Success Together

24 02 2011

Many readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of Hildy Gottlieb’s work  (Creating The Future) and I apply a number of her concepts and principles in my practice (thanks Hildy, you spread the love so generously). One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is a topic Hildy has ranted about many times, and a fundamental question Hildy is always asking: what will it take for the community benefit sector to achieve genuine success (or, the flip side, what’s stopping that from happening?):

Success in the Community Benefit arena doesn’t come from being the smartest and the fastest and the best. Yes, you may become the best funded organization. But success in the Community Benefit world is about – well – Community Benefit! And none of us can do that on our own. It is clear that this sector’s potential can only be reached if we link arms together to create the healthy, vibrant communities we all want. To accomplish that, many of the systems we rely upon in this sector will need to shift, from competitive systems that keep us apart to systems that encourage and nurture interconnectedness and interdependence. [Hildy Gottlieb]

Amen to that.

So, I’ve been thinking about that shift and how to support it. I’m wondering about the figurative linking of arms and how that might tangibly or literally be accomplished in a typical community. There are no shortage of inspiring examples on a global scale (just in these past weeks the Middle East is full of them). Examples can also be found within the ranks of the collective impact movement (see: So what about here, within Hamilton neighbourhoods? How do small community efforts grow to become community benefit successes? That’s been occupying my mind of late, and steering me to seek out viable answers. It seems vital that our local community benefit organizations be encouraged and supported in efforts to join together…to find strength in numbers and influence in shared vision. I’m not talking about merely “collaborating” here, where agencies remain independent and separate while joining together (or appearing to do so) for select purposes. That kind of collaboration has been a diversion for many organizations (particularly small ones with very limited resources) and ineffective for many others. As a requirement of many funders, collaboration has become a challenge for organizations who might be far better served by genuine efforts at unified, targeted advocacy and action. Time-consuming and ineffectual partnerships have kept more than one organization from realizing true innovation. Carefully assessing when, how and with whom to partner is a missing step in many collaborations…it’s often simply a requisite step in the grant application process. To shift from “expected” collaboration to instead focus on shared community outcomes (or collective impact) will take some time and some genuine effort. But I can hear Hildy yelling, “yes, but think of the possibilities if it happens!” and that very thing is what has me giving this considerable attention.

Be the change, the Gandhi-inspired mantra, requires that we model our efforts according to the outcomes we seek. When it comes to local community benefit and the sector upon which so much rests, that means some considerable adjustments will be needed. Stay tuned.

In Praise of Women

23 02 2011

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day – March 8th.
Singing Her Praises will celebrate the occasion with music, dance, spoken word and more at Michelangelo Banquet Centre on March 11th. Guest performers include Queen Cee, Michelle Titian, Jude Johnson and Dee Dee Laroque. Tickets are $45 with partial proceeds to the Wellwood Resource Centre (supporting women with cancer). The evening includes cash bar, appetizers, and silent auction. For information, call (905) 527-5651 or visit

It’s Family Day

21 02 2011

If you live in Ontario, Alberta or Saskatchewan today is officially Family Day. It’s a statutory holiday in other parts of Canada too  (but under different names) so roughly 60% of the country observes the day as a holiday. In Ontario, it’s about celebrating the importance of families and family life to people and their communities.

(photo: David Cooper, Toronto Star)

Many families will spend time together, and a range of activities (many of them free) are happening for kids of all ages. Family members separated by distance may pick up the phone to connect, or use the less personal email, text or Skype options. But how does a community celebrate the importance of families? Public events really don’t reflect a community in this sense…for the most part they are organized by City departments and municipal staffers. And it’s February, not so conducive to the outdoor block parties or neighbourhood events we might see in warmer months.

I’m interested in hearing about ways a community can show that it values families. Are you taking part in a community-organized event? Is your corner of the bigger community doing something to celebrate family life? Is there a gesture of acknowledgement we could all make, as community members, that you think would honour families? Post a comment or drop me a line and tell us about it. In the meantime, I’m off to call my parents.

Our 20th Year!

9 02 2011

EnMark Associates officially opened its doors as a consulting firm in May, 1991. That makes this our twentieth year in operation. It’s a milestone I’m proud of, and one I plan to mark in several different ways. We’ll celebrate, of course, but also look for “pay it forward” opportunities. I will find ways to acknowledge those whose help and contributions have strengthened the firm over the years, as well as those whose personal support and mentorship have meant so much to my career.

Oddly enough, the landscape of our “not-for-profit” sector (I’ve decided I much prefer the term community benefit sector), for the most part, hasn’t changed all that much during the past two decades. Agencies still call on us for the same types of support and counsel that were needed back in the nineties, and the community as a whole still struggles with many of the same challenges that existed in 1991. That’s largely disappointing. While I can look back at specific successes – innovative projects, effective programs, even considerable change initiatives – the sector as a whole remains burdened and overwhelmed. Ironically, it’s this very sector that houses so many of the organizations on which we hang the future of our community…those that will eradicate violence, end poverty, inspire young people and turn our diverse challenges into shared accomplishments. A pessimist might say this does not bode well for our collective futures.

