FacebookTwitterRSSContactStaff Directory
About Tamarack Learn Events Join a Community
  Learning Centre  

About the Learning Centre

The Learning Centre, established in 2003, is designed to create a fluid, creative system of documenting community building activity and delivering this learning to organizations. The centre has a threefold purpose: to broadly disseminate knowledge gathered through research and practical experience; to help communities increase their power through learning; and to generate knowledge about community engagement so as to advance the field. Learn more about the Learning Centre here.

Resource Library - Explore Tamarack's community engagement resources - including research, articles and related links.

Be sure to sign up to receive Engage!, Tamarack's free monthly e-magazine, that helps you to stay current on the latest developments in the field of community engagement.

Subscribe here or read one of our latest issues below.


Beautiful Thinking for February from the Tamarack Institute

Share this Issue:

Engagement: Lessons from the Business Sector

By: Rachel Gainer

Connect key © volk65

Share this: Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on LinkedIn

I have recently returned to Tamarack after spending seven years working at BlackBerry where my role focused on inviting and distilling the experiences of users and translating them into recommendations for action. From this experience I have come to appreciate that there are lessons about engagement that the for-profit sector can share with those of us interested in discovering new ways to effectively engage with stakeholders. Below you will find what, for me, are some of the business sector's key lessons that come to mind when I think about effective engagement. 

  • Invite your Trusted Friends First - In the for-profit sector, we called this a "staged roll out". In college or in your social settings, you might have called it the "pre-party". Turn on the music, try out the wine, dim the lights. See how people react. Regardless of the way you describe the approach, the premise is to invite a smaller group or groups to try out your engagement strategy before opening the doors wider. Start small and actually execute your strategy rather than just talking about the plan. See what people respond to and get the conversation started. Once you're relatively satisfied with how your chosen few are engaged, open up the doors to others. Consider how quickly you let the flood gates open, and whether or not participants in your early engagement efforts could be helpful in recruiting others. Find a balance between letting people in and ensuring the engagement remains active. It can be easier to deepen engagement when people have been warmed up to it. Don't forget, hosts and participants both have critical roles to play, so be a gracious and humble host; let your participants know what's expected of them; and thank them (regularly) for being there.
  • Plan for Regularly Scheduled Programming - All aspects of engagement cannot be prescribed, nor should they be. Spontaneity, creativity and organic movement are all part of the (desired) process when it comes to what you and members of your community or engagement initiative contribute. With that said, sometimes there will be a lull in dialogue and sometimes your initiative may need a reminder of its purpose, its principles, and its intended pillars of success. For those reasons, be sure to plan for regularly scheduled content. An e-newsletter, social media posts, blogs, well-crafted emails can all help to achieve this. Think about your audience to determine the tone and frequency. Anything delivered via social media should increase in frequency (i.e. daily), email or e-newsletters less frequent (i.e. weekly or even monthly), and blogs somewhere in between.
  • Measure Your ROI - I firmly believe that you need a few months of data, perhaps even a full year, accompanied by qualitative/experiential notes, in order to set proper benchmarks and targets for success. I also know I'm an impatient person and sometimes waiting for all of this data can get a bit boring. So, look at your strategy, set some basic goals (based on any previous data, if you have it) and then make time to evolve from there. For example, if you have 100 Facebook followers with little to no social media strategy over a year, aim to double that with a strategic plan in 6 months. If your last town hall yielded 50 people with one round of invitations to 200 people, aim to send out multiple rounds of invitations, to the same people, and look to increase participation by 20%. Whatever the numbers are, if your emails aren't getting opened; your website is not seeing an increase in visitors; or, your social media followers are not increasing even though you've employed an engagement strategy for growth (or stability), then the return on your investment in time and money is poor. You need to measure key performance indicators to know how well you are performing. Start with the data you've got, keep your measurements simple and consistent and go from there.
  • Strategic Experimentation - Okay, so this might be a bit of an oxymoron, but I never like to do things the same way twice. After all, where's the room for creativity, innovation and improvement? This does not necessarily bode well for the above point on consistency with measurement, but it can yield success in terms of execution. Take what you know about your community, the people in it, your cause and the circumstances surrounding your engagement strategy and then throw a little caution to the wind. Try something new, take a little risk, then step back and analyze its impact. See what sticks, and then, perhaps, incorporate the change into your strategy going forward.

