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Earlier this month I participated in a workshop on collaboration at a gathering of several hundred grantmakers, hosted by Philanthropy Northwest. During the session, Collaborative Exchange, I presented on Graduation Matters Montana, a public-private initiative that resulted in record-breaking high school graduation rates.

As I was preparing for the session, I was reminded of a Tamarack Institute talk in which Liz Weaver and Mark Cabaj described what effective change efforts have in common. There are three things, they posited: (1) a framework; (2) principles; and (3) practices. How, I wondered, could I describe our work raising graduation rates, based on Weaver and Cabaj’s insights?

At its best, a good framework provides both a roadmap and common language for a team to navigate change. Many people are familiar with the plan-do-check-adjust framework, popular in the field of continuous improvement, or a SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) framework commonly used in strategic planning. One of the great advances of collective impact has been to give coalitions and collaborations the elegance of the five conditions framework.

The Graduation Matters Montana (GMM) framework is team-data-practices-communicate. GMM communities form a team of students, school staff, Main Street businesses and community organizations who then, together, look at qualitative and quantitative data to understand strengths and gaps. The team reflects on practices to build on, and what more can be done.  Throughout the process, the GMM team communicates an aspirational message of change, engagement, and celebration of progress. 

Principles – A framework can only get you so far, as many of us know from bleak strategic planning efforts where the SWOT analysis doesn’t lead to helpful prioritization or work planning. Having principles guide the way in which one interprets the framework – from who should be involved to how decisions are made to how a team strives to work together – is key.

Three core GMM principles are student voice, local ownership, and empathy and compassion. Student voice – or, as many say, engaging people with “lived experience” – is often the game-changer for a GMM team. Real progress takes hold when adults invite students to help identify what is and is not working to keep kids in school.

The principle of local ownership recognizes that change doesn’t happen unless the local community is invested in the strategies they employ. The GMM tagline is “Locally designed, locally implemented, based on what works in Montana.” GMM isn’t a top-down initiative – it counts on local communities to own their change work.

A third GMM principle is to bring empathy and compassion to the effort. Change work is hard. We make mistakes, and there are no “silver bullets”. By bringing in the principles of empathy and compassion, we invite GMM teams to be curious and open to new ways of thinking and doing, to learn from missteps and to be forgiving of one another. As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Practices – Many of us know the frustration of getting excited about a new framework only to feel flat footed about how to actually implement it. I often train and coach communities on collective impact.  It’s one thing to train a group on the five conditions of collective impact; it’s a whole other thing to actually try to wrest a shared agenda from a team full of competing, urgent interests. It’s one thing to agree to engage in high-impact, mutually reinforcing activities, it’s another thing to figure out which activities to pursue.

Having practices that help move a team along a framework is key. In GMM, our practices included hosting a semi-annual statewide Student Advisory Board, which puts into action the principle of student voice. We structured mini-grants to communities to allow local teams to self-define activities, embodying the principle of local ownership. We designed an annual GMM Summit to ensure local practitioners were able to learn from one another, to share what was working and – as importantly – what wasn’t working. In that way, we encouraged teams to be empathetic and compassionate with one another.

In any collaborative endeavor – such as collective impact, community organizing or organizational development – articulating an operational framework, co-creating principles and ensuring that practices are aligned are critical aspects of bringing the work to impact.

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why are we here 5 3.jpgWhy Are We Here?


Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work. It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is with us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves.

Of course, it is a fitting question when we are contemplating a collective aspiration or vision. It’s a question that is also about right now. Why are we here, right now? What do we understand about the moment we are in? Have we made the time to connect with those around the table so that we can know them beyond their titles and their organizational roles and authorities?

As is true for all compelling questions, they produce additional questions. If we prefer a jargony label, one could call it a prime example of generative inquiry, but that’s just a fancy term for the fact that good questions lead to more good questions. That’s easy to understand.