But an optimist, like myself, sees that there are some fairly clear causes for the stagnation (and, yes, sees the successes that are shining examples of what happens when it does all come together) and sees that there is great potential in targeting these causes. And that is where I hope to focus my practice in the years to come. I am inspired by the countless volunteers who continue to drive the engines of our community benefit sector despite its shortcomings. I am heartened by the occasional glimpse of visionary thinking that emerges around community planning tables. And I am challenged by the work to be done in harnessing the knowledge that’s out there and applying it towards action that will achieve results.

Some of my current interests in this regard will begin appearing more often in this blog and on EnMark Associates’ web site. These include new approaches for funders, shifts in community thinking, and governance basics that realign effort with desired impact. I’ll be looking for new opportunities to apply what I’ve learned about this community in ways that will significantly better this community…not just as a consultant, but as a concerned and engaged citizen (more and more these two are inextricably linked). As the anniversary of my consulting practice draws nearer, I am reminded that I have been a fortunate observer inside the gritty workings of this community, where an up-close and unobstructed view has afforded me some unique and very valuable experiences. Some of these were awe-inspiring. Others were heartbreaking. But all have given me insight and taught me in one way or another.

The talented individuals whose work has been utilized by EnMark Associates over the past 20 years have helped organizations in virtually every corner of the community benefit sector – health, social services, culture, housing, education, municipal services, community services, volunteerism, advocacy, planning, funding, policymaking…the list goes on. We have worked with front line staff and with board members, with seasoned CEOs and energetic youth. Our services have been directed towards student hunger, poverty, substance abuse, mental health, sexual health, child abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness, supported housing for seniors, accessibility, transit, emergency food, children’s development, public health, residential services, violence prevention, trauma services, crime, community development…and others.

That’s an incredible array of experiences from which to draw, and an abundance of inspiration for what comes next.

Karen Smith

The Magic of Mentoring

4 02 2011

Few among us can honestly look back and say that we didn’t, at some point, have the benefit of sage advice or caring support from a mentor. Maybe it took the form of a gentle nudge, or a wake-up call. Mentors give us what we need in order to keep moving forward, to push for success. They see potential in us, they envision our accomplishments, and they listen, offer guidance, and model the qualities to which we aspire. I certainly had these people in my life, and still do. I am grateful for their influence and humbled by their generosity of spirit.

I recently had an opportunity to offer just that kind of support. Not my first experience at mentoring (although this was a first meeting so it really wasn’t mentoring as much as advice-on-the-fly). But it brought to mind the previous experiences of encouraging and guiding young or emerging talent. As with most gifts, it feels wonderful to give this kind of support. But most important, in my line of work, is the potential it has to multiply and result in benefits never imagined. My career has focused on the not-for-profit world, and my expertise comes from many years spent working with organizations and agencies of all kinds. To mentor someone who might go forward to work within these same community causes is a genuinely inspiring experience. What project might they one day spearhead? How will their contributions better our society? I’ve seen what can happen early in a career, when insight or inspiration can spark an avalanche of ideas and motivation. Even today, after some 30 years in this field, I still have people in my life who do just that for me. I am thankful for that, and for the opportunity to offer that to others whenever it arises.

If you haven’t had the experience of mentoring someone, look for the opportunity and act upon it. You won’t regret it. If you were mentored at some point in your life, it’s a perfect way to “pay it forward”. You never know what magic may result.

Thinking outside the lunchbox

2 02 2011

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion among stakeholders from education, health, social services, municipal services, business, food and nutrition, and philanthropic interests. The topic was the development of a school-based, universal student nutrition program for Hamilton. I have been working with the Hamilton Community Foundation on this project for several months, and this discussion was the latest step in the Foundation’s effort at helping the community to move forward with the goal that “no child leaves school hungry”.

This was a dynamic group discussion, and one peppered with as many questions as answers. That’s par for the course at this early juncture in a community initiative. But despite the unknowns, local stakeholders in attendance made it clear that they see this project as not only important but also entirely necessary. Too many youngsters don’t receive adequate nutrition in Hamilton, and many are hungry enough to be distracted from learning. But what to do? Stakeholders at the session were asked how they would approach the development of a program to make sure all students get enough to eat. They were encouraged to think beyond current efforts, such as traditional school programs or breakfast clubs. They were asked to push themselves to think “from scratch” and not be limited by the way things have historically been done. Their level of enthusiasm and commitment is a good sign of support for seeing this preliminary work by the Foundation turn into something tangible. It’s premature to report anything here in terms of the discussion, but I was reassured by the focus on outcomes for children, the desire to see parents engaged and involved, and the willingness for most stakeholders to step outside their usual parameters just long enough to imagine something new and different.

Watch for developments in the School Nutrition Project as the discussion progresses and early ideas take shape. Think you’d like to be part of the discussion? Please contact me.