Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Final Post...

As of April 5, 2009 this blog will no longer be updated. All the content here and new posts will be happening at the new (and gratefully much improved!) www.catalystfoundation.ca

Update your bookmarks, google reader, or address book. Hope to hear from you there!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Who do I choke?"

I'm just back from an excellent trip to Columbia and Nicaragua with some of our partner organizations (more on that in future posts).

At dinner one night in Cartagena one of the others on the trip, who is a successful CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, commented on being at a meeting with some of the inside circle of a large charity and not being able to get a clear answer about who was ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the work. He stated his frustration with typical eloquence: "I just want to know, when something goes wrong, who do I choke?"

It's a great question. Often in the nonprofit world there is a tendency to lower standards and lesser accountability. This should not be. Knowing that charity leaders are usually passionately committed to work they believe has the potential to make a meaningful difference, the expectations should be a little higher than for those who only want to make money.

I have to admit that this isn't my natural bent. I've been as guilty of being soft in this area as anyone. I do expect the nonprofit world to treat staff with greater care and dignity than the sometimes cutthroat tactics of the market. The challenge is to maintain a radical orientation to mission such that we are absolutely committed to explicit outcomes and expect high level performance from people, even as we treat them very well.

We should always know who to choke.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Post #100: Why "Catalyst"?

This is the 100th post on this blog. It's taken just over a year to get here. Thanks for lurking, thinking, and especially to those who have commented.

Take 14 seconds and watch this.

Our desire is that our credibility, influence, and investments bring a catalytic effect to the leadership of every organization we work with. As we do so there will be a release of energy that will sometimes be messy, but always impactful.

When we say Catalyst, this is what we mean. We use all our resources to accelerate the changes needed to move nonprofits forward. As we do we expect to see results; greater efficiency and effectiveness, stronger commitment, more people helped. Along the way the value placed on developing leadership, the growing sense of generosity, and the confidence to work in synergy with others show us that we're on the right track.

We hope our interaction with nonprofits is a little bit like throwing a couple Mentos into your Diet Coke.

(And for those who need to understand, the Mythbusters can explain what's happening in that bottle).

Story is Vision

"The careful telling of the story creates ripples for everybody; including me" - Brian Stiller, Tyndale Seminary (from a FreeFORM interview).

Defining, redefining, revealing, and sharing our vision is one of the difficult challenges of leadership. There are endless resources on how to do this, but lately I've found the best and most intuitive way of doing it is through storytelling.

In recent meetings with two groups where we worked on mission/vision/values matters we experimented with beginning the process by telling the stories of those moments where we felt our organization was performing at our best. Out of that comes not only an easily emerging picture of what we most want to be, but also an energizing reminder of what we're all about. We end up with statements and stories that become central reflections for us and which we believe in at a deep level. And it's wicked fun.

As the appreciation for the value of narrative continues to move from the world of academic criticism and artistic expression into the realm of leadership and strategy the potential for better engagement of all levels of stakeholders is exciting.

One simple process:
-Ask your board/team/committee/etc. to spend a little in advance thinking about the very best moments and memories they have of your organization. these could include not only the work with your clientele; but fundraisers, staff interactions, resources embraced, board meetings, and more. the point is to uncover the times when you experienced the best of what you can be.

-Begin the session with someone telling the broad story of your organization's history. As they do; everyone is encouraged to note and post ideas from the story that might relate to Mission/Vision/Values. (We've handed out post it notes and put flip chart pages on the wall to capture these thoughts).

-Invite all to add their own stories of highlight moments; and continue noting the themes.

-When the stories began to run out, review everything posted to ensure understanding and adjust the location of notes where needed.

-Synthesize these notes to expose the strongest themes and try to turn these into shared statements or even a simple image or narrative.

Does it work? So far, so good.

