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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.

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Beautiful thinking for September from Tamarack Institute



In this Issue

Collective Insights Collective Impact CoverShifting Mindsets: Collective Impact from Theory to Practice
[By: Sylvia Cheuy]

Since the debut of the first article about Collective Impact in the winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review,Collective impact has gained tremendous momentum as "a disciplined, cross-sector approach to solving social and environmental problems on a large scale." Today, the work of Collective Impact is alive across America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and South Korea and it has also started to influence funding and public policy. For example, the concept has been written into grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the Social Innovation Fund, a White House initiative, as well as various provincial ministry initiatives in Canada.

Collective Impact is still an emerging field of practice. Our shared understanding of it as a framework and approach continues to be refined and deepened by insights generated by practitioners as they share their own experiences with implementation. Collective Insights on Collective Impact - a new resource profiled in the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review - synthesizes the latest reflections about Collective Impact from 22 practitioners, funders, community organizers, and thought-leaders. Sponsored and curated by the Collective Impact Forum, the nine articles within Collective Insights on Collective Impact are a must-read for anyone curious about or working with Collective Impact.

The article Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, co-authored by John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown and Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSG, is particularly thought-provoking. Reflecting on several diverse Collective Impact efforts, the authors acknowledge that the five conditions of Collective Impact are not always sufficient to achieve large-scale change. The work of collective impact is very often counter-cultural. This is fundamental to its effectiveness but consequently requires those engaged in the work of Collective Impact to embrace a fundamentally new paradigm when thinking about how action unfolds. Beyond tending to the three pre-conditions and five conditions of Collective Impact, to be successful practitioners, funders and supporters of Collective Impact initiatives must embrace some important shifts in mindset regarding "who is engaged, how they work together, and how progress happens" These mindsets are "fundamentally at odds with traditional approaches to social change" and include:


The nature of complex problems which are the focus of Collective Impact cannot be solved by any single organization or sector alone. To be effective therefore, these efforts must meaningfully involve critical partners in government, the non-profit, the corporate and philanthropic sectors as well as people with lived experience of the issue. As this diverse group learns about one another's perspectives, their collective understanding of the problem - and their shared sense of mutual accountability - are created. Authentic engagement with people who are experiencing the problem first-hand is critical to ensuring that strategies are effective.

The relational is as important as the rational

Why do some powerful and well-documented innovations that help cure social ills spread quickly, whereas others do not? This question has been an important point of reflection for systems theorist Atul Gawande. His insight: "Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation."

Gawande's finding illustrates why relationship and trust-building are as important to the work of Collective Impact as reaching consensus on a common agenda or shared measures. As Stephen M. R. Covey noted, "...change happens at "the speed of trust" and therefore those advancing a Collective Impact initiative must be willing and able to invest time to build strong interpersonal relationships and trust across multiple partners. This is essential to enable the work of collective visioning and learning which are core to Collective Impact. To sustain relationships of trust, those involved in Collective Impact initiatives must also be particularly mindful to how credit is shared with one another and avoid temptations to claim sole credit for collective successes.


Collective impact initiatives are designed to help solve complex social and environmental problems. The nature of this work is unpredictable and constantly changing, and no single person or organization can control them. Because the focus of this work is often not known at the outset, participants must be willing to continuously learn and adapt their strategy using continuous feedback loops, and the coordinated responses of their participants.

In reality this means that those who are supporting and implementing Collective Impact initiatives must challenge each other to surrender their search for "a silver bullet solution" in favour of creating "silver buckshot solutions."  This is done by viewing their work as part of a larger system and considering how their efforts contribute to supporting positive change within that system.

Funders and policymakers support Collective Impact initiatives when they demonstrate a willingness to shift from investing solely in individual, single-point interventions to include investments in longer-term processes and relationship-building efforts that enable multiple organizations to work, and learn, together.

The widespread momentum around Collective Impact is exciting. It demonstrates a vital shift away from addressing complex social issues with individual, isolated programs towards considering how to best work in ways that is sensitive to the context of a broader system and how to move together towards large-scale change. These shifts have significant implications for how practitioners design and implement their work, how funders incentivize and engage with grantees, and how policymakers bring solutions to a large scale. Without these vital mindset shifts, collective impact initiatives are unlikely to make the progress they set out to accomplish.

