About Crowd Funding

Posting #2 in a series on Resource Development
See # 1, Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

First, a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: Crowdfunding (a form of crowdsourcing) is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, today often performed via Internet-mediated registries, but the concept can also be executed through mail-order subscriptions, benefit events, and other methods. i

Wikipedia adds this: Crowdfunding is a form of alternative finance, which has emerged outside of the traditional financial system. ii

This latter definition is sometimes called “Equity Crowd Funding” and investors receive equity in the business or venture they are contributing to. This posting is not about this type of Crowd Funding. Rather I am writing about the most common type of Crowd Funding today which allows anyone to donate their money to anything that gets posted on an Internet-based Crowd Funding website. Recipients of funding can be individuals in need, informal groups, performance artists, individual schools, clubs, inventors, product developers, techno- projects, as well as conventional charities and businesses.

Donors to such initiatives do not, as a general rule, get anything in return. Some may get a charitable receipt, but equity is not particularly part of the arrangement. Actually for many, if not most, of the asks being made on sites like Kickstarter or Go Fund Me, there is no equity to be had. Witness two of the appeals below from Go Fund Me, Canada’s largest Crowd Funding website.



The first one is about saving a single mother and her four children from losing their place and becoming homeless as of September 3, 2016. I am writing this on September 4th, perhaps too soon to see if the money raised stopped her eviction. I sure hope so. The other one is about Pebbles, a dog with liver problems and other illnesses who needs interventions that Darlene cannot afford.

I am not saying these are not causes to donate to. I use these two examples only to highlight that Crowd Funding is changing the how fundraising is done, about why it is needed, and who does it. There are the more standard types of appeals on these sites from charities and relief funds. For them Crowd Funding may very well be but one more way to generate support.

Unlike Go Fund Me, Kickstarter does provide some accountability on its site by reporting on fundraising results in a variety of ways, although neither site offers any accountability reports or information on impact, other than showcasing “success stories.”

Kickstarter tells us the following about its funding activity iii:

  • Since its inception in 2006, Kickstarter as generated pledges of $2.58 billion and successfully funded 111,500 projects.
  • Kickstarter is an “all or nothing” venture. If you do not raise all of the goal, you get zero. Unsuccessful initiatives were greater than successful; there are 200,000 of them reported by Kickstarter.
  • Most successful fundraising appeals were small ones, just shy of 75% of them. Just over 14 raised between $10,000 and $19,999. The dollar range categories are much wider than the smaller ones. Those raising $20,000 to $99,999 make up about 13.2% of the total successes. Less than 3% generate funds in the $100,000 and up category. If you are wondering if anyone has raised $1 million or more, the answer is yes. Of the 111,500 projects, 189 of them hit the million dollar mark (.0017%).
  • Those appeals that have the highest success rate are by category: Dance, Theatre, Comics, Music, and Art. Of the 15 categories listed, Food is in the bottom five. There is no category listed for Social Service, Human Services, Community Work, and so on.

In the United States there is another site that caught my attention: DonorsChoose.org, which exists solely to raise money from citizens for class room projects in schools around the country. Most of these requests appear to come from teachers looking for money to support something in their classroom that the public school system doesn’t fund. Most requests seem to be in the hundreds of dollars. Of three I dug into, the highest request was for $296.75 to support teaching 15 kids about cosmetic surgery. Other requests seem to be about getting money for things that one could argue should be paid for by the school system. I will stay silent on that topic, at least for this posting.

Whether or not Crowd Funding is a good thing for the market place has no right answer. It depends on how it impacts the community and community systems. In other words, its value is contextual. For the mother and children saved from eviction, the impact is substantive for her family. But as a business – Kick Starter is a business – its implications include diluting overall giving patterns of donors which may – and perhaps are – hurting other more traditional appeals from organizations who are trying to help thousands of single mothers and their children. Perhaps more importantly, sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe are redefining what help and impact look like; they speak to those who are disillusioned with formal charities or with banks and so on.

For your organization or group, the questions you likely face if you are thinking of including Crowd Funding in your fundraising program include the follow:

  • Will raising money this way impact other revenue sources, whether support from your donors or from more traditional funders, who might see success as Crowd Funding as an indication of your lack of need for their support?
  • Given that, by far, the majority of projects that meet their fundraising goal receive $10,000 or less in funding, will entering this market place suit your needs and will the effort and the exposure be worth it, especially if you are not successful? Remember, at Kickstarter and other similar sites, it’s all or nothing.
  • Ten thousand dollars is a good amount of money and for some small groups it is big money. The key will be putting an ask out there for something that is compelling and likely to motivate a large number of small gifts that more likely or not speak to each donor’s emotions. While I could find no evidence to support this next point, my sense is that these types of appeals must be of a kind that generate impulse giving.

I will leave it to you to form your own judgements on Crowd Funding and to decide if and when it has a role to play in your resource development activities. My intent here is to provide information that may be of help.

Stay tuned for the next blog posting, About Social Impact Bonds.

i Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/crowdfunding, September 4, 2016

ii Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdfunding#cite_note-1, September 4, 2016

iii See https://www.kickstarter.com/help/stats?ref=about_subnav

Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

Posting #1 in a series on Resource Development

It’s tough out there for non-profits and social causes when it comes to raising money, especially money for core operations and services. All of the seed grants, innovation grants, or target specific project grants are fine and dandy, but the growth in sustainable funding is not growing, is it? Impact Investing, Social Enterprise, and Crowd Funding are among the more recent methods of financing social good, though the extent of their reach and utility by the sector overall are emerging, not yet clearly understood.

I have read a fair amount over the years on fundraising and other resource development opportunities and one thing I found irritating in most of them was the thesis they presented, which generally was, “if you all do this or that, or follow this methodology, you all will raise more money.” The reality is, as you  know, every organization will not increase their revenues in a given year. Many struggle just to maintain current levels of funding.


Relationships Matter

A colleague of mine recently suggested I write a piece like this, given my “success” in significantly growing two non-profits. For one, I doubled staff and financial resources in about three years; for another agency the growth in revenues was about 70% over 5 years. At both agencies there were significant additions in services, but also large gains in securing sustainable funding and improving operational infrastructure (which is all about capacity). This leads me to my first point about generating resources: Raising revenues significantly takes  a significant amount of time.  Patience is definitely a virtue in this instance.

For many non-profits, unfortunately, there is barely enough time to maintain or protect current funding. We all know some won’t make it and others will shrink.  Thus, the hope for magic bullets. That said, my point needs saying: whether attempting to maintain or grow your organization, increasing revenues is a strategic undertaking and when there is success, it rolls out over time. It’s a long game.

It’s why acquiescing to having no time will work against you. Somehow your organization and all who are a part of it have to create the time for strategic resource development. Not easy, I know, but if you don’t, all the learning you might acquire about fund development, grant writing, case-making and so on won’t matter.

That leads to the second point: Capacity building for strategic resource development is paramount. Imagine having ambitious early learning goals for your infant and then expecting everybody but you to engage in the efforts required to achieve your goals.

Boards that expect their lead staff to raise money but do nothing to build his or her capacity, not to mention the organization’s capacity, are failing to govern strategically. Time, skill, help with prospecting, and governance-oriented attention to the organization’s positioning in the market place must be a part of the board’s work. And the smaller your organization, the more important board involvement is. By the way, all of this relates to CEOs with large teams. If all CEOs do is set goals and largely just expect success, offering nothing more in terms of supporting and contributing to the capacity such efforts will take, I suggest success will at best not be as good as it could be.

This leads to the third element: Raising money is competitive. Even if you are trying to raise revenues for a collaboration, you are competing with others for limited funds. I have always embraced the competitive elements of generating funds. Not the type of competitiveness that would bash another agency or even hint to a funder, for example, that funding my organization instead of “that” organization is the way to go. My goal as a CEO was to ensure my organization rocked at what it did and to communicate that in many ways clearly, factually, and without anything that would resemble spin.

5 elements of SRDMy goal was to be the organization of choice for funders and donors.  That meant not only doing well at our mission-work but also positioning our organization in the market place as worthy of support and engagement and then to do the same with the funder/donor community. Every group with money to invest or give has myriad choices. I have always looked for ways for my organization to be one of those choices they act on.

My fourth point in this posting is this: Authentic relationships matter. Not all of your relationships will result in financial support, but poor, empty, or lack of quality relationships will not work out so well for  you. Authentic relationships continue on regardless; they are not just measured by money.  What I mean by authentic is that the relationship is one about mutual interests or aspirations, is based on respect and trust. Each relationship looks different of course. Being authentic is a stance that produces authentic activity and exchange and is measured by the consistency of its expression. This fosters honesty in the mutual engagement that fuels the relationship. This point re-stresses my first one: this takes time.

I understand this takes up operational time and resources to achieve, but authenticity as a stance is about you at all times, not just fundraising time, right? Authenticity gets noticed. Sure, some won’t like you or appreciate your style. But my experience (or delusion!) is that many of my critics appreciate my stance with them. Authenticity – expressed with care. Don’t forget the importance of your style of being authentically you.

Potential sources of revenue are always people -donors or the staff of funders or other financial bodies.  People want to know you – or feel like they do.  Sure, they want to know who your organization is, too. And they want to know what it does and what it achieves. My observation is that more often than not, organizations fall short on explaining why they are here or if they do offer that insight, they fall short of conveying the passion that drives them. Sharing the why of your existence with authentic passion; it matters. That’s my final point: Being passionate and clear about your why is fundamental, not only to resource development, but to your leadership.

. . .

I know. This posting doesn’t address all, if any, of your immediate needs for assistance. And I acknowledge that my resource development experience has been with mid-size to large organizations. I also know, as you do, that even if your organization excels as these five elements, financial gains and sustainability are elusive more so than in reach for many, if not most, non-profits. Still, I hope you see these five points as elements to consider as strategic drivers to your resource development efforts.

The next blog posting in this series is About Crowd Funding. Look for it soon.



Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better.

One common position is that we need to move from the Charity Model to efforts focused on systemic change. The thinking appears to be that the two are not connected, have little or no relationship. Some talk about this in ways that suggest the Charity Model and Systems Change are polar opposites, calling for us to choose one over the other.

Further, such an either-or approach to making change is precisely why big change efforts often fail or fall short of the mark. It is ironic that in this day and age where we all recognize that social issues are complex and require complex solutions, we still look for definitive, if not simple answers.

There are at least four key elements to the work we do in the charitable sector: context, frame, actions, and outcomes.

Context is typically expressed in an organization’s foundational statements: mission, vision, values or principles, and belief statements. But context also includes an organization’s history, culture, and its fundamental agreements with its supporters. The context in which we operate is in effect our perspective about who we are and why we do what we do.

Within an organization’s context are one or more frames. By this I mean the programs and service, roles, processes, procedures, rules (spoken or unspoken), and performance measures that guide, if not govern us in the specific work we are doing.

elements of insittional work

Actions are the behaviours of people (staff, volunteers, donors, partners) working within the frame which is born out of context. This includes the perceptions, judgements, biases, and personal values of those actually doing the work.

Outcomes represent our professional way of saying results or benefits or change. Our view of outcomes tends to include the belief that results are clearly identifiable and measurable. This view is not wrong per se, but it tends to discount the many instances in which one’s actions cannot be neatly tied to a result.

I do wonder if the call to move away from the Charity Model started to bubble up when sector leaders finally began to realize that the promise of an outcome-oriented approach to having impact was more often than not a pipe dream, a great expectation that had not adequately manifested.

In our work, whether within our respective organizations or as part of a larger collaboration, we need to think more about context without automatically connecting our current frames and actions to the conversation. Why we are doing what we are doing and who we are collectively are fundamental big change questions we must ask and continually answer. It’s harder to do than focus on subsets of our context. It means getting at our identities, not just our structures and actions.

