Category Archives: Development

Trickle-Down Community Engagement

Cross posted at

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 Trickle-Down Community Engagement

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

The site’s short video is below:

We Need More “Human” in “Development”

In an Edmonton Journal article written by David Staples on May 9th, he asked:  “Is Edmonton suffering from a bad case of Big-Shiny-Thing-itis? Often the answer is in the question, isn’t it?

Our community spent $90 million on the Art Gallery. The Arena and the Museum will cost $820 million. Add to that all the other development Staples mentioned and we are looking at another $1.25 billion financed through private investment and of course tax dollars from the city and province. Add the total cost of the city’s office tower and additional development promised as part of the deal and we hit $2 billion  – that’s $2,000,000,000.

Staples didn’t even mention all of the development in the Quarters or the City’s plans to lease an office tower being built by the Edmonton Arena Development (EAD) (a partnership between WAM Development and the Katz Group). It looks like it will save the City of Edmonton substantial money (by 2039), and the deal includes the EAD investing another $500 million in development surrounding the Arena by 2021 although they can buy out of that commitment for $10 million.

And to be fair Staples did not mention the significant dollars the city and province have been and will putting into public transit – perhaps the only major development that will also benefit low income people.

In general, I support development – not all of the above, but much of it.  But where’s the balance in terms of investing in human development, especially with respect to addressing poverty, homelessness, and rising tide of economic vulnerability experienced by nearly half our local population. Continue reading We Need More “Human” in “Development”


“Hey Maureen, what do you think about the new hockey arena?”
“I don’t think about it. I am too busy. Besides I can’t afford to go to hockey games.”
“There’s going to be a lot of big restaurants and a big outside area for eating food and stuff.”
“Yeh, I read that.  Can’t afford doing that either.”
“What about the new arts district and the museum?
“I suppose it’s nice for folks who got some extra money. I have never been in a museum.”
“Everybody’s saying all of this will change the landscape of the downtown area and make us a world class city.”
“Sure. Look, I focus each day on getting by and feeding my kids. Nothing you are telling me will be good for me and other poor families.”
“Do you think Edmonton shouldn’t have places like that?”
“Not saying that. Just don’t pretend it all will be good for Edmonton unless poor folk are not considered as part of Edmonton. This all will be good for people with money.”
“I see. Anything else you want to say?”
“I wonder how long it will take after all of this opens before my landlord raises the rent and I have to move again.”
“How do you know that will happen?”
“I live in a basement suite a few blocks away. I am poor not stupid.”
“All of this new development will drive up prices and my landlord will sell his place for a big profit.”
“You think you might lose your place because of all of this?”
“I hear local families will get some free ice time at the arena.”
“That’s great. I will spent my food money on ice skates for my kids. Can’t wait for the arena to open so I can get us some of the free ice time.”
“You are being sarcastic.”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“I just wondered what you thought.”
“Look. I work hard and make small money. I get by and don’t blame anyone for my life. But let’s tell the truth. All of these millions of dollars being spent won’t do anything good for my family. Won’t help my kids learn anything. Won’t help make child care cost what I can pay.  So yeh, I am being a bit sarcastic.”
“I see.”
“Let me ask you something.”
“When all the big shots in their suits go on about how great this is for the City of Edmonton, do you think they are being sarcastic?”
“Not really.”
“Me either.”
“What is it then? You think they are lying?”
“No. I imagine they are good people.”
“Well, then. What? You think they don’t care?”
“I imagine some don’t. But truth is the worst of it is that folks like me don’t cross their minds. I am invisible and the arena and everything else will just make that worse.”
“That’s pretty harsh.”
“Yes it is – at least we agree on that.”

Watch out for the pendulum swing

Societal and organizational pendulum swings are a metaphor for major change or transformation in thinking and action. They are in and of themselves neither good nor bad, postive nor negative. They tend to reflect as well as point to major trends. We all know the obvious ones:

  • The swing from centralized to decentralized
  • The swing from insourceing to outsourcing and more recently to crowdsourcing
  • The swing from regulation to de-regulation
  • The swing from heirachial structures to flat organizational design
  • The swing from an industrial focus to knowledge or information focus and more recently the beginning of a swing to what is called the conceptual age (which is a focus on people, their skills, motivations, emotions, etc.)

Such shifts or swings are motivated by a complexity of factors and are meant, I believe, to offer a new emphasis on concepts and actions as opposed to totally replace the old with the new. The challenge is to find and maintain the balance by honouring and preserving the “old” while creating or building the “new.”

It seems that all too often our embrace of the new idea or way of doing business creates a bandwagon effect that results in an “over-trust” in a new direction. I have seen this when teaching students about leadership, for example. The excitement of a model that is new to the student frequently supplants his or her current view of leadership with the new model when the intent should be to reflect on the model and integrate it, where appropriate, with one’s current mindset.