And, finally, don't forget the importance of closure. All engagement must come to an end at some point, which is either planned for or organic. If you were at a party that ended with the hosts telling you to let yourself out, would you come back? Whatever the lifespan may be and however you get there, be sure to end your relationship with participants appropriately. Most importantly, be clear about "the end" and what they can expect next (if anything). Closure, despite marking the end of engagement, marks the potential for successful engagement the next time around.

Learn More:

Small Actions Big Change: Pathways for Systems Impact

By: Sylvia Cheuy

Small Actions Big Change: Lessons for Impacting Systems

Share this: Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on LinkedIn

Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep by Darcy Riddell and Michele-Lee Moore dives deeply into a key question that is top-of-mind for many social change practitioners and funders: How do we scale up our impact? The impetus for this report, jointly commissioned by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Tamarack Institute, grew from the realization that highly successful local projects too often fail to demonstrate meaningful impact on the broader social and/or environmental systems they are operating within.

The insights documented in Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep were drawn from a unique cohort of individuals known as the Applied Dissemination Learning Group. This small network of social innovators developed trusting relationships with one another through the shared opportunity to learn together over time. The authors note that the experience of this group, and the support and insights they offered one another, enabled them all to become more effective than they would have been working alone. This shared peer learning experience highlights another important dimension of the work of social innovation: that "collaborative learning is an essential part of the entire social innovation process."

3 Pathways for Scaling a Social Innovation

In the field of social innovation, having a good idea that demonstrates promising results in addressing a complex social and/or ecological problem is only half of the challenge. The other half of the equation is determining how best to grow or spread the use of this good idea so that it can have greater impact. Scale is the term used to describe this second dimension of social innovation work. It is the work that focuses on the best ways to expand and accelerate the use of a promising new solution so that it has greater impact.

Promising Strategies for Achieving Scale

Moore and Riddell note that the work of scaling social innovations to effect larger scale change in social and/or environmental systems is "a more complex and diverse process than simply 'diffusing' or spreading a product or model." Their research with the Applied Dissemination Group identifies three primary pathways to translate promising new approaches into efforts that result in meaningful change within systems. The three pathways for scaling are:

  • Scaling Out - This pathway emphasizes the replicating of successful initiatives in different jurisdictions in the hope that the initiative's promising results can be spread to impact a growing number of people or communities. While this pathway can be effective in the short-term, it often fails to, "address the deeper systems holding social problems in place."
  • Scaling Up - This pathway emphasizes changing the rules, policies and laws of institutions. Its focus is on, "changing the rules of the game" to create a more enabling environment that make the old way of doing things more difficult and/or makes it easier for new innovative approaches to thrive.
  • Scaling Deep - This pathway recognizes that durable, lasting change is only possible when people's beliefs - their hearts and minds - have been transformed and the quality of their relationships to one another and the issue are viewed in new ways. The focus of this pathway is on shifting culture.

Beyond the identification of these three pathways, a key lesson learned from practitioners who focused on scaling their social innovation for systems impact emphasized the importance explicitly acknowledging this shift in focus as it often required them, and their organizations, to clarify and or reframe their original purpose. This reframing of purpose typically included: 1) clearly articulating their shift in focus to emphasize the scaling of their promising idea for greater impact; and, 2) Using systems thinking to examine - and affect - the root causes underling their innovation.

As the social innovator's work shifted from implementation to scaling their promising idea, common challenges that were experienced included: an increased stress on leaders; and the need to effectively manage organizational dynamics that accompanied the shift in purpose from implementing a promising innovation to scaling it up.

Specific strategies were employed to implement the various scaling pathways however which strategies were most effective, and how they unfolded, varied considerably depending on the pathway chosen as well as the unique context, assets and resources available in any particular situation. Generally four sets of strategies were identified as effective in scaling up promising social innovations.