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Tree with root system © esenkartal The Art of Regenerative Leadership
[By: Michael Jones]

We are like islands separated on the surface but connected in the deep.
- William Blake

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our deeper life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope with the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches - they correspond to a life of reactivity and busyness - of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory/ production to a more adaptive/ artful mindset. Giving our attention to the undersoil beneath an organization, a community- or a tree involves an artful process of creating form out of the ambiguous circumstances and variable conditions we find ourselves in. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space as well as tone, atmosphere, rhythm and time. The language shifts from structure and action to story, to metaphor, to felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all. Leaders shift from being managers to also being stewards and gardeners tending to the quality and well-being of the soil so that our gifts can find fertile ground in order to take root and grow.

Root systems, like artists, learn to adapt in the moment as they search for soil conditions that are most fertile and ‘alive'. As such they inquire, sense, absorb, invent and change course in the moment as they feel their way in the search for connective and fertile ground. Roots systems also co-mingle sharing their moisture with other root systems without diminishing their own health and well-being. 

Yet we are still influenced by an industrial age mind-set that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely, not on our own deep intuition but upon the perfection of external authority, of preconceived, of sequenced actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control.

But, as management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write;

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse...sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency... sometimes an individual actor ...creates his or her own pattern...and other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously; ...to manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow...to watch what does in fact come up and not be too quick to cut off the unexpected...

What can we do to create the conditions for healthy roots system in our communities and organizations?

Letting Go
We need to release our industrial age or mechanistic ways of thinking - including our narrow needs for planning and control - in order to accept a much wider range of variations and possibilities. This corresponds to the musicians open stage, where their repertoire and what they do well may need to be set aside in order to be open to the aliveness of the moment - and to follow its leading wherever it may go. In other words, in a regenerative culture the process itself IS the content. As such, it tends to unfold based on what feels most right alive and true. It cannot be preconceived or created fully in anticipation of or out of a concept formed in advance.

As a pianist and composer I go over a composition time and time again listening and feeling for the underlying pattern that is emerging from beneath. In this way, I make a lot of mistakes and go down blind alleys as I explore the emerging compositions many changing ways. Each iteration contributes to enhancing and enriching my auditory imagination so that I am able to make better aesthetic choices later on. In this context to be iterative is not to correct errors or mistakes but to engage them so as to be more aligned with a process of emergence that lies beneath. Working in this way holds within it a sense of taking our art into our body, such that there is a sense of both naturalness and simplicity to it even when it may appear difficult and complex to someone observing it from the outside.

While a regenerative process may often appear random, chaotic and even wrong-headed from the point of view of the observer, it is actually highly efficient, coherent, even elegant and inevitable when experienced from within. The reason for this is that a living process unfolds within ‘liminal space' one in which the continuity and smoothness of transitions generally unfold naturally and organically. This is particularly true when we trust that the container itself carries the seed of its own unfolding potential for what is to come next. It is when we try to move ahead by force of will or through tension, urgency or effort that this internal order is disturbed and our progress impeded.

One primary qualification for guiding others in a regenerative process is less on what we know and more upon our capacity for holding presence with what is not yet known. That is, to be curious and open to whatever is emerging in our awareness that appears to be fuzzy, ambiguous or unclear. This capacity for sense-making is amplified when we are together and diminished when we are apart. That is, there is a power that comes to us when we meet as an ‘ensemble' where, for a moment, we forget ourselves and work for the benefit of the larger whole. Creating spaces for exploring what we do not yet know, spaces where we can be present to what is unformed and incomplete, sets in motion a process of unfolding order, a practice which has always been familiar for the artist but unfamiliar to others who have been educated into a more parts-based mentality that is common in the industrial world. Once this living process is initiated, it will follow along the trajectory of its own unfolding potential - one that is natural, organic and unrepeatable - and which reflects the expression of wholeness as it appears to us in that particular moment.

All work is half rest. Nature cannot thrive in full flower all the time, nor can we. We need time to empty to digest, assimilate and to be still. Dormancy and decay are as a much part of the life force as is growth and flowering. The absence of this deep time of gestation can lead to confusion and erosion of the force of life itself. Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath reminds us that a successful life can also be a violent life. To live a deeply rooted life is to find and create a home for oneself. Plants can only grow as high as they grow deep. To do otherwise is to be at the mercy of the atmosphere. We can only blend with its strong forces if we are deeply rooted within ourselves. Too often the sense of duty and responsibility overrides our intuition and good judgment. It becomes difficult to settle. Yet As Wayne Muller suggests, the world aches for just that - the generosity of well rested people.

French Painter Georges Braque once wrote, "...on art there is only one thing that counts: the thing you can't explain." In the busyness of our days we often forget this mystery particularly as it relates to what lies in the ground beneath our feet. Yet what sits above can feel to us like an over worked and over - processed world - superficial, fabricated, manufactured and refined. Too often that which feeds does not fill us. We hunger for something real - words, ideas, connections, possibilities, food good enough to be eaten; food that still has the roots and dirt on. Perhaps these are the hungers we hold for leaders, to be people who live embodied and conscious lives, who are rooted to the land, who are vital and alive, who know what they love and where they belong, leaders who, when they speak, tell us who they are, how they live and...where they come from.

