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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.

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.

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Beautiful Thinking for April from the Tamarack Institute

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Valuing the Intangible: The Impact of Deepening Community

BY: Sylvia Cheuy


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In a recent webinar exploring six patterns of social innovation, Tamarack Thought-Leader Al Etmanski spoke of his hope for a "resurrection of the ordinary" which he described as "recognizing ordinary people and their extraordinary power."

Al's phrase struck a deep cord and reminded me that simple things that are easily overlooked can often be powerful sources of profound impact. Community is one of those things: so ordinary and obvious that it is often assumed as a given. Yet, increasingly evidence is demonstrating the profound impact that face-to-face connection and strong circles of friendship have on our health, our ability to learn, our resilience and our life expectancy.

The choice to deepen community - to connect regularly with family and friends; to chat and share stories with neighbours; to take time to contribute to and enjoy local celebrations - is, on the one hand, is so incredibly ordinary. On the other hand, strengthening connection to our neighbours and choosing to invest in the strengthening of social ties within communities is proving to be an important strategy - and necessary prerequisite - for achieving meaningful impact on a range of complex community issues. In The Village Effect, author Susan Pinker states, "Surprisingly, face-to-face social capital in a neighbourhood can predict who lives and who dies even more powerfully than whether the area is rich or poor." Citing a 2003 Harvard study of the social capital - reciprocity, trust and civic participation - of 350 Chicago neighbourhoods, she shares, "the higher the levels of social capital, the lower its mortality rates, and not just from violent crime but from heart disease too. Clearly the place makes a difference to your health."

Rediscovering the capacity to deepen community in our neighbourhoods and cities is a skill and practice that we need to be more intentional about cultivating. Across Canada and throughout North America, municipalities and organizations are discovering the value of building this capacity. By investing in the leadership capacity of neighbours and working collaboratively with neighbourhood leaders, municipalities, together with non-profit, philanthropic and local business organizations are discovering they can have a greater impact than could ever be achieved by independently delivering programs and services. Below are just a few of many examples of the power of deepening community:

Grey-Bruce Region, Ontario: The Power of Conversations to Deepen Community

In the spring of 2014, a team from the Grey-Bruce Health Unit launched a Community Conversations initiative in partnership with Tamarack. Part of a national Deepening Community campaign, the goals of the Grey Bruce project were: to reveal and strengthen community connections; to increase community engagement; to build consensus on opportunities for shared action; and, to nurture diverse community leadership.

Over the next six months, a total of 47 conversations were held with more than 400 citizens representing ten different sector perspectives across the region. 

A survey of participants revealed that 89% of them were interested in working together to strengthen their community after having participated in a conversation, and their feelings of connection to each other increased by 8% after the conversations. Some comments include:

  • "Good community takes work and participation."
  • "A community acts like a mirror, helping you to see yourself."
  • "Community is…dedicated people from different backgrounds committed to improving our community."
  • "Friends go in different directions but community, whether large or small, works together for a common goal."
  • "Strengthening connections is important."

Later this month, a series of community celebrations are planned to share back the results of this project with participants and highlight opportunities to strengthen capacity for community action.

Baltimore, Maryland: Creating Better Outcomes for Babies

Two neighbourhoods in Baltimore are making positive progress in improving health outcomes for their youngest residents: those under 1 year of age. In 2010, following the news that the City of Baltimore's infant mortality rate was the 4th worst in the United States, a collaborative effort known as B'More for Healthy Babies was launched in the priority neighbourhoods of Upton-Druid Park and Patterson Park.

Led by the Office of the Mayor, with co-leadership from The Family League of Baltimore and the Baltimore City Health Department, the goal of B'More for Healthy Babies is that "all of Baltimore's babies are born at a healthy weight, full term, and ready to thrive in healthy families.

