Monday, December 22, 2008

So, what do you really do?

During a meeting today with Opportunity International, Lise Struthers (Governors Council Director)shared what she's told people who ask her what her job is. I love her response:
"Everyday I get out of bed and get to connect those who live in chronic poverty with those who live in chronic wealth".


A Preferred Future

Nonprofit guru Peter Brinckerhoff just posted his thoughts on what he hopes the future of nonprofits could hold. Here are a couple from him:

3. I want funders of all kinds (foundations, corporations, government, individuals) to accept the fact that when they fund nonprofits, they purchase services, they don't get to control the nonprofits in ways that don't benefit the mission. This means much less silly micromanagement.

4. I want everyone to be more transparent, both inside and outside their organizations. This means both nonprofits but also the funders.

5. I either want foundations and government to stop worrying about administrative percentages or start living by a 10-12% admin share themselves.

I haven't asked him, but I bet Mark Petersen would agree with these, even as he leads us in this direction through Bridgeway. Their commitment to transparency, like that of the gang at Maclellan in the US is exemplary.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Who's Eyes?

So much of the promotion work done by relief and development charities requires the viewer to get out of our cultural context and imagine life for those living in severe poverty half a world away. Most of us flip channels when Sally Struthers or some other spokesperson pops up in front of a mud hut surrounded by children.

Here's a much more intriguing approach:

I don't know enough about charity:water to endorse their work, but I love their creativity and vision to produce this piece.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Semantics of Partnership

I've always been something of a jargon junkie. When I enter a new subculture I quickly seek to understand and adopt the particular language that marks one as a member. That has also been true in Philanthropy.

The most difficult word to parse has been "Partner" as I blogged about months ago.

In our society the word is used to describe business arrangements, romantic relationships (same sex and straight), friendships, and numerous other aspects of human interaction with varying degrees of formality.

In philanthropy it seems to indicate the relationship between donor and charity, but this can have so many different aspects.

When we identify what we call Strategic Partners for Catalyst we intend that the relationship extend beyond the merely mechanical exchange of finances, but also incorporate something more involved. But it has been difficult to define what that involvement might be.

Here's a draft list of aspects that might become a part of a Strategic Partnership Agreement as we continue forward:
1. Site Visit by Catalyst staff or principals to field work of the organization.
2. Informal Consulting between organization’s leadership and Catalyst
3. Promotion of partner through Catalyst website, blog, newsletter, and other materials, as well as personal advocacy
4. Annual Leadership Event with other Catalyst contacts
5. Catalyst Bonus Awards applications available to reward superior performance by staff
6. Catalyst Mentoring Program made available for a small cohort of staff and/or volunteers at no cost
7. Board Consideration for Catalyst director or principals to join partner’s board of directors
8. Strive/CCCC/Catalyst board development teleseminars could be made available
9. Referrals through the developing Catalyst menu of leadership development opportunities
10. Volunteer Involvement by Catalyst at programs or events
11. Fund Raiser participation/promotion through Catalyst channels

What could you add to the list? Where are the landmines?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Seminars, or is that Seeming Hours??

In the last year I've spent more time in a variety of leadership workshops and training seminars than ever before, including the last two days. I like learning and leadership is a topic for which I have a large appetite. So why is it that in the vast majority of cases I am checking email and facebook frequently after about 2:30pm?

Maybe I'm lazy, but from looking around the rooms I'm far from alone.

Having bored more than a few audiences myself I have a few respectful suggestions:

- "A=C" (Attention equals Contrast) I'll never forget arriving for the first lecture of one of my university courses to find a message on the board inviting us outside to meet under a large apple tree. The buzz among the students was remarkable and the professor worked hard to maintain that variety throughout the term. He also taught this principle. If you want people to be alert, do something they aren't expecting.
Sitting in the same seat all day, looking in the same direction at the same person, doing the same basic talk and powerpoint presentation pretty much guarantees we're going to tune out. The time I spent with Eagle's Flight gave an excellent example of how to do this right.

- "Passion + Perspective" I expect that if you've been given responsibility for presenting you are not only knowledgeable about the subject, but that it is important to you. Show me that what we're talking about matters. However, please remember that while you may make a living speaking and writing about a specific topic, the rest of us don't. It a rare expert who understands that what they offer is a single piece of our lives, not a universal panacea for all the ills in the world. Gary Collins brought refreshing notes of reality to his presentation.

- "Include, don't Quiz" It has become standard practice to invite people to give input or offer insights during the course of a session. Two way communication is a very good thing. But if you really don't want my opinion don't request it. I still see professional trainers who are expert in their field and full of relevant material who ask for participation but are really playing "Guess what I'm thinking", basically just waiting for us to say the magic words that lead into their next point. Frankly, it's a little insulting. In most of the seminars I've been to this year there are people in the seats who have significant experience and expertise to offer. If you aren't going to sincerely draw on that insight, don't pretend.

A couple closing bits:
-In 2009 Catalyst will be hosting our first seminar. It's going to be invitation only so we can focus on what we want to accomplish; and after this post I guess I'm committed to making it a worthwhile day.
-For the most part I prefer seminars to conferences, but I'd much rather grab lunch with the presenter than listen to her for six hours.

What makes a seminar worth recommending to others for you?

Monday, November 24, 2008

There are too many people leading your organization

I am coming to really like Patrick Lencioni's work. I recently read his latest book and am eager to try applying the principles and strategies to my own family. Now, he has again written something quite stimulating in his POV newsletter. (sign up here)

This time he argues that no Executive/leadership team/board, whoever really makes the decisions for the organization should have more than 8 members. Here's why:

Because groups larger than this almost always struggle to effectively use the two kinds of communication that are required of any organization.
Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard, came up with the idea years ago that people need to engage in both ‘advocacy’ and ‘inquiry’ in order to communicate effectively. Advocacy amounts to stating an opinion or an idea, while inquiry is the act of asking questions or seeking clarity about someone else’s opinion or idea. Frankly, one part advocacy and two parts inquiry is a mix I like to see on teams.
However, when there are too many people at the table, inquiry drops off dramatically, mostly because people realize that they’re not going to get many opportunities to speak so they weigh in with their opinion while they have the chance. Like a member of congress or the United Nations, they aren’t going to waste their precious time at the pulpit exploring the merits of a colleague’s proposal. Where is the glory in that?
But when the team is smaller, two things happen. First, trust can be exponentially stronger. That is simply a matter of physics. Second, team members know that they’ll have plenty of time to make their ideas heard, even if they do more inquiry than advocacy. This leads to significantly better and faster decisions. That’s worth repeating. Better AND faster. Those large teams I referred to before often take three times longer to arrive at decisions that prove to be much poorer, often the result of a grope for consensus.

The full article should be posted here soon.

One church in which I was involved approached this challenge by assigning from among their team of elders an Action Team of three members who had full authority and trust from the rest of the team to act when urgency required. This allowed them to be both rapidly responsive and carefully strategic as necessary.

I don't know if I've ever been on a highly effective leadership team, but the times when I've seen teams bog down convince me that what Pat is saying here is probably very accurate.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Most Dangerous Question

Is your organization redundant?
If you were being totally honest and no one else had to hear what you said, could you convince yourself that what you are currently doing couldn't be done as well or better by someone else?

The way you answer this question is pretty revealing. If you can't quickly point to some strategic niche or unique approach there is a good chance that you aren't fulfilling your needed role in the big picture of nonprofit/ministry work.

That's not to say you should delete the website and shut down the office, but you should invest some effort in figuring out what it is that you are uniquely ready, willing, or able to do.

Within ten minutes of my home there are at least fifteen Protestant churches, and to my knowledge none of them are full. In Canada there are at least 3 organizations working to provide specific leadership training to the particular market of Christian women. At any given university there are multiple campus organizations committed to expressing the truth and grace of Jesus. Ontario has dozens of Christian summer camps. There are multiple emerging leader programs, church planting groups, intensive ministry leadership programs, microfinance providers, and granting foundations. Someone has to ask if all of them are truly needed.

