Blank sheet with writing utensils around it-521135-editedPlanning Systems Change Evaluation


The video System Thinking and Evaluation, by Kylie Hutchinson, is an excellent introduction to evaluating systems change. It describes how an evaluation of a hypothetical initiative to improve nutrition in a community must both ‘zoom in’ to explore the programmatic effects of the effort (e.g., improved health of program participants) and ‘zoom out’ to assess influence and change on factors in the larger systems that affect their individual health (e.g., urban design which affects levels of physical activity, the quality of industrial food production, the culture of portion sizes). The video also reminds us that deep and durable progress on complex issues depends on our ability to reshape the deeper systems that contribute to those problems in the first place.

This creates a challenge for the field of evaluation. In a recent series of Tamarack sponsored workshops to introduce the concept and practices of Principles-Focused Evaluation to participants in four Canadian cities, Michael Quinn Patton reminded everyone that evaluation emerged with a strong focus on ‘zooming in’ on programmatic interventions. The field has not kept pace with the ever increasing focus by social innovators on 'zooming out' to change systems.

Happily, the field of systems evaluation is adapting. In the last decade, evaluators have created or adapted methodologies, principles, and even outcome frameworks for specific types of systems change efforts (e.g., workforce development, childcare, health care).  The American Evaluation Association has a strong community of practice on the topic and the website Better Evaluation has a diverse set of resources on the topic.

One area that is not well developed is the practice of planning systems change evaluations. This includes describing the intervention – or parts of the intervention – to be assessed, nor landing on the users of the assessment, their purpose and questions, and preferences for things like methods, communicating styles, deadlines, and budgets.

Evaluating Systems Change:  A Planning Guide, fills the gap. The Guide was prepared by Meg Hargreaves, one of the most experienced and well known evaluators of systems change initiatives in North America. It reflects her first rate understanding of system theory and evaluation, as well as her skill at making the work of evaluation accessible and practical.

The resource begins with a review of definitions, characteristics and thinking of systems theory, and then provides a series of questions that need to be answered to put together an evaluation of an effort to change a system. These include:

  • System – What are the boundaries, relationships, perspectives of the system we are trying to change?
  • System Intervention – What are the governance arrangements, intended outcomes, and theory of change for this initiative?
  • System Evaluation – Who are the evaluation stakeholders of this initiative, their purposes, and preferred methods?

The answers to these questions provide the material required to develop an evaluation scope of work, which can then guide evaluators in their efforts to develop more specific evaluation designs, metrics, methods, budgets and work plans.

The Guide does not propose specific methods for evaluating systems change. These must be developed on a case by case basis. I have participated in evaluations that have assessed efforts to change energy systems, housing systems, and justice systems, and each has required methods customized to their unique issues and contexts. At the same time, Hargreaves offers a table that includes qualitative and quantitative methods that match the varying types of systems innovators are trying to change, ranging from the simple to the complex. 

This Guide is not the only resource upon which social innovators and evaluators should rely. They will want to complement its general approach to scoping out an assessment with more specific tools and resources that reflect their specific situations.  They may even want to go deeper on some of the questions posed in the Guide: there are, for example, a steady flow of new ways to describe the systems that people may want to change, that continue to emerge.

These qualifications aside, Evaluating Systems Change: A Planning Guide, is still the best all-around resource on the topic for practitioners and must-have an evaluation library.

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Group pictureABCD In-Action: Poverty Reduction in New Brunswick


Last April, Tamarack Institute’s Vibrant Communities hosted the first Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Canada learning event. The workshop brought together world-renowned ABCD trainers and 200 practitioners and residents working with or looking to apply an ABCD approach in their initiatives. Together, we learned that in order to create sustainable positive change, we must shift away from working to and for communities, towards doing more with and by communities – in a way that is not supportive or directive, but enables communities to help themselves; we learned about how communities throughout Canada, the USA and internationally are doing this work; were inspired by new connections between health and local associations; and learned about the simplicity and power behind tools such as Asset Mapping.

Amongst the many highlights of our three days together were the six communities who shared their ABCD in-action story with the group. They were short, inspiring 7-minute narratives describing how their collaboratives have been applying the guiding principles of ABCD to work alongside communities for social change.