These strategies are:

  • Strategies in the "Scaling Out" Pathway - Strategies used in this pathway emphasize the dissemination of principles for implanting the innovation while allowing for local adaptation and supporting the early adopters to improve their effectiveness by sharing, and co-generating, their knowledge with one another.
  • Strategies in the "Scaling Up" Pathway - Strategies used in this pathway emphasize changing policies, laws and funding flows by: developing new policies and/or laws; and advocacy for new funding flows and/or the redirection of existing system resources.
  • Strategies in the "Scaling Deep" Pathway - Strategies in this pathway include an emphasis on spreading big cultural ideas via the sharing of transformative stories; an emphasis on learning and reframing; and, the establishment of Communities of Practice to support the translation of new beliefs into practice.
  • Cross-Cutting Strategies - These strategies were used effectively regardless of the pathway for scaling a social innovation. They include: analyzing root causes; building networks and partnerships; seeking new resources; and, committing to regular evaluation and learning.  

The pathways and strategies summarized in Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep offer an important contribution to our evolving understanding of how to leverage promising social innovations for greater system impact. These insights emphasize that scaling involves a far richer and more multi-faceted appreciation of dynamics than was originally understood. This report also recognizes that, while investing in learning and the infrastructure to facilitate peer learning is resource intensive, it plays an essential role in effectively undertaking the work required to scale promising social innovations to a level where they can affect systems change.

Learn More:

Disrupting the Status Quo in Cities

By: Mark Holmgren

Urban Street

Share this: Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on LinkedIn

To create and sustain big change in our communities, particularly for those impacted by poverty, we must be prepared to disrupt the status quo; shake off old habits that block progress; and, craft new ways of thinking and acting - as individuals and together with organizations and within our governments.

What does it mean to be disruptive and what are the lessons that we can learn about ensuring that the disruptions created result in creative and positive change? These are the questions I am eager to explore in an upcoming conversation via the webinar I am hosting with Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities.

Living Cities is a U.S.-based network of 22 member foundations and financial institutions that is working with cross-sector leaders to develop and scale new approaches geared at achieving dramatically improved economic well-being for low-income people and the cities they live in.

The work of Living Cities combines investments, research, networks and convening to catalyze fresh thinking; supportive, innovative, comprehensive, local approaches; and facilitate real-time sharing of knowledge to accelerate and deepen adoption of these ideas in more places. This potent combination of impact investing, technology and innovation is successfully re-building the civic infrastructure of cities and leading the way in demonstrating how to effectively - and creatively - disrupt inequality in cities.

Learn More

Wishbone or Backbone: Your Choice

By: Liz Weaver

Success depends on your backbone, not your wishbone

Share this: Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on LinkedIn

Stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.
~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love ~

The challenge of undertaking a collective impact effort is that the cross-sector community table seeks to move the needle on a problem that seems intractable. Through the process of identifying a common agenda, the group envisions a future that is different from the community problems they are facing today.  In many ways, they are wishing for something different, for better outcomes for citizens in their community.

But moving from wishing to practical and tangible solutions requires something more than a hope and prayer, it requires a backbone intent. John Kania and Mark Kramer, authors of Collective Impact, which appeared in Winter 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, were visionary in considering the critical role of backbone infrastructure in supporting collective impact efforts.

Kania and Kramer referred to this condition as a 'backbone support organization' with dedicated staff who provided planning, management, and support functions to help the collective impact collaborative move forward. The key to a backbone is that there are dedicated resources, human and financial, that support the core functions of the collaborative leadership table. Over the past few years, we have learned that backbone infrastructure may look different from collaborative to collaborative, but that the core functions are essentially the same.

Backbone infrastructure provides the following support functions:

  1. Guide vision & strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurements
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

Source: Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact

We have also learned that investing in a backbone infrastructure is critical to the longer term collective success of moving the needle on your complex issue. The backbone team pays attention to the health of the whole collaborative and continually focuses on moving forward the many moving parts. This requires investing in leadership, building capacity of the collaborative and diving deeper on the core functions. John Kania has said 'the process of collective impact is as important as the product'. Backbone support pays a critical eye to the process function.

Learn more:

Good Relationships: The Key to Building a Good Life

By: Christie Nash

Best Friends © DrRave

Share this: Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on LinkedIn

What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? This is the first question that Robert Waldinger, fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, asks us in his TEDx Talk in November 2015.