This is where the quality of our thinking comes into the picture, and admittedly it is a difficult thing to consider. After all who wants to be seen as a flawed thinker, especially those in leadership positions? Nevertheless, surely we do not believe that the pathway to transformational change is dependent on our ability to make Either-Or decisions. Is the answer we seek to be found in choosing a Systems Change approach over the Charity Model?

This either-or mentality is pervasive. Political parties battle one another about ideology and its many manifestations. Religions are lived by people who claim their faith is the right one; believing otherwise is wrong. Environmentalists fight capitalists. Pro-life and Pro-Choice languish in their views of their opposition as wrong, if not despicable.

As a general rule. confining understanding and possibility to positions on this versus that  incite divisiveness, camp mentalities, and narrows our scan for new opportunities to what reinforces our perspective. We look for data and information that proves our point as we sidestep other ideas or experiences that should at least prompt us to question the “certainty” of our position. We limit our understanding of others with different viewpoints by focusing on discovering why the others are wrong, misguided, immoral, and the list goes on.

Our thinking often seems like it is on some sort of auto-pilot that is controlled by what we know, believe, and value, as if all of those aspects of our identity are static. Intellectually, we are aware that what we know changes over time, our beliefs adjust and adapt, and even our values are subject to change, but we often use our ability to think as the means by which we hope to preserve our current stance in the world. The questions we ask become a way of perpetuating the biases we hold. This is what I believe has happened with the rale against the Charity Model.

We do want to change how we do things in the charitable sector and yet we often fail to ask questions about why we are doing them. We don’t invite questions that dig our thinking into the big picture of what we are doing or spend the time to articulate a question that compels us to truly struggle with the status quo. It makes us uncomfortable to debunk the tried and accepted and even more unsettling to have to engage when we see what we believe and cling to being debunked.

Here is an alternative way to look at the Charity Model versus Systems Change. Instead of gravitating to positional arguments formed out of frustrations with how things are right now, we might focus on an overarching questions, such as:  What needs to be true in order for community life to be good for everyone?

I know. Such a question is rife with challenges. What is “community life” and what does “good for everyone” actually mean? And then there is that “what needs to be true” challenge. What on earth does that mean?

I am not suggesting that such a question will result in the magical emergence of harmony and clear cut pathways toward better lives for all. But I am suggesting that the question may help us avoid pitting this against that.

If you are like me and believe there are multiple truths in the world, perhaps we should do our best to frame inquiries that welcome multiple truths at the table. Furthermore, the question above or one like it is a question anyone can consider, regardless of what camp they live in. In fact, such a question could very well help us avoid fruitless and divisive either-or arguments and decisions.

Roger Martin, in his book, The Opposable Mind, shares with us the learning he gleaned from studying successful leaders. Granted, his work was focused on the private sector, but his thesis that great leaders are those who can hold opposing views simultaneously in their mind is applicable to the non-profit sector as well.

He calls this ability to work with opposing views Integrative Thinking and here are its characteristics (see source at end of posting):

  1. When trying to understand a problem or challenge, Integrative Thinkers do not limit themselves to what is clearly apparent. They also look for less obvious connections or factors that may be contributing to the problem or issue. They don’t ignore the obvious, but they also choose to speculate on what else may be going on that needs to be understood.
  2. To deepen this more fulsome understanding, Integrative Thinkers do not limit themselves to linear thinking. While they may see instances where A + B equals C, they look for and engage multi-directional and non-linear relationships among the variables that make up a problem. They recognize that complex problems are not neatly described or understood.


  1. Integrative Thinkers do not limit themselves to breaking down issues or problems into pieces and then focusing on fixing the pieces. Instead they tend to look at and grapple with the whole of the matter, trying to understand how the many pieces of the puzzle relate to one another, how a change to how this operates impacts an action or outcome over there. We often call this systems thinking.
  2. When it comes to decision-making, Integrative Thinkers accept the fallibility of attempting to choose one over the other. In other words, they recognize that either-or decisions are often the wrong decisions or not the best ones. Instead, they seek to creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas. In fact, Roger Martin would argue that innovation reveals itself when we base decisions on Either-AND-Or perspectives.

What has happened is that many sector leaders have positioned the Charity Model and Systems Change as opposing ideas that require us to choose one over the other. This positional mindset prompted one colleague of mine, a sector leader in her own right, to conclude that we needed to stop funding food programs for the hungry and instead devote resources to effecting changes in systems that foster hunger.

At the time I was the CEO of an inner city human services organization in Edmonton that fed the homeless daily – well over 100,000 meals per year. That’s not all we did, but it was one of the bigger programs offered. I asked my colleague what I might say to those who were hungry. Should I say, “Sorry we can’t help you, but be patient. We are working on systems change to end hunger altogether”? Can you imagine?

Actually, I do not believe the Charity Model and Systems Change are in opposition in and of themselves. Rather we have chosen to see them to be opposing ideas about how to improve lives and community conditions.

By asking the “what needs to be true” question, we allow both to be discussed together. In my world, hungry people should be fed and actions are required that address systemic causes of hunger. But the question allows us to go further to include fostering understanding and ideas about how transformational change must be addressed by everyone, not just the charitable sector, not just through systemic change. Attitudes and perceptions need to change. Business has a role to play in helping to ensure the economy works for the majority.

This is actually the biggest flaw in the Charity Model versus Systems Change debate. It is a debate about the wrong thing. It offers us two choices that are both the subset of the bigger challenge, which is how to end problems and suffering in our communities. Charities won’t do that on their own. Neither will systems changes. They can help of course, but until the community itself is engaged in solving big problems it faces, the needle of big change will never move to the extent that we all say we want it to.

Focusing in on the Charity Model and Systems Change is avoiding major questions about context and moving straight to how we frame our work.

Until big business integrates being charitable into its culture, we will continue to see what is profitable solely in economic terms. Until governments see social problems through a rights-based lens they will never take sufficient action to turn poverty, for example, on its heels.

What needs to be true in order for community life to be good for everyone?

That is the question. It is not a question about the Charity Model. It is not a question that reduces our thinking to systems change. It is a question that gets at our context. It is a question that must be owned and acted on by all institutions, by all governments, and ourselves and the people who live next door to us and down the street and across town. It is a question that does not allow us to limit ourselves to current jurisdictions or policies. It is a question that accepts multiple truths as being necessary drivers of the decisions we need to make to move forward toward a better life for all of us.


Read more about “How Successful Leaders Think” by Roger Martin


Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore

In September I am doing six workshops at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. One of the workshops is: Ten Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore. I am gathering data right now, investigating trends identified by others; there are so many trends we have to pay attention to that I am not yet certain of the ten I will showcase.  But here are a few trends I am tracking right now that I believe qualify for some substantive, authentic attention by our political, economic, and community leaders.

All the charts below are all based on data from Statistics Canada. Ask yourself what the implications are of these trends and what options we have to address them. While you might take issue with my commentary, the data is the data. Do you think these trends and patterns suggest good news for our society going forward?

I have written before about Wealth and Income Inequality. While the gap in Canada is not yet as severe as the worldwide trend, the gap is significant and it’s getting wider, as the chart below indicates.

Those with good incomes (the 20%) keep seeing it grow over time. The middle 60% have seen very small gains overall, clearly not enough to weather the ever increasing cost of living. Those with the least income have seen no gains and in some cases they were worse off in 2011 than they were in 1976.

Approximately 25% of Canadian workers are considered to be low income workers, and that percentage is the highest in the world, relative of course to the economy and employment situations in across nations. In our economy, making $15.00 per hour or less qualifies a worker as low income. Some think $15.00 per hour represents a living wage, but imagine how much living you could do if you were single or a parent with a kid or two making that.

Many Canadians earn far less that $15 per hour. For those earning the minimum wage in their province, they face eking out an existence for around $5.00 less per hour, generally. Some argue that  a low minimum wage helps students work during the summer or young people enter the work force. No doubt there is some truth in that but the majority of minimum wage earners are not students; they are adults trying to make a living. Canadian big business has become increasingly reliant on minimum wage employers to generate profits. In 1998, big business hired 29.6% of all minimum-wage employees in Canada; by 2012 they employed 45.3%.

When people do not earn sufficient income, how do they deal with the rising costs of accommodation and food and clothing? Food Banks come to mind and other charitable services that help with basic needs. But a strong indicator of economic problems across our communities is Canadian Household Debt. See the graph below.

The growth in the debt to income ratio for Canadians generally has skyrocketed since 200 by more than 50% while incomes on average have grown 16.8% (and remember that growth is owned mostly by those in the top 20% income brackets).

Low, stagnant wages are the common experience of Canadians in what we are often told is a strong, robust economy. Debt is rising and the income and wealth gap is as well. The importance of low minimum wages to corporate profits is also escalating. There has to be a tipping point in there somewhere, doesn’t there?

What are the implications for tax revenues? For health and social programs? To what extent should the Federal Government launch needed social programs like the Child Tax Credit/Benefit that, while lifting thousands of Canadians above the poverty line also help businesses keep wages low?

I worry about these trends. I have to imagine you might too. Now just to add more weight to the concerns I have, consider how the aging of the population is affecting and will be affecting the labour force.

We all know our population is aging, but this graph drives home just how much. Canadians between the ages of 80 and 89 are the fastest growing cohort in Canada. Between 2006 and 2031, Statistics Canada projects the overall growth in Canadians over 65 will be nearly 120%. In the meantime the growth rate for the youngest cohorts in our population is actually decreasing as shown below:
This reduction in the birth rate has impacts on our work force. Together, these two trends, plus the fact that current immigration rates will not make up for the lower birth rate, already appears to be having an impact on our Labour Force Participation Rate:

This rate has been decreasing since 2008 and I can’t see how that trend will reverse itself, given current circumstances.  While an aging population will increase health care costs and other support, the tax revenue from the retired will be less than when they were working.

As well, Stats Canada projects that whereas we had 6.5 workers per senior in 1976, current trends indicate that ratio will be closer to 2 to 1 by 2051.

How will we look as a country then?

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster?

It had a booming business for years. We went there to peruse movies we wanted to rent rather than buy them outright. We paid a fairly low fee per movie for a 24 hour rental and if we were late returning the movie, we paid a per day penalty fee. The penalty fees were annoying, but the cost was still cheaper than buying the movie.

What emerged over time was our ability to rent movies through our Internet/television provider. We could peruse the movie selection and then rent the movie online for 24 hours. We didn’t have to travel to a store, didn’t have to return the movie. After 24 hours our rental just expired and disappeared from our online selection. There was less selection on line and the price was no lower than at Block Buster, but the convenience was far superior and there were no penalties.

Clearly this was an innovation, but it did not qualify as a disruptive innovation, at least not according to Christensen’s model. Ordering through a cable company, for example, was not a low cost alternative and it really wasn’t catering to a new market. That said, it was a first big step toward something that was disruptive: Netflix.


Netflix’s business model offered at least three disruptive changes in renting movies. First, it turned renting movie by movie into a subscription that gave access to the consumer of a wide collection of movies for one set monthly fee instead of a per unit rental charge. Second, that monthly fee cost consumers the equivalent of renting 1.5 movies while allowing subscribers to view as many movies as they wished for that one single monthly fee. The third disruption was that Netflix invoked something much more compelling and profitable than a subscription fee. It created a membership program. People didn’t subscribe as much as they became members of Netflix. And membership instills loyalty in ways a subscription doesn’t.

Today Blockbuster is a business of the past. It failed to change with the times, at least not quickly enough. It did try to offer an online service, but it did so too late to compete with Netflix.

I do not know the process that Netflix undertook to create its disruption, but one can see some Upside Down Thinking here. The inferred heretical proposition is: Consumers want to pay a set fee to view an unlimited number of movies easily from the comfort of their own home. If you think about it, back then that was heresy. How on earth could that be profitable?

There are other examples that tell the story of disruptive innovation. When photocopiers were invented by Xerox they were created for businesses and other large organizations. The machines were big and offered great features like collating and stapling, but they cost a lot of money. Small organizations and individuals were not Xerox’s target market.