Repetition is expensive. When it adds no value it is also wasteful.

Organizations and individuals would serve all of us well by having a very raw consideration of what they uniquely bring to the community and whether they are meeting real needs or just sustaining the incomes or egos of their staff and leaders.

I suspect that in reality there is need for more, not less, in most areas. The needs in our society and around the world are enormous and varied.

What is not needed is mindless mimickry and pointless sameness.

One of the values we hold highly at Catalyst is synergy. On a weekly basis we review how we have been able to bring together separate entities for the betterment of all. It's hard to do that if the separate entities are essentially identical.

A challenge: Ask your organization's leaders to (in five minutes or less) articulate clearly what it is about you that is distinct from other similar organizations and why things would truly be worse if you ceased operations.

The responses to that exercise will tell you more about where you should invest time, money, and energy than almost any strategic consultant.

Unique is the point

Too often we get the impression that leadership is a topic or skill set that can be learned in isolation from other things. I know of more than one "leader" with outstanding credentials who are making significant, obvious, and damaging blunders with stunning frequency.
As we're nearing the end of our pilot project of the Catalyst Leadership Program at Abbey Park High School in Oakville, I am more aware than ever that leadership can't be developed independently from action. There must be a cause, group, or effort you are currently pursuing for their to be meaningful benefit to leadership training. Context is crucial.
That belief may be the distinctive of our program. We begin by trying to help the students identify their own dream, the thing in this world that they are uniquely able to address. Often they find that the seeds of their purpose have been in there lives since childhood.
Only after identifying that dream can they get the real benefit of the rest of the program where we dig into how we can and must develop our Competence, Character, and Context in order to bring about our desired change.
This week I saw some of the students "get it". Somehow a little light went on and they began to see that there are certain things about them that are truly unique, and that it is in those things that their dream should be found. I loved connecting with a few of them after class to explore what that might mean.
When I was in high school one of the classrooms had a poster with a stanza of that famous poem:
Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the road less travelled by
And that has made all the difference

One of my friends thought that was an expression of regret rather than a victory cry. I consider his response tragic.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is Leadership a Cult?

Read this article from Christianity Today.

A few brief observations:
-If Apple can be a religion, leadership can tend towards being a cult.
-That women find leadership particularly difficult is the reason for existence for our friends at Next Level Leadership.
-Servant Leadership certainly has become a relatively meaningless buzzword; but I still believe it can express the best of what makes Christian leadership special
-I absolutely that we have diminished the meaning of leadership. With apologies to those who claim that "leadership is Influence" there is a necessary degree of intent and responsiveness from others before anyone should be called a leader
-It is difficult to pick out the really useful stuff from among the heaps of resources available now. I don't try to read everything but I am eager to hear recommendations from people I respect.
-There is a cynical tone to this piece that I don't much appreciate; as if those who invest themselves in leadership or in developing leaders are somehow abandoning the gospel and following after something "worldly"

But, it is a useful article because it demands that we examine our attitudes; that is well worth the few minutes of reading and few more of reflection.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hiring for Vision

Yesterday I spent time talking with Regan Heffernan, principal of Abbey Park High School in Oakville. I had heard from some of his staff that he was a great person to work for, Abbey Park is a new school with an impressive reputation. Half and hour with Mr. Heffernan explains a big part of why.

When interviewing potential new staff, he sends them the school's Mission, Vision, and Values 12 hours before the interview; then gives them a few minutes to explain why they can advance that agenda. The response is very revealing and they consistently have many times more applicants than opportunities.

Most organizations have taken the time to develop a written expression of their reason for being; but few make the ongoing efforts required to ensure those statements become truly their ethos.

Monday, October 27, 2008

How You Should Feel About Fundraising

Seth Godin again. This time passing on someone else's writing.
I got a nice thank you today from a fundraiser at a great organization in Toronto; which was interesting because we didn't send them any funds. Instead they appreciated that I'd taken an hour recently to talk with them about how Catalyst prefers to be approached and what I'd like to experience when requests are made.
Everyone who gathers resources for a meaningful purpose should read and re-read this post from Seth.
Here's a taste:
How good is your idea? How important is your cause? Important enough that you’ve given up another life to lead this life. You’ve given up another job, another steady paycheck, another bigger paycheck to do this all day long, every day, for years if not for decades, to make a change in the world and to right a wrong.

You Probably Shouldn't Try To Lead

One of the e-newsletters I subscribe to if from Patrick Lencioni. As with his best selling books, these shorter pieces are always insightful.
Here's a quote from the latest:
Whenever I hear someone encourage all young people to become leaders, or better yet, when I hear a young person say glibly that he or she wants to be a leader someday, I feel compelled to ask the question “why?”
If the answer is “because I want to make a difference” or “I want to change the world,” I get a little skeptical and have to ask a follow-up question: “Why and in what way do you want to change the world?” If they struggle to answer that question, I discourage them from becoming a leader.

It's almost sacrilegious in many circles to even suggest that everyone is not a leader. But I totally agree with Lencioni. Selfish leadership is damaging and it is all too common, especially among those who are gifted with enormous talent and charisma but limited wisdom or perspective.
I trust the remainder of the article will soon be posted here. If not, email me and I'll copy the whole text to you.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Scholarship Announcement

Last week I was pleased to be with the first cohort of nonprofit organizations participating in World Vision's FreeFORM program for a jazz cafe in Niagara Falls. In addition to the always great entertainment from Mike Janzen, I had a chance to connect with several people I've met in the last several months through Catalyst.
A highlight was seeing the workspace where 6 Canadian nonprofits were spending three days processing their strategies and developing their futures.
My reason for being there was to announce that Catalyst has reached agreement to support the FreeFORM program with a scholarship fund to assist those groups who are unable to afford the tuition cost. The fund is administered by FreeFORM.
We are very excited to see the outcomes of this extremely well developed new program.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Passion and Profession

My father worked for over 30 years in a steel factory. He worked hard, took courses at night, and eventually moved into a management role. But I'm pretty sure there wasn't a day that he drove to work thinking "Now this is what I truly love to do!"
On the other hand I am part of a generation that often believes we should be able to do something that inspires us, be paid very well to do it, and have no interference from our bosses. It must make previous generations gag.
I have been spoiled (or blessed if you prefer) in that I have been able to have work I believed in and loved for the most part. I haven't maximized my earning potential but I've done fine financially. And my supervisors have been positive (in some cases excellent).
But I haven't forgotten how unusual that it and how grateful I ought to be.
Seth Godin's blog includes a great post about the risks and realities of trying to get paid for doing what you love.
I have a lot of respect for those who have found a way to combine their passion and profession successfully; but no less for those who have deliberately chosen to work to allow them to do what they love in other hours. The key to the whole thing is realistic reflection and deliberate decisions.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Abbey Park Underway

This morning we began our first program of leadership development for high school students. We are with a class of 24 through the business department of Abbey Park High School in Oakville, ON.
It was a good start as we explored the ways in which those things we did as children that we really enjoyed and thought we did well can often lead us to themes or patterns for the rest of our lives. It was encouraging to see many of the class appear to be engaging with the ideas and process.
We'll be together for a total of 7 sessions over the next 8 weeks and each student will ultimately have the opportunity to produce a personal action plan to take steps toward turning their life dreams into reality.
Already a few took the risk of sharing some areas in which they want to do something meaningful; from being in a position to care for their own families as well as they've been cared for, to educating poor children around the world beyond a basic level, to improving recreational facilities in the local community. There was a tangible energy shift in the room when a few people talked about their lives accomplishing something they identified as meaningful.
As part of the session I recommended the book "What's Your Red Rubber Ball" by Kevin Carroll, who also wrote "Rules of the Red Rubber Ball". It was great to be able to leave a copy of the book for the students to dig into.
A couple other highlight moments:
-the look on their faces when instead of saying good morning I opened with a game of Simon Says
-watching some faces light up as they started telling each other their own childhood stories
-seeing an enthusiastic teacher and being able to quickly affirm in front of the class that she has had a lifelong preparation for what she is doing right now
-having one of the students join the accompanying facebook group for the program before I even made it to the parking lot

I'll post more on this as the weeks go by

Friday, September 26, 2008

Microfinance and Me?

