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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.

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The Latest Ideas about Community Change from the Tamarack Institute
April 2016
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Collective Impact Backbones - Different Approaches and Lots of Complexity

By: Liz Weaver

puzzle pieces - backbone - align, build, advance

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A closer look at the array of collective impact efforts reveals a diversity of backbone infrastructure designs as well. Depending on the size and scope of the collective impact effort, and the unique context it is operating in, the backbone may look and be structured differently.

There are six core functions of a backbone that closely align with the conditions of collective impact:

  • Advancing the overall vision and strategy
  • Establishing shared measurement
  • Aligning activities and resources
  • Building public will
  • Advancing policy
  • Securing resources and funding

Backbone Structures: Form Follows Function
But how do these functions happen? There are generally four different models for backbone structures that I have observed.

  • The Stand-Alone Backbone – This backbone model operates as a stand-alone organization that has charitable or 501c3 status. In this case, the backbone has formed into its own organization with a board of directors providing oversight and direction and a larger advisory committee which is made up of community partners.
  • The Nested Backbone This backbone model is made up of a small staff team of 3 to 6 individuals who are housed within the organization of one of the partners. The partner organization acts as the fiscal host and the staff team is accountable to both the Board of the fiscal host and the collective impact leadership group.
  • The Volunteer Backbone – This backbone model is an all-volunteer team of community leaders who work collaboratively to drive the collective impact effort forward. The all-volunteer backbone team usually has engaged a larger advisory table with whom they meet on a monthly or quarterly basis. One of the all-volunteer team members acts as the fiscal host for revenue and reporting purposes.
  • The Seconded Backbone – This backbone model is made up of a group of staff that are currently employed by an existing organization and have been seconded to create the backbone infrastructure of the collective impact effort on a part-time or full-time basis. The existing organization provides the salary and supports to the backbone staff. The backbone staff report to the CEO of the existing organization as well as to a larger collaborative table.

In each of these four models, there is a mix of reporting and accountability relationships that must be clarified and sorted out. There is also the potential for misperception and miscommunication to occur.

Collective Impact - Values and Principles
This is why it is vital, in the early stages of a collective impact effort, for the leadership table to come to agreement on the values and principles which will guide their work. Values and principles can be important guide posts for how decisions will be made; how the group will work together; and how conflicts can be addressed. They can also serve as an opportunity to make declarative statements about issues such as equity of voice.

Here are some broad values and principles which can serve as a starting point for backbones to consider:

  • Transparency and Accountability: Decisions take place in the public eye.
  • Equity and Inclusiveness: All interests who are needed and willing contribute to solution.
  • Effectiveness and Efficiency: Solutions are tested to make sure they make practical sense.
  • Responsiveness: Public concerns are authentically addressed.
  • Forum Neutrality: Different perspectives are welcome; the process itself has no bias.
  • Consensus-Based: Decisions are made through consensus rather than majority rule.

Collective impact leadership tables and backbone staff should work together to clarify their own values and principle statements and use these to guide their collective efforts.

Multiple Levels of Accountability and Authority
In each of the four different backbone models there are multiple levels of both accountability and authority. It is important that these 'reporting relationships' be clarified and documented as early as possible. Agreeing who has to report to whom for what purpose is vital. When considering accountabilities, backbones should specifically consider:

  • Hiring of Backbone Staff – Who are the staff directly accountable to? Who is supervising their work? Who is responsible for ensuring that hiring and performance practices are followed?
  • Securing and Allocating Funds – Who makes the decisions about securing and allocating funds? How open and transparent is this process?
  • Building Public Will and Communicating about the Collective Impact Effort – What are the key messages and who has the authority to speak on behalf of the collective impact effort?
  • Advancing the Policy Agenda – What process needs to be followed to develop and push forward a policy agenda? Who need to be involved in this decision-making process? What happens if one or more of the partners does not agree with the policy statements? What if a policy position challenges a position of partner organization?

The backbone structure in collective impact efforts is simple in design and complex in operation. To learn more about backbones, their key roles, governance and implementation tools and templates, join us at the Champions for Change: Leading a Backbone effort for Collective Impact April 19 - 21, 2016 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You will meet other backbone leaders engaged in collective impact work and build your knowledge and expertise about this critical function. 

