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Get to know social innovation and how it can support you in your work

What is social innovation?

Social innovation – we hear this buzzword used a lot by the sector, but what does it really mean?

Social innovation pulls from a variety of sectors and disciplines – social services, anthropology, human ecology, project management, systems thinking, etc. – to address complex, social issues at the root cause.

At Volunteer Alberta, we define social innovation as “refining current ways or exploring new ways of solving problems.” It is the community-based ownership of a solution and it supports Alberta’s nonprofits in solving complex issues.

Why does social innovation matter to the sector?

The nonprofit sector is an ecosystem – we are mission-driven organizations working collaboratively across sectors as part of a larger social system. Nonprofits impact communities through the work we do and the services we provide. Healthy communities start with us!

Nonprofits address complex, social challenges from volunteer recruitment and retention to poverty and food scarcity. Due to turnover and funding challenges, we are often in a state of change. Our programs and services, even our organizations, move from growth to destruction. This chaotic cycle presents unique challenges and opportunities; it’s where social innovation thrives.

Applying social innovation tools in your own work

As nonprofits working in complex systems, we find it easier to talk about and map our programs and services in a fluid state. More often than not, this leads us to explore patterns of conservation and growth. Organizations leave little room for foresight[1] and creative destruction[2].

For an ecosystem to be healthy and resilient, foresight is necessary to navigate your organization through challenging times.

To better understand these phases and build resiliency, we can apply a sense-making tool known as the Adaptive Cycle. The Adaptive Cycle has four distinct phases:

  • Growth (development): An idea or concept is born and organizations are accessing financial and human resources to help the idea grow to maturity.
  • Conservation (maturity): Where processes, programs and services reach full maturity and are at their peak. In this phase, our organizations are often running like an established, well-oiled machine.
  • Collapse/release (creative destruction): Following a disruption to the status quo, organizations or systems let go of resources, energy, and skills from our processes, programs to allow for exploration.
  • Reorganization (exploration & renewal): new opportunities are sought, explored, and implemented. This is a time of new growth and optimism.

If you’re just starting out with social innovation or systems change, this concept can be difficult to understand. To help with sense-making, imagine you decide to become a surfer. Before anyone can surf, they need to understand the ocean (foresight or reorganization) – the ebb and flow of the waves, where they break, and the direction of the wind – otherwise, the water can pull you under. Once you understand the flow of the waves, you paddle out to catch the surf. Along the way, you make course corrections and adjust your paddling to suit the ocean (growth). Then you wait for the perfect wave – the one that will break at the right moment and allow you to ride it into shore (conservation). Once you catch the wave, you need to give yourself over to the rhythm of the ocean and keep yourself and your board balanced to stay ahead of the cresting wave (creative destruction or collapse/release).

Surfing requires several skills: the strength to paddle, positioning, timing, and balance to catch the wave and ride it into shore. And, it requires practice. Lots of practice! For new surfers, it is difficult to catch a wave and you may stay in shallow water, honing your skills by practicing on smaller waves. Once you become more familiar with the ocean and your skills, you move further from the shore.

The Adaptive Cycle is a great reflection of the current state but also leaves the necessary space for innovation to thrive. Using the cycle to make sense of a problem, experience, or program, can support new thinking or help us get “unstuck” when challenges arise. It can also support us in creating strategies or approaches to addressing key phases of transition.

The Adaptive Cycle allows us to see programs, problems, or ideas from a bird’s eye view. Where did we start? How far have we come? Where do we need to go?

Like surfing, if you start to feel discouraged with innovation and systems change, it’s important to remember that these tools are meant to encourage idea generation. They won’t solve the problem nor will they always get it right, but they will support you on the journey. Let the creativity flow!

Learn more about social innovation and access Volunteer Alberta’s Social Innovation Toolkit for easy to use templates and examples to apply in your own work.

[1] Foresight: the ability to anticipate or the action of anticipating what will happen or be needed in the future.

[2] Creative Destruction: the undoing of long-standing processes and/or programs to make way for innovation or to use resources in new ways.

Daniela Seiferling

Volunteer Alberta

 

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Member Spotlight: CCVO (Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations) prepares nonprofits for the Alberta election

Government relations for many nonprofits can be a challenge. Where do you start? And, how do you amplify your voice, especially during pivotal moments, like Alberta’s upcoming election on April 16th?

This is where nonprofits like CCVO (Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations) step in. CCVO helps Alberta nonprofits make a difference in our sector by teaching and sharing their knowledge in policy and advocacy work.

Creating the Nonprofit Election Toolkit

This year, as part of their support for nonprofits, CCVO developed an election toolkit to help guide nonprofits in their preparation for the upcoming Alberta election.