However, upstart companies saw the potential of creating photocopiers for personal use and also the advantage of integrating faxing and printing functionality into one machine. The result was smaller units for far less money that individuals and small organizations could afford. This was disruptive innovation because it created a new market.

Disruptive Methodology
Disruptive Innovation, like Upside Down Thinking, is about changing the norms of doing business. In the private sector, entrepreneurs know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to break into an existing market dominated by those companies with huge market share.

It’s safe to say all of us are interested in conjuring up innovations that disrupt the status quo. While there are no doubt many ways to identify and explore innovative ideas, we do need tools and methods to help us. Based on the thinking of Luke Williams[2], a thought leader for disruptive thinking, here is my adaptation of a tool that can be helpful.

Every product or service has its fundamental features or “norms” that frame its benefits and speak to its competitive advantage. Consider soda pop norms for the big players like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Their norms for soda pop include the following:

  • Soda pop is inexpensive.
  • It tastes good.
  • It is fun and social.
  • It is refreshing.
  • You are “in” if you drink it.

Imagine trying to break into the market with your own version of soda pop that fits these norms. You could mirror such norms, but it is unlikely you would have much luck gaining significant market share by offering the same features. The big boys are just too big.

One way to bring a new version of sofa pop seems to have been invoked by an upstart company that turned these soda pop norms on their head. The norms or features this company seems to have adopted are upside down or reversals of the norms that work for Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other big players; they look like this:

  • Soda pop is expensive.
  • It tastes bad.
  • It is more individual than social.
  • It is practical; it solves a problem.
  • Drinking it makes you a champion.


These appear to be among the norms that this company (Red Bull of course) acted on, with great success, so much so that it has become the “big boy” of energy drinks and is now a multi-billion dollar company.

This approach of turning norms upside down, reversing them or inverting them can be discerned in many other examples of disruptive innovation.

Its application is not limited to the private sector. For example, Housing First qualifies as a disruptive innovation. Previous norms about helping the homeless find housing look something like this:

First do the following BEFORE you house them:

  • Help them quit drinking or doing drugs.
  • Help them get stabilized on medication for those with chronic mental illness.
  • Address other serious health issues.
  • Help them improve life skills.
  • Help them become more employable.
  • Get them to attend programs and services that will make them good tenants.
  • Decide where they will be housed.
  • Enforce a rules-first approach to housing.

All of the above were seen as problems to solve or at least adequately reduce before housing was provided. Housing First rejected all of these precursors to housing the homeless and offered these features or “new norms:”

  • House the chronically homeless first.
  • Provide choices about where they will live.
  • Provide supportive services after they are housed to assist in preserving their tenancy.
  • Accept the homeless where they are at. Accept that they drink and are mentally ill. Work from a harm reduction standpoint in a people first approach.
  • Provide support while housed in order to further support their inclusion in community life.

Can you think of other disruptive innovations in the social sector?

Innovation doesn’t just appear out of thin air. Something happens. There is often a process that helps foster innovation. We need space for it to happen. Our values must be challenged. And so on. We need tools to be innovative and sometimes we need to use those tools in disruptive ways in order to do more, get better, achieve results.

[1] See http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/ and https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation

[2] See http://www.disruptive-thinking.com/

Signals of Coming Disruption

Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.

For years, donor giving has been changing. Charities have become increasingly dependent on larger gifts from fewer donors. As the economy has served to increase the income and wealth gap between the small numbers of wealthy and the rest of everyone else, we have seen food bank use escalate and a growing number of workers living pay check to pay check. Job security is no longer a reasonable expectation for a growing number of people, much less the chance for advancement. Employee supported pensions are no longer the norm and health and dental benefits are harder to come by for low income workers and many who do not yet qualify as “low income” workforce members.

imagenoise_signalmlab2The adaptations charities have taken have been focused on how to grow revenues through different sources of revenues. Funders are looking at alternatives too, given their inability to fund all the good things that come their way. Crowdfunding, social enterprise, impact investing, social purpose businesses are among the more recent options in financing social good.

GDP growth has been slowing, 80% of Canadian incomes are not increasing or if they are, at far less a rate, the restructuring of the job market is creating more insecure and benefit-less employment. the ratio of workers to seniors is dramatically decreasing. Key drivers like oil prices are in turmoil. Consumer debt keeps increasing. The numbers of people making $15 or less are growing as businesses work harder to cut back on expenses in order to feed more profits to investors.

Governments, or some of them, are starting to notice. Thus the increase in minimum wage that the Alberta Government is implementing, despite the cries of those whose profits depend on low wages. Across the nation, communities and businesses are exploring and many are implementing living wage jobs. In Ontario, the government is talking about a guaranteed annual income, stress on talking.


All this makes sense, right? But perhaps the signals about charitable giving and low incomes and inadequate wages are actually pointing at a more significant change-challenge: how to change our capitalistic systems to benefit the majority of citizens.

I wonder if the welcome changes mentioned above are actually the “right” responses to the economic signals we need to grapple with. I suggest our responses to these signals must go further than adjusting wages, welfare rates, and launching subsidized transportation or housing.

Think about it. The federal government’s Child Tax Benefit will indeed lift thousands of Canadians out of poverty. In Edmonton, the recent partnership between the provincial and municipal governments will benefit 20,000 low income families living in poverty. It’s good stuff. I support it, but I am still worried.


Because, it seems to me that governments and charities are often trying to make a bad thing not as bad. That seems to be our systemic practice across all jurisdictions: welfare rates are so low that recipients cannot pay their bills;  minimum wages are set primarily to benefit business, not minimum wage workers.

In British Columbia, many communities have identified a living wage for workers in their community. But a single mom with two young kids working as a teacher cannot exist on the identified living wage in any of those BC communities. And that’s according to that provincial government’s own data on what it costs to live in those communities.

I don’t hear anyone really asking why governments must subsidize the economy and the profits of business this way. Is it heresy to see the Child Tax Benefit as a program that allows business to keep wages low?

A healthy community requires an economy that works effectively for the majority. This is not happening. The signals are all over the place.

It is not popular to suggest that our social democracy and our capitalistic economy are  not working. Then again most big change that has come about in our lives did not start out as popular.

We can’t end poverty while, at the same time, protecting our current practice of keeping people poor in an economy that debilitates hope and renders that old notion of “pulling yourself up the bootstraps” to be what it has always been: our excuse for not truly helping people move out of poverty.

What signals are you hearing about the need for transformational change?

Edmonton Moves Forward with its Roadmap to End Poverty in a Generation

Mayor Don Iveson’s Taskforce to End Poverty in a Generation had its final meeting on May 30, 2016. Actually the meeting was really a celebratory gathering, a time to acknowledge the work and leadership of so many.

In particular we celebrated the publication of End Poverty Edmonton’s Roadmap to Guide Our Journey which is based on the EPE’s Strategy  to achieve a poverty free city within a generation. Both of these documents have been endorsed by Edmonton’s City Council and indeed, City Council has already been involved in implementing certain aspects of the strategy even before the Roadmap was finalized.

eperoadmapThanks to a partnership with the Alberta Government, the City will be launching a low income bus pass that will provide a 60% discount on the standard fares for public transit. The program is being launched in 2017 with three years of funding in place. The total cost is estimated to be around $12.4 million and will be split 50-50 between the province and the city. Approximately 20,000 low income families will benefit from this savings. For more information about how the subsidy works, click HERE.

As well, City Council recently passed a motion to support the planning phase for the creation of a standalone Community Development Corporation. The CDC will focus on low income neighbourhoods and the development of affordable and supportive housing, retail shopping, job creation and ultimately build stronger, healthier communities. Through a collaboration between the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Community Foundation, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, and Homeward Trust (Edmonton’s organization that funds Housing First efforts), the intent is to create a CDC that will be community owned and driven by community needs and aspirations.

During the Task Force’s work, it heard from young people living in poverty and often on the fringes of community life about the importance of decriminalizing poverty. Unable to afford public transit, they shared stories of being fined and eventually taken to court when they could not pay the fines.  This kind of thing happens to the homeless all the time, regardless of age, and their clear and compelling message about such treatment of the disadvantaged prompted action from the city as well, long before the Roadmap or even the EPE Strategy were finalized. New rules, along with training of Transit Officers who do the checking and the ticketing, were instituted because of the challenges put before the Task Force by 10 articulate young people.

All of these accomplishments are a testimony to the momentum of the Mayor’s Task Force, the diligence it had in engaging citizens throughout its work, and City Council’s openness to new ideas to address the suffering of more than 100,000 neighbours who are living in poverty. They are a testimony to the tone set by the Mayor from the get-go around openness to new ideas and basing strategies and actions on a People-First mindset, a fundamental principle brought to the table by Indigenous leaders, citizens, and elders.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the importance of the leadership and thinking provided by the Task Force’s Aboriginal Roundtable. Not only did they help all of us better understand the challenges faced by Indigenous people, they enriched all of us with their cultural and spiritual approaches to making life better for everyone. The EPE Strategy is rich with the influence of the Aboriginal Roundtable and instead of being integrated throughout all of the strategies, we ended up with a strategy that clearly and comprehensively frames the work required to not only advance poverty elimination but also to advance reconciliation across our community.

The end of the Task Force is really just a new beginning. While there will be task force members who continue on with the roadmap work, new people and organizations will be invited to join the implementation efforts, whether in a stewardship/governance role, as advisors, and/or as deliverers of services and initiatives identified in the roadmap. The inclusion of diverse cultures and perspectives will continue as well ongoing engagement with the general public

I was fortunate to be a part of the Mayor’s Task Force to End Poverty. Fortunate to have my mind challenged and my heart nurtured by others. We argued. We laughed. We worked through differences. We stepped up when needed and sat down when others stood before us. We listened to the naysayers and then carried on. And as I mentioned earlier, we have a new beginning before us. We need new leaders, new voices, fresh perspectives carrying the implementation of the EPE strategy forward.

A tip of the hat to Mayor Iveson for having the courage to say “Enough” to poverty and for his passion and caring for all Edmontonians. It’s true, Mister Mayor, you couldn’t have gotten this far on your own, but  it’s also true that we couldn’t have gotten here without you. Ending poverty in a community requires leadership and local government’s commitment to the work.

Also a tip of the hat to Bishop Jane Alexander, the Mayor’s co-chair, who worked and spoke tirelessly about the Task Force, its importance, and for reminding us that ending poverty is a just cause and a human rights issue we must resolve.

For the first time in my long life of actively pursuing the end of poverty and homelessness, I feel hopeful that we can actually do this in my community. I hope you feel that way too about your community.

It’s about time, don’t you think?



Download the EPE Strategy
Download the EPE Roadmap
Visit the EPE website

See my interview with Mayor Iveson and Bishop Alexander in the current issue of The Philanthropist, which is doing a series of articles on the theme of Poverty and Human Rights.


Leanings toward heresy

Complex and Simple
By acknowledging that societal issues and solutions are complex, do we then believe complex solutions are the only options? Is it true that a complex issue cannot have a simple solution?


Data is neither good nor bad. It offers no explanation and on its own cannot provide a definitive sense of progress or under performance. We determine such judgement by holding pieces of data in comparison to one another. We are selective. We have to be, but what we select is also always about what we do not select.  I suggest that is what we do not select that is often the real culprit when it comes to spin.

Sometimes our love of data is not as strong as our love of data that affirms us.


Understanding is not agreement or disagreement. Mutual understanding about an issue or a condition or a model is not strategic alignment. We move too quickly toward strategy without understanding one another, which results in positional arguments based primarily on one’s interests, biases, experiences, and individual perspective pitted against another’s. I am not saying that taking positions is avoidable or even should be. I am wondering what position-based exchanges might look like if those holding opposing or conflicting positions actually did so from a foundation of understanding one another.