As the world of small scale loans to developing world entrepreneurs continues to seek increasingly effective ways to engage new donors and take advantage of the potential of the internet and the decentralized nature of a digital world there continue to be new possibilities opening up.

Thanks to Mark Petersen at Bridgeway I can let you know that the relatively intimate and immediate philanthropy that Kiva has pioneered has now been adopted by my favourite microfinance organization.

Check this out, and opt in.

Well done Opportunity!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Call and Response

Last May, in a hotel room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Fort Lauderdale I was strongly impacted by a pre-release trailer for a movie called "Call and Response".

There is a growing awareness of the ugly reality of human trafficking in our time, particularly the sexual exploitation of children slaves.
Please see and circulate this trailer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Managing Expectations

Years ago I interviewed for a job and during the process I was told the salary was based on the pay grid of school teachers in the region. That was quite appealing, but the actual salary offered was quite a bit less. It seems the salary grid was a basis only in terms of being something they looked at, cut down by 25%, and then modified by several other factors. It was a disappointing aspect of an otherwise very exciting opportunity.

In the years since that event I have encouraged many young adults when they pursue work in nonprofit and ministry roles that the taboo discussion about compensation should be surfaced very early in the process and with frank openness. Not doing that creates the potential for people to invest significant time and energy in a recruiting process that ultimately becomes pointless and frustrating when something so simple as dollars is finally revealed.

One of the causes is a cultural expectation in church circles that is someone is "called" to a role they will trust God to provide for them. To even ask the salary is somehow inappropriate and unspiritual. After all, we don't do this kind of work for the money...

Just once I'd love to hear a candidate turn that around and ask the search committee if they are willing to be the ones to act in faith and place a generous full year's salary in a designated account because they trust God to provide the needed resources.

This does relate to Catalyst. When we are approached by leaders and organizations who are interested in applying for our funding there is some risk that I can give the impression that we are likely to offer support when we really are not. I realize that in our current funding cycle I may have done this inadvertently, simply because our strategies are becoming more apparent as we work through applications.

Today in a conversation with a new contact I was complimented for my honesty when I explained that I thought it unlikely that we would be interested in supporting the projects under discussion. Apparently it isn't common for donors to do this.

It should be.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Out of Office

The Catalyst office will be closed for a couple weeks while we celebrate the arrival of Amy Eden Wignall.
We will be returning messages after September 23rd.

For a couple more pics go to my personal blog

Monday, September 8, 2008

Picking Favourites

We are partway through the process of evaluating our applicants from this funding cycle. It has been a large learning experience. In a few weeks I will post some of what we've learned in the hope of becoming better at it next time around.

One of the challenges at times in our discussions has been in explaining what it is about certain applications that appeals to us. There are obvious factors: people we know, those who have clearly done their homework on us, ones that presented their request effectively, those that are intuitively a fit for our strategy and direction...
But there's also something else, something that I couldn't easily explain around our table but that is more clear to me after reading an excellent article by Andy Crouch this afternoon. I am enthused about supporting and partnering with people who are engaging with our culture in ways that involve creating and cultivating.

I've had Andy's book on my shelf for a couple months at the urging of Mark Petersen, but haven't taken the time to read it yet. That will have to change. In trying to be strategic about the use of the finances at our disposal we need to be thinking about the issues raised here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why Charity Ultimately Fails

The word Catalyst gets used in several nonprofits and ministries. One that I can recommend is the Catalyst conference and all the ancillary elements they've added. I've enjoyed their podcasts for a couple years and am disappointed that I won't be available to accompany a group from our area to Atlanta next month to see it all live. It's definitely on my hit list for 2009.

One of the founders of our foundation sent me this article from the Catalyst website that explains with clear and simple illustrations why we're becoming involved with microfinance in our efforts to support relief and development for the world's poor, rather than traditional charitable efforts. We realize there are times and situations where immediate needs require free donations, but by and large we are more and more convinced that there are better ways to help in the long run.
we also hope that the time we spend researching and understanding options and strategies can help others to begin to explore some of the organizations we're enthusiastic about.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


One of the factors we consider in evaluating grant applications is whether the proposal and the organization are scaleable. By that, I mean is there the possibility for the same system to be repeated either larger or smaller, ultimately serving and reaching more people.
That might simply mean making it possible for Catalyst to fund a portion of the requested funds allowing the organization to pursue their vision to a reduced degree initially; but ideally it means that what is being done can flex and grow with minimal costly restructuring.
This article talks about the realization by an American mega-church pastor that what works in developed urban centres in the Western world isn't scaleable in most places; and the way it has affected him and his organization.

Scaleability is rooted in the development of multiple leaders and simple, effective systems. It usually involves a return to the central historic origins of the vision and the willingness of the power brokers to open their hands and lead through influence rather than control.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Wisdom of the Ages

"To give away money is an easy matter and in any man's power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large, and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man's power nor an easy matter" - Aristotle

With that I have finished preparing the documents for our first serious granting cycle. The learning curve has been steep on this one and I am grateful for the kindness and understanding of our applicants who have been willing to bear with me as I try to sort out how to do this well.

The materials and my recommendations are now in the hands of my employers and we will meet during September to work through the proposals and make decisions. All applicants should expect to hear back from us in some form by September 30th.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ignorant Board Members

I am learning quite a lot about the roles and responsibilities of board members. I'm realizing how very important an effective board can be to the long term work of an organization, and conversely, how crippling a poor board can be.
In evaluating grant applications one of the factors we consider is the effectiveness of the board of directors. In conversations with nonprofit leaders, board issues are often near the top of their frustration lists.
This blog post from the good people at Strive reminds me of the legal responsibly board members hold, that is rarely discussed it seems.
And by the way, why would any nonprofit not have someone designated to regularly blog on their behalf? It's an amazing way to keep your organization and your mission/vision in the minds of your constituency. Not doing so, when it costs only a little time and creativity, seems almost negligent.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fundraising Resource?

I seem to talk to a lot of Executive Directors of nonprofits who claim to enjoy fundraising. Without questioning their integrity, I doubt most of them. I suspect that what they really enjoy is talking about their organization, telling the stories of their team and the people they serve. When it comes to the moment when the actual asking for money part comes along I still suspect they lose a little enthusiasm. That's why there are people who make a better than living as fundraising consultants and trainers.

I just received an invitation to a free local workshop on fundraising from an US based group, Benevon. I can't vouch for them in any way, but I might be interested in checking out the introductory presentation if my schedule allows.

They also have a blog that I'm going to add to my google reader.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Worth Reading

A quick list of websites and blogs that I find helpful:
Strive! is the best organization I've come across for helping boards learn to function in ways that don't drive themselves, staff, volunteers, donors, and clientele to desperate frustration. You should subscribe to their monthly GEMs and buy Jim Brown's book.

Mission Based Management by Peter Brinckerhoff keeps me thinking about how nonprofits can keep their focus in the midst of the daily realities of work.

Seth Godin's blog is updated pretty much daily and offers some innovative ideas about marketing that have the ring of both genius and common sense.

Open Hands is the blog of Mark Petersen from Bridgeway Foundation. Mark has been unfailingly helpful as we're getting Catalyst underway and he knows everybody.

I could give several more but this is a good start. And since it is hard to keep up with all of these I highly recommend Google Reader or some other tool that keeps you aware of updates.

Preparation and Spontaneity

Two contrasting episodes today:
1. Spent an enjoyable with Hugh Brewster of World Vision Canada's Partners to End Child Poverty program and Scott Jones from Micah House reviewing some material from the LEAP workshop that Scott and I attended with Hugh a couple weeks ago. LEAP is an intensive process in developing project designs that is based on a large amount of research and preparation. It is a major undertaking to complete their model, but one that will result in as reliable a design as can ever be hoped for.