When groups are stuck or, worse, when their members are at odds with one another, this question has the potential to be a game-changer, if people are willing to abandon their positions and certainties and turn together to answer the question. The question is not asking for an argument, but rather implies a need to understand ourselves and one another and, as much as possible, those we represent.

This can be where groups go wrong: failing to devote sufficient time and energy to connecting with one another as human beings, not just professionals with organizational ties and confinements. Getting to the human part of the question is important because our humanity cannot be governed by an organization, but we can and I daresay we should try our best to share who we are as we talk about why we are here.

It’s hard to do. And it takes a lot of trust, which also requires time to form and nurture. Trust is an exchange between human beings, not professionals. Either you trust the person or you don’t. There is no such thing as half-trust. Lack of trust leads to blaming and closing doors. It causes us to deflect ourselves from grappling with what matters most and devote our waning energy to process details, rules of order, and snipes – sometimes to such a degree that the only common agenda is the group’s dedication to its own dysfunction.

Those of you who know me understand my sensitivity to addressing capacity when setting strategy. Our tendency is to take on more than we can effectively handle – or should I say, “juggle?” That said, when groups do not understand and embrace why they are here it can result in the claim that “we lack the capacity” to do this stuff. “We have to do this off the corners of our desks.”

It is true that capacity considerations must have a strong presence in strategy development and even more so when forming implementation plans. But in my many years of consulting with leaders and community change practitioners I can’t recall a group that understood why it was “here” and why each individual was, too, ever stopping itself from doing anything because of a lack of capacity.

The purpose of factoring in capacity challenges is not to identify what will defeat us, but to first recognize and then do something about the capacities required to move forward on the shared aspiration.

After all, we will never bring about significant community change if all we do is articulate all the reasons we can’t make the changes we say we want to make.  Why are we here?  Our answers are worth knowing.

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Innovation Through Experimentation


The concept of innovation, especially the idea of social innovation, is one that both intrigues my sense of professional adventurism and ignites an excitement for progress. Throughout the Community Change Institute (CCI) this reoccurring theme of creation, development and strategy has underlined all of the workshops and toolbox sessions that have been presented as forums for learning. 

To me, innovation is very infrequently imagined within a solitary space. It is a culmination of scattered brainstorming, pinpointed identification of barriers and building block action planning. Without multiple perspectives, it is difficult to solve a problem and this truth is significantly multiplied when you are speaking about complex social challenges. 

One concept that filled my mind with the most gleeful feelings of newness and creativity was that of prototyping and experimentation around community programs. This tactic of nimbly assembling an activity, a process, or an approach, testing it, shaking it up, making adjustments and then going around again is not something that I have ever seen in the non-profit sector where I am.

This reimagining of tiny pilots that take little time, money and infrastructure to implement and then immediately obtain results to determine next steps, presents an adaptive way of tackling the possible into the doable into the adjustable with minor investment.

How can we, as champions for change in our organizations, in our network and our greater communities, use this simple yet instantaneous method to address the complicated lives that people lead? Well, it is not about reducing or explaining away the complex and interwoven nature of the problems we aim to support, but instead looking at them through the lens of exploration.

By taking a step back and focusing on how the techniques that we apply, the people that we collaborate with and the means that we use to make impact head on all influence where we end up. Taking little, calculated risks, bringing people together to play around with an idea or issue and applying our big solutions in quick succession in small spaces can be a great guide in how we reach for the next big answer and pose the inevitable big questions that arise.

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Multi-Sector Collaboration is Key to Community SustainAbility


The Fresh Outlook Foundation’s (FOF) passion is inspiring community conversations for sustainable change, with the key word being ‘community.’ To that end, FOF creates opportunities for those conversations to unfold at events such as its flagship Building SustainABLE Communities conference.

Communities evolve more sustainably when people from government, business, and the academic and non-profit sectors work with citizens to craft solutions that reflect the best insights, ideas, passions, and personalities of each group.

What does each sector bring to the table?