The Government of New Brunswick’s Scott MacAfee and Vibrant Communities Charlotte County’s Joy Benson Green were two of the presenters, relating the ABCD approach to their work in poverty reduction at a policy and systems-level and in a local coordination context, respectively.

The Government of New Brunswick, through the Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation (ESIC), holds the legal obligation to reduce income poverty by 25% and deep poverty by 50%, as well as to make significant progress in sustained economic and social inclusion.

To accomplish this, during the strategy’s consultation phase, the community made clear that the initiative must be based in community capacity building and must be driven by everyone – all four sectors must work together in order to overcome poverty.

Adopting local ownership of the strategy, 12 regions (Community Inclusion Networks [CINs]) were identified to define aligned priorities, implement activities, and measure poverty reduction progress in their area. Joy, speaking to the collaborative work in Charlotte County as 1 of the 12 CINs, provided us with a compelling account of unique ideas and assets they are building on in two of their communities. St. Stephen is growing their local economy by fostering more entrepreneurship and support for local businesses through a free Business Bootcamp mentorship program; and Milltown is improving grade school literacy and numeracy outcomes through fun summer camp activities and are moving to a holistic education model that incorporates parents and the entire community in a child’s education.

You can now read about New Brunswick’s ABCD story in rich detail. Their Case Study highlights how the province was intentional at each step about employing an asset-based approach rather than the more predominant deficit model to the poverty reduction initiative. It explains their process, vision, and breaks down the eight ABCD touchstones that helped them work with and by communities as they put their strategy into action.

You will also learn about how ABCD has been a particularly fitting approach in Charlotte County’s rural context; how Vibrant Communities Charlotte County has positioned themselves to take the community’s lead; read amazing stories of impact – fostering volunteerism and inclusion, increasing literacy rates through fun activities and developing a whole-systems approach to education; as well as notable challenges and lessons for ABCD practitioners.

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Public street gathering-907455-editedHow the Lens of Movement Building Can Strengthen Community Engagement


A common thread throughout my career has been a focus on building support and commitment for change on a variety of social issues.  I have learned that effective engagement rarely happens by accident.  More often, it results from deliberate strategies that include: making a clear and compelling case for change; continually communicating core messages through different channels to reach several audiences; and, offering simple ways for people to take action to show their support.  Occasionally, something magical would happen and our engagement campaigns sparked a groundswell of support that ignited passion and gave our campaign a life of its own.  Somehow we had done more than implement an effective engagement strategy, we had sparked a movement. 

I’ve been reflecting on these magical moments a lot lately, in order to uncover specific ways to more intentionally and effectively create engagement strategies that create movements that mobilize a groundswell of people to commit to making community change happen.

Thinking and Acting Like a Movement

The first of six patterns identified by Al Etmanski in his book, Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation, is to “Think and Act Like a Movement.”  Al writes that movements are able to change culture by changing paradigms.  He says that movements have impact because they, “shift boundaries of what is socially acceptable and expected. They provide a climate for new ideas.  Institutional change cannot happen without movements.”  Al concludes that, to think and act like a movement, people to do three things:

  1. Acknowledge the movements we are part of since community change never unfolds in a vacuum;
  2. Choose which parts of a movement’s vision we are capable of being part of and which are best left to others; and,
  3. Make contributions to the movement no matter how small and insignificant they seem to be because all movements, no matter how visionary, are the result of thousands of small actions.

Movement Building in a Networked World

In today’s highly interconnected world, the dominant culture has become one with an eroding sense of organizational loyalty; a decline in trust in institutions of all kinds; and, a growing desire for individuals to choose, customize and co-create.  The social issues confronting us are more complex and the funding available to address them is shrinking.  The modern paradox this creates for community-builders and social change agents is that, while it has never been easier to mobilize support around ideas, the complexity of the issues, combined with a scarcity of funding and shrinking public attention spans, has made the work of mobilizing for lasting systems change more difficult than ever.