2. Read this article from Gordon MacDonald on the importance and value of intuition in leadership. He emphasizes the need for acting with conviction at times even when the apparent reality may conflict with your inner sensitivity.

These represent a tension I feel in every leadership situation in which I find myself. When is it appropriate to invest significant time and effort in working through a carefully developed strategy and when should I take the risk of going with gut instinct?

I like what MacDonald says about developing a stronger sense of intuition. I also like Hugh's emphasis on doing proper diligence. I can think of times in my life when I regret not doing both.

Effective leadership is always a matter of existing within the tensions of each situation and acting with courage in light of the obvious and subtle pressures and risks. Those that get it "right" most often are most effective.

Whether the tensions are between more research/taking opportunity; respecting budget/acting in faith; pursuing the vision/caring for the people; or any of the other variations on the theme; ultimately leaders are often those who are willing to define the issue at hand and decide among the options with a willingness for responsibility.

In the best of situations we are able to do our preparation deeply and then rely on intuition to determine which of the choices to pursue.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Primer on Microfinance

Last week I recommended a book on microfinance. After a really good meeting on Wednesday with Opportunity International - Canada I was sent this article that breaks the idea down into a pretty manageable chunk while also exploring the edges of the approach.
Microfinance is going to be a key piece to our strategy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In the interest of honesty

It only seems fair to acknowledge here that I also have another blog where I post things that relate less to my role here at Catalyst. The curious can feel free to visit: Worth Doing Poorly.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gaining Perspective

Two books are strongly shaping our approach to our philanthropy as we enter our September funding cycle (draft proposals due August 15th):
Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises.
A Billion Bootstraps by Phil Smith and Eric Thurman, who have had ties to Opportunity International.

These two books, combined with the time we've spent getting to know Medical Ministry International, (and is anyone pushing Willie Hunter to write a book?) are giving us a vision for using our resources to bring lasting change to deeply poor communities.

Watch for a major revision to our website very soon that will explain this further.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Philanthropy Monopoly??

This from Fred Smith (who posts a lot of interesting articles on Facebook).
It raises some excellent questions about the role of foundations relative to those we desire to help. Obviously there is bound to be some question about the quality of the work done by the Gates Foundation. Just as there is criticism of Bono's work.
Regardless of scale all philanthropists need to consider how we use our leverage of research and resources wisely.
In one of my former roles, as a youth pastor, I used to tell the parents of the teens I worked with that I expected them to know their own child better than I did (which was true more often than not); but I was generally more knowledgeable about teens in general than most parents were (also usually the case).
The same may be true in this world. Over time I expect to become quite informed about the issues of nonprofits, relief and development, and particularly the role of leaders and leadership in those organizations. But I will never be more aware of the specifics of any of our resources or partners than they are. I need to bear that in mind.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


In my role with Catalyst I am responsible for the distribution of a much larger budget than most people or families will give over decades. In my private life the scale is much more modest. In both cases, I want to make the most impact with the resources I have.
For smaller private donors there is often a belief that the only option is to give a tiny drop into a large bucket where you might have an interest, but little meaningful influence and personal connection. That is no longer the case. Givers of all scales can choose to give to causes that are very intimate.
In many cases this may be through giving to local charities in their own community. there are churches, political groups, neighbourhood associations, schools, libraries, advocacy groups, shelters, food banks, seniors supports, and many more possibilities probably within your postal code.
Beyond that, there are ways to give to needs further afield that are just as specific. North American philanthropy guru Fred Smith (he won't appreciate me referring to him that way), pointed me to a fascinating article about one man's efforts to help with easily manageable donations to individuals with key short term needs. You may want to check out Modest Needs.
If your interests tend to something more international you might appreciate the work of Kiva, a lending organization that allows average people to donate to a specific. pre-approved project for someone in the developing world to start on the path to sustainability.
One of the pleasures of these types of donations is how close we can feel to those who are being helped. Charity no longer needs to be corporate and distant. (And as an aside, some traditional charities are going to struggle if they don't learn to engage donors at this level.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Terms and Transitions

When is leadership development not worthwhile?

I spent some time recently with my old friends at Medeba Adventure Learning Centre. I'll confess that I'm biased in their favour. Several years ago I was part of their second class in the leadership internship program they've developed.
It was great to catch up with some old friends and see how things have changed on the site as well as in the lives of people I respect and care about.
One of the things that stood out most to me was how they are now seeing the results of decisions they made nearly 15 years ago to focus their efforts on developing leaders. Seeing the maturity and quality of summer staff they have now compared to the team of relative inexperienced (but committed and sincere) teenagers I worked with in 1996, showed that it has been worthwhile.
The program I participated in is hardly recognizable. It is 2 months shorter, includes more exotic excursions, involves three times the number of participants, and regularly attracts candidates from other parts of the world. It has evolved from being constantly innovative to more grounded and structured.
The same can be said for many other aspects of Medeba.
This development is predictable and crucial to seeing the program mature, but it is costly. Not only have 14 years of effort been invested by dozens of people, but the founding director of the program has found the increased formality difficult and ultimately has determined that his abilities are no longer suited to staying in the role. Next year's class will be the first under new leadership.

Leadership transitions are hard, they often involve deep emotion, and relationships are almost always strained. All of that is multiplied in smaller organizations, especially if the leaders have remained for a significant period of time.

Leadership development is demanding and it takes a serious commitment to do it well. The results may take years to become fully apparent. It is not a quick fix in desperate times, but Medeba can attest to the value for those willing to pay the price.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Telemarketing and Guilt (not what you think)

A telemarketing call made me feel guilty last night.

About 8:20pm yesterday Kristen was finishing up bedtime with my sons and I was tidying up the kitchen when the phone rang. I grabbed it quick (don't disturb bedtime) and was greeted by a friendly voice who identified herself as from the Cerebral Palsy foundation, calling to see if we had anything to donate for their next local pick up sometime next week. Like most of you, I am generally annoyed by telemarketing, but this was different. For one thing there was no pseudo-survey or other strategy to catch me off guard. The request was brief, specific, and right at the start of the call. The caller was bright and spoke clearly, and seemed sincere in asking for our help, but neither rushed or trying to engage me in unnecessary conversation. And I know that we have given to this cause before (which I believe is why we're on their list). It was actually a pleasant experience and I said "yes" happily, confirmed our address, and hung up the phone.

Then the guilt set in. Not because the caller made any effort to make me feel guilty, but because I suddenly remembered that I am a board member for another organization that also gathers clothing donations, and I rarely think to bring a bag of stuff there.

It got me thinking about how our giving, even to causes we genuinely support, often needs a little prompting. I like having the little envelopes from our church in my drawer to remind me to give weekly. Simple nudges that get my attention briefly are quite appreciated; and a lot more effective than a fridge magnet or coaster that quickly blends into the landscape. It doesn't feel intrusive to be encouraged quickly to do something I sincerely want to do; that's why my laptop and iPhone buzz me when I need to prepare for my next meeting.

I'm curious. What kinds of reminders for giving do you appreciate? What seems intrusive or causes the wrong kind of guilt? How do you remember to do the good you've decided to do?

And, does anyone want me to come b.y and get some gently used clothing to take to my next board meeting to help me overcome my guilt?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Starting Young

I'm very proud of my son's friend Mackenzie. See why.

One of the challenges for many philanthropic families is in seeing the values of generosity extended to succeeding generations. It's not easy to do.

We are inviting the children of our principals to explore the things we are doing now at Catalyst, present us with new possibilities, and participate to the extent of their interest. They are much older than Mackenzie; hopefully they will share her heart.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Real Costs

Why can't the organizations I meet with each week tell me the real cost of their programming?