The Roots of Aliveness was adapted from The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership through Nature, Art and Community by Michael Jones, Victoria BC (Friesen, 2014)

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Tree with root system © esenkartal A Case Study in Community Innovation - Indwell
[By: Milton Friesen, Jeff Neven & Steven Rolfe]

Can case studies of successful social service delivery inspire and challenge organizations, individuals and communities to "raise the bar for how things currently work in different sectors of society?"  Will they spark new ways of thinking about how to address the most intractable challenges of our communities? These are the questions that underpin the Cardus Institute's Innovative Case Studies initiative.

The just-released case study Innovations in Mental Health Housing by Milton Friesen and Andy Bayer takes an in- depth look at Indwell (formerly Homestead Christian Care): an affordable housing organization in Hamilton Ontario that has provided homes and supports for forty years to people with mental-health struggles, disabilities and addictions. Indwell has "a model for development, partnerships and financing that maximizes resources and community benefits." Its unique and highly successful approach is the result of the successful integration of three primary elements:

  • Well-developed business processes;
  • Effective client care; and,
  • Strong ties to natural community support

While none of these elements is innovative on its own, the study notes that, "The real value of this case study lies in the integration of these three elements."

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5 Qualities for Living Community
[By: Rachel Brnjas]

Understanding community has always been central to Dr. Joe Schaeffer's work. As an academic and teacher he has asked thousands of people, from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, to answer a single question: What would people be like, within and with each other, in a world you would like to be part of? In Living Community: Thirty Think Pieces for Moving from Dreams to Reality Joe has distilled the responses he heard into five qualities of character that are exemplified by people who demonstrate the capacity to create resilient, strong communities. The five "qualities of character" at the heart of communities that are alive and flourishing are:

  • Genuine Interest - which emphasizes self-understanding and deep interest in understanding others.
  • Acknowledgement - which highlights the critical importance of seeing and knowing diverse points of view without accepting all of them as right.
  • Deep Empathy - which makes it possible for us to become as others, to see through their eyes in the deepest sense possible.
  • Altruism - which is a powerful quality of character that allows us to achieve self-actualization and to support others as they do so, too.
  • Mutual Trust - which brings together trust of others and trust of self in the presence of others.

A sense of oneness is the "tie that binds" these qualities together.

As we work to deepen each of these qualities within ourselves, and alongside others, we begin to live out the fullness of community. The role or job of community becomes clear and simply begins to happen as we nurture and practice these qualities with one another.

In the foreword of this book, Paul Born writes, "Joseph Schaeffer understands, more than anyone else I know, the essence of community and the qualities of character of living community... The world needs this book."

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Updates from Tamarack's Learning Communities
  • Understanding Complexity and Developmental Evaluation - Cameron Norman describes complexity as "a way of seeing and thinking about problems" that need not be scary. For those new to the topic, he has compiled a list of seven resources to help you try on this new paradigm.

  • Take a Ride on the Wild Side of Leadership - Tom Klaus shares reflections sparked by Mark Holmgren's recent blog on becoming a learning organization. His focus is specifically on the leadership required by learning organizations and he identifies three competencies that he believes are important. 

  • Setting Poverty Reduction Goals: What is Realistic? - Lori Kleinsmith comments on the Province of Ontario's recent recommitment to reduce child poverty by 25% within five years after failing to reach that target with its initial poverty-reduction strategy. Noting the province's blame of the federal government for its initial failure, she suggests that Ontario needs to establish realistic goals that do not rely on others to step in. Laying blame after the fact is of little value to the thousands of Ontarians living in poverty.

  • Doing Different with Less - Liz Weaver explores the conundrum of how to do differently with less when so many of the structures and systems we are working within expect us to do more with less. She explores three big ideas - the eco-cycle approach, collective impact and community engagement - that offer approaches for working differently.
  • They're Informal, But These Workers are Essential - In her recent essay in the Globe and Mail, Sherri Torjman profiles the essential caring offered by Canada's 8.1 million informal caregivers who freely provide 80 percent of the care needed by friends and loved ones with long-term health conditions. 

  • Mapping and Weaving Networks - Relationships are an often invisible, yet powerful, structure for accelerating positive change. Liz Rykert invites people to join her later this month in Toronto to develop the capacity to harness the power of relationships by learning how to map and weave networks.
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Engage! e-magazine is published by Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, 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.

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