Models are not plans or prescriptions, far less recipes. They are organized ideas gathered into a structure that the modelers put forward based on research, evidence, best and emerging practice and their own ingenuity. They are not meant to be followed as much as they are offered to you as consideration. They are well articulated suggestions that are not intended to be followed in a rote manner.

All models are imperfect. Their genius is revealed in how you use them to build your purpose and the work necessary to fulfill intent. In other words, you are the genius of a model, unless of course you fall short of your expectations.

Follow me @mjholmgren

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Earlier this June I had the delightful experience of being a part of a workshop at Tamarack’s Deepening Community gathering in Edmonton. The workshop was with Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack. Al called our session a “beauty jam” and both Al and Vicki wanted an “artist” to be a part of the jam. I was thrilled. And our time together was awesome.

The spoken word piece I did was an update of my first version of Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good. The process of editing and rewriting continued after our beauty jam. This is what I love about writing: it never is done. So here’s the latest version:

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Let’s forget our worries and our doubts and walk together unencumbered by the need for a destination. Let’s close the big books of plans and studies and turn down the volume of all that best practice noise. Let’s prefer to have faith in something less predictable and confining.

Let’s agree to never again meet in board rooms or scrawl logic models on white boards. No more sitting in a circle going around the room saying nice things about evaluation that we really don’t mean. And no more stories about the innovator’s dilemma. They all sound the same, don’t they?

Let’s run outside into the blue and green grinning wildly. And kick off our shoes and dig our toes into the dirt and feel what it is truly like to be grounded in Mother Earth.

Let’s walk along the water’s edge and enjoy the rhymes of the river. Watch the way water prevails no matter what sits in its path. How it can wear away mountain stone and heal and nurture all at once.

dandelionsWhen we reach a clearing, let’s stop for a moment and receive the murmur of the forest and wonder about all the beauty that lives there, whether deep in the brambles or swimming in a raindrop on maple leaf. Stop for a moment and listen to everything all at once envelop us in the chaotic music of balance.

Over there! Let’s sit on those cool stones and pray for sunbeams. Let’s scan the shore across the river and if we see a miracle or joy or peace, let’s not ruin it with our analysis and or remind each other than nature is a system.

Let’s think like wild flowers.

Let’s feel life like insects do.

Let’s shut our mouths and let quiet matter.

Then let’s walk together and climb the hill to discover whatever is there for us, open to the horizon, content in the moment. Let’s watch the lights of city streets move and pulse and how starlight sparks against the glass of skyscrapers.

As is always the case, all paths end into a new one. The dirt path transitions to pebbles on crackled tar and then to the slabs of concrete we call sidewalks. This one has been ignored for too long, and unfolds before us with its slabs akimbo from shifting over time. And in each crack and crevice, life grows.

jackhammersFor once, let’s celebrate tenacity of the dandelion and smile at its golden disruption and banish the word weed from vocabulary. Let’s just keep walking until being alone gives away to manoeuvering through the crowd of shoppers, tattooed teen-agers, slow walking elders, and those misunderstood pet owners who dress up animals in the latest of fashion.

Let’s be happy when a dog wraps his leash around our leg and looks up at us with dark eyes that yearn for recognition. Let’s stand before workers with jackhammers like we often stand before street musicians and nod our affirmations in time with their difficult music. How important they are. Without them nothing would change.

Let’s go buy roses at the farmer’s market and hand them out to strangers and wish them a happy day. Let’s stop and drink Fat Bastard at the Thin Lady Café and pretend sitting there is everything.

We can tell jokes to anyone who will listen and laugh from our bellies.
Let’s risk odd looks from others as we roar our joy, spilling on ourselves the excess of our happiness and not even for a moment think of erasing the stain with a Tide pen.

Let’s make silly faces as we read each other stories from the newspaper that the other would not choose to read. Let’s write down our peculiarities on napkins and then leave them for others to read after we leave.

For a short while, let’s pretend to be shoppers and peer into sun-lit shop windows and gawk at the shoppers inside. Let’s gawk like children and enjoy the wonder of discovery.

Then let’s turn the corner and then another and walk down alley ways and enjoy the gardens of strangers and let the colours and aromas kiss our skin. When we see a can over-turned, let’s set it right.

And as the sun drifts down toward the sanctuary of night, let’s sit in that small park named after a minor hero and refuse to look tired and resigned to the small odds of changing everything that is waiting for us to resolve.

Before our pause threatens us with ending our time together, let’s find the busiest of plazas, and in the middle of the chaos of people and neon and honking horns, let’s dance.

tiny dogs

Let’s dance like tiny dogs do

Let’s dance like tiny dogs do.

Let’s inhale everything that is good and uplifting and exhale all of our broken pieces and watch them float away toward the moon.

Let’s forget that we want to save the world.

Let’s forget for a short time that what we do is important.

Let’s set aside our certainty and our egos. Put away our positions and our failures. Let’s forget how afraid we are and defy our tendency to think professionalism trumps personal relationships.

Let’s embrace on the sidewalk for all to see.

Let’s communicate like dolphins and hold on to one another.

Let’s hold onto one another like couples do at the end of a sappy romance. Like grandmothers do when their grandchildren run to them for love or because they are frightened or for any other reason at all.

And then, let’s get back to work.

There is suffering everywhere and while we may not ever end it, God help us if we ever get to the point where we just give up and accept that suffering is inevitable and something we just have to learn to live with. Let’s never do that.

Let’s never do that.


Innovation. What is it?


We all love it, want it, speak it, eat it, and it feels good when something we do is affirmed as innovative by others, especially those we admire. Sometimes, though, and perhaps often, when we don’t hear such affirmations, we create our own. We cite our own work as innovative.

However the recognition of our innovative work manifests, the cynic inside of me does wonder from time to time if our desire to be innovative gives birth to claiming innovation in much of the work we do. That cynic inside of me has wondered the same about me on occasion; just mention that to suggest that my inner cynic has no qualms about digging in on me, what I think, and what I do (and don’t).innovation

What it is?

A common definition of innovation is this: a new method, idea, product. I think other words go here, too, like a new service, device, or structure. Feel free to add more.

Synonyms often cited include: change, revolution, departure, introduction, variation, transformation, upheaval, and alteration.

Okay, so far so good. I see innovation having such words point to its meaning. The real challenge for me is understand how it begins, what happens when it happens, and when and how it transitions into something else. Continue reading

Income Trends and Canadian Consumer Debt

Over the past 15 years Canadian consumer debt has risen dramatically.  Since 2000, the percentage of Canadian debt in relationship to disposable income has risen from 110% of income to about 165%. The change in debt to income ratio represents a 12 year increase of 50%.

Income to Debt

The old adage about “people should live within their means” has validity no doubt in many cases, but such maxims simplify the complexity of economic influences and impacts and in this case categorically blame individuals for their debt problems. It’s akin to telling people living in poverty to just buck up and get a job. Stop being lazy and all of that.

Does rising debt have a correlation to slow if any growth in income for Canadian workers? The chart that follows tells a disconcerting story about after tax income in Canada by three cohorts: the top 20% of earners, the middle 60%, and the bottom 20%.  The chart goes back much further in time than the chart above and ends in 2011, but the trends are very clear.


From 1976 the trend in after tax income growth was about the same for all cohorts. In the latter 1990s, however, things changed. Income for the top 20% has escalated quite markedly since then, whereas income growth for the 60% middle earners and the bottom 20% have been small at best.

As the majority of Canadians have experienced flat to very small growth income over the years, they have also experienced far more growth in the expenditures required to house themselves, feed and clothe their families, and so on.

In Edmonton, where I live, the cost of rental accommodations increased on average by 75% between 2000 and 2010. Incomes for the large majority of city residents did not experience such gains. Add rising costs of food over that same period of about 5% per year on average, and the income to expense challenges are obvious.

pullquote1The more one spends to survive, the less likely it is that they will save for a rainy day, much less for retirement or even a short vacation. This contraction on disposable income creates vulnerability for people. When faced with a family emergency or job loss, even job loss for a short period of time, the options are few. Using one’s credit cards are among the few options available.

The Canadian Payroll Association has done annual surveys for a number of years and each year the results indicate that between 45 to 50% of Canadian workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque. The loss of a job to them would, according to the Association, result in serious threats to maintaining their housing. This suggests that half of Canadian workers, while not necessarily qualifying as living below the poverty line while employed, are economically vulnerable to disaster should their pay cheques be lost or interrupted, even for a short period of time.

There are other life experiences that lead to unmanageable levels of consumer debt. Divorce plays a role for many, in particular women who leave the relationship with children to care for, and all too often insufficient, if any, child support. Add to this that the majority of women earn less income than men and we end up with single parents financing their transition from marriage to single parenthood with debt.

Health problems can exacerbate debt as well. Temporary absences from work for surgery, for example, plus recovery time add to the fray. Even those with health and short term disability benefits experience reductions in income during those periods of time. And those without any such benefits are left without any supports from their employer. In Ontario, for example, one-third of workers do not have extended health and dental benefits, according to the Wesley Institute.

Of course debt problems are also caused or at least magnified by a lack in money management skills and other aspects of financial illiteracy. Increasing knowledge and skill about money should be attended to, but to think financial illiteracy is a panacea answer would be both impractical and irresponsible.

Rising consumer debt is not just an economic problem in and of itself. It is part of an overall pattern of systems and values that work to keep worker costs as low as possible to order to drive up margins and that fosters and sustains discriminatory practices that stymie participation in the economy by women,  visible minorities, Indigenous people, the disabled, as well as older and younger workers.

As a general rule unemployment rates and levels of income are higher in the former and lower in the latter for these populations. How come? Do we really believe that such populations do not measure up to the mainstream of the workforce in terms of skills, experience, and work ethic?

There is an irony in all of this. While there is a tendency to blame individuals for accumulating unmanageable debt, our economy is based on growing profits and to do so products and services are pervasively and unrelentingly marketed to grow sales. Persuasive advertising is fundamental to such growth in profits and it tends to work, resulting in too many people purchasing what they want more so than limiting themselves to what they need. In other words, one could argue that we are happy when a sale is made but then critical of those who grow their debt because the advertising worked.

We are seeing progress in addressing some of the factors mentioned above. There is a growing and welcome trend across the nation around employers paying a living wage. For many workers, especially those that have employer-based health and dental benefits, this will make a difference. Paying a living wage is connected to paying a fair wage, but on its own the living wage movement is a partial answer. For example, the cost of living for a single mother with two young children will more times than not be far greater than an increase in income brought about by a living wage.

If we want to turn the tide on economic vulnerability and poverty in Canada, we need to act on the income problem systemically. Child Tax Credit payments are helping and do lift many out of poverty, but for too many the transfers are insufficient.

Canada’s universal health care system is not really universal. For example, unlike many if not most countries with universal health care, we lack a national pharma benefit. Without employer-based benefits, the cost of medications can mean that Canadians are not able to buy them, which eventually leads to higher public expenditures on hospitalization for acute and chronic care. Add to this mix the dramatic trends in length of life, one has to wonder how a rapidly growing number of senior citizens living into their 80’s will be able to manage their health care costs without a pharma plan.

pullquote2Tax reform has a place in the changes we need to make, but on its own is not the answer either. While it seems reasonable for the super-rich to pay more taxes and have less access to opportunities to avoid taxation, the bigger challenge has to do with how governments see priorities, how they decide to spend our money. Systems change that doesn’t address this will be hard pressed to effect substantive change.

Attitudes and values need to be assessed as well. There is an emerging movement to consider human rights in our economic and social decision making. If in a democracy we believe people should be treated equally and have at least equitable opportunities to participate in the economy and in social living, what are the human rights that should guide decision-making?

Our systems appear to place more value on those who are working and doing well than on others who are struggling or who for a variety of reasons cannot work at all (e.g. the mentally ill). While there is a general acceptance that governments should provide income security programs for those who are between jobs or who can’t work at all, there is little, if any, justification for the inadequate financial benefits these income security programs provide. Across the country, at least from what my own research has uncovered, income security benefits do not come close to what it costs to be alive in Canada.