Time and time again I have conversations in which people who are hoping to receive support from Catalyst explain their desire to offset some of the fees required by their participants, but need to be prompted to explain the difference between those fees and the total cost of providing their services.

This is a problem for several reasons. While it is admirable to minimize the charge for helping people (though discerning the appropriate limits of that will be the subject of several future posts), it is often a path to unnecessary difficulties.

In our contemporary North American culture the value of most things is determined by the amount someone will pay for them. Charging less for a workshop or program than it actually costs to provide practically diminishes the worth. The examples of this are numerous. If we want people to respond to our efforts we are generally better off making them aware of the expense involved in providing them.

Fundraising is one of the most demanding and time consuming aspects of most nonprofits. Time, strategy, and effort invested in this area is exhaustive and frequently exhausting. Failure in this area can spell the untimely end of otherwise outstanding organizations. Dealing in the real costs of our programs is beneficial here.

When approaching possible funders, telling us your program charges (for example) $700/participant gives us that as a benchmark wheen we consider potential grants. If your real cost is $1000/participant you've potentially decreased the scale of your grant by 30%. (Please note: foundations also have operating and administration costs and like you we try to minimize them. We aren't surprised or offended when you acknowledge them as part of your needs).

The more difficult matter when it comes to fundraising is one of scale. Most effective nonprofits are in some way interested in growing. But if we are operating at a deficit for every participant than every bit of expansion creates a larger hole for funding to fill. That may be a legitimate approach, if it is acknowledged properly, but a failure to deal in real costs makes this more challenging.

Determining real costs can be quite simple. Dividing the organization's total operating budget by the total number of participants gives a workable figure.

None of this is to suggest that we must charge participants the full cost of the program. Our suggestion is to openly reference the real cost of providing our services and the amount that is being subsidized (regardless of whether that subsidy is through a direct sponsorship or through the fundraising efforts of the organization). Those who are able to pay the full cost of their program can do so, those requiring assistance can receive it. This is a strategy that may add an additional administrative loop, but may also provide additional funds through increased program funds.

Most importantly, dealing in real costs is simply honest. It allows all the stakeholders (funders, staff, participants, etc.) to know and respond to the full story of our work. There is great value in what we're providing to society, let's not be bashful about it.

Solid Systems

The real measure of an organization's strategy is often not found in the results when they have their best people performing, but when the human resources are below the desired level. Top notch people can overcome the deficiencies of almost any structure. Mediocre people need the advantages of developed approaches to be effective.

You can see this throughout our society. As a former pastor I've seen many churches with below average leaders who are still able to sustain the parishioners; though they ultimately produce little advancement. The same can be true of health care, education, counselling, or many other fields. The most honest professionals in these fields will admit that just following the basic standards and expectations of those served will usually work, even if the practicioner is far from perfect.

Catalyst is passionate about leadership. We are convinced of the importance of having the highest possible performance from those who are most responsible for outcomes. We invest a significant amount of our time and resources in developing leaders towards their potential. We believe that better leaders produce better results.

Our ideal scenario is working with leaders who are involved in organizations that have effective systems that can provide a functional foundation for the work. By investing in the leaders of those organizations we expect to see results that multiply and expand outcomes.

Perils of Collaboration

One of our highest values at Catalyst is synergy. We love to see compatible organizations and people drawn together to multiply their impact.

Our hope is that as we become familiar with various aspects of ministry, relief, and development work we can help to make some of those connections; truly serving as a catalyst to make things happen.

Of course it isn't always that easy. Most organizations have a few stories of failed attempts to work in harmony with others. In many cases best intentions fell apart either because there wasn't enough time taken to carefully define the roles and responsibilities of the partners, or the shared project functionally required one or both groups to move outside of their mandate and strength.

Noticing and suggesting collaborative possibilities is relatively simple. Bringing the parties together is a valuable step. But the real work comes in working to develop synergies that don't diminish the values and purposes of anyone involved. If we can figure out how to do that, we'll really be doing something significant.

Back from the Dominican Republic

Ten days with Medical Ministry International in the Dominican Republic was both enjoyable and informative. Having two days of discussions with Executive Director Willie Hunter and his wife Janice (who is the administrator of their permanent hospital in Santo Domingo) gave me a much stronger understanding of the goals and philosophy that drive the organization. Briefly, I was deeply impressed.

Not only were the Hunter's gracious hosts and generous with their time and home, they were also pleasingly honest and open in our discussions. Willie clearly fits the category of visionary leader. He is thoughtful and articulate, able to share the dream and strategy of MMI in compelling fashion. The Hunter's are largely the ones who have borne responsibility for setting the direction and opening up new ground.

The week we spent with a medical team in the villages around Monte Plata was also valuable. Being able to see the kind of work that provides the core efforts of MMI up close is useful perspective.

I'll be able to share some of my more detailed thoughts with MMI Canada Director, Leanne Graham, in the near future.

A final thought; I am very glad that Catalyst is associated with Medical Ministry International. They are an inspiring organization with a solid model for their work and a dream that is bold and meaningful.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

And Away We Go

I am trying to catch loose ends before I leave for a project with Medical Ministry International in the Dominican Republic tomorrow morning. Point form here we go:

-I am very excited about the time with MMI. They (Leanne Graham in particular) have been amazing in the process of making arrangements for this trip after two previous attempts didn't work out.

-I haven't been in a cross-cultural situation in a while. Hope I can still fake enough Spanish to not offend people too much.

-Catalyst just approved a refined funding strategy for this year (focusing on preparing for granting in September). I am very excited about our approach and look forward to explaining it here and on our website later in July.

-Books I'm taking with me for the Dominican project and a week's vacation afterwards:
Out of Poverty - Paul Polak
Making the Best Of It - John Stackhouse
Wishful thinking - Frederick Buechner
Forgotten ways - Alan Hirsch

-The "What is missional?" synchroblog was an interesting experience that I would probably repeat. Great variety of perspectives, but overall too academic and impersonal from where I sit.

-I'll be out of touch until July 14th. Peace to you.

Monday, June 23, 2008

What Is Missional?

This is my contribution to the synchroblog coordinated by the Blind Beggar. See all the other contributions here.

What is “Missional”?
This is an intriguing thing; this “synchroblog”. A large part of me is very excited to participate and to read what other people have to say about the latest evangelical buzzword. I’m counting on a wide variety of perspectives and insights.

At the same time there is something strangely egocentric about there being 50 of us who have self-selected in the belief that other people could care at all about our unpolished ideas and commentary. There is something rather odd about it…

But anyway; I am a former pastor who now has no regular outlet for my ranting that used to be encapsulated in 28 minutes every Sunday so here goes:

I am simultaneously excited and skeptical about this missional thing. In so many ways it seems to be what’s really missing in the lives of most Christians and congregations I know. It has the potential to be truly meaningful in the community where I live (a middle (upper-middle) class suburb about 45 minutes west of Toronto); and offers perhaps something more than just a needed corrective program to the current expressions of Christian dullness.

But is it really that big of a deal?

I have my suspicions that to some degree this is a “movement” that is, and will be, almost entirely concentrated on clergy and Christian academics; like so many before. I wonder if what we’re supposedly catching as the lead wave of something special is just the book writers and conference speakers finally lifting their collective heads from their holy books just long enough to catch a whiff of the things the laity have known and lived for years; the faith of the pews simply doesn’t really relate to real life.

I may be having a cynical day, but it’s the pastors and professors who face the most change if this thing takes hold. For the vast majority it will remain the ongoing issue of trying to figure out how a 2000 year old book and a God-man who’s been missing for just as long can have any meaning in the carpool, corporate ladder, cable tv, and nod at your neighbor reality we’re immersed in.

Don’t let that sound like I’m disparaging the common Christian. Exactly the opposite! These are the people who have something to say about “missional”. They spend their days a part of the culture and community where the scholars are only now beginning to pay attention.

