Upcoming events: Volunteers and technology; what the next gen wants from nonprofits

I’ll be speaking in three different places next month – hope to see you at one or more!


Complete details here >

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:30pm | 306 Abbott St (upstairs) | FREE
Join me and Elijah van der Giessen (of Net Tuesday and David Suzuki Foundation) as we share strategies about the use of technology for effective volunteer engagement.


Complete details here >

This two-part series will introduce you to data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits, help you identify how your organization is currently performing, and encourage next steps you can take to achieve your goals. Sample topics include volunteer opportunities, new donors, staff retention, and social media.

No more guessing: Data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits

Wed, July 13 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Future engagement: Assessing your current practices and taking the next step to effective next generation engagement

Wed, July 27 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Upcoming events: 4/26 Social change film school open house; 5/03 Change Through Food Systems

Two interesting events coming up for people that like to make important connections for social change. I can’t make it to the first, but hope to find out more about their program and what they can offer the nonprofit sector. The second I help organize, so maybe see you there? We’re already registered to capacity, but you can add yourself to the wait list.

Pull Focus Open House

Pull Focus Open House
April 26, 2011 | 7pm

In the spirit of grassroots social change, Pull Focus Film School brings together emerging filmmakers, activists, non-profit practitioners, and media innovators in an environment that encourages conversation, collaboration and creative engagement in social change.

The goal of Pull Focus is to empower students to tell stories they care about while raising awareness about many of the amazing and ambitious efforts that are currently being undertaken within the non-profit community.

Pull Focus celebrates its spring program with an Open House on April 26th at 306 Abbott Street in Gastown. Come experience the ‘social change’ spirit, in tandem with the exciting evolution of the local mediascape.


Change Through Food Systems

Change Through Food Systems
May 3, 2011 | 6pm

From producer to intermediaries to consumers, how can positive change happen through our food systems? We all play a part – let’s talk it out!

Join us as three unique individuals spark a conversation about food systems and have your turn to make connections to new ideas, people, and passions.

Moderator: Anthony Nicalo @tonynicolo – chef; entrepreneur; building first global map of local food @foodtree


  • Arzeena Hamir @arzeena – agrologist; coordinator for the Richmond Food Security Society; engaging diverse communities in the food security conversation
  • Herb Barbolet – food activist; researcher; author
  • Mijune Pak @followmefoodie – food blogger at Follow Me Foodie; facilitating producers and consumers in conscious engagement with food

A restrained voice for social change

Image Credit: ephotography

I believe social change happens on three main levels.

  1. It includes actions that fill immediate needs. Food banks. Shelters. Child care. Chaining yourself to an old growth tree.
  2. It includes projects that provide ongoing support or awareness raising. Groups for single mothers and survivors of abuse. Employment programs. Bike to work weeks. Farmers markets.
  3. It also involves changing legislation, infrastructure, and societal norms that are barriers to some balanced utopia where people, animals, and environments are free from persecution and exploitation.

The first two are where nonprofits and charities thrive. But for all the money, effort and talent that is poured into these actions, I feel that little progress beyond the anectodal has been made.

I believe that real progress, real change, happens because of the third. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) agrees:

Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives. Charities are well placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies. Canadians benefit from the efforts of charities and the practical, innovative ways they use to resolve complex issues related to delivering social services. Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates.

But this is where the voice of charities and nonprofits are restrained.

Lobbying – an action used by industries and companies to advocate for self-serving policies, programs, tax incentives, etc  – is fairly unrestricted by government. Save registration requirement for lobbyists which acts to increase the transparency of lobbying efforts, industry organizations and individual companies can lobby to their hearts desire if they can get the ear of a minister, elected official, or other senior public servants.

However, this does not hold true for those advocating for charitable efforts (defined in Canada as the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, or other purposes that benefit the community, a definition that comes from a 1891 British legal ruling with roots even 300 years earlier). Registered charities in Canada are only able to spend 10% of their resources on political activities, which include “explicitly communicat[ing] to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country should be retained…, opposed, or changed.” Charities with less than a $200,000 operating budget can dedicate more resources, on a sliding scale to 20%. Note that the percentage isn’t just $, it’s also people (including volunteers), space and other physical resources.

The CRA states that one main reason applications for charitable registration may be rejected is that “the organization seems to be devoting too many resources to political activities.”