The project was launched in 2009 and collaborates with 150 community partners and residents to raise awareness; keep organizations and residents informed about the issues contributing to infant mortality; and, ensure access to a range of programs and services to support all infants and their families to achieve optimum health. In six years, B'More for Healthy Babies has already generated some impressive results. These include:

  • A 24% decrease in infant mortality
  • A 32% decrease in teen pregnancy
  • A 10% decrease in low birth-weight
  • A decrease in the racial disparity between white and black infants by almost 40%; and,
  • A decrease in the number of sleep-related deaths - which has been the biggest contributor to lower infant mortality - in Baltimore

These are just two stories that illustrate what is possible when neighbours, cities and organizations work and learn together. Tamarack is pleased to offer leadership to document, champion and accelerate the important work of deepening community. Are there stories and resources for building neighbourhoods and communities that you can share? If so, please email them to Christie Nash at: christie@tamarackcommunity.ca who can help you post them on the Seeking Community online learning community.

From June 8-10, 2015 the Neighbours: Policies & Programs gathering held in Hamilton, Ontario, will focus on Re-imagining Cities ~ Re-engaging Citizens and bring together leaders in neighbourhood-building from around the world. Joined by renowned community-builders John McKnight, Jim Diers, Vickie Cammack and Paul Born, attendees will learn from one another and explore opportunities to accelerate our collective capacity to strengthen neighbourhoods and deepen community. Later this month, the webinar: Imagining and Engaging: The Hamilton Neighbourhood Story will also provide an opportunity to discover the highlights, results and learnings from that city's neighbourhood action strategy.

By committing to work and learn from each other, we will rediscover the power - and accelerate the practice - of deepening community, together. Please join us and add your insights, wisdom and curiosity to this growing movement.

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When Shortcuts Cut Us Short: Cognitive Traps in Philanthropic Decision-Making


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How do we make good decisions when trying to tackle tough social challenges? This has been a central concern of management experts, policy analysts and community developers for nearly 100 years.

A big barrier to good decision-making is managing our cognitive biases. While we may not be familiar with the term, we all have first-hand experience with mental traps and emotional triggers that shape - and often distort - how we interpret and use data to help us make sense of the world around us. For example, a community safety committee may devote scarce volunteer hours to patrolling the streets to prevent vandalism in their neighborhood simply because vandalism was on the front page of yesterday's newspaper (i.e. the "recency bias"). Or, teachers may be reluctant to let go of an old way of teaching math in order to try a new as of yet unproven approach (i.e. "loss aversion bias or status quo bias"). Or, recently you may have personally experienced the tendency to underestimate the time, energy and difficulty of getting your family in the car and to Easter celebrations at your mother's (i.e. the "confidence bias"). Wikipedia now list nearly 150 such biases.

In the last ten years, an impressive number of books have emerged that explore the role of cognitive biases in our day to day lives and how we might navigate these biases productively. Some of my favourites include: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions by Dan Ariely; Bozosapiens by Michael and Ellen Kaplan; How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer; Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein; and, the most comprehensive of them all, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I decided that I would write up a resource on the role of cognitive biases in community change efforts after completing my graduate research on the topic of evaluating social innovation. But alas, Tanya Beer and Julie Coffman - the prolific and experienced principals from the Center from Evaluation Innovation in Washington, DC - beat me to it.

When Shortcuts Cut Us Short: Cognitive Traps in Philanthropic Decision-Making is an excellent resource that explores the role that cognitive biases play in the thinking and decisions of philanthropic organizations who invest in social innovation and community change. The authors begin by exploring why decision-makers of all kinds resort to mental shortcuts. They then describe cognitive traps that are most commonly faced by philanthropists. Some of these include:

  1. Confirmation Bias - A tendency to seek information that confirms our existing beliefs and opinions while ignoring data that challenges them (e.g. I believe that wrap-around services are the answer to helping at-risk kids finish high school, regardless of the mountain of data that suggest it can only address some of the factors that influence this outcome).

  2. Escalation of Commitment - A commitment to an idea, a direction or decision even when data suggests it is no longer worth supporting (e.g. we already invested $500,000 into this project, so let's keep going to see if we can't make it work).

  3. Availability Bias - A pattern of recalling immediate or easy-to-remember examples or incidents that relate to a discussion or decisions (e.g. I attended a board meeting once where the members discussed how much time staff was spent on reporting to different funders for little pots of money - that is why I think we really should find a way to align our reporting requirements with other funders).

  4. Groupthink - When the urge for harmony and consensus in a group limits their authentic appraisal of alternative ideas or viewpoints (e.g. I suspect that our shift to funding a few larger mainstream agencies to tackle this problem will cause a lot of friction and trouble for smaller - but more culturally-responsive - agencies, but everyone seems to be ok with this and I don't want to rock the boat with my colleagues).