This is the revised Vision Statement for Catalyst:
Catalyst is committed to developing leadership in compelling nonprofit organizations as their dreams become action to transform lives.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Contrasting Styles

In the last two weeks I've talked with two leaders who listened to me talk about some of my experiences and offered their perspectives. In both cases it really seemed like they were looking past my words and eyes and into my soul. That's what the best mentors do.

What's most interesting is that these two are rather different. One is the leader of one of the most prominent leadership development organizations in the world. The other invests himself primarily with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people. One challenges me to explore the outer limits of my potential, the other urges me to embrace my weakness as a means of becoming deeper. One's books quote alcoholic natives and now dead AIDS victims, the other refers to globally known corporate and ministry figures.

I am grateful for both of these men and their willingness to set aside time from their lives to speak into mine.

I need to be drawn into a fuller understanding of both my range of influence and my own core inadequacies. And in truth, both of the conversations included aspects of both. Neither leader is limited to a single theme. In their own lives and in their professional roles they help others to become more complete, from whatever the starting point.

Every leader needs people in their life that can see beyond the surface and challenge them to develop fuller; both in their identity and their influence.

Who's shaping you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Partnership" Expanded

This week I am preparing for our annual strategic planning retreat. It's an important and quite enjoyable time where we review the past year and ready ourselves for what's next. I'm sure it will be both energizing and exhausting.

As part of our review I sent several of our contacts (organizations we funded, people we've mentored, some who have shared wisdom with us, even some who's requests we didn't support) a simple feedback form to gain their perspective on Catalyst. I've been surprised by the response in two ways:
1. It seems like almost everyone who received the request is returning a completed form.
2. Several have commented that it is very unusual for a donor to ask for strategic input from charities.

I can't understand why a foundation wouldn't seek out this kind of insight. If we aspire to be as effective in our role as we expect those we support to be in their roles we need this perspective. I am grateful for those who have already taken a few minutes and shared their understandings of who we are and how we work. It will be very valuable information as we set our course for another year.

If you want to add your 2 cents worth (though the current economy precludes me actually sending you the 2 cents), here are the questions we're asking:

As Catalyst wraps up our first year of work we are continuing to make efforts to better define our role in the community and the world. I am hoping you can help us by taking just a moment to answer a few questions about your experience and perceptions of Catalyst.
1. How would you describe Catalyst to a professional colleague?

2. How has your interaction with Catalyst impacted you and/or your organization?

3. What key questions do you think Catalyst needs to ask and answer as we move forward?

4. What “blind spots” about our organization, processes, or work do you think may limit our effectiveness?

5. Is there anything else you think Catalyst should consider as we do our strategic planning?

Vision - Look Behind You

I am increasingly convinced that a key to crafting direction, for organizations as well as individuals, is to look into the past. With few (if any) exceptions what we will become at our best is rooted in things that have been true since our beginning.

When I work with individuals on figuring out their best context it is invaluable to spend 45 minutes hearing stories from earlier in their life of things they enjoyed doing and felt they did well. Reflection on those things makes figuring out next steps much easier.

The same is true for organizations. Dr. Carson Pue of Arrow Leadership International shares his thoughts in his latest To The Point e-newsletter:

...the board of directors and I devoted a year to listening to God and seeking His guidance as to the future vision for our organization. We had seasons during this pursuit that drained us, so we asked a friend and strategic partner to come and facilitate a board vision meeting. It was during this day that I heard from him one of the most profound statements I have ever heard on vision. Here it is…
“The seeds of your future are found in what you have already been doing.”

Futurist John Scharr affirms this as well reminding us that, "The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.” We have already been creating our future! So we spent a half day reviewing what we have been doing over the past 18 years – made a list of these and our ‘vision’ popped out at us. It is a grounded vision - and has lots of traction. As a result our team is energized, committed and filled with meaning.

Maybe it is time to ground your vision?