It should be noted, however, that nonprofit organizations (those that are not registered as a charity, but as a society – e.g. under the BC Society Act) are able to dedicate as many resources as desired to political activities. However, these organizations do not receive the same tax benefits as charities (e.g. the ability to provide tax receipts for donations) and are not eligible to apply for a majority of foundation and government grants (which often require charitable registration numbers).

Overall, while lip service is given to the value nonprofits and charities can provide in policy change, the voice is restrained. We wouldn’t want the sounds of progressive social change to get too loud.

IMPACS, an organization that lasted briefly over the turn of the millennium, was working hard to analyze the law, dialogue with charities and nonprofits across Canada, and suggest alternatives to the current regulatory system. At a recent event in Vancouver, I met with a variety of individuals interested in this topic, and I decided to dig a bit further to get as much IMPACS documentation as possible. Thanks to Justin Ho over at United Community Services Co-op in Vancouver, here are the results for you to review if you are interested. Of particular practical use is the Election Took Kit. Si vous voudriez les documents en francais, envoyer-moi.

Impacts of the regulations on ethnocultural organizations:

Letters to government ministers and committees:

I’m trying to find out what current action (if any) is being taken on this issue. I sent a message to Michelle Gauthier, Vice-President, Public Policy & Outreach at Imagine Canada on December 5 to find out it it’s on their radar, but I haven’t heard back. If you are a charity wanting clarity, contact me or visit the CRA website. If you are interested in digger further with me, let me know.

“Hey guys” and other gender-bending language

gender bending robot
Image Credit: Pablo Gutiérrez

When I was a high school teacher, I tried very hard to avoid the ubiquitous “guys”.

“Alright guys, listen up.”
“I need all you guys to put your lab equipment back up at the front once you’re finished.”
“Attention up here guys.”
“What did you guys think about….”

“Guys” are male. Half of my classes weren’t. So instead I tried to use gender-neutral alternatives.

“Alright everyone, listen up.”
“I need each of you to put your lab equipment back up at the front once you’re finished.”
“Attention up here folks.”
“What did you all think about….”

Gendered language like this is so commonplace it’s easy not to give it a second thought. Other non-gender-neutral language is more thoughtfully shifting, as roles that historical may have been filled by one gender are much less homogeneous today.

Stewardess–>Flight Attendant

Policeman–>Police Officer


And then there are the phrases like “men at work” and” manpower”. Somehow “personpower” doesn’t have the same ring to it though. (And spell check doesn’t like it either).

I don’t think it’s being oversensitive to want to change the way we genderify language. (I totally just made that word up.) Rather than be an outspoken activist about it, I just infuse language into my conversations. Repeating a gendered phrase back with ungendered words, for example.

“That waitress was such a wench.”

“Yeah, the server was totally rude to us.”

Is speaking with ungendered words important to you? (For me yes). Or does it even matter? (For me yes).

Can gendered language create barriers? (I think so). Or am I just being overly PC? (I say no).

Social impact and mission myopia

Image Credit: Sam Catchesides

The origin of this post first came out of reading Marketing Myopia, a Harvard Business Review classic from 1960, for my MBA Venture Analysis course. But the theme comes up over and over again for me. Good drill bit companies don’t sell drill bits, they sell holes.

Focus on the purpose, not the product.

An aside: Yesterday was the final day of the third core course in the Certificate in Dialogue and Civic Engagement program I’m taking. The course, Citizens Engaging Citizens: Issues and Practices, was facilitated by Charles Dobson, author of The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action and The Citizen’s Handbook, both great resources for social changey types, especially Canadian ones.

Part of our work today revolved around ideas that people had for citizen to citizen engagement in their own lives. We were outlining goals, objectives/campaigns, strategies, tactics and actions. The hard part was the objectives bit.

People were often inclined to describe a project output (product) as an objective. For example, “the objective of this project is to create a community asset map/hold a conference for animal rights activists/make Trina chocolate cupcakes.”

However, the true objectives were often related to a change in attitude, a change in relationships, a change in state: some sort of social impact.

Social impact ≠ output

Social impact does not occur because a video gets produced, an art project is implemented, a conference happens, or Trina gets her chocolate cupcakes. Social impact occurs and is measurable because change happens.

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, measuring success is a check box. Did the the conference happen? Check. Did the asset map get created? Pat on the back. Did the resource get published? Can I has some more funding puleez? Did Trina get her cupcakes? Where are my bloody cupcakes?