  • Government – With its mandate to ensure community health, safety, and resilience, the government sector brings the capacity and funding to help build community vision as well as the plans, policies, enforcement tools, and analytical tactics needed to ensure short- and long-term success. Government also has the ear of the public, given its legislative clout.
  • Business – With its focus on competition, the business sector brings innovative and cost-effective problem-solving to the table. It also has strong connections to the buying public, which can help foster public participation and prompt behaviour change.
  • Academia – With a strong focus on innovation, the academic sector contributes leading-edge thinking that informs and inspires community conversations. Post-secondary institutions have faculty, staff, and/or students who work on specific topics, making their participation particularly useful.
  • Non-Profits – This sector, along with community groups, brings targeted attention to specific issues, passion for sustainable change, and potential for volunteer participation. These groups can easily trigger collective interest throughout their networks that builds awareness and fosters behaviour change.
  • Citizens – Citizens provide funding for change processes through taxation. Ideally, they also share their insights and ideas during community planning processes. They can also build awareness and prompt the widespread behaviour change that’s needed to ensure sustainable change.

These collaborations expedite positive change by fast-tracking brainstorming processes, strengthening relationships, expanding networks, and preventing the duplication of invaluable human and financial resources.

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Big Changes at Tamarack


Big things are happening here at Tamarack Institute―and we have a big announcement to share―but first we want to give you some context. 

Tamarack was founded in 2002 and has grown significantly over the past 15 years. Today:

  • We convene 57 member cities reducing poverty who represent the local interests of more than 175 municipalities from across North America.
  • We deliver more than 15,000 days of learning to participants annually. We do this by hosting seven national events and a dozen regional events for up to 2,000 learners. In addition, we provide consulting services and work with over 100 cities and organizations that want to strengthen their capacity in our five thought leadership areas of Collective Impact, Community Engagement, Collaborative Leadership, Community Innovation and Evaluating Community Impact. More than 250,000 people access our learning resources online.
  • We convene 35 cities learning together to strengthen their neighbourhoods and will support 25 cities to develop community plans to deepen the sense of community of their citizens over the next five years.
  • Though the majority of our 24,000 registered learners are Canadian we have growing numbers of learners in the United States and from outside North America (most in Australia and New Zealand)

(See our most recent annual report here for a full overview of our work in 2016.)

After 15 years we’ve reached a pivot point. Our mandate holds true and we want to continue to serve communities and cities with the latest in community change thinking in order to build Vibrant Communities. To achieve this, we want to be more focused in how we foster this change and have restructured the organization into two connected yet independent centres lead by Co-CEOs:

Paul Born will direct a re-envisioned Vibrant Communities (VC), which will provide support and leadership to the Cities Reducing Poverty and Cities Deepening Community learning communities. 

Liz Weaver will direct the Tamarack Learning Centre, which advances our five thought leadership areas (Collective impact, Community Engagement, Collaborative Leadership, Community Innovation and Evaluating Community Impact) to build the capacity of changemakers in these core competencies. 

Over the last two months, our team has been working to reorganize Tamarack by shifting roles and designing new processes to increase our overall effectiveness.  Here are four big changes that will take effect for Tamarack members in 2018: 

  1. Cities Reducing Poverty and Cities Deepening Community will operate under the banner of Vibrant Communities – There is an important synergy between these two learning communities: both work in cities, both use similar approaches to learning, the technical skills needed in both learning communities is similar and we want to maximise the potential of our members to change their cities by learning from each other.
  1. Our Learning Center advances the 5 core ideas that we believe are fundamental for community change. We want to deeply focus on each of these ideas to expand and bridge the theory and practice through research, knowledge sharing, training and coaching. The Tamarack network is comprised of leading community change practitioners and by growing the capacity of each of these changemakers we can exponentially influence positive change in their communities. 
  1. A major feature of our restructuring is that it will allow Tamarack team members to spend more of their time working directly with communities. This is important as we have found that when our directors and community animators are more directly engaged with our members, greater synergy, outcomes and focus is achieved. This enables us all to harness our best creative energy.
  1. The restructuring will enable us to leverage the natural alignment in offerings at Tamarack to better serve our members in new and innovative ways. Tamarack is founded on the philosophy that communities are living labs of experimentation and new ideas. We hope to be able to harness and unleash these new ideas through our evolving structure.