There is encouragement to be found in governments that are exploring a Guaranteed Minimum Annual Income as well as adopting living wage policies and practices in their own shops, but if we carry the same sentiments that keep current benefits far lower than what is reasonable, then I fear a GMAI, for example, will fall far short of the mark. Program changes unaccompanied by a shift in values will at best produce inadequate progress.

While there is a growing understanding that poverty is not just about money, let’s be careful that we don’t step away from the undeniable impact that a lack of income has on people’s lives. The millions of Canadians living on low and unstable incomes may benefit from more social inclusion or subsidized public transit or free passes to recreational facilities, but such programs, although welcome, will not turn the tide of the biggest most pervasive aspect of living in poverty, which is a lack of sufficient income to survive, much less thrive.

Across the country, local communities are taking charge of poverty reduction and this is exactly where such leadership should come from. Local economic reforms are possible in local communities but without addressing national and provincial systems that work to marginalize people of low income and keep them poor, we won’t win the battle. Which is another way of saying, despite our progress, we have so much left to do and we need to foster ways to improve our systems together, across all sectors.

Vibrant Communities Canada

Time to reframe poverty reduction as matter of rights (Maytree)

Living Wage Canada

Canadian household debt soars to yet another record

Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, especially in B.C. and Ontario, survey warns

Canada needs a national pharmacare plan: Editorial


I am angry about poverty

As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality
persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.
– Nelson Mandela                        

I have been doing research for a keynote I am doing next month on the socio-economics of poverty.  I am speaking in Revelstoke, so I took a look at the welfare rates in British Columbia.

There, if you are a single person deemed employable your income support “benefit” is $605 per month and the government’s website indicates this has been the rate since 2007.

To be clear, that’s the total. It’s broken down into two segments: $375 for rent and $230 for food (and everything else). It’s not clear to me if a single employable person also gets a bus pass over and above that amount, but I am hedging my bets against it.

If you are single parent with two young children, the benefit is $660 for rent and $401.16 for everything else. That’s just over a grand for three people, which I found disconcerting to say the least, but you know what? That 16 cents made me angry.

I imagine there is a formula used to figure all of this out and that the powers that be didn’t want to round the number off. Perhaps they felt that a single parent and her two kids should get every penny coming of what can’t come close to supporting them. It felt like a slap in the face.

I won’t go through the motions here of comparing these benefits to the cost of housing and food, clothing, and household incidentals. We have done math like that for as long as I can remember and despite our analysis, people still are suffering from what I call “our ”economic indifference.”

The indifference has its excuses: Governments can’t afford paying any more. Poor people are lazy. She should have not gotten pregnant so young. It’s his fault; he’s an ex-con. Oh yeh, there’s the “drunk Indian” expecting “another hand-out” and they should have stayed in their own country. Why should I have to pay taxes so they can just lay about.

Yep, lay about on $605 per month.

We don’t want people to receive so much money, they just live off the taxpayer and don’t look for a job. Let’s give them far less than it costs to live.

Sure, that will motivate them.

I know. I am being sarcastic. Venting a bit as well.

I swear I could write an excellent, professional brief on how the welfare rates in British Columbia (and in every other province most likely) perpetuate poverty and despair. I could point out how many rules and hoops one has to navigate is not only unnecessary, but also demoralizing, inhumane. But not now. I will save that stuff for my speech.

Right now, I am just angry. Angry about poverty and its myriad systems, rules, and formulas. So angry that I don’t know what to do.

Do you ever feel that way?

Not just sad, but angry. Angry that poverty exists.

Perhaps this anger resides on the extreme end of my compassion for people. Perhaps it is that feeling one gets when a loved one is harmed by another.

I wrote this because I needed to accept this emotion, welcome it as one might an unwanted visitor, tentative but open to what may be possible.

I am angry about poverty and about our many “solutions” that are from what that word means.

I also wrote this because I have to believe you get angry, too.

And I wanted you to know: you are not alone.


Was that you I saw standing on the edge?

I was the Lumber Jack size of a man with his toes on the precipice just a stone’s throw away from you.  My toes were nearly hanging over, which meant my belly extended even further over the edge.

The other side – that place beyond the chasm where I wanted to be – wasn’t all that far away. I imagined if I backed up 20 yards and ran fast, I could make the leap with room to spare.

Were you thinking the same thing?

I tried not to look down or at the jagged rock face that would be my ruin if I missed my mark. I tried to keep my eye on where I wanted to be, on the prize so to speak. But truth be told, I stood there on the edge alternating my eyes between the perils below and the possibilities that waited for me “over there.”

We looked at each other a few times, quick glances as if each of us offered the other some solace, some sort of connection about the individual choices that we were facing. Would it help to stand side by side?  Could we help each other understand the risks and the rewards we might realize by leaping over the void?

Of course, we weren’t alone. Down the way from each of us were others standing on the edge as well.  Young and old, women and men, people of all colours. I think I saw a mother carrying her child and a man in a wheel chair.

There we were, all of us on the edge of who we were at that moment, wondering about the possibilities over there, our fears swirling beneath us, dark and dangerous.

That’s when I woke up.

It was the strangest dream.

Like many dreams, this one lingered for a while as I went about my business and then dissipated over the next few days. I had forgotten all about it until I started writing this piece. I remember thinking, “that dream could be a great introduction to a book.”

As an activist, writer, musician, father, and partner, I have stood on the edge of who I am many times. Sometimes I leapt over the darkness below and carried on with my journey on the other side until, as you likely anticipated, I ended up on another ledge, facing another chasm separating me from possibility.

Other times, I turned around and walked away, either not ready for what I might find “over there,” or just too damn afraid to risk the fall. As well, there were times when I realized that the possibilities of where I was were still unrealized and that leaping from one cliff to another would have smacked more of escape than exploration.

In all of these cases, one thing was certain and constant, namely that there was no certainty I could rely on. Staying put may have offered me comfort and safety, but if I am honest there was no certainty that my current location would serve me best. And the possibilities offered across the way – or perceived to be offered – were only that, possibilities. Nothing guaranteed was waiting for me.

This uncertainty was simultaneously unnerving and exciting. It seemed like every choice facing me was terrifying and yet I felt rich with choice.

While the dream was mine, the experiences it painted are, I suggest, part and parcel to our humanity, our human condition.

In the context of my work to end poverty or within the frame of being a creative person (writer, musician, artist), I am constantly faced with choices and few, if any, offer me a predictable outcome.

Reflecting on the dream, I see it as a story about change and its many risks and possibilities. The dream sparked my thinking about my own resistance to taking chances and my all too frequent desire to just let what is be good enough. I am comfortable with good enough, with my routines of living. I know what to expect or at least think I do. My guess is you get what I am trying to say here. There is often something heartwarming about the status quo.

There are many, many people testing new waters, crafting ideas, launching innovative actions. I am blessed to know so many incredible leaders and thinkers, risk-takers and catalysts, and passion-makers and boat-rockers. But even the best explorers get lost, prefer calm waters, and hesitate.

I have said more than once: transformative ideas require (and deserve) transformative practice. They must weave together if we have any hope of our ideas coming to fruition. To create unique, beautiful music goes beyond the composition. Creativity, passion, and experience are put to practice (technique) and what we hear is all of that, not just the notes the pianist is playing. In other words, often, if not all the time, new music requires new technique in order to act on the possibilities of our creativity.

And for a pianist to create new music, does she not have to redefine who she is as a pianist, if not a human being?

Think of the risks jazz musicians take when they sit together and jam. For such interplay to work well, each of the players has to trust their skills and techniques while being open to possibilities that unfold during their session together. Even the best musicians experience times when the magic doesn’t happen. Even the best player can miss a note or go sideways while the others head off in a common direction.

The risk goes beyond embarrassment for missing a note. Mistakes and misses are also about the person making them and the more innovative we try to be, the more likely we will fail along the way. How do we incorporate a value of failing within our identities? How can we find sustenance from one another when our quest for the new and better way to do things, tumbles us to the ground.

Our desire to act on what is possible relies on all we have learned while at the same time challenges us to move beyond what we know to what might be. It is hard enough to do this by yourself; it is so much more difficult to do this together.

One of the fundamental tenets of my practice as a leader, teacher, and innovator is this: big change is a group activity requiring that we help one another overcome our fears, our personal or professional shortcomings, and our collective tendency to gravitate toward what is comfortable and easy.

We need our edges and our chasms. Without them we are limited in where we can go and what we can discover. But I suggest we should not stand on the edge by ourselves. We have a much better chance of leaping forward if we do it together.




We can’t do it when we are young.
We know too little.
We have not tasted enough truth.

Eventually we can taste everything:
the sweet, the bitter, everything in between.
One day, Wisdom appears at our door.

Small and unsure at first,
it speaks nonetheless, each word
finding courage from the last.

One day we walk around a corner
and there it is waiting for use:
that space so deep inside

where our nature resides, that
which never changes, the constant “I.”
It is not the “self” but that which holds it close.

If you could taste it, it would
taste like candy we know
we should not eat

but we do
because of we didn’t
we could not be.



Two_dancersIt’s hard to find.

There are so many who
do not want you to have any.

They think it belongs to them.
They think that if you have any,
they will not have enough for themselves.

Thankfully, there are those
who want you to have it
feel it
breathe it
be alive with it.

Welcome them.
Have the pride you deserve.
It is not the only reason
but it is a very good reason
to dance.

The Joy of Knowing Buddy

Buddha and I were having a beer. Actually he ordered a hard cider. Before he invited me out to the bar, I had always thought Buddha didn’t partake. Come to think of it I never pictured him doing much more than sit on his ass with a big grin on his face. After a few ciders, I clued into the cause of his happiness.

We lived in the same neighborhood. We first met at Max and Cherry’s Laundromat and Gift Shoppe. We were folding clothes at adjacent tables. He was buttoning up a Hawaiian shirt when a long sigh left his mouth. I looked at him and he caught my eye. He smiled and nodded toward the shirt. Just remembering, he said. Have you been?

Maui, I replied. I swam with a sea turtle.

Buddha chuckled. They sure do stick their necks out when they want something.

When he first introduced himself, I misunderstood and thought he said, Buddy.

Hi Buddy,” I said, shaking his chubby hand. My name is Mark.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out, but before I could ask him to say it again, Cherry appeared. She was behind my new friend and could barely touch her fingers as her arms wrapped around his belly.

It’s so good to see you, she said.

She extended her hand toward me. Hi, I’m Cherry.

I shook her hand but in the process brushed my fingers against Buddy’s belly. I remember thinking it was simultaneously as hard as a turtle shell and as soft as a cumulus cloud.

I am Mark, I said. Continue reading

Zombie-like at Wally World

I walked around Wal-Mart the other day. From one end to the other. I bought stuff and almost bought other stuff.

I asked a staff person where something was. She pointed. “Over there past the George Foremans, next to the computer stuff.”

Perhaps I looked dazed. She added, “Yeh I know. No matter where you are, what you want is somewhere else.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I chuckled.

I looked at my options, compared prices and finally placed my selection in the cart. I wove my way to the long bank of check out lanes, hearing “Welcome to Wal-Mart” in the distance.

I waited in line zombie-like, said “no-thank you” to the cashier who asked me a question that I really didn’t hear. I slipped my credit card in the money-taker contraption and walked off into the dusk, once again having no idea where I parked my car. But I saved three bucks, and when I finally found my car, I had to just sit there for a few minutes, the engine humming.

Then I drove home and didn’t realize until I walked through the door, I didn’t get what I went there for.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth IS Dot Com

I have always been curious.

When someone tells you to put your money where your mouth is, just how much money should one put there?

I mean, you don’t want look cheap and noncommittal, but shove too much cash in there and you’ll be accused of grandstanding or ridiculed for paying too much for walking the talk, which is really what putting your money where you mouth means, and vice versa of course.