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The Non-Profit's Dilemma: Innovate or Perish

By: Tim Draimin, Social Innovation Generation (SIG) National


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With no place to hide from change, the next decade will bring unprecedented transformation to Canada's non-profits. This metamorphosis will be driven by metrics unleashed by open data; new behavioural insights; deepening new technology penetration; demographic shifts (e.g. aging population's service demands, millennials assuming workplace leadership); generative partnership approaches; and, revamped government commissioning of contracted services (Gs+Cs).

Will the resulting innovation, supported by Social R&D, be the exclusive domain of new upstart non-profits and social enterprise hybrids? Or, will we also see an expansion of existing organizations intentionally and systematically leveraging their deep front-line experience to reshape programs and better tackle root causes?

Non-profits that are keen to innovative and accelerate their impact are fortunate that there are many excellent resources now available to guide this journey. A leading example is the DIY Toolkit assembled for a global audience by a team at the United Kingdom's innovation foundation Nesta.

SiG and Innoweave are two Canadian organizations that collaborate with Nesta and DIY. Nesta, formerly the government-created National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, is an international powerhouse that became an independent charity in 2012. Several years ago, SiG and MaRS hosted Nesta's CEO and well-known social innovation thought leader, Geoff Mulgan, for various presentations.

DIY has scoured the world and reviewed hundreds of tools to be able to curate and assemble a downloadable set of practical tools to help trigger and support social innovation. The tools are organized around Nesta's seven stage framework for innovation.

The well-developed field of mainstream innovation dates back well over a century. While the term "social innovation" has been actively used for 200 years, the field is only several decades old. Nesta's online DIY Toolkit blends mainstream and social innovation resources, organizing and presenting them in an agile, informative and accessible way that empowers social change innovators to pursue formulaic or iterative approaches for achieving greater impact.

On Wednesday May 18th I will be exploring these DIY tools and their application in a Tamarack webinar conversation with Nesta's Brenton Caffin, who leads the ongoing development and deployment of the DIY Toolkit. I hope you'll be able to join this dialogue!

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Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead

By: Mark Holmgren

Image from the Mayors Summit

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The time to act on poverty reduction is here.

The momentum builds this month, as Tamarack Institute, Vibrant Communities Canada and the City of Edmonton come together to organize a milestone gathering to deepen our understanding of poverty as a human rights issue that impacts everyone in our communities.

From April 5-7, mayors from across Canada, representing communities of all sizes, are gathering at Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead in Edmonton, Alberta. They are joined by city councillors; provincial and territorial representatives; sector leaders and practitioners from across the country; and people with lived experience of poverty. Together, the collective wisdom of over 350 attendees will convene a learning community designed to expand our knowledge; grow our toolbox for change; and, leverage our collaborative efforts.

Without a doubt, this is a unique time in the history of Canada. Across the country, every provincial and territorial government has or is considering a poverty reduction strategy - just two months ago we featured two examples of strategies laid out for Edmonton and Toronto. At the community level, most communities are enacting poverty reduction strategies focused on reducing the number of Canadians experiencing poverty. What's more, we have a new and energized federal government.

Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton and one of the keynote speakers at the Cities Reducing Poverty gathering affirms this momentum when he says, "Ending poverty is not science fiction anymore, it's happening in a community near you and it's thrilling!"

Highlights of the Cities Reducing Poverty learning community and gathering include:

  • Over 350 attendees, including: 19 mayors; 8 city councillors; sector leaders and practitioners from over 150 organizations and collaboratives; and, over 30 participants with lived experience sponsored or subsidized by the City of Edmonton; Tamarack; partners; and, communities.

  • A panel discussion on ideas to end poverty through the lenses of local and federal governments, and the business community with Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Senator Art Eggleton and Ruth Kelly
  • Dr. Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, speaks about ending poverty for Aboriginal children

  • Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger, among others, will present successful approaches to poverty reduction in their cities, focusing on bold initiatives, human rights efforts, health and well-being, and more

  • 23 workshops delivered by civic, Aboriginal and community leaders, going deeper in areas such as fundraising, rights-based poverty reduction, shared measurement and collective impact

A gathering of this magnitude could not be made possible without the support of many. Tamarack would like to thank the following organizers, partners and sponsors for their commitment to this work: City of Edmonton, Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, Edmonton Community Foundation, The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Maytree, Momentum, Ontario Trillium Foundation, United Way Alberta Capital Region and United Way Centraide Canada.