We are thrilled to be bringing a new leadership structure to the Tamarack network and hope you are excited by the changes we will be implementing for 2018 as we are.  Over the next few months your input will be sought in a variety of ways, as we work together to understand and make the work of community change easier and more effective. Please reach out to us should you have any questions or feedback that you would like our team to consider as we implement these changes.  Together, we are better. Thank you for your continued support and membership.

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Community Engagement: The Next Generation

November 6-8, 2017
Kitchener, ON

The next generation of community engagement is here! We’ve gone from an age of public consultation to the age of online engagement, and we’re now seeing a powerful blending of the two. Be a part of the resurgence of creative community engagement that is aided by technology and paired with a drive to empower communities through techniques like digital storytelling, participatory budgeting, and the use of a collective impact approach to truly partner with the community.

Join this three-day workshop where we will convene community change practitioners to explore the next generation of community engagement principles and practices. 

Today is the last day to Register.

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Evaluating Community Impact 

November 14-16, 2017
Saskatoon, SK

Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver have received overwhelming praise for the success of this three-day gathering, and now it is back for one last session, but with updated curriculum and a new workshop format that will help you develop concrete elements of an evaluation strategy for your work back in your own community. 

Highlights will include:

  • Three frameworks to organize and communicate the “progress” of community change initiatives
  • Four scenarios for using hard and soft indicators to capture outcomes
  • A new method for demonstrating a group’s contribution – rather than attribution  to outcomes
  • Five aides to improve the chances that social innovators and evaluators develop evaluations that are used
  • A continuum of strategy – ranging from emergent to traditional – and their implications for evaluation

Register Here


One Day Workshops

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Turf, Trust and Collaboration: Practical Tools for Building Trust

Liz Weaver | November 21, 2017 | Regina, SK

This interactive workshop focuses on the core leadership competency of trust building.  Collaborative success requires the engagement and commitment of partners to the common cause.  Lack of trust can take collaborative efforts off track.  But little attention is payed to actions which build trust, create connections and deal with mistrust.  Participants in the workshop will walk away with ideas, tools and approaches to effectively engage diverse community partners and intentionally build trusting relationships and collaborative impact.  Come prepared to share your experiences and insights in how to build trust.

Register Here

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Upside Down Thinking for Collaboration

Mark Holmgren | November 24, 2017 | Cambridge, ON

Join Mark Holmgren for a one day workshop where he will explore how Upside Down Thinking helps us think more clearly about the pressures in our organizations that maintain the status quo. He will show how thinking differently can challenge our most basic assumptions, and how these assumptions can sometimes reinforce the systems we are trying to change. Participants will spend time in dialogue, connecting and sharing their experiences, and will be challenged to consider how they can foster shared and collaborative visions of the future and how to make them come true.

Register Here


Cultivating the Power & Possibility of Citizen Leadership: Creating Caring & Resilient Communities

Sylvia Cheuy | November 27, 2017 | Burlington, ON

Deepening the experience of community in our neighbourhoods and cities is THE opportunity of our time. Learn why and how engaging and reconnecting residents to one another is the foundation of co-creating a positive future amongst citizens, organizations and municipalities. When local connections and relationships are nurtured, the community’s capacity to care for one another – its resilience – is restored.

Explore how hosting conversations between diverse groups builds consensus on community-wide visions, understand the importance of identifying opportunities for shared action, build an inventory of resident skills and assets, and more.

Register Here

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Can’t make it? Don’t fret.
By registering you will also receive a recording of the live session along with related resources.
Measuring Up to Poverty Reduction in Rural B.C
Guests:Nadine Raynolds,Jan Morton, Jill Zacharias and Kerri Wall
Date: November 2, 2017 | 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EDT