Most people aren’t concerned with the theologically dangerous issues raised by Newbigin. They (we?) aren’t all that concerned about coming up with a definition that requires the luxury of so much reading and reflecting. And they have little time or use for the antithetical arrogance that seems to so often colour the pronouncements of the experts.

But for the clergy this is monumental.

-What does it mean to a career pastor to “move into the neighbourhood” (thanks St. Eugene!), where our profession actually creates immediate distance and distrust from our neighbours?

-What happens after 5 years in the same congregation when the familiar bag of tricks have been used up and the system says it’s time to move on?

-How do we retain our spiritual leadership roles if we acknowledge that we are very much the amateurs when it comes to actually engaging the culture?

-What good are all our diligently developed skills in a world where authenticity trumps excellence?

-How do we lead churches when we’ve realized that in many cases the parachurch are the ones who really “get it”?

-How can we be evaluated (or evaluate ourselves!) when sincerity counts for more than performance?

-What happens when the theological trump cards lose their power?

It’s a scary world for the experts when the amateurs are out in front.

(Yeah, this is a skewed view and far from balanced or complete. Isn’t that what blogging is all about?)

What is Missional Synchroblog today

Here's the list of participants in the synchroblog on "What is missional?"
I'll post my thoughts later today.

Alan Hirsch
Alan Knox
Andrew Jones
Barb Peters
Bill Kinnon
Brad Brisco
Brad Grinnen
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Bryan Riley
Chad Brooks
Chris Wignall
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Dave DeVries
David Best
David Fitch
David Wierzbicki
Doug Jones
Duncan McFadzean
Erika Haub
Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jeff McQuilkin
John Smulo
Jonathan Brink
JR Rozko
Kathy Escobar
Len Hjalmarson
Makeesha Fisher
Malcolm Lanham
Mark Berry
Mark Petersen
Mark Priddy
Michael Crane
Michael Stewart
Nick Loyd
Patrick Oden
Peggy Brown
Phil Wyman
Richard Pool
Rick Meigs
Rob Robinson
Ron Cole
Scott Marshall
Sonja Andrews
Stephen Shields
Steve Hayes
Tim Thompson
Thom Turner

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On a lighter note...

Recent posts have been fairly earnest. This should remedy that trend.

Re: Evaluation of Non-profits/ministries;

Cartoonist: Ed Koehler, 1984 and Christianity Today International/ Used with permission

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Best. Article. Ever.

There is no doubt that Jesus was and is a leader. However, in our quest to develop leaders we are often guilty of abusing the Biblical accounts of his life, death, and resurrection. My shelf contains several books claiming to draw leadership principles from the life of Jesus that we can all apply to our contexts today.

Stop now and read this article. I'll wait for you to get back.

Jesus was a poor leader by current corporate standards. That wasn't what he tried to accomplish. We can learn a huge amount from his teaching and example that is relevant to us as leaders and as followers, and we should. But when we make him a leadership guru we severely diminish the truth and grace he expresses.

Let us lead well, but never better than we follow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Can you donate people out of poverty?

On The Hour tonight one of the guests is Paul Polak, founder of IDE. He is leading advocate of what some people call Market Driven Development. The basic idea is that traditional charity efforts are doomed in part simply because they are based around giving things to needy people for free.
Polak and others argue that this creates dependency, devalues what is provided, and treats the poor as inherently inferior. On the other hand, charging people for goods and services invites them into an exchange with some degree of mutuality, draws on their own intelligence and ingenuity, and increases the overall quality of both the provision and application of relief.
Obviously this is somewhat controversial. The immediate reaction is something like: "How can you expect people who have nothing to pay for things they need to survive?". What we may not realize is that our reaction itself betrays an attitude and assumption about poverty that may not be fully true. People in the field are discovering that the poor often have great resources in many ways. Effective strategies are being developed that draw on the innovative capacity, diligence, and sense of community that have commonly been ignored or merely romanticized.
IDE, our partners at Medical Ministry International, and some others are finding that there are remarkable benefits to be found in these kinds of innovations.
I am fascinated by this. It has enormous appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit that the Catalyst founders share.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Word of Mouth Realities

At the dentist's office this morning I saw a sign that said something like "The greatest compliment we can receive is you recommending our services to your friends and loved ones". Since the dentist is my brother-in-law I guess I'm included there.

The thing is; most of us involved in nonprofit work (like the for profit sector in most cases as well) are convinced that the most effective and efficient way to expand awareness, participation, and funding of our work is through the personal interactions of people who know and like what we do. When I was a pastor for a start up church congregation I was constantly encouraging our congregants to do just that, and often disappointed when it didn't seem to be happening.

Marketing guru Seth Godin lists several reasons why word of mouth doesn't happen. It sheds some light on some of my past experience and may be useful to consider for many others as well.

Fundraising Insight

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has posted a transcript of an interesting live discussion with marketing guru Seth Godin. It may not be entirely in depth; but I suspect some of the people at organizations we are interacting with would benefit from the quick read through.
A couple interesting insights for me:
-the difficulty of really understanding the difference between advertising (essentially spending money to promote your organization) and marketing (every interaction you have with people who may be or become supporters and clients)
-the need to carefully consider the interests of your intended audience (one size does not fit all)
-the importance of asking permission before sending requests for support in a culture inundated with spam
-the idea of separating annual reports (basically numbers) from other types of promotion (essentially stories) rather than merging them
-the need to try myriad different tools, test their effectiveness, and try myriad more
-having a sense of urgency because the work you are doing is truly important
-turning supporters into marketers by satisfying and equipping them

What have you seen that has been effective in spreading the word about nonprofits? What has flopped? Why?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Key To Happiness

When did you last feel deeply and enthusiastically happy?
Last week's Globe and Mail contained an article by Margaret Wente that expressed some of the latest research findings on happiness. (Yeah, they can get money to study anything these days).
Among the findings she describes if that the easiest life change we can make to increase our happiness is giving away money:
By the end of breakfast, Mr. Brooks has explained why almost everything I believed when I was 20 was entirely wrong. Many of the things I thought would bring me happiness did not, and many things that I despised (e.g., marriage) did. So what now? Alas, I'm not religious. Is there any other way to increase my happiness?

Yes, he tells me. Be philanthropic. People who volunteer or give money to charity are 43 per cent more likely than non-givers to say they are very happy. Conservatives are more charitable than liberals, which is another reason why they're happier. And the more you give, the happier you get.

In other words, money really can buy happiness after all - but only if you give it away.

It reminds me of a great section in Richard Foster's AMAZING book "Celebration of Discipline" where he describes the powerful joy he felt as he rode a bike to the home of someone he was giving it to one Christmas. Releasing our grasp on thinngs is truly liberating.

Now, as someone who's job involves giving away someone else's money how much joy should I be getting??

Friday, May 30, 2008

Two new techy toys

I don't think of myself as an early adopter of technology (I still have a cathode ray television), but recently I've been getting to know two software tools that seem to have a lot of productivity advantages:

Zloop is a web-based networking site that i heard about from Fred Smith at The Gathering. It allows remote users to post not only messages, pics, and videos like facebook; but also to form separate "loops" for projects and to post documents that can be downloaded, edited, and re-uploaded in a more current version. It's less fun and visual than facebook, and probably less intuitive; but for professional purposes it is very appealing.

Jott is something I came across through a distant facebook friend. It allows me to send messages by voice on my cell phone that are transcribed into text and sent to any phone number or email address I have set in advance. Best aspect of this for me is the ability to send a message to my email while I am on the go, especially through my headset while driving. the transcription may not always be perfect, but I can spell proper nouns to improve accuracy as I go and I expect to use it mostly only to communicate with myself though it can handle much beyond that.