I wish there were a website to help me.

I did look upputyourmoneywhereyourmouthiscom.com but there is nothing there, but I checked at GoDaddy. Someone actually owns that domain.

I wonder if the fact they haven’t done anything with it says something about their character. Or if they are just waiting for the day they actually can express the right denomination for integrity.


Anti-Terrorist Terrorism

I know a few people who, sadly, hate Muslims because some Muslims have committed crimes, terrorism, and are guilty of racism and intolerance for others. Of course I find such racism disgusting and in itself intolerable. The same logic should hold, shouldn’t it, that Christians are terrorists, as our Jews, for the hateful things some of them have done to humankind.

I made the mistake of trying to talk sense to one person who is dead set against taking in Syrian refugees because they will destroy Canada, harm our “Christian values,” and take over “our” country.

Again, I made the mistake of asking if they understood then how their Christian fore-fathers and fore-mothers were guilty of trying to decimate Aboriginal culture and spirituality. I asked if they felt remorse for our government (which represents all of us) stealing Aboriginal children from their homes and locking them up in residential schools and subjecting them to beatings, rape, and torture.

The look I received was one of disgust. “I am tired of hearing about how the Indians have it so bad. They get free education, don’t they? It’s time they got over all of this. It was a long time ago.”

If these are Christian values, which I realize they are not, but if this is what some people “do” with their Christian values, I suggest we give them as much free education as is necessary to end their racism and hatred.

The reality is that some human beings are terrorists. Hatred comes in all colours and from all religions, but thankfully from very few.

But when we cast one race, or believers in a religion, as terrorists because a few among them commit atrocities, then we who have such opinions afflict our own version of terror on the majority of humanity who are good people.


Edmonton River ValleyAt night each light
tells a story: small rebellions
in the darkness.

We do not know
what the stories mean
or who offers them.

They are strangers. Strangers
we wonder about telling
stories we wonder about.

It does not matter if
we find out who they are
or the meaning of their lights.

Wonder is what matters.
Wonder makes life.


Welcome all that Arises

Welcome all that arises.

You don’t have to like what happens, but you can’t stop what is, you can’t avoid reality whether bitter or sweet.

But when you welcome all that arises you can face anything, however difficult, and embrace what is there and do what you can to keep moving forward.

The Music of Collaboration


At the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayor’s Lead gathering that Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities hosted in Edmonton April 5 to 7, one of my many roles and privileges was to be an MC at a reception at City Hall for summit participants. At this event, the trio Asani performed their version of our national anthem and two other incredible songs, sung in their native language. (At the end of this posting is a video of them singing O Canada.)

What I heard and saw and felt were received by me (and I imagine many others) as joyful revelation of the human spirit of these three women.

I watched these beautiful singers, the expressions on their faces, the look in their eyes, as their harmonies washed over us, weaved through us, and became a part of the air we breathed. Everyone there felt that and everyone felt the magic of their music each in their own way. Art is always experienced personally.

As a singer-songwriter, I look for more than the music or voices intertwined. I watch the human beings making the music. Watch how they breathe, how they sense one another, how they embrace their individual roles in the “we” of their creation. As I watched them, there were times I saw in their faces those moments of joy as they folded their voices into harmonies that I sensed not only brought chills to my body, but to theirs as well.

There are times when one is creating with others that such magic happens. New discoveries reveal themselves in the moment. Perfect blending of voice and rhythm reveals itself. What is created is bigger than, and beyond, the artists’ expression or expectations.

Asani’s performance was the epitome of collaboration. What they created far exceeded what they could create on their own. But even more so, what they gave to us exceeded the incredible voice they created together. Their impact went beyond their own unified expression of their music because as soon as it reached us, it was more than when their voices left their bodies. They became us. Singer and audience made their songs even bigger and more profound than what the three of them created. Their gift became the gift we gave to one another.

Artists understand this or at least intuit this phenomenon. The eloquent, well crafted story is not as powerful on its own. It finds its power in the reception of the reader. The sculptor, the painter, the weaver, all artists are unable to reach the promise of their talent without those watching, viewing, engaging in the art. Don’t get me wrong. To engage this way requires stellar artistic expression. All I am saying is that such expression is not fully realized without those of us who engage in their art.

Art’s power and grace are revealed not only in those who receive it but also because of those who embrace it.

Those of us working to end poverty or homelessness; those of us advocating for human rights; those of us who believe in the sanctity of being human – the work we are doing is the same work as the artist. We must engage others for our work to have its full meaning. In fact, the meaning of our work is to be found in the response and embrace of others. Like the work of the artist, our work must be stellar work, but the impact we seek must be embraced by our “audience.”

Our collaborative efforts, as powerful as they may be, fall short if they do not touch others in ways that inspire, motivate, and cause the engagement we hope to instill in others.

The  Asani singers are such consummate singers not just because of natural talent. Their beauty is precision that emerges from practice, long hours, struggle, debate about which way to turn a voice, up or down, softer or louder, and when to shake a rattle or beat the drum. It is mutual orchestration and no doubt the sharing of leadership required to attain their connection with us, their audience. And if they do it right, which they did, their music becomes ours to celebrate, to cherish, and to uphold as beautiful, amazing, joyous expressions of our  humanity. And once that happens, we carry that with us.

Imagine if our collaborative efforts to end poverty could achieve such harmony. Imagine how it would feel to see the impact of our songs on those we wish to engage and inspire. Getting there would be no different than the work of the artists, the work of the Asani women. I am sure they had their times of disagreement. I am sure there were times when egos may have stalled their collective commitment to their craft. I am sure they had times of being weary or lost or wondering if what they had created would be good enough. And I am sure there are some who may not appreciate their gifts. Some who might not be open to hearing, much less celebrating, an Indigenous version of O Canada.

Thankfully, they moved through such obstacles and resistance. Thankfully they did not allow themselves to be dissuaded by the naysayers or those who prefer different music. I am thankful they kept their focus and chose to be present for whomever was open to their embrace and to worry far less about those who might turn away.

This, too, is a lesson for us in collaborative work. We must focus on those who will walk with us to a better place, who despite differences of  opinion or talents still want to walk together. Should we remain open to the naysayers? Should we listen to their objections? Yes, but only to make ourselves better, never to stop us from creating the beauty we must create to make communities rich with harmony and peace and joy.

Oh and one more thing. I have no doubt, the Asani trio does not ever reach that point where they say to themselves, we cannot do better. The reason why they are so good at their art is because they never tell each other, “We are done. There is nothing more we can do.” No matter how incredible the collaboration, our work together can always get better, do more, reach further, and have more impact.

Thank you Asani for your inspiration and your art.






Trickle-Down Community Engagement

Cross posted at www.vibrantcommunities.ca

I waspreparing for the community engagement learning event Tamarack was doing in Ottawa last month called Community Engagement: The Next Generation. One of the workshops I wanted to do was on engagement of marginalized populations, in particular those living in poverty. My exploration of this topic led me to some provocative writing by Vu Le, who is a writer, speaker, and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a capacity building organization with a focus on leveling the playing field for people of colour as well as small, grass roots organizations.

I was particularly drawn to a piece he wrote on his blog about “Trickle-Down Community Engagement,” and his writing became the catalyst for one of the workshops I am doing, aptly called “Avoiding Trickle-Down Community Engagement of the Marginalized.”

With minor paraphrasing here is what Vu Le wrote:

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is when professionals bypass the people who are most affected by issues and instead engage and fund large organizations and systems to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free and on our timelines, within our rules of engagement and end up grateful for our largesse.

aace4It’s hard-hitting criticism but also too often the truth. I encourage you to read his postings on the topic. I did some thinking on the topic and I asked myself what causes trickle-down community engagement; why does it happen? I reflected on my own varied experiences of engaging people who are poor, homeless, and further marginalized by an illness or disability, lack of education, or by racism. Here are some of the reasons I came up with: Continue reading

Why Speak Ill of Charity?

It’s sad. There are too many people who speak ill of charities.

Some making sweeping accusations or conclusions without any real evidence or understanding.

Some prefer to focus on the mistakes charities make (and of course they make some) rather than the good they deliver,

There are some who think the continuation of social problems means charities have failed because not everyone is housed, or healthy, or free of violence. Imagine saying to a heart surgeon she is a failure because for every life she saves, others die from heart disease – as if that is her fault. I trust you understand my point.

Some analyze charitable activity by the numbers alone, especially the the most common one, administration costs.

And for some reason some folks just aren’t charitable.  And more times than not, they are not shy about expressing their derision.

Truth be told I think leaders of charities should listen to all of those voices and all the others that arise and see what truths might exist even in those comments found to be disdainful.

To my colleagues, especially to the leaders of our charities, please rethink the current narrative about how the charity model has failed and how we need to move away from it.  Don’t replace the word charity with new words that likely won’t stand the test of time. Charity is good. Being charitable is good for all involved. Being charitable is about being human.

It’s not about moving away.

It’s not about moving on.

It’s about changing how we do charity when change is needed, when new ways are necessary.

It’s about getting better.

And it’s not about admitting defeat and then changing the conversation.

Snips: Wager. Think. Data. Face Book.


I bet that homeless people don’t sit in a circle in the back lane trying to define poverty before they can go seek shelter and a sandwich.



When we talk of the marginalized, we marginalize them even further.



Data points at signals and combines together into patterns that often defy our assumptions. Data is not truth. It cannot generalize the human condition or human potential. As soon as data becomes our religion, it becomes false hope at best or worse a restraint used to deny innovation its possibilities and impact.



Face Book’s feature that displays what you posted on Face Book one, two, three years ago from “today” hardly ever offers me anything to re-post.

I did get a message once, however, that offered: Nothing again. Get a life.


Does Charity Prevent Collective Possibility?

Could it be that formalized charity actually prevents us seeing and acting on collective possibility?

I don’t mean charity in the classic sense of loving and caring for one another. I mean organized charity, institutional charity which by its very nature separates those who set out to help others and the others who are seen as needing help.

You might protest and say it’s not so, but think about it. How often is it that recipients of service sit on the boards of non-profits? How many sit on advisory committees? How many end up working for non-profits? How often are they authentically included in the design of the services created to help them?

The way we structure things typically ends up in the structure becoming the focus, the priority. By structure, I mean our organizations. We create them to help others, but the more sophisticated we become in our work, the more attention we must pay to sustaining the structure.

This leads us to competing with one another for limited resources – or what we perceive to be limited resources. We begin to see our plans to help people as our organizational plans. We talk about positioning our organizations as the “go-to” organization for this or that.

We may collaborate on proposals, but we also do so to compete with others who will be making proposals to the same funder or stream of money.

We make plans to expand our organizations and tell ourselves it is our right to do so, but most often fail to truly address how accumulating resources for “our” plans could negatively impact others who are also trying to be helpful to others.

Lately we have started saying things like charity is not good enough; we need to focus more on systems change. We don’t really question the very nature of organized charity, do we? Instead we lament that our charitable actions are not solving big social problems like poverty and homelessness. Rather than tackle the divide between people (helpers and those being helped), we turn to mustering our attention to fixing social policy and systems that are not working.

At best we will consult with users of service on these big challenges, but rarely, if we are honest, are we fully engaged with them on what those big changes are. Inclusion means more than focus groups and town hall meetings.

Perhaps systems change is really about how human service organizations are structured, how they exclude the many so that the few can figure out what to do.

Imagine if human service organizations and their funders invested more time, resources, and attention in community development, working in community, with community, perhaps for community to collectively identify community aspirations as well as problems and obstacles to a better life.

Perhaps governments and funders, especially those who talk about “People First” and “wrap around services” and all of our other well-intentioned concepts, should fund  community animation and help communities with the resources they need not just to live on their own but to live and work together on forging and sustaining a strong, health community.