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, they risk becoming irrelevant to their clients. Times change. People change. Needs change. Focusing on the output, the program, the product, is what I call mission myopia: Losing sight of what is really important, and not adapting to the needs of your clients.

Does your organization sell drill bits, or holes?

Instead of the product, think of the need of your clients, your community, that you are satisfying. If you want to create a community asset map because you want to increase community connectivity (which would be important to define before you get going, btw), success should not be defined by the creation of the map.

I would challenge the above in this manner:

  1. If you created the map, but community connectivity didn’t increase, would that be success?
  2. If you increased community connectivity, but the map didn’t get done, would that be success?

Organizations that sell holes would agree with #2.

Practical Implications for the BC Society Act

Making sure your organization defines itself by its clients’ interests rather than a specific program description is incredibly important when writing out the purpose of the organization in your consitution as a part of registering under the Act. If your purpose is related to selling drill bits instead of selling holes, you may find yourself operating outside of the realm of your constitution as times change in the future. Find out more about appropriate purposes in Appendix A of Information for Incorporation of a British Columbia Society (pdf).

Read more on social impact

Other Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance articles on social impact:

Volunteer intersectionality – grassroots vs. big image

Image Credit: wili_hybrid

Well, I’ve been a bit AWOL for the past few weeks – busy @work, crazy sick with lots of vomiting, final MBA papers due, and a recent death in the family. Let’s just say I’m glad to be moving forward from here.

So a few weeks ago a young woman set up an interview with me to help her with a paper she was writing about volunteers and why they volunteer where they volunteer. She wondered what made some people work with small organizations, and others work with large organizations, like for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. It sounded like someone else that she interviewed thought that those volunteering with smaller organizations were more interested in social and environmental justice, whereas those volunteering with large organizations and events like the Olympics are interested in getting the name on the resume, checking off the experience on list of things to do.

Why not both?

I do both.

I’ll be volunteering with the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in February. I’m incredibly thrilled and am so wrapped up in the spirit that’s been demonstrated along the torch relay in communities across the country. I’m proud to represent my country as a volunteer (because I am never going to be a world-class athlete) and be a part of something bigger.

I also currently volunteer with the Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation which does great work supporting youth in grades 10-12 who face a multitude of barriers, providing a mix of adventure-based learning, academics, therapy, and community service with great results. I volunteer with Volunteer Vancouver (recently rebranded as Vantage Point, which I’m not sure I get, but I digress) on a steering committee for a young professionals network and have done curriculum development and delivery for them in the past.

Maybe these last two aren’t social or environmental justicey enough to cut it for the hard cores out there. Sure, I don’t happen to currently volunteer at my local farmers markets, but I shop there and think they do great work. No, I don’t happen to currently volunteer with Pivot Legal Society, but I buy the Hope in Shadows calendar, and think Pivot does great work. Maybe I will in the future, but I’m a little tapped out at the moment.

Are volunteering for brand name organizations and small grassroots groups mutually exclusive? I hope not.

Volunteer Intersectionality

I often perceive that certain causes and passions are not visually marriageable. I guess what I mean by that is that they don’t fit together by first glance. And if you are involved with one, you must be against the other. For example, if you support homeless rights, you must be anti-Olympics and vice versa. People make assumptions about you based on one characteristic. By voicing that viewpoint,  you risk excluding potential supporters (i.e. me). Why define the boundaries of supporters? Maybe it’s just my introvert self perceiving and overthinking something that’s not reality, but I don’t think so.

I’m lucky to have great friends that share this awareness. They may personally disagree with Olympics, but they ask me how my training is going and don’t chastise me for my involvement. They’ll tell you I’m not uneducated or unaware. I’m just a passion-diverse person. And if you want my support, you’re going to have to accept that.

Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?

In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).

The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.

Collaboration and Social Movements

So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.

You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.

This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.

Recent online activity re: #iranelection or #pman (Moldova) demonstrate the potential upswell of energy that can come from an unmanaged, online network. Granted, the actual impact of these loose networks can be and have been argued, but they still allow for potential valuation of ONE contribution.

Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis

Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)

Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED
Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED

Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure

Credit: Tony Yue
Synthesis of new ways. Credit: Tony Yue

So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.

Millennials and Structure

Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.

I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.


So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.

Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.

I really don’t know. Do you?

<end of murky personal academic musings>