“To generate interest in the election early on, we identified the major sections we wanted to have in the toolkit and compiled themed blog posts that went live a couple of times a month,” says Alexa Briggs, Manager, Policy & Research at CCVO. “Each blog post briefly foreshadowed the toolkit. We then rolled them up into one final document as an entire resource: The Alberta Nonprofit Election Toolkit.”

The toolkit highlights an election engagement strategy meant to help nonprofits engage with confidence in the election cycle. Part of this strategy involves a #nonprofitsvote campaign:

“One of the major political parties will form the provincial government and will have direct decision-making power over issues that impact all of us. If we use our collective voice to encourage #nonprofitsvote, we can make a difference” Alexa says.

Encouraging nonprofits to vote

In addition to the Election Advocacy Toolkit, CCVO developed and released a Vote Kit, specifically designed to provide tools to support #nonprofitsvote efforts. With this Vote Kit, organizations will be able to:

  1. Make a #nonprofitsvote plan with handy templates to help communicate in a nonpartisan way with staff, boards, volunteers, and clients.
  2. Get easy access to information on how and where to vote.
  3. Find information on issues important to the sector.
  4. Join the #nonprofitsvote campaign to show the strength, breadth, and importance of the sector by publicly committing to vote.

By providing these supports to fellow organizations, CCVO encourages all nonprofits in Alberta to engage their staff, volunteers, board members, and people they serve to participate in the 2019 Alberta provincial election.

“If we stay silent during an election campaign, we let other sectors drive the agenda, which can mean that we won’t see meaningful commitments from political parties on issues that matter to the nonprofit sector” says Alexa.

Use CCVO’s election and vote kits to stay informed about the platforms and positions of all major parties, and how they impact the nonprofit sector so that on April 16th your vote will be, as CCVO likes to say, “armed with knowledge”!

CCVO promotes and strengthens the nonprofit sector by developing and sharing resources and knowledge, building connections, leading collaborative work, and giving voice to critical issues affecting the sector.

 

Niabi Kapoor

Volunteer Alberta SCiP Intern

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For Volunteer Managers: A new approach to volunteer screening

There is a misconception that volunteer screening is only about screening people out as a form of risk mitigation. And to a certain extent, volunteer screening is meant to accomplish this; but, screening is also about screening people in, finding the right fit for any type of volunteer role. However, volunteer screening – and screening people in, is not without its challenges.

Tackling challenges with a volunteer screening learning lab

In the fall of 2018, the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (ECVO), Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton (BGCBIGS), and Volunteer Alberta completed a collaborative initiative on volunteer screening.

Together, they designed the first-ever volunteer screening learning lab; a new learning offering with the design of a social innovation lab and a traditional workshop that combines learning content connected to the issue of screening.

Instead of delivering a simple PowerPoint or webinar, the learning lab is a more holistic approach that combined learning with practical application based on participants’ organizational challenges and needs.

ECVO, BGCBIGS of Edmonton and Volunteer Alberta designed the lab to help nonprofits tackle common external challenges when it comes to volunteer screening. Some of the challenges include (but are not limited to):

  • the inclusion of individuals with criminal records
  • the inclusion of individuals with disabilities
  • the inclusion of new Canadians
  • episodic and crisis volunteering
  • limited time, high volunteer turnover rates
  • increasing demand for skilled volunteer roles

Over the course of three months, four full-day screening lab sessions ran with nonprofits participating from Edmonton and area.

Building adaptive leadership and capacity with the screening lab

While the screening lab wasn’t necessarily about how to become a good leader, it reinforced strong leadership practices and capacities. The lab allowed participants to play with and explore effective strategies for their work, as well as accept constructive criticism and implement changes.

Adaptive capacity and adaptive leadership approaches mean anyone at any part in the organization can carry out change. “The screening lab was about increasing their leadership capacity to lead change in their organization relative to where they are and what the subject is,” said Annand Ollivierre, Networks & Engagement Director at Volunteer Alberta.

“The lab allowed them to evaluate their own biases – which I believe is an important part of leadership,” said Annand.

The screening lab provides an opportunity for nonprofits to become leaders in effective screening practices. This helps to build capacity for the sector when newly equipped nonprofits can share their knowledge with other organizations. At least, this is the hope with the learning lab.

What’s next for the screening lab?

Currently, ECVO, BGCBIGS of Edmonton and Volunteer Alberta are in the debrief and evaluation phase. Specifically, we are evaluating whether we should conduct another lab and when. Additionally, we will be putting together a lab report and exploring how the results could be shared with others in our sector.