The visioning process is draining and unpleasant when we get bogged down in concepts and semantics, but it is quite invigorating when we turn our attention to the best of our past to see the best of our future. Try it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Special Guest

Participants in our Mentoring Program were able to spend a couple hours last Tuesday with Dr. Carson Pue from Arrow Leadership International. It was a privilege to hear from someone who has done as much as anyone in the world to develop excellence among Christian leaders over the last decade. He talked with us about how to put together a personal leadership development plan and answered a pile of questions. (He also has an innovative technique for eating pancakes that you have to see to understand).

Much thanks to Carson for his time and wisdom.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Two Good Starts

Last night I attended the "very soft launch" of Word Made Flesh - Canada. When Mark Petersen gets this motivated by a charity it is always worth checking out; and it was.

But the best part of the night came earlier, before I left home.

I was telling my 5 year old son, Ben, that I was going to hear a man who lives with people who don't have enough money or food. Ben asked why the man (Chris Heuertz) would do that. I explained that God loves everyone, but he has a special love for the poor. Ben nodded thoughtfully, then disappeared upstairs for a minute. When he came down he solemnly handed me the entire contents of his giraffe piggy bank and told me to give it to the man who helps the poor people. Then he drew a picture for them of someone who was given "clothes, food, money, a hat, and a house".

My son is more like Jesus than I am.

It was a sacred privilege to give his donation to Chris and after last night's event I am glad that Ben's first entry into generosity was in support of such a good organization.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Character, Complexity, and Controversy

Yesterday I had lunch with David Sweet, Member of Parliament for the riding of Ancaster/Dundas/Flamborough/Westdale (where I live). He is a Conservative backbencher and the former CEO of Promisekeepers Canada. In the interest of honesty I should say that I have never attended a Promisekeepers event and I did not vote for Mr. Sweet in the last federal election, I voted Green.

I wanted to talk to Mr. Sweet not primarily about policy issues, though we did cover a few over the 90 minutes we spent together, but mostly about being a leader in two organizations that are well known for having contentious perspectives and more than a few controversially outspoken adherents. Beyond that, my riding is one of the most complex in the country with agricultural, academic, industrial, and suburban residential all co-mingling in a sometimes tense balance.

To my pleasure, Mr. Sweet was very sincere in our conversation. He spoke openly about the tensions of competing priorities between constituents, party loyalty, and personal conviction. He described the difficulty of becoming effectively knowledgeable on an enormous range of topics in very limited time. And he admitted to the difficulty involved in making decisions that have enormous impact on the lives of Canadians, particularly in military matters.

There are a number of issues (though fewer than I thought) on which David Sweet and I hold significantly different views. That said, I believe the thing that makes him able to navigate the challenges and complexities of his role is relatively simple: he has some fundamental convictions about which he strives to be very consistent. He admits to being an incrementalist, change takes time and compromise is often the way forward. But at a core level he demonstrates a strength of character that I find admirable.

At Catalyst we talk about leadership having three key aspects: Competence, Character, and Context. Based on my observations of David Sweet in his campaigns since 2004 and as an MP since 2006 I have to say that there is much to commend about him in all three aspects. His background (personal and professional) gives him a diverse and valuable skill set, he has integrity and has largely earned trust, and he is in a role which seems to bring out the best in him with deep passion.

Two closing thoughts:
1. I am still surprised that Mr. Sweet hasn't been given a cabinet post. He and Hamilton deserve better.
2. I know some people who have a significant disdain for David Sweet for a variety of reasons. I don't know how legitimate or spurious their complaints are, and I am not advocating for him politically (or for his party for that matter). I am simply saying that as a leader David Sweet is someone worth listening to.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Leadership Roadmaps

Building on a recent post...
Being intentional about your own leadership development is important. That doesn't mean responding to every networking opportunity, reading every book in your field, and participating in every course and conference. Eventually the breadth of opportunities that is helpful in expanding your understanding in the beginning must give way to more focused, in depth attention on those areas and resources which will yield the best advancement.