In 2016, NetChange Consulting published a research report, entitled the Networked Change Report, that identifies a new form of movement-building which generates significant impact in terms of policy and attitude change with relatively few resources.  They called this new type of movement: Directed-Network Campaigns.  The Directed-Network Campaign approach has the following four principles: 

  1. Open to Grassroots Power – The campaign gives its members an active role in shaping its direction and greater ability to customize their participation. By listening to and inviting input, the campaign offers supporters more opportunities for leadership and management.  This approach increases enthusiasm and commitment to the campaign and often benefits from key insights and member-generated innovations.  By making member support visible to supporters, this approach also sustains campaign support over time. 
  1. Leverage Cross-Movement Network Hubs – The campaign connects itself to a wide range of networks. Rather than trying to “own” an issue, attention is focused on creating resonance with allied groups and providing ways for them to collectively focus their power simultaneously.  This requires the ability to respect different view points and strategies in order to identify common interests and mutually beneficial exchanges.
  1. Frame a Compelling Cause – Key ingredients to building a compelling cause include: great storytelling; a simple and believable rationale for why audiences should care about the issue; the illustration of a path to victory; and the identification of clear roles members can play.
  1. Run with Focus and Discipline – Network-Directed Campaigns are disciplined in tracking progress; prototyping key messages and deployment strategies; and, discipline so that the network’s power is deployed when clear “winnable moments” are identified. This enables Directed-Network Campaigns to conserve their resources for the long-term work required to achieve systems change.

Embracing a lens of movement-building and knowing how to strategically leverage the power of today’s networked world are clearly capabilities that community changemakers need to cultivate in order to enhance the effectiveness of their community engagement efforts.

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Man wearing love your neighbour hat-964767-editedWelcoming the Stranger


In the next 25 years, if things go as planned, Canada will accept some 7.5 million immigrants and will receive nearly 1.5 million refugees. But, how many of us think things will go as planned in the next 25 years?

Today, there are 65 million displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations. They are nearly twice the population of Canada and this is the greatest number of displaced people on record. Of these displaced people, 22 million are refugees and 10 million are stateless. However, this does not explain the whole problem. It is estimated that the effects of global warming will significantly increase the number of climate refugees and accelerate migration.

What will the world ask of Canada under these conditions? How might we get ready as a country? How might our cities and communities prepare?

Some cities may build virtual walls and fight against immigration. But, alternatively, visionary cities will elect leaders that will find ways to welcome the stranger. They will create conditions of social inclusion through open government, dialogue and deepening community. Visionary cities will also understand that accepting the stranger involves focusing on the well-being of all citizens. Creating conditions that are good for residents which in turn will make their community welcoming to the stranger. I am observing two trends embraced by Canadian cities and visionary communities, and I have made advancing these trends my life's work - eradicating poverty and deepening community. 

The first trend - cities and communities, of all sizes uniting to tackle poverty by developing a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. Mayor Don Iveson and Edmonton City Council, for example, mobilized their city to develop End Poverty Edmonton. They gathered leaders from all sectors including Indigenous leaders and people with lived experience of poverty. They built a vision, stayed committed to the vision, and launched a common agenda for change. 

The second trend - communities are working to tackle social isolation, loneliness, and in turn the disengagement of citizens. More than 37 cities in Canada have developed or are developing comprehensive neighbourhood strategies. The City of Kitchener, for example, has developed a strategy best described in their hashtag "love my hood," which was developed by reaching out to neighbours to gather ideas and then mobilize a common agenda for change.

In the next 25 years, migration will become a new reality and the idea of borders will be challenged. We do not have too much time to work collaboratively and proactively to significantly reduce poverty and deepen community. Our communities are hungry for change, let’s teach them how to create the conditions for inclusion.

This is a summary of a larger article written as a presentation at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities National Conference.

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Using Collective Impact to Bring Community ChangeUsing Collective Impact to Bring Community Change


Bridging the Community Engagement and Collective Impact divide created an unlikely partnership between Norman Walzer, Senior Research Scholar in the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University and myself.  We met at a 2011 Community Development Society conference which began a collaborative effort that has moved in many directions.  