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Community Engagement: Why it Matters

By: Megan Wanless

Community Engagement cover

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There is a temptation, particularly in data-driven and evidence-based practices, to act in a top down manner in the design and implementation of community engagement programs.

But, there is power in those with lived experience and in reframing approaches and opportunities that engage community members directly in social change. In an article recently published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)", Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz juxtapose what not to do to effect social change with six factors that are essential to building community support by way of a top down, data-driven example of educational reform in a Newark community, led in isolation by philanthropists and city leaders.

The lessons learned by such unsuccessful efforts to move the needle on systems change have become acutely relevant in recent years, according to Barns and Schmitz.

In simplest terms, they stress the importance of engagement directly with community members to effect evidence-based social change.

In order to accomplish this, the article details six Factors of Engagement that are said to be essential to building community support. The factors are complementary:

  1. Organize for Ownership - The International Association for Public Participation has developed a spectrum that encompasses various forms of engagement. At one end is informing, on the other end is empowerment. Organizing for ownership is about cultivating leaders within the community and empowering them to lead or be a part of leading change at every phase of your initiative.

  2. Allowing for Complexity - Instead of trying to "plug and play" your approach, recognize and consider the complex systems of influences and the cultural context when you plan for and execute on your engagement efforts.

  3. Working with Local Institutions - In some cases, local organizations have built up social capital that creates an enabling environment for engagement. Collaboration with local groups can take effort but goes a long way towards building capacity.

  4. Applying an Equity Lens - Too often social change efforts do not engage the right people. Members of the community should not only be at the table, they should hold leadership positions as well.

  5. Building Momentum - One of the ways to accomplish momentum is by achieving quick wins up front - early examples of demonstrated progress. These can help enable community members to see that their engagement matters.

  6. Managing Constituencies Through Change - When evolving your engagement strategy, be mindful of the impact and perception various constituencies may have to change. Transparency, visibility and continuous communication all play a role in managing change with key stakeholders.

One example of a collaborative actively demonstrating the benefits of engagement directly with the community to effect social change is the Promise Neighbourhood Institute at PolicyLink (PNI). Promise Neighbourhoods are communities of opportunity centered around strong schools to wrap children in supports from cradle to college to career. To effect change, they effectively coordinate the efforts of and engage with local schools, families, social services, health centres, and community-building programs to serve 200,000 children nationwide.

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Nominate your #Nbrhdhero!

By: Christie Nash

Nominate your #Nbrhdhero!

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Help your #Nbrhdhero win a full scholarship to the 2016 Deepening Community National Gathering!

Neighbourhood Heroes are those individuals that make our neighbourhoods healthier, more vibrant, and inclusive places to live. A neighbourhood hero is someone who has mastered the act of caring, and understands the art of neighbourliness.

Who is a #Nbrhdhero?

A Neighbourhood Hero is different for every person and every community - it is up to you to discover what that means in your neighbourhood! It could be:

  • The 10-year potluck organizer
  • The one who never gave up on city meetings
  • The hero who finally got that community garden set up
  • Your friendly neighbourhood association member
  • The hero who welcomes each and every new neighbour as if they've been friends for years

How Does It Work?

  • Step 1 - Submit nominee by Sunday, May 1st, 2016
  • Step 2 - Nominees will be profiled on our site & voting information will be shared with nominators via email
  • Step 3 - Share, share, share! It will be up to you and your networks to share the contest and encourage people to get online and vote for your #nbrhdhero. Voting takes place from May 2nd - May 8th, 2016
  • Step 4 - The nominee with the most votes wins! The winner will be notified by an e-mail that will include all of the terms of participation and will be announced publicly on Monday, May 9th

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The Latest from the Field

Traffic Merges

The Potential of Merging Public Policy with Community Development
By: Paul W. Davidson