In this era of rapid movement and high-speed communication, we often look to outside sources for happiness and fulfillment, such as increased wealth or status. However, the results of this 75 year-long study might be a wake-up call to rethink these priorities and the sources we seek for happiness. While most long-term and close relationships can be messy and complicated, it appears that this hard work is a real investment with important returns.

This Study of Adult Development is the longest study of adult life that has ever been done. Researchers at Harvard have spent the last 75 years tracking the lives 724 men asking about work, home life, and health. With 60 of the 724 men still alive and participating in the project, this study now continues to follow the lives of their 2,000 children and partners.

Beginning in 1938, researchers at Harvard tracked the lives of two groups of men: sophomores at Harvard College; and, a group of boys who were growing up in one of Boston's poorest neighbourhoods. Through interviews, medical records, and discussions with them and their parents, the researchers have discerned that the clearest message by far is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

Backing up this conclusion are tens of thousands of pages of data that support the notion that being in healthy relationships can be the strongest predictor of memory and brain function in old age and overall length and quality of life.

Learn More:

The Latest from the Field

Deepening Community

Mapping Assets: You, Your Community & Your Neighbourhood
By: Peterborough Deepening Community Initiative

Read the post >



Paul Born

An Interesting Take on Online Communities
By: Paul Born

Read the post >

Illustration: Creating a collective impact on childhood obesity: Lessons from the SCOPE initiative - See more at: http://tamarackcci.ca/blogs/sienna-jae-taylor/creating-collective-impact-childhood-obesity-evaluating-community-impact#sthash.mmgU828v.dpuf

Creating Collective Impact on Childhood Obesity: Lessons from SCOPE
By: Sienna Jae Taylor

Read the post >


Everything Starts With a Conversation
By: Devon Kerslake

Read the post >


Strong Communities

5 Ways Students are Addressing Poverty in Windsor
By: Pathways to Potential

Read the post >


Vibrant Communities Calgary

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future
By: Vibrant Communities Calgary

Read the post >

Upcoming Events


Evaluating Community Impact

February 9 -11, 2016
Vancouver, British Columbia

This three-day workshop provides those who are funding, planning and implementing community change initiatives with an opportunity to learn the latest and most practical evaluation ideas and practices.

Evaluating Community Impact

Community Engagement: The Next Generation

March 9-11, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

Paul Born, Mark Holmgren and Rachel Gainer will lead this three day workshop that explores the latest thinking and practice of Community Engagement. Learn engagement techniques and interact with technology that will transform how you engage your clients, customers, funders and partners. Enhance your capacity to effectively hear the voices of those you serve and learn key strategies to mobilize them toward a collective impact.
Community Engagement: The Next Generation

Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead

April 5-7, 2016
Edmonton, Alberta

This Vibrant Communities National Gathering will bring together mayors, provincial and territorial representatives, poverty reduction roundtable members, and interested individuals across the country in an effort to leverage their collective efforts and build the movement to reduce poverty across Canada.

Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead

Champions for Change

April 19-21, 2016
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Join together with the Tamarack Institute, the Collective Impact Forum, and Backbone organizations from across North America and internationally to enhance your collective impact. This years' agenda will provide you with inspiration, information and tools to offer the essential leadership and support required for your community's collective impact initiative to maximize its impact.

Champions for Change

Disrupt Cities

Free Tamarack Webinar
February 11, 2016 | 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

Join Ben Hecht, CEO, Living Cities and Mark Holmgren, Director, Vibrant Communities as they discuss how to build cities that are resilient, engaging and proactively achieving dramatically better results for low income residents. Ben will share examples where Living Cities partners have shifted the traditional paradigms to harness impact investing and are re-building civic infrastructure using technology and innovation. He will also share his perspectives on how the innovation economy can play a role in disrupting inequality in cities.

Ben Hecht



Share this Issue:

About Engage!

Engage! e-magazine is published to bring you inspiration, ideas, and resources to envision and create vibrant communities. We would love your ideas to help us improve our format. Please email us with your comments.

Engage! e-magazine is brought to you by:

Tamarack Institute
140 Westmount Rd N 
Waterloo, ON
N2L 3G6, Canada
Tel: 519-885-5155 
Email: tamarack@tamarackcommunity.ca
Web: http://tamarackcommunity.ca