Anybody out there want to share their own favourites?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

30 Seconds or Less

I like long conversations, but I hate wasting time. One of the great challenges for nonprofit leaders is to communicate the purpose and value of their organization quickly, clearly, and with strong appeal. It's often called "the elevator speech".
I just finished reading a book that has a bunch of simple, practical helps for effective communication that relates not only to the fundraising pitch but to all kinds of regular human interactions.
"How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less" by Milo Frank is the kind of book I would usually pass by because I've been told many times that I'm a good communicator, but this week I've realised that I've missed some opportunities because I wasn't clear and concise enough. I'm probably not alone in that.
It's not a fancy resource and having it on your shelf won't impress anyone; but if you want to get a response from people, professionally or personally, it's worth the hour or so it takes to read.


Among the many areas in which we are trying to learn as much as we can as fast as we can is the nature of the relationship between Catalyst and the various organizations we support. The common term foundations seem to use is "Partner", which we have also adopted. The intent is that we develop an interactive relationship with these organizations and can offer them more than simply financial resources.
I've tried to reflect my developing understanding of this relationship before (here.
Through another very helpful post from Mark Petersen, whose blog has become essential reading for me, I came across an article by Tom David that challenges a lot of what I want to be true about partnerships.
Basically, Tom argues that their is and always will be a power imbalance between funders and NGOs. Our efforts to minimize that gap are only effective in complicating things.
I very much want to disagree with Tom. I believe it can be possible to work productively and closely with our partners, even serving as a board member in some cases, without being manipulative or exploitative. Still, there is a certain wisdom in maintaining an arms length relationship if we want things to remain crisp and clear. I've seen examples of closer involvement being deeply problematic.
I'd love to hear from some readers on both sides of the funder/NGO relationship on this. How close is too close? What are the advantages and disadvantages of more complex relationships?
One final thought: It seems to me that most charities (esp. churches) receive a bulk of their funding from people who are directly involved in what they are doing. So it must work sometimes...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Theology of Goal Setting

Today our mentoring program is really underway. I had initial goal setting sessions with two of our participants.
Goal setting is really the heart of the individual mentoring sessions. It's a pretty simple process, but extremely valuable. The value comes in setting not only annual goals, but monthly targets toward those goals; and meeting monthly to review progress. Lots of people set personal and/or professional goals, but most of us don't track with them deliberately. The result is that the best of intentions show minimal results. As Louis Gerstner (the leader who turned around IBM) writes repeatedly in his excellent 2002 book Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?; people will do what you inspect not what you expect.
After some time spent on the goal setting worksheet we talked about the theology of goal setting that is rarely mentioned.
I believe there is a sincere but inaccurate belief that when followers of God are given dreams they are certain to be realized. It's a slight variation from the health and wealth prosperity gospel. On the surface it seems right to think that God would ensure that these things work out, but ultimately it isn't true, Biblical, or properly helpful. It feeds into some of our desires for self-satisfaction and pulls us away from the kind of faith and relationship with God we're meant to have.
To understand this further it helps to look at a popular chapter in the New Testament, Hebrews 11.
Church people like this passage because it gives quick summaries of the lives of some major Old Testament heroes, and allows us to imagine ourselves demonstrating similar faith and obedience. That is helpful; but it may be misleading.
A more deliberate look at the passage, (particularly verse 13 if you like shortcuts) shows that these heroes didn't get to accomplish the dreams they were given. Looking further down the text, we read of people who's crowning achievement seems to be being sawed in two because of their faith. I've never heard anyone aspire to that kind of spiritual experience.
To wrap this up, it is a good thing for us to set goals and passionately pursue them. What is problematic is when we start to be more committed to the dreams and goals than we are to the one who we believe gives us those dreams.
There is no promise that we will complete the things we aspire to. Often it is when things don't work out that our character, faith, and authentic connection to Jesus become most real.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Measurement: The great dilemma

A recurring theme in the last few months is the challenge and need for nonprofit and ministry organizations to find a decisive way to self-evaluate. By extension, Catalyst and other grantmakers need criteria to evaluate not only applications but also the outcomes of projects after they receive funding.

There are a few particular difficulties in this:
-Reluctance: Nonprofit leaders are largely involved in matters and issues that are driven by compassion rather than efficiency. Many times they are resistant to the "corporate" emphasis on numerical evaluation. In my years at camps I saw the anger that was prompted when someone from the board asked how many campers had made faith commitments during a particular program. Staff found that offensive and felt it diminished the nature of relationships to something merely transactional and manipulative.
-Ambiguity: Social services and spiritual projects are notoriously difficult to quantify. How do you measure the benefits of a relationship? Rarely is there a single point of emphasis and the people involved may all have different value and priority for the varied outcomes.
-Tools: Cultural change doesn't lend itself to a simple bar graph. There is a shortage of recognizable methods for identifying and communicating the kinds of outputs and outcomes we're interested in supporting.
-Objectivity: Nonprofit workers are almost always passionate about their work. (We wouldn't partner with any that aren't). Their clientele are understandably grateful for the most part for what is being accomplished. It is a lot to ask of either of those groups to provide a relatively unbiased perspective.
-Hope: As may be the case in other fields (but I suspect is exaggerated in these ones), nonprofit and ministry people are optimists. They look for the signs of life in even the most desperate situations. It's a necessary prerequisite of much off what they do, but when applied to evaluation is clearly distorted.
-Narrative: When numbers are hard to generate or interpret we rely on stories. Funding for charities has always been based more on tugging the heart strings than swaying the intellect. The traditional pitch of "a sob story and a slideshow" is deeply entrenched and typically effective. Anyone can come up with at least one compelling account of someone who's life is being bettered from their efforts.

Despite all of these impediments there are efforts being made widely to develop useful and relevant ways of measuring the results of nonprofits. As I wrote about previously, Jim Collins has produced a monograph of Good to Great aimed specifically at the social sector where he argues for the necessity of determining standards of evaluation that are measurable. It is a very live discussion among the professionals I met at the recent PIGS conference as well.

Prior to the start of Catalyst I was involved in starting a new church in our community. We were under the authority and support of the church where I had been staff for several years; and I reported to the leadership there. When after more than a year our new congregation wasn't significantly growing the leadership began to question the wisdom in continuing. Of course I resisted. I could see the sparks of potential and the impact we were having on the few people who were involved. Ultimately the decision was made to close the new church. It was difficult for all involved (new congregation, myself, and the leaders of the larger church), and was made all the more difficult because there was no standard of measure by which to evaluate what was happening.

I admit that I find the process of determining objective measurement criteria for matters of spirituality and social justice to be both daunting and dangerous. Obviously we don't want to reduce the efforts of our partners to spreadsheet entries. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware that with those criteria established and agreed upon there is a freedom to pursue a vision with greater confidence that you have defined your purpose and won't be dissuaded by the inevitable swings of energy and enthusiasm.

I am eager to work with our partners to figure out how to farily and helpfully evaluate their honourable efforts.


I just finished reading Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started. It was written by three young recent university grads who weren't exactly sure what to do with their lives. They decided to contact dozens of prominent Canadians in a wide variety of fields and ask them how they reached their status of significance. It's a very worthwhile, quick, and rich read. T|hey also have a companion website you might want to check out.
Interesting reflections from the book:
-Diversity: The figures in Kickstart don't only represent fields as varied as politics, business, athletics, academia, and the arts; they also have taken widely different paths to their achievements. There is no one way to success.
-Mentors: Almost all of the profiles included recognition of someone (often generally anonymous) who was admired by the subject and who at a key point offered them the encouragement and/or challenge that inspired them.
-Childhood: Almost without exception the people profiled in Kickstart are able to link their ultimate prominence to interests, experiences, and patterns from their childhood years. We are wise to refer to that in our own lives when seeking direction.
-Boldness: Not only are the subjects people of nerve; but the authors took the risk of essentially cold-calling these influential figures and asking for interviews. To their surprise, most of the people they called were please to do so and some went far beyond that in response.

It has been my experience that even prominent people will often make time for someone who approaches them for interaction if the approach is clear, well prepared, and specific in nature.