I am not saying we do not need services. Of course we do. The question is not is there unnecessary duplication of services. People need choice and services provided should not be homogeneous offerings or housed in some mega charity akin to a non-profit version of a Wal-Mart.

The question is why do we need so many services? What is not happening that creates such demand for service interventions?

It’s not just that we need more collaboration or more integrated services or mergers and so on, especially if what we are doing is reshaping what is not working into a different version of what is not working.

Could it be that formalized charity actually prevents us seeing and acting on collective possibility?

That’s a wicked question that we need to pay some attention to, don’t you think?

Racism Doesn’t Just Go Away

Cross posted at www.vibrantcommunities.ca

Years back, I hung out for a time most days at a Robin’s Donut Shop. I was self-employed in those days and started each morning with a coffee (Robin’s was better than Tim’s) and a read of the paper. The owners of the small shop were Maggie and Tony, a pleasant couple who had come over from Great Britain a couple years earlier.

Maggie worked long hours at the shop and Tony less though only because he had a second job as a mechanic. There were a few other regulars of course and for some reason I liked the familiarity of the place. It felt easy. Safe.

There was this one guy who was around quite a bit, a suit and tie guy, polished shoes, nary a hair on his head. Sometimes we talked. Mundane stuff really: the Oilers game – well he talked mostly; dodging potholes; and the cost of stuff. Sometimes we just read the paper.

This one time, he was reading the Journal and making lip smacks and offering throat noises that suggested he was unhappy and irritated. Being the conversation-starter that I am, I leaned toward him and said, “You seem unhappy and irritated.”

“Damn straight,” he said. He said that too loudly so that other patrons noticed and turned. It was somewhat comical I guess. Everyone went quiet and waited for what this white guy would say next.

He looked around and said, “Wh-aaaat?”

People went back to their business and he leaned toward me and whispered, “It’s those friggin’ immigrants.” He waited, still leaning, for me to say something, but I didn’t. I hoped he would go away and leave me in peace.

But racism never just goes away, does it? Continue reading

Finally. A Decision

I know so many of you have been waiting for this.

It’s a burden i carry to have such responsibility and to know how many of you are counting on me, waiting to hear the results of my research.

After considering all of the data, performing cross tabulations by seasons and time of day and deploying pivot tables to understand how this or that might affect my conclusions, I have landed on the proof all of you seek.

Many of you will be surprised.

Some will not care (I suggest ignoring them) but i can’t hold onto this discovery any longer: A&W makes the best fast food breakfast sandwich.

Now on to the next project.

Bowling Shirts

The other day I was perusing a recent Face Book posting from Jordan Pearson (one of my partner’s sons). He was sporting a rather “unique” fur coat and having some fun posing in it. Check it out.

Anyway I got to thinking. We all have our eclectic moments, especially in our youth. I used to, for a time, thankfully a short time, primarily wear bowling shirts bought at thrift shops. That was back in the days when my hair was mid back and I had colourful patches on my blue jeans.

(Aside: I use to go for job interviews, my hair untied, patched blue jeans, sandals, and a bowling shirt. I asked my father once, how come no one would give me a summer job. That question invoked that kind of smile that is holding back laughter. He stood and said to follow him, which I did to the long mirror on his bedroom door. “Look,” he said. And then he just walked away.)

My favorite bowling ensemble was a powder blue shirt trimmed in red with big golden block letters that said SUNSHINE LANES on the back.

What was so cool was that each bowling shirt I owned had someone’s name just above the front pocket. So depending on the day, I was Vic, Tony, Bosco, and so forth. Even had one with “Lesley” above the pocket. I loved how that shirt caused others a reaction.

Of course there is a yin and yang to everything and it was a while later that I had an identity crisis, but the joy of bowling shirts and the various identities they offered me is a fond memory today now that I am well aware of who I am.

Yours truly,

Tales of Sofa Land and Wally Mart

Saturday our new sectional sofa was delivered from none other than, ta da, Sofa Land. It is quite wonderful and so huge both of us can lie down and not have our feet touch our respective arms at the end of our respective reclining seats – yes, that’s right. It has two seats that recline, electronically, with unlimited positions. Not only that I can plug my iPhone into the sofa’s phone charger. Yup. I can just sit on my ass with a constantly charged phone and do things like… err.. write important posts to Face Book.

On Face Book, I mentioned going to Walmart. I asked for prayers, but apparently I am not worthy of such support. My friend Tammy just commented, “Don’t do that.” I didn’t notice her words of encouragement until I came home. Another friend, Kate, suggested :good things happen in even the most unlikely places..”  I think perhaps she was drunk when she wrote that. My longtime buddy, Leo, asked for my location so he could send a rescue team (but I noticed he didn’t offer to be on that team). And a few other friends Liked that post. Not really sure what a Like on a post that reads “I am going to Walmart. Pray for me” is supposed to denote or even connote (yes I do know the difference). Did they like it I was going to Walmart or that I was seeking prayer? I imagine one of those two is more probable than the other, but you figure that out.

Anyway. We went for a couple of those TV stands we can eat on. Yeh, I know that sounds so 1960s, but here’s the thing. That incredible sofa is so damn big we have to move our small dining room table down in the basement. It appears now if we have anyone over for dinner, we will need 6 to 8 TV trays for our guests. No lie. Or clear off our wonderful oak work tables we situated off the kitchen in another former eating area (but only for really special guests, I imagine).

As usual, we left Wally World with more than we set out to accumulate: three laundry baskets (on sale of course, had to get them), two very soft and comfy deep purple throws so we can hide under the covers when watching a scary show (like reruns of Murder She Wrote), some Easter bunny stuff for the grand kids, and then we said that thing we always say. “Let’s pick up a couple of things for dinner.” What started out as chicken and a loaf of bread ended up being a cart full of great deals.

In our travels around WalIy Land, I noticed that some Walmart staff were wearing a new smock which said on the back in very large typeface, “Happy to Help.” I approached one but before I could ask anything she turned to face me. Apparently the correct facial expression for “happy to help” is a grimace and a look of terror in the eye that offers, “Oh crap here comes another one.”

I just kept walking. Once we got home (and unloaded all of our great finds), Ronda took a nap and I sat on our gigantic sofa, my phone plugged in, and wrote a bunch of dribble and posted in on Face Book, which is what all us do on Face Book from time to time, right?

That Damn Rogers Guy

I talked to the Rogers guy today. Usually I just say no thanks as soon as I know it’s a marketing call, but I was open to a bit of sport.

I listened to him review my account, telling me all that I have which of course I am aware of. Then, he offers me 9 GB of data for only $15 more a month.

It’s a great deal, he said.

I currently have 6 GB. I said, I don’t think I ever go over 6 GIG.

He checked. You are right, he said. You have 6 Gig.

You didn’t need to check, I said. I know what I have.

Oh, not a problem at all, he said cheerfully – not really getting my point.

I said, Paying 15 more a month for something I don’t need doesn’t sound like a great deal for me.

There was a pause.

I agree, he said.

Well, I said, had you looked at my account to see that before you called me, you wouldn’t have needed to try to sell me what I don’t need, right?

This is when callers go back to the script I guess. He said, Mark is there anything else I can do for you today?

Huh? I said

Anything else I can help you with?

I thought this is crazy. I said. You didn’t help me at all. You tried to sell me something I don’t need.

He didn’t say anything.

Then I said, Wait. There is something.

He sounded cheerful once again andsaid, What is it, Mark?

Take me off your call list, I said. I would like that very much.


What’s Different About Me?

I saw a colleague at a meeting. He said, “Something is different about you.”

I shrugged. I had no clue.

He kept looking at me.

“Hey,” I said. “You’re staring at me.”

He laughed.

I laughed.

We joined others for our meeting.

Half way through, he leaned over, grinned, and said, “I just realized what’s different about you.”

“Okay,” I said. ” I’ll bite.”

“It’s your hair,” he said.

“My hair?”

“Yep,” he said. “It’s combed.”

Face Book Speculations, Rants, and Other Offerings

Reposted from my Face Book page, with some additional wit and charm.

Two women working at Safeway overheard: “Oh it’s not us who text while driving. No, no, it’s Lebanese woman you know hiding their phones under those things they wear on their heads, those parkas or bookas or something.”

Just mentioning this as a public service and to assist the Edmonton Police Service in honing in on Lebanese women so they can stop wasting their time watching out for Caucasians or men for that matter.

Thank goodness those Safeway woman figured this out. And good on them for surveying what must have been thousands of vehicles and being able to see those phones hidden away under those parkas or bookas or whatever they are called.

Tip of the hat to them – and to Safeway for hiring such diligent employees who are bold enough to speak the truth while customers wait to pay for their food.



Whatever your faith, your spirituality, or you disbelief in a higher power… Easter is about :”new life.” It’s about renewal and also about forgiveness. It is about quelling our darker inclinations and turning away from that which keeps us separate from and too often ugly toward one another. Easter is about moving forward toward a light that guides, warms, and inspires us.

That message is not owned by Christians and if you happen to think it is, then I suggest you are missing the point.



Why is it servers bring you one tiny butter with 3 huge pancakes and then when you ask for another butter they bring you 6?



Weren’t settlers from Europe illegal immigrants?



An Exploratory Sidetrack While Researching Social Movements

I love what I do.

I mean the big picture “DO.”

Sometimes, like anyone, I get side-tracked, frustrated or both. I worry about things or imagine how things “could” turn out if we don’t pay attention to things.

I have been reading about Movements. Actually researching them, why they emerge, how they work and evolve, the impacts they have. I am exploring the various types of Movements: Alternative Movements, Redemptive Movements, Reformist Movements and Revolutionary Movements as per David Aberle (1964).

social-movement-logoI believe in Movements. I am intrigued by them and to be honest want to turn my research and investigation into a presentation/workshop, perhaps more, for Tamarack’s learning community. And I will continue to do that, but I got sidetracked today.

I was thinking about how many Movements there are, how everything and anything appears to have Movement-potential these days. Not only do we have today the Human Rights Movement or the Labour Movement or the dozens and dozens of other Movements that have changed — and are changing the world, we also have the Anti-Lady Gaga Movement, the Go-Topless Movement and countless renditions of “Buy My <insert your product here> Movement. Continue reading

Keep on Playing, No Matter What

markautoharpI can’t recall when I first noticed the auto-harp. I think it was seeing Bryan Bowers at some club many moons ago that sparked my interest. But it was years later when I finally bought one, and then another, then an electric auto-harp. I was auto-harp crazy there for a while.

The auto-harp has 36 strings and it may look complicated but it’s not. You just press a button to get an F or a G or a Gm and so on. If you can press a button and strum strings you can play this instrument. Perhaps not performance quality but hey, music is good for you, period.

I have written many songs on the auto-harp and have performed with it at least a dozen times in front of real live people, and it worked. It worked well with all of the other instruments. Some of best songs were written my old Oscar Schmidt.

Of course this simple instrument tempts one’s fingers to pick and choose among its 36 strings.   Finger picking and strumming are a contrast, to say the least. Continue reading

A very short treatise on the wealth gap


There are 300 people in the world.

180 are workers.

The rest are children, seniors, and stay at home parents.

The economy generates $5 million per year in wealth.

That averages $27,777 per worker.


90% of the wealth is owned by 20% of workers.

In other words…

36 of the 180 own $4.5 million of the $5 million in wealth.

The remaining 144 workers divide up the $.5 million.

I don’t really need to give you comparative averages, right?

Yes, I understand economics might be a tad more complicated than represented here in my short treatise on the wealth-gap; however, I am just trying to point at something that is rather disconcerting, not prove a theory.

Of course many will say that wealth of the few benefits everyone, that the economy requires this kind of divide. But this is not about a few providing benefits to a whole bunch of the rest of us.

It’s about living and expecting that our economy actually is ours, equitably.

Okay, you can stop pretending now.

My Purpose as a Writer

I believe life tastes better when you stir the pot.

I write commentary and speak about big change and why it doesn’t happen and how it might.