I'm at that stage in my role with Catalyst. Having grazed in a somewhat haphazard fashion all around non profit leadership and poverty reduction strategies for a year I know enough to start being more specific and discerning about how I spend my time, energy, and budget. In the next few weeks I'll be working on an annual plan for my own development that will include a reading list, courses/conferences I want to partake of, relationships I want to build, and topics I need to explore. I can't afford to be so reactive anymore; it is time to plan ahead.

With so many resources available (I just googled "leadership conference 2009" and got 893,000 hits in 0.28 seconds!) deciding what is worth the investment is extremely difficult. Here are a few strategies to streamline your planning:

-Choose one person in your field that you deeply respect and ask them what are the most useful resources they've found (thanks always Mark and Brideway)
-Choose one author or organization and only use their materials (hello Malcolm Gladwell in 2009)
-Start a small network/book club/lunch bunch/whatever and take turns bringing a resource and summary to share and discuss (anyone want to do one of these in Halton/Hamilton this year?)
-look for packaged sets of materials like these from John Maxwell
-make sure you occasionally do some intentional learning from way outside your field (I still think about the quantum physics book I read on a camping trip three years ago)

Above all, do something on purpose and with purpose. The dreams you want to follow are too important for you to passively wait for leadership to happen to you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


An early copy of Re:Action - The Catalyst Foundation newsletter is now available on our website.

We've had some trouble getting the hyperlinks to translate formats so a revision with improved functionality will be posted asap.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Violence to the Poor?

People have asked whether Catalyst is a Christian foundation. I don't really like the question. The founders are committed followers of Jesus and I am also; in that respect everything we do is in some way Christian. But we are somewhat reluctant to identify Catalyst with that adjective. The reasons are slightly complex, but basically we wonder about all the assumptions that are made when anything is tagged as Christian.

We have determined that within the work of Catalyst we are not funding programs that are focused on explicit evangelism and church planting. We are active in our own churches and we certainly do believe that there is a need for the truth and grace of Jesus to be shared sincerely and broadly. We just don't believe that is the primary role for Catalyst.

So, where does faith fit into to our work? That too is complex sometimes. Most of the best leadership and relief/development organizations and resources we can find have Christian people in positions of great influence. In some cases the organizations identify as Christian, in some they don't.

Today I read an article arguing that the greatest social need in the world is not health, economics, or even justice; but restoring proper relationship with God. I certainly believe the hope and direction that come with salvation are the ultimate deliverance, and I hope that in some way my life points to that reality. At the same time, I'm wary of those who encourage people to "go, be warm and well fed" while they pass out religious literature and warn of the peril of hell.

I find myself thinking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's pretty hard for people to consider the claims of Christ if their children are dying of polluted water. Medical Ministry International understands this well, as do some of our other partners.

I would truly love to hear how the above article resonates with some of the rest of you.

Development in a Downturn

I tend toward the optimistic side of most issues, occasionally to my detriment. The state of the economy is undeniably bad the world over, but I'm reluctant to spend much time lamenting the situation. Doing so serves mostly to distract us from mission and probably contributes to the self-fulfilling prophecy of doom that is simultaneously increasing demand on charities and reducing their support. I want to resist that by pointing toward some of the strategic moves that can be (and I'd argue must be) made in this time.

Esteemed author Patrick Lencioni's current POV article argues that now is the time for leaders to focus on strengthening the core of their teams, developing core capabilities in order to be ready to thrive when things turn around.

One aspect of this (which our mentoring cohort will be discussing with Arrow's Carson Pue later this month) is preparing a deliberate Leadership Development Plan. Alan Nelson wrote an excellent primer on how to do this early this month.