Kudos to Alexander, Paul, and Andrew for this book and the ancillary projects and events that are springing from it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fail First

Randy Cain is the President and CEO of Pinty's Delicious Foods, a prominent Canadian poultry company. Over lunch yesterday (yes it was chicken) we talked about his understanding of leadership as someone who has been involved in turnarounds in the corporate sector fro several years.
One of the intriguing things he said was that when selecting leaders one of the criteria he considers crucial is a history of failure. Only those who have faced some significant setback (professional or personal) have the kind of humility required to lead effectively at Pinty's.
Interesting to hear that from a successful CEO in a competitive market where the bottom line is the bottom line. We talked about the importance of character and how many of the most effective corporate leaders are never recognized because they model humility and compassion rather than self-promotion. They don't write books, but they are core to the success of their organizations.
In Christian circles a lot of lipservice is paid to servant leadership and to humility as a key to character; but I'm not convinced that there is any correlation between church context and a greater development of these things. I agree with Randy, failure is fundamental. Or perhaps more accurately, responding to failure is crucial both to develop and to reveal the kind of character that allows a leader to submit to themself to the vision at hand and to honour those with and for whom they work.
Not what I was expecting from a hard nosed business guy.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Context as Culture

Lunch today with Darrell Winger, Community Development Pastor at The Meeting House; one of the fastest growing and most intriguing churches in Canada. I blogged about a previous with their Teaching Pastor recently. I wanted to understand more about the uncommon leadership culture they have developed.
Darrell (whose role makes him essentially the bishop of the multi-site church) affirmed that there really is no predominant leader in their inner circle. They truly do function as a mutually submissive team, respecting one another's strengths and roles.
A lot of our conversation was about how they bring in new leaders who have established themselves in a more common hierarchical leadership system. Essentially, it is a matter of introducing them to a new culture, not unlike what happens when we travel internationally. Newcomers have to become familiar with both the formal published systems of The Meeting House, but also the subtle nuances of tone, jargon, and relationship that make up the heart of the way things are around here.
Some newcomers are able to embrace that change, others can't. The challenge is to discern which is which before giving someone a leadership role.
In Catalyst's approach to leadership we talk about these as aspects of Context. Someone may be remarkably skilled (Competence) and have high integrity (Character), but be fundamentally unsuited for a role because they don't, can't, or won't adapt to the particulars of the culture.
Our hope, through our mentoring and high school leadership programs, is that we can help promising leaders sort through where they can fit in most effectively. It is more an art than a science, and as people progress in life their fit may change. It takes insight and sensitivity to help someone with matters of context.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Over my head

I used to be a lifeguard.
Last night I stood with my toes in the ocean after a long day of amazing learning. I've lost track of the number of conversations I've been a part of in the last 40 hours about the world of philanthropy I've just come into. The sheer immensity and variety of the need in the world is so far beyond my comprehension it leaves me staggered. Added to that are the discussions about projects and strategies for trying to address some of those needs at individual, local, regional, national, continental, and even global levels.
Standing on the shoreline I reflected that my lifeguarding experience might make me an above average swimmer, but that ability is pretty much irrelevant compared to the size of the ocean. On my own I'd be lost in minutes.
Among the many things I'm noticing about other participants in this PIGS conference is how many of them came to their philanthropic roles in unusual ways and are now finding that God had uniquely prepared them for the work they are doing now. Several of the disparate tracks and themes in their lives have come together in fascinating ways to enable them to bring about good now.
I can only hope and trust that I will be the same.
It reveals another aspect of the shoreline experience. I am continually realizing that the God I love and try to serve is far beyond what I've understood so far. More than anything else, I desperately want to deeply know God. I'm going to take the risk of stepping into the waves.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Finding Our Heart

I recently told someone that if they want to understand the mind of Catalyst they should read our website; but if they want to understand our heart they should read this blog. This is where the less fully considered and critiqued ideas are expressed. It gives insight that the more refined text of the website might miss.
I am spending the start of this week at a conference in Ft. Lauderdale with Professionals In Granting Society (PIGS), a gathering of representatives from several foundations. It is an inspiring group in many ways. I'm going to have a lot to think about from this event.
One of the most significant thoughts of the day today is the way that other foundations have identified what they are most passionate about and endeavoured to make that the focus of all their efforts. They are connecting their hearts and mind.
This is accomplished in various ways. Some have defined several separate categories of funding within their portfolio to reflect a diverse interest and strategy; others have become very narrowly focused and demonstrate great depth of wisdom and advocacy regarding the fields with which they are concerned.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this year at Catalyst is primarily about defining our interests. If we are able to effectively discern these things during our first year we will be able to bring about much greater influence in the years to come.
There is a spirituality to this. Not in any way to suggest that we should only support explicitly Christian projects, but that as we seek to express our sense of purpose we will be praying that God shows us how we can participate in those things that are part of his great story for all the world.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What We're Hoping to "C"

It was very nearly a month ago when I set out to use this space to describe how we've identified our priorities for funding and other support. In the unlikely possibility that you've been checking back looking for the rest of those thoughts I apologize for the delay and hope that what's been posted in the interim has been worth your while.
There are essentially 4 qualities we are looking for in people and projects: Creativity, Commitment, Compatibility, and Compelling.
Creativity: We want to be involved with innovators and people who are doing something that is novel. We appreciate the risk involved in breaking new ground and love to see people explore solutions that bring together ideas from different places. An example would be Courtney Mowat from Imagine Jewellery and her dream of using jewellery design as a tool to help women break free from the sex trade.
Commitment: Leadership requires time, effort, personal sacrifice, and passion. We want to support people who demonstrate these characteristics and help them continue to develop over the long term. This week I was able to spend some time with Myles Sergeant from Shelter Health Network. He is a talented physician who has chosen to spend his career working with the homeless and vulnerable population that many of his professional peers prefer to avoid. He also manages the complex structures and processes of the network. He could have a higher salary and less frustration working in a typical family practice; but he believes meeting these needs is worth the costs.
Compatible: In order for us to become partners we need to be able to agree on the value of the work being done. We are often asked if we are a Christian foundation. We are Christians, but we don't limit our support to people who share our faith. Like our friends at Micah House, we believe our faith calls us to help people without imposing specific spiritual expectations or conditions.
Compelling: Ultimately, with the enormous variety of needs and opportunities around us, we become involved with people and projects that engage us with stories that reach our hearts. We want to know that our involvement makes a meaningful difference in the lives of people, and hearing those reports (in person where possible) is a large part of what makes this satisfying work for us. David and Joanna Morrison's work in Malawi has been particularly inspiring.

Whether it is candidates for our mentoring program, scholarship applicants, or possible funding partnerships; we are always enthusiastic about those that are Creative, Committed, Compatible, and Compelling.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Evaluating Outcomes

One of the challenges for our work is trying to figure out how to evaluate not only the proposals and opportunities we come across, but(even more difficult) evaluating organizations and projects that we are supporting. This is an ongoing challenge in this field, as I've commented on before.
In a couple weeks I'll be attending a conference for grant-making professionals that concludes with an afternoon discussion about "outcome based evaluation" and efforts to develop more consistent and reliable ways to determine value and success in fields that don't lend themselves easily to numeric criteria. I'm very interested to learn how others are working with this.
Last night I had an excellent reminder of this in my own life. Two years ago I left a job as a youth pastor where I'd been for six years. It was a job I loved, although it was demanding. I made my best efforts to help teenagers discover the truth and grace of Jesus and understand how to live out their identities as authentic followers of Jesus, not just good church people. Last night I got together with one of the guys who had been in that group and is now at university. Over the course of an excellent conversation (and some very good chicken wings) we caught up on our lives and I saw clearly in him some of the perspectives and character qualities I'd been trying to pass on for six years. It was extremely gratifying to recognise that in him. When he graduated a lot of that stuff wasn't very apparent.
It seems to me that when working with people the most meaningful changes often take a lot of time. Projects can be evaluated based on specific time bound criteria; but lives changed according to an imposed timeline. Leaders need to develop a long term mentality and understand that results may not be apparent until long after the opportunity for recognition has passed.