The authors then recommend eleven techniques that funders can employ to balance the unique cognitive biases about their own strategy and investments:

  1. Use Devil's Advocacy
  2. Invite an Outsider's Perspective 
  3. Look for Disconfirming Evidence and Ask for the Bad News
  4. Focus on Trends Rather than Individual Experiences
  5. Remind Yourself What You Do Not Know
  6. Play Out Alternative Perspectives and Solutions 
  7. Build Forward Estimations into Processes
  8. Encourage Course Corrections
  9. Develop Decision Teams That Include More Than the Original Decision-Makers 
  10. Build Earlier Check-ins into the Strategy Approval Process 
  11. Reduce Upfront Strategy Planning Time in Favor of Ongoing Strategy Development

Learn more about these techniques in the paper >

Like all Center for Evaluation Innovation resources, When Shortcuts Cut Us Short is to the point, easy to read, and full of practical ideas. More importantly, it shines a light on one of the most significant, poorly-understood and often deliberately ignored challenges for would be social innovators: the necessity of slowing down, rather than speeding up, when wresting with complex issues.

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What Makes Revelstoke a Vibrant Community?

By: Natasha Pei


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We talk a lot about reducing poverty and poverty reduction strategies in the VC Learning Community. But what do we really envision our communities will look like when we've achieved our goals? And, what are the unique ways that our communities are already vibrant? There is a plethora of diversity throughout our groups and within them in answer to these questions. Our hope - and our mission - leading up to the national Poverty Reduction Summit, is to learn from our cities and members, 'What is a vibrant community to you?'
In answer to our call for artistic submissions addressing this question, Revelstoke, B.C. combined multiple media elements: depicting their vibrant community through drawings, interlaced with a video montage of interviews, where their residents to discuss share their thoughts and ideas in response to 3 questions:

  • What is a vibrant community?
  • What is vibrant about Revelstoke, B.C? About Canada?
  • What can we do to make vibrant communities for everyone?

Watch the video and see what emerges as local youth, seniors, community leaders, couples, and others, delve into what makes Revelstoke inviting for all residents, and how people from diverse backgrounds can all be included and involved in the community.

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Putting Community in Collective Impact

BY: Sylvia Cheuy


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Considerable attention is being paid to the role and importance of community engagement in successful collective impact efforts. The recent paper entitled Putting Community in Collective Impact by Richard Harwood and published by the Collective Impact Forum, dives more deeply into this important issue and concludes that, "civic culture matters for Collective Impact. Big Time!" Civic culture refers to the unique characteristics that describe "how a community works: how trust is formed, why and how people engage with each other; and the degree of readiness for change amongst leaders." Each community has its own civic culture and paying attention to it, makes it possible to accelerate and deepen collective impact efforts.

Putting Community in Collective Impact outlines five key characteristics of civic culture and how paying attention to them can enhance rather than undermine the successful implementation of a Collective Impact effort. The five characteristics are:

  1. Ownership by the Larger Community - Successful Collective Impact efforts must value public knowledge as well as expert knowledge. Engaging shared public knowledge enables a Collective Impact effort to provide an opportunity for people "to engage as citizens, with true aspirations and agency, not merely as passive consumers or claimants, making demands on limited resources."

  2. Strategies that Fit the Community - This characteristic focuses on ensuring that the aligned strategies within a Collective Impact effort "fit" the local community context. Fit is created by using the community's public knowledge to drive the definition of the common agenda and to understand what strategies are relevant to the community.

  3. A Sustainable Enabling Environment - This characteristic is focused on paying attention to the "underlying conditions within a community that need to be present for change to occur - and for the community itself to change how it works together." Nine leadership factors contribute to building public capital. The magic is to develop collective impact strategies that simultaneously strengthen the community's public capital.

  4. A Focus on Impact and Belief - As important as it is for Collective Impact efforts to focus on "impact" - demonstrated progress on issues that people care about - equal attention needs to be paid to people's belief that they can get things done, together. Belief is that intangible factor that pushes people to become engaged. It arises when people believe they are part of something larger than themselves. While impact can be demonstrated with data, belief emerges from passion, meaningful relationships and confidence that change is possible.