At the same time, John Kania and Mark Kramer published their seminal article about Collective Impact which has transformed how communities are tackling complex and sometimes intractable issues.  Over the next several years, Norm and I began to collaborate on a series of publications seeking to advance the field of Collective Impact practice. 

This collaboration included a special edition publication on Collective Impact by the Community Development Society Journal which included a variety of articles exploring the nexus of community development and Collective Impact.  That special edition was later published as a book by Taylor and Francis.

Our most recent collaboration was as co-editors on the book: Using Collective Impact to Bring Community Change.  This publication includes ten chapters by a variety of authors exploring different perspectives about community change and Collective Impact.  The chapters focus on how the Collective Impact approach is being adapted to unique collaborative and systems change efforts.  In addition to the theoretical construct of Collective Impact, the authors discuss implementation factors such as network agreements; backbone structures and using systems tools to advance community change work. 

This book contributes to the growing body of academic and popular literature about Collective Impact and community change.  For practitioners, the authors provide concrete examples of their Collective Impact efforts in a variety of diverse settings and at different scales.  Using Collective Impact to Bring Community Change is a useful resource to deepen your understanding of the nexus between community and deep and durable change. 

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Community Change Festival

October 1-4, 2018 (One month away!)
Toronto, ON

The Community Change Festival will bring together over 250 community changemakers to celebrate and build capacity around five interconnected practices vital to making real impact on complex challenges – Collective Impact, Community Engagement, Collaborative Leadership, Community Innovation, and Evaluating Impact.

Through immersive city learning experiences, tool sessions, impact accelerators, community provocateurs, art showcases and more, this three and a half day gathering will provide you with the skills and connections to move from ideas, to practice, to impact.

Don't miss out - Register Here!

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Cities Innovating to Reduce Poverty

September 18-19, 2018 (Two weeks away!)
Mississauga, ON

We are at a unique moment in history in which Cities, Provinces and our Federal government are all converging with independent, and yet interrelated, poverty reduction strategies. This gathering seeks to harness this distinctive synergy and facilitate learning and dialogue toward innovative solutions. 

Join us to hear from fabulous speakers, participate in experiential city tours, and work together through interactive workshops with peers from across the eastern regions of Canada. Together, we will celebrate our successes and will co-generate impactful solutions to eliminating poverty nationwide.

Learn more and Register

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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 Workshops

Turf, Trust & Collaboration: Practical Tools for Building Trust

Ottawa, ON - September 17, 2018
Moncton, NB - October 10, 2018
Halifax, NS - October 11, 2018

This interactive workshop focuses on the core leadership competency of trust building, and will equip you with ideas, tools and approaches to effectively engage diverse community partners and intentionally build trusting relationships and collaborative impact. 

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Deepening Community for Collective Impact

Sarnia, ON - September 27, 2018

Learn how to engage and deepen your community in order to build a common agenda for large-scale change. Paul Born will share not only the fundamental principles of Collective Impact, he will provide key insights as one of North America’s top Community Engagement leaders on how Deepening Community can sustain us as leaders and produce the outcomes we so desire.

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Human-Centred Design for Community Change

Winnipeg, MB - October 23, 2018 | Guelph, ON - October 26, 2018

Human-Centred Design and Design Thinking are rapidly rising as tools for innovation across the public, private, and voluntary sector. How can community changemakers use these exciting approaches to strengthen and deepen their work?

In this full-day, interactive, and engaging workshop, engage with the latest theory behind these methods, practical ways to put theory into practice, and get hands-on experience with some of the most helpful tools that these approaches offer.

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Prototyping for Community Change

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

How can you build buy-in for a vision for community change, help a stalled effort get un-stuck, and test ideas before making costly investments in new programs and services? The intentional practice of prototyping is a core part of effective community change.

In this full-day, interactive and engaging 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 Webinars

Can’t make it? Don’t fret.
By registering for a webinar you will receive a recording of the live session along with related resources.
Planning an Evaluation of Systems Change
Speakers: Meg Hargreaves and Mark Cabaj
Date: September 11, 2018 | 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm ET


Creating Abundant Community in Neighbourhoods
Speaker: Peter Block
Date: September 25, 2018 | 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm ET