The tendency is to batten down the hatches and hide in the hopes that all of this will soon blow over, but we know that's not going to work. However long this turmoil lasts, it is likely to result in some lasting shifts in how charities function, both in fundraising and in programs. Those that want to be ready to make a significant difference for years to come will take advantage of the immediate need to focus intensely and prepare through uncertainty by developing their most valuable resource, their people.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cost Cutting

Nonprofits sometimes struggle to justify leadership development. It may be a lack of funds, time, or inclination; though the reason given is almost always budget. One of the things that motivates us is to challenge those excuses by lessening the costs to access high quality training.

In our current economic uncertainty many charities are facing declining donations. This week I heard of a number of layoffs in the sector, particularly in the US. The temptation is to cut things deemed nonessential, with staff development among the first to go.

Nonprofit guru Peter Brinckerhoff offered his take on these tough times on his blog. For the most part I agree with him, though the rawness with which he addresses staffing cuts grinds against my heart; but I suspect he's right.

What are your favourite nonprofits doing to manage these days? What are you encouraging them to do?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Puppy Love and the Power of Money

One constant topic of discussion with both funders and charities is the fundamental power imbalance between the two sides. However we try to minimize it, there is a basic reality that charities need resources that funders can provide. While I appreciate the outstanding efforts of many charities to develop mutual value in the interaction the tension remains. Charities have to try to satisfy funders and the relationship can be challenging and complex. I've written about this before.

A good conversation today with Lise Struthers at Opportunity International (in my experience, one of the most advanced charities in terms of working with donors)helped me think of this in a strangely different way...

I spent almost 25 years of my life either being or working with teenagers and one of the dominant themes of those years was the challenge of romance, especially that weird "just friends" stage. I can't count the number of times I sat with someone and talked about the need for a DTR - Define The Relationship. A lot of angst and confusion was abated when the two involved finally worked up the courage to say what they were feeling and decide together how to proceed.

The same is true for funders and charities. The power imbalance is most dangerous when there are unclear and unspoken expectations of the way things will be. Someone has to break the ice and start talking about things like:
-What kinds of communication will be exchanged? Through what channels? With what frequency?
-How much influence will donors on the use of their funds and the charity as a whole?
-Are there donation thresholds that change the relationship?
-How can donors understand the fieldwork of the charity without interfering?
-Are donors expected to be involved in promoting the charity? In what ways?
-Which people at the charity do donors access?
-What are the options for a donor to be involved outside finances? (board member, site visit, write for promotional materials, in kind or expertise contributions, etc.)
-What kind of access does the charity have to the donor?
-What should happen if the circumstances surrounding the pledge or donation change on either side?
-How can either side end the partnership appropriately?
-What will be done if anyone on either side is unsatisfied with things?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Instant Strategy

On my 2009 to do list is to start reading things by Malcolm Gladwell. All the more after reading this article by Fred Smith. He takes off on Gladwell's book Blink and describes how there are philanthropists who have the innate ability to ascertain the value of applicants with remarkable intuition and speed. As most of us become more and more involved in increasingly detailed analysis, there is something very appealing about the possibility of a more informal and accurate approach.

I would love to know more about this. Does anyone have experience to add?


Making charitable giving more accessible and intimate is a great thing. Kiva has been standard bearer for changing the way we give. In recent months I've seen some family members become enthusiastic about being able to connect much more directly with people and issues. It may well be that start of a revolution in charity.

Over the holidays one of my best sources for interesting content, Fred Smith of The Gathering, posted a fascinating article about this new development. It leads me to a few questions: (and I'd love to see your thoughts as comments)

-How convenient should philanthropy be? What obligation is there for givers to take the time to understand charities more deeply?

-What will the impact of new technology options be on charity in the next decade? IS there a risk that flashy tools will outweigh quality work?

-How can (or should) "professional philanthropists" use our increased time, experience, and insight to help inform common givers? Should we post both positive and negative reviews of those we've worked with?

-What organizations are already exemplary in their use of technology to maintain connection with donors?

-What qualifies as a "major donor" in the future and what additional information or contact should they expect?

-How does this impact the power imbalance inherent in the donor/charity relationship?