It has also prompted Volunteer Alberta to look at their learning offerings, but more specifically, what is it that nonprofits want to learn? Based on initial findings, participants’ needs for more solutions for volunteer recruitment, retention and engagement may spark the next iteration of the learning lab.

At some point in the future, Volunteer Alberta may help to expand this learning offering across the province. While we do not know what this looks like yet, members can be sure that they will be the first to know about potential learning lab opportunities for their communities.

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Leadership Takes Many Forms

The Casey Executive Coaching Leader as Coach Program is a developmental program for nonprofit leaders focused on building inclusive leadership practices and practical coaching skills. A leader-as-coach approach helps leaders, as well as staff, to develop to their highest potential.

In a unique partnership, Volunteer Alberta was given a spot in the program at a reduced cost in exchange for sharing the program with others. Our Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) Coordinator, Tim Henderson, signed up for the program to develop his mentorship style. Tim found the concepts, theories, and techniques, introduced by Melissa Casey, helped him to understand what kind of leader he is and how he can use his skills to better help others.

We asked Tim what he learned from the course. If you choose to take the Leader as Coach Program you may learn something similar, or you may focus on your own learning goals instead!


VA: What did you experience from the course?

TH: It was fascinating to hear from the other participants in the group and get a sense of the roles they play in their own organizations. We discussed what leadership meant to each of us and found each person in the group had completely different strengths and weaknesses. What was interesting to see was how those traits shaped their respective leadership styles.

Hearing the stories of others helped me appreciate my own strengths, but they also helped me understand the steps I can take to improve my weaknesses and become a better leader.

Throughout the program we were given a number of opportunities to practice ‘active listening’ in both one-on-one and group scenarios. This type of listening helped us build trust amongst ourselves and ended up paving the way for more fruitful conversations as the course progressed.

VA: What did you take away from the course overall?

TH: Overall, I learned that leadership takes many forms. Every personality is different, but through active listening, anyone can provide leadership in their organization. We all have something different to bring to the table and, if given the tools, we are all capable of stepping into leadership. Through this program, Melissa (our host), provided these tools. Coming back to my organization after finishing the course, I found that I was able to connect and communicate with my colleagues more effectively.


Leader as Coach is designed for the nonprofit sector. Continuous learning and development supports positive change in ourselves and our work. Implementing change in our lives, work, and organizations can be challenging, so we get excited about opportunities that build in time to have practical hands-on experience and provide transformative leadership learning! Tim would recommend this course for anyone who is looking for personal or professional development related to leadership.

Do you want to sign up for Leader as Coach? Register to participate in the fall session beginning in October. This program is offered in both Calgary and Edmonton. Find out more about this program on the Casey Executive Coaching website.

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Becoming a 21st Century Nonprofit

In the 21st century, nonprofits are under increased scrutiny and competition. It might feel like you are facing off against other charitable organizations – for funding, for volunteers, and even for clients who utilize similar programs and services. So what can you do to make your nonprofit stand out? How can your organization be successful in the 21st century?

Below are the top four traits of successful nonprofits who are embracing the changes, challenges, and opportunities of the 21st century:

1. They engage in collaborative relationships:

To thrive, nonprofits need relationships. They must connect and collaborate with other nonprofits, as well as work across sectors – with government and business.

Collaboration offers the opportunity to better understand our work and our sector. We can see the areas that need improvement, the gaps in service delivery, and the potential avenues for partnership when we look at the big picture.

Understanding that everyone, regardless of their background, has ideas and perspectives to bring to the table is the first step to engaging in collaborative relationships.

Organizations open to collaboration with other like-minded organizations create meaningful workspaces and deep, systemic change in their communities!

 

2. They build trust:

Organizations are more likely to be trusted by their stakeholders when they are well connected and communicate clearly. So how can your organization build trust for those they serve, engage, and work with?

A consistent brand:

Organizations with integrity are consistent – in their marketing, in their words, and by living up to the expectations of their clients, stakeholders, funders, volunteers, staff, and community. They have a strong sense of vision and purpose. They are unified and the entire organization both believes in and works to support the overall goals.

In understanding their brand and their role, these nonprofits are better able to actively promote their organization and work with other organizations to maximize shared goals.

Having a consistent brand makes a stronger organization.

They know their audiences:

Part of building a successful brand is knowing your audience. Your brand is democratic – it isn’t just chosen by your organization, but also by your funders, donors, clients, volunteers, and other supporters. Organizations will build more trust when they communicate with each of these audiences in a responsive, understanding, and connected way.

Awareness and engagement build relationships and support

 

3. They are innovative and purpose-driven:

Organizations that