple enough that anyone in the community can become a part of the research team.

Systematic observation has allowed Vivo to gather information about who is using the play spaces in and around their neighbourhoods. They collect data on the level of physical activity, the type of social interactions, the time of day parks are most popular, the gender balance, what kind of play is happening and the age of participants by category (child, teenager, adult etc.). They compile thousands of data points to identify trends and make recommendations about optimal and underutilization.

The Vivo Case Study explains their four-step process and shares lessons that they have learned through implementing it. This Case Study demonstrates that evaluation does not always have to be complex and that systematic observation can be a simple and easy way to evaluate the ‘why’ and not settling for just the ‘what’.  

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hands with heart shape painted on-065158-editedLetting Communities Guide Change


What does it truly mean to be guided by community?

Last month I was lucky enough to speak with Diane Roussin, Director of the Winnipeg Boldness project. Diane shared stories of the work that the Winnipeg Boldness project is doing in the Point Douglas neighbourhood: how they gathered and shared community wisdom, how they have been working with residents and leaders to effect the changes that they feel are important, and how people across Point Douglas have guided their efforts at every step. There was so much to learn in what Diane shared, but two key points stood out to me for anyone interested in working with communities for change:

1. Work with people as whole human beings

Our systems often focus on individual and community deficits – focusing on issues of poverty, violence, lack of health, and so on. Starting from this place positions communities as somehow in need of ‘fixing,’ and can often get in the way of seeing the assets: the knowledge, connections, and vibrancy, that communities have. The Winnipeg Boldness Project’s example encourages us to start from a very different place: that all people are whole, and that it is the broken systems around them that create the poor outcomes that we see. Starting from this place, it then becomes most important to learn from the people affected by these systems, learn how they believe positive change should come about, and to be guided by them for change.

2. Think inside the circle

In the pursuit of community change, we often ask ourselves to ‘think outside the box’ – to generate new ideas and new ways of thinking that can lead to change. The Winnipeg Boldness project also focuses on ‘thinking inside the circle,’ on being guided by the indigenous wisdom held by community members. Instead of discounting old ways of knowing and doing, the project is focused on reconnecting with the deep experience and wisdom from past generations. Might we all challenge ourselves to acknowledge the wisdom held by our communities and be guided by it, rather than seek to disrupt it?

These are simple starting points, but they challenge many of our current ways of working with communities. How would things be different if we valued the perspectives of our communities this deeply, and what do we need to change in our own work to move towards this possibility?

If you would like to learn more about this unique, community-led initiative that is guided by indigenous wisdom, check out the links below.    

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New WestminsterHow Municipalities Can Support Affordable Housing Solutions


Housing affordability has become a critical issue across Canada, in cities such as New Westminster which is located in Metro Vancouver. New Westminster is home to 11,000 low-income individuals some of which are children and seniors. The high housing costs in the City relative to income and low vacancy rates are some of the reasons why many residents struggle to secure and maintain housing.

New Westminster is committed to developing and maintaining safe, affordable housing, which it sees as “fundamental to physical, economic and social well-being.” It is committed to supporting residents through various policies and programs such as the:

  • Family Friendly Housing Policy
  • Homelessness Action Strategy
  • Renovictions Action Plan
  • Secured Market Rental Housing Policy
  • Secondary Suites Program
  • Laneway and Carriage Houses

The City has also offered innovative solutions to housing such as its Rent Bank Program.

The New Westminster Rent Bank program supports city residents facing short-term financial situations. It does this by providing eligible low-income renters facing eviction or disconnection of essential utilities with low-fee, short-term loans. Its target demographic is low-income residents aged 19 or older at risk of eviction as a result of a temporary shortage of funds and provides referrals to community services and financial literacy programs. As of June 30, 2018, the City had processed 29 loans under this program.

These programs and policies are some of the ways the City of New Westminster is working to prevent the incidence of homelessness in their community.

A new Case Study on New Westminster highlights how the City’s award-winning initiatives and innovative solutions support residents getting housing. The Case Study provides concrete examples of how municipalities can support and provide affordable housing solutions.

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People walking orange background-604000-editedFitting our Framework to our Place


Describing, the key principles that drive community-led development (CLD) in Aotearoa New Zealand has been an ongoing focus for Inspiring Communities.

Given all communities are unique, we determined there wasn’t one model, rather a key set of principles underpinning change efforts: 

  • Grow from local visions
  • Build from strengths
  • Work with diverse people and sectors
  • Grow collaborative leadership
  • Learn by doing 

In Aotearoa New Zealand the Treaty of Waitangi ensures the world views of Māori shape relationships and outcomes in local communities. Māori tikanga (values and practices) is also a strong influence. With that in mind we recently worked to better reflect both the Treaty and tikanga in our framing of both CLD and the core practice principles.

To do this, we took advice from people we trusted; Māori and Pākehā (non- Māori). We learned that there are many synergies between community-led and Māori-led development and no single right way.

So rather than develop a separate Treaty/Māori specific principle, we integrated a Te Ao Māori (Māori world) lens within the CLD framework. Similarly, rather than adopt the usual direct translation approach, we instead linked each CLD principle with an aligned whakataukī (Māori proverb).  For example:

Build from strengths call out box

Recognising that there wasn’t an equivalent term for CLD in the Māori language, we worked with a specialist linguist and Te Reo Māori language speakers to create a new term for CLD in Māori – Te Whakawhanake ā-Hapori.

The ultimate test will be how this revised framework, is used by local communities here in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change

November 13-14, 2018
Calgary, AB

This new two-day workshop led by Mark Cabaj and Galen MacLusky will help you build a plan for systems change evaluation that suits your unique context. Explore principles and practices that can guide your work, build your palette of evaluation tools, and learn how a design-based approach can help you bring these elements together to create systems change evaluations that deliver impact.

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One Day Workshop

Prototyping for Community Change

Winnipeg, MB - November 20, 2018 | Guelph, ON - November 30, 2018

In this full-day workshop, Galen MacLusky, Tamarack’s Director of Community Innovation will share how communities and organizations are using the practice of prototyping to advance their work, practical examples of forms of prototyping that suit common challenges, and help participants build plans for how they can start prototyping their ideas.

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Upcoming Webinar

Evaluating Systems Change: A Results-Based Framework

Date: November 20, 2018
Speaker: Mark Cabaj