Think about the swing from centralized services to decentralized. On the far left of the diagram above, I represent the centralized concept: decentralized is on the far right. These two extreme perspectives by nature exclude what may be relevant and appropriate from their opposites. In fact, often the two far poles on a pendulum swing exist in opposition to each other and can lead to rigid positions like “This way is the right way; the other way is wrong.”   Extreme perspectives tend to be closed to opposition or even critical inquiry. Instead of the model becoming a frame to consider, appreciate, and challenge, they become marching orders, intolerant of criticism, and often punitive to those who don’t simply align and obey.

The middle ground, the balanced perspective, represents a mindset that flexes back and forth within the context of the organization or group. For a service delivery approach, in some cases centralized services make sense; in others decentralized. This does not mean extreme perspectives are never valid; I am suggesting that more often than not we should value both in balance in order to craft our way of doing business or acting. Life is too complex and its pace too fast and eratic to value alignment so highly we ignore what is true about every model: they are flawed and incomplete and by nature products of bias.

We can see what happened in the United States with the deregulation of banks and how the full pendulum swing from regulation to de-regulation contributed to the financial miasma that still impacts that nation today.  Clearly more regulations are needed but to swing the pendulum from one pole to the other) is likely not the answer either.

In the non profit sector, we have seen the pendulum swing from process to outcomes, from operational boards to Carver boards and now the risk of swinging over to generative governance models as the answer to how non profits should be governed. In reality most of us know or at least sense that an effective board must balance its work to give due attention to operations, to strategy and policy, as well as make time to have generative discussions about issues or trends that should preface strategy building.

When faced with the realization that a current model is not working or when exposed to an attractive alternative approach, there must be some discipline about reviewing “what is” as well as “exploring what might be.”  Such discipline for an individual is hard enough; for an organization it is much more difficult. In fact, the level of difficulty is, I offer, a major reason why either groups spend forever admiring their problems or jump on a bandwagon and ride the wave of the latest theory or popular model.

In the United States, United Ways swung the pendulum from being a fundraising organizastion to that of being a community builder, so much so, United Way leaders stopped talking about fundraising in public speeches; I heard one leader say that United Way is no longer a fundraiser. No more public fundraising goals were shared like they once were in his city. Somehow that US-based United Way and others like it forgot that one fundamental requirement for community building is money. We can use community building efforts to leverage fundraising of course, but the pendulum swang too far for many of those United Ways.

We see the pendulum swing phenomenon taking place in terms of social media, social enterprise, shared space, social return on investment, and so on. Organizations launch Facebook pages but don’t really know why. Some are gravitating to social enterprise as the promised land for significant new resources when there is little evidence such efforts will produce a profit much less significant new resources. Shared space and services do make sense. They can create efficiencies and lead to better services, but we go too far if we believe all organizations should engage in activities. Sometimes they just don’t make sense, just like mergers are not a one size fits all solution. Social Return on Investment (SROI) is another potential pendulum swing. Is it a bad idea? No, not at all. But in the business of helping people, let’s be careful we don’t assume help in all its complexity can be captured in a set of financial numbers.

So, how might we foster the development of a balanced perspective?

There is no set formula for that either, but drawing on my experience with a good number of stellar organizations, I have observed the following cultural elements that seem to result in moving forward in a balanced way. These include in no particular order:

  • A visible commitment to dialogue at all levels in the organization during which ideas can be explored, even wild ones, and solution building is based on the convergence of experience, knowledge, and imagination.  Simple applications of models and focused energy on getting everyone to see things the same way can be risky business. We need boat rockers and resistance as part of our culture and our strategy development.
  • We need critical thinking in our organizations, which of course, helps ensure excellent dialogue. Critical thinkers can have passion but they tend to use reason moreso than emotion to guide their decision-making. Yes, they look for evidence but they are careful not to exclude knowledge and evidence because of personal or professional biases. They are concerned with finding the best explanation or solution, regardless of its fit within a model or “our way of doing things.”
  • Effective and innovative organizations are driven by principles that reflect who they are and wish to be and how they will work within and with others to continually improve and change to achieve mission and vision. They do so by remaining open to ideas and emerging issues and opportunities, especially those that challenge their current mindset. This calls upon everyone in the organization to ward off  black and white thinking or seeing the organization’s facts as the only facts.
  • Organizations with balanced perspectives make time for thinking, discussion, exploring, and pro-typing new ways of doing business. They are disciplined about reflection and seeking innovations, without falling into the trap of believing what they create or innovate is now the final answer.

Balanced perspectives are not passive. They do not represent a kind of stasis where nothing much happens or where risk is averted. People and organizations with a balanced perspective risk falling or failing. They do so because they know there is no one right model or answer for their organization and for the people they serve.

More later.