  5. The Story a Community Tells Itself - The key hidden factor in whether a community moves forward or not is its narrative: the story the community tells about itself. Like a parable whose lesson is embedded into a story, a community's narrative shapes people's mindsets, attitudes, behaviors and actions. Communities need "can-do" narratives to successfully implement Collective Impact efforts, but these cannot be imposed. Rather they must emerge from the community's genuine efforts and progress of working together in new ways.

Keeping community at the center of Collective Impact is key to the successful implementation of Collective Impact. By "turning outward" to remain focused on how our Collective Impact effort remains relevant and significant to the life of the community and its unique civic culture, we will succeed in finding "the way forward."

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Filling My Freezer and My Soul

BY: Christie Nash


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When I returned to work after my second parental leave, one of the things I found a challenge to get organized was cooking dinner for my family. Having limited time to cook delicious and nutritious meals, my husband and I began to double up on recipes so that we could eat dinner and freeze the rest for a quick meal another night. It didn't take long before we began to feel bored with our meals, not even having enough time to research and try out new recipes.

Recently, in chatting with my other working mom friends, I realized that I was not the only one encountering this issue. It dawned on me that it would be much more fun if a group of us were to get together and each cook a favourite meal, quadruple the recipe, and at the end of the day each take home a bunch of different meals that we could throw into our freezers.

Not surprisingly, this "Supper Club" as we now call it, is much more than simply a group that gets together and cooks. The afternoon is a retreat for all of us, as we share a meal before we begin - without kids. As all parents of young children will understand, we have a rare opportunity to check in with one another and have uninterrupted conversations, we share our joys and our struggles, we discuss books and articles we are reading, we explore values, ideas, parenting strategies, and support one another in our constant challenge to find balance in an ever-busy world.

For me, this group and our cooking time together, is a wonderful example of deepening community that touches on all four pillars outlined in Paul Born's book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times. These afternoons are about sharing our stories, enjoying one another, caring for one another, and working together towards a better world. Not only do we benefit from having a freezer full of delicious and nutritious meals, but we also feel the lasting impact of great friendships and knowing that we are supported in this joyful and chaotic parenting journey.

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The Latest from the Field


By: Jim Diers

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Al Etmanski

By: Al Etmanski

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Louise Gallagher

By: Louise Gallagher

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By: Brandon Howard

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By: Mary McKeigan

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By: James Hughes

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Upcoming Events


Champions for Change: Leading a Backbone Organization for Collective Impact

April 15-17, 2015 in Calgary, AB EVENT IS FULL

Join together with the Tamarack Institute, the Collective Impact Forum, and Backbone organizations from across North America and internationally, to enhance your work in leading for Collective Impact.


Poverty Reduction Summit

May 6-8, 2015
Ottawa, ON

An unprecedented gathering that will bring together senior leaders from across the country and beyond to align their efforts and merge their passion for poverty reduction.


Community Engagement - Technologies for Change

May 28, 2015
Red Deer, AB

This workshop will examine Community Engagement theory and practice and highlight the multitude of ways that technology can be used to enhance your community engagement efforts.


Neighbours: Policies and Programs 2015

June 8-10, 2015
Hamilton, ON

Community-based organizations play an important, catalytic role in making positive community change possible. Join us in Hamilton from June 8th - 10th, 2015 as we think and act together and advance the discipline of neighbourhood-building that is at the centre of this desired shift in our collective thinking.


Collective Impact Summit 2015

September 28-October 2, 2015
Vancouver, BC

The Collective Impact Summit is an exclusive learning experience that will bring you the most current thinking and resources from the emerging field of Collective Impact. It is an opportunity to be part of a dynamic group of practitioners who are discovering new ways to lead, engage, and transform communities by tackling our most complex issues.

Collective Impact Summit 2015


Imagining and Engaging: The Hamilton Neighbourhood Story

April 30, 2015
9am PDT | 12pm EDT

Join with Suzanne Brown, Manager of Neighbourhood Development Strategies, City of Hamilton and Sylvia Cheuy to hear the story of the development and on-going work of the Hamilton Neighbourhood Action Strategy.





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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