Transformation-talk is a dime a dozen, but actually becoming the butterfly — that’s quite another matter, isn’t it? Change happens whether we act or not. I prefer acting on the change we talk about.

A friend once told me, “You seem to be disruptive on purpose.”


I believe we must break rules and stop stopping ourselves from launching new ideas.

I believe we must rankle the status quo if we are serious about transformation. We have to push those buttons that leaders don’t want pushed. We need to point to things that concern us, that are not working.

Painting our status quo walls another bright, happy colour doesn’t change what is inside and outside of what contains us.

I am not concerned about being right as much as I am interested in getting to what is good for our communities. I am not seeking agreement. I am seeking to facilitate and sometimes provoke new visions, to shake things up. Of course, I am right some of the time!

Building capacities for new visions has long been my consulting slogan. It just hit me, though, that this is my purpose as a writer and commentator.

Affordable Housing is a solution not a problem

The City of Edmonton has launched a new website about the need for more affordable housing located across the city in order to ensure that all citizens have a safe and affordable place to live.

When people have to spend too much of their income on housing, they are forced to let other things go. Often they have to reduce the quality and quantity of their food, for example. They may have to reside in run down housing operated by uncaring landlords, which can pose safety and health risks. Fear for one’s children’s safety can keep kids from participating in recreational activities. In extreme cases, people end up losing their housing and end up on the streets. The average costs of a homeless person in our community is around $100,000. That’s what it costs to feed, clothe, shelter and attend to the health and mental health issues of one homeless person.

Contrary to what people tend to believe, affordable housing initiatives do not have a negative impact on property prices, and there does not appear to be any correlation between affordable housing and crime rates.

While the city website is silent on other needed housing types like supportive and supported housing, this is a very good beginning and hopefully is one more tool in the community’s tool box to use to foster more interest and acceptance of affordable housing in all neighbourhoods across our fine city.

Visit the site at http://www.nonmarkethousing.ca/

The site’s short video is below:

Tamarack 2015 Community Impact Summit. Phew!

What a summit it was!

260 people from Canada, the United States, Denmark, Guatemala, Singpore, New Zealand and beyond, working and learning together, inspired by the likes of Al Etmanski (my favorite speaker at the event), Fay Hanleybrown, Stacey Stewart, and Karen Pittman – all of whom gave keynote addresses.

Dozens of workshops were led by Paul Born, Mark Cabaj, Liz Weaver, and other Tamarack learning leaders.

I was honoured to be one of two artists in residence, doing music and spoken word throughout the week and to be able to give two workshops as well.

An incredible highlight for all of us was a visit Thursday night with the Musqueam people who shared with us their rich history and traditions, fed us venison and salmon, and shared as well their songs, drumming, and dance.  The name, “Musquean” means “People of the River Grass.” I also associate their name with the word, “Kindness,” because of their openness and welcoming spirit and the kindness they exhibited to all of us!


If you were not there, all of the materials presented can be accessed at the Tamarack CCI  website. The direct link is: http://tamarackcci.ca/node/9196.

The lyrics and spoken word piece I did are also available at this link:

If you want to be a part of the Tamarack learning community, I encourage you to visit their many websites:






What’s wrong? People are suffering.

I never understood “don’t shoot the messenger” as the stereotypical retort the messenger must use to defend her delivery of a message. Maybe we need a new cultural utterance like “You know how the messenger shoots those who don’t listen.”

Sometimes the message is actually a question, albeit unsettling in that the inquiry is unanticipated or more often, unwanted. We tend to prefer questions we can answer from our current inventory of answers. It allows us comfort and stability.

Even when we craft something new or design an innovation, all too often we end up creating newly painted replicas of what we say we are changing.

Nevertheless, the human condition is not a singular reality. It is rife with influences and contradictions and the unexpected.  This is why our affinity for comfort often rules the day. Truly changing what we do invariable means changing how we think and how we behave.

Remember that old story about the frog and the boiling pot of water. If you throw the frog in he will jump out, but if you put the frog in cold water and then turn on the flame, he won’t realize his fate until it is too late. To maintain our stasis, our comfort, we have the ability to adjust our comfort zone to small changes, but if we wait too long, we may face a challenge we can no longer meet.

In that story, we are the frog and the water is the environment we have created and that, if we are honest, we want to simultaneously change and sustain. Change is good until it enters our room, enters our space and says, “Your turn.”

There are thousands of people devoted to ending poverty and homelessness. As much as has been accomplished, each day more people show up in need of — and deserving of — a better life than they are living.

Too many people live in poverty. And there are many more living pay day to pay day, existing on the edges of poverty and homelessness. Living on the edge of disaster and the spiral down to despair that tends to grab hold of the vulnerable.

Too many jobs are insecure, pay less than a person requires to live on, and offer no benefits, nothing for the health and wellness of their employees. I know. Some businesses can’t afford benefits or living wages, but there are many who can afford it, but choose not to.

There are so many social programs in our communities taking care of poverty for the rest of us. They feed the hungry, give away clothes, and let the homeless hangout in drop in centres. We need them. There are so many people who need these programs. It’s sad, don’t you think?

It makes me mad sometimes.

Not just about all the bad things we have done in the past to the disenfranchised. But also about right now and how we – I mean all of us – choose to not do enough to end the suffering.

I am not saying we don’t do a lot. I am saying we don’t do enough. You see, the problem looms so much larger than our current efforts can address. This vast divide between problems and their solutions is not going to be addressed by funding reform, logic models, more collaborations, or even world class innovations.

Collective Impact initiatives (i.e. large scale community collaborations) may have promise, but not if we bring the same old  mindset to the common table.

I believe we have to turn the tables when it comes to addressing the deprivation and suffering experienced by so many people in our communities. We tend to refer to such things as “social problems” and then we use terms like that so frequently, they become generic representations of something vague and elusive. Now what exactly what was it anyway we were trying to fix?

People are suffering.

They are next door, around the block, standing behind you at the pharmacy. They go to school with your kids. They wear the clothes you gave away. They are co-workers. They sit on park benches. Everywhere.

People are suffering, everywhere.

I know it sounds melodramatic to use words like “suffering.” We prefer words that are not so provocative, and of course easier to accept. It’s much easier to talk about issues and problems and gather around terms like “social inclusion,” “best practice,” and “developmental evaluation.”

People are suffering.

The hungry girl in school trying to stay awake is suffering.

The old man having delusions on the street corner is suffering.

The mother with two young children beaten by her husband is suffering.

Being unable to buy your child medications causes suffering.

The drunk man begging for quarters outside the 7-11 is suffering.

The teen-age girl raped by her father is suffering.

Those who live daily with racism and discrimination are suffering.

This is not just about poverty as defined as a lack of money or as a social problem  costing society billions of dollars. It’s not just that the homeless guy flying on crack is a pain when he swears a blue streak at us as we walk by. It’s not just about the unpleasant aesthetics of ragged clothes, grocery carts full of cans and bottles, and vomit in the middle of the sidewalk.

It’s about human beings being deprived of their humanity.

And that’s wrong.

It’s wrong that so many people in our community are suffering.

It’s not just wrong for them; it is wrong for all of us.

Before we label all of this as a complex social problem, let’s start with it’s wrong.

It’s wrong.

And we are all a part of why it’s wrong.

Until we accept that, all of our plans and programs, all of our collaborative designs, all of our policy reforms, all of our actions, no matter how deeply we believe in them, will keep us from fixing what is wrong.



Let’s lock up the homeless, you know, for their own good

When I think of a “wellness” centre, I imagine a place where one might be able to exercise, see a nutritionist, take a course on personal development, learn more about parenting, or see a counselor. Some of you might imagine a wellness centre as something akin to a health spa where you can spend an arm and a leg to get your arms and legs massaged or exfoliated or poked with acupuncture needles.

remandMy guess is none of you would imagine a wellness centre as a place where inebriated homeless people are locked up in a cell without any due process of law and then set free a few hours later only to be re-arrested the next time they drink too much and the next time and the next time. This “wellness centre” idea is being promoted by the Edmonton Police Service and apparently a few agencies who serve the homeless. The hope is, among these groups, to use the Remand Centre for a new type of jail for the homeless. Yes, I know it’s being called a “wellness centre,” but let’s drop the spin and call it what it is.

Bissell Centre is not among this group by the way, just to set the record straight. We think criminalizing poverty and homelessness is, well, wrong. It’s wrong.

What the wellness centre advocates want is the Government of Alberta to enact legislation that would allow the police and perhaps others to bring, I imagine even with force, homeless people who are drunk directly to jail. No judge involved. No right to legal representation. Similar legislation exists in Manitoba and on some nights there is a line of squad cars waiting their turn to lock someone up.

I imagine some folks might think locking up homeless people is good for them, that it is somehow an expression of caring for them. But the proposed wellness centre won’t provide treatment of any kind and while it might be possible referrals are made to treatment centres, the fact is the wait for treatment centres is so long they offer little help or hope when people decide they are ready for treatment. In Winnipeg, people leaving that city’s version of a wellness centre are lucky to leave with a brochure in their hand, and maybe a kind word, or a friendly, “see you soon.”

Also, keep in mind that the legislation being proposed will also mean your brother, daughter, cousin, spouse, neighbor could also be locked up without due process.  That’s a little closer to home, right? That happens in Winnipeg. But I wonder, for example, if drunk hockey fans leaving our arena will face arrest or if the law would only be applied to the homeless man or woman hanging outside the arena on hockey night. After all the arena is not for them and how traumatic it would be for hockey fans to have to face the unpleasant aesthetics of homeless people.

An acquaintance told me recently that hockey fans who paid big bucks to attend a hockey game shouldn’t have to face beggars and drunks when walking to their cars or to the bus stop. My response was homeless people should not have to be homeless and then be jailed for that tragedy because hockey fans don’t like seeing their homelessness.

Here’s another thing to ponder. Nearly half of our homeless population is Aboriginal. In Winnipeg, Aboriginal people are by far the largest group jailed in its wellness centre, according to reports shared with me by visitors of that institution.


Remember how our society once felt it was a great idea to snatch Aboriginal children up from their families and send them to residential schools (you do realize those kids were locked up there, right?). I think most of us know now how immoral and damaging it was to do that to people and kids. I worry and I suggest so should you that there is a small movement afoot to once again lock up Aboriginal people and others – you know, for their own good.

In today’s Edmonton Journal, there is an editorial on how the Ice District is displacing people, poor people to be frank and of course homeless people are the poorest of the poor. It’s worth a read – click HERE

The editorial references a promotional video of the “Ice District” which lauds the development. Here’s an excerpt:

“Interspersed with images from the yet-to-be-fully-realized neighbourhood is video footage from various existing downtown hot spots: restaurants, night clubs, coffee shops.

“But what Ice District’s video doesn’t highlight, unsurprisingly, are the multiple outposts in its vicinity that serve Edmonton’s homeless population — over 2,300 people, as of the fall of 2014.”

These outposts, which includes Bissell Centre and other inner city agencies devoted to helping those people the wellness centre would lock up don’t seem to matter to the many developers that are doing all of this work to cater to everyone but the poor. Just as the development is creating pressure on the homeless and also low income people to move along to “somewhere else,” it won’t be long before ideas are put forth about additional development that will be for the good of the city, which will also happen to include displacing organizations like mine.

When I heard the Katz Group decided to name the area the Ice District, I had a couple reactions. I did think how interesting it is that a multi-millionaire gets to name an area of my city. But more than that I thought what a fitting name it is for a district that by design is leaving the poor and the homeless out in the cold.

If you think it is right and just to lock up human beings without due process of law, the same laws you want to apply to you and your families, then you will be happy with what some groups want to create at the wellness centre.

But If you think it’s just wrong, if not immoral to do so, I encourage you to let your MLA know because last I heard the Alberta Solicitor General was looking into drafting this worrisome legislation – at least it was under the PC government. I am praying our new government will put a stop to that,