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Al Etmanski

The Journey to Transformation Starts with a Resurrection of the Ordinary
By: Al Etmanski

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Hey, What's That Buzzing Sound
By: Tom Klaus

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The End of Collective Impact
By: Todd Barr

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Sneak Peek: 10 - A Guide for Cities Reducing Poverty
By: Larry Gemmel

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Alternative Community Transportation Solutions
By: VC Saint John

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Upcoming Events


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

Deepening Community 2016: Resilient Neighbourhoods - When People Care

June 7-9, 2016
Edmonton, Alberta

Municipalities and neighbourhoods are being confronted with a range of complex issues that are beyond the capacity of any one group or sector to effectively address. At the same time, individuals of all ages are experiencing the physical and psychological impact of increased isolation. Deepening Community offers the opportunity to establish relationships, cultivate the ability that comes from giving and receiving care, and offers the possibility to create powerful networks that have the capacity to actively co-create positive futures together. Together, let's create the resilience needed to 'bounce back' from crises and hardship and foster a sense of belonging.

Deepening Community 2016: Resilient Neighbourhoods - When People Care

Introduction to Collective Impact

Speakers: Sylvia Cheuy
April 12, 2016 | 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST

The Collective Impact approach was developed as a response to the recognition that traditional solutions to our social problems have not been working. Collective Impact recognizes that we are stronger, and more effective, when working together. The goal of this webinar is to introduce you to the ideas and practices that foster Collective Impact in communities. Join Sylvia Cheuy of Tamarack Institute for this introduction to the ideas and practices that foster Collective Impact.

Sylvia Cheuy

Resilience Talks

Speakers: A 4-Part Learning Series with Milton Friesen
April 19th - June 24th, 2016| 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST

In this powerful Learning Series, our host, Milton Friesen, will explore four urban dynamics that contribute to resilience with thought-leaders from across Canada who specialize in the areas of place-making, social networking, measurement of social resilience, and economics that will generate insight for planners, policy makers and community leaders who are seeking to increase the adaptive capacity of cities. Join Milton for this insightful Learning Series that invites you to explore the different urban dynamics that contribute to resilient communities and cities.

Milton Friesen

Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy

Speakers: Brianne Peters & Alison Mathie, Coady International Institute
April 21, 2016 | 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

This webinar will introduce you to a new collection of cases from Canada and the USA, edited by Alison Mathie and John Gaventa of the Coady International Institute, profiling examples of citizen-led innovation for a new economy. These cases are drawn from urban and rural contexts and ethnically diverse settings - First Nations, Inuit, Latino, African American, predominantly white, and mixed economies - and illustrate new ways of working, tying economic justice to the creation of multiple forms of wealth.

Brianne Peters

An Other Kingdom

Speakers: John McKnight, Peter Block & Walter Brueggemann
April 28, 2016 | 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

Our seduction into beliefs in competition, scarcity, and acquisition is producing too many casualties. An Other Kingdom provides a new narrative, a shift in our thinking and speaking, to take us out of a culture of addictive consumption into a place where contract is replaced by covenant, consumption is replaced by neighbourliness, and our time is reclaimed as our own. Please join authors Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, and John McKnight for an intimate conversation about their new book An Other Kingdom. Discover what has inspired them to write this book together and explore their vision for their proposed paradigm shift.

John McKnight

Promise Neighbourhoods

Speakers: Michael McAfee, VP for Programs, PolicyLink & Co-Director of Promise Neighbourhoods Institute
May 4, 2016 | 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

Please join Michael McAfee, Vice President for Programs at PolicyLink and Co-Director of Promise Neighbourhoods Institute for an in-depth presentation on this innovative neighbourhood program, his journey to build a legacy grounded in equity, and how PNI is using Collective Impact as a framework to build communities of opportunity.

Michael McAfee

Gearing Up for Social Impact

Speakers: Brenton Caffin, NESTA & Tim Draimin, Social Innovation Generation (SiG)
May 18, 2016 | 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

Join Brenton Caffin and Tim Draimin in a conversation about the DIY Toolkit, the lessons Nesta is learning about scaling social impact and how you can benefit from these tools and resources when facing complex issues in your own work.

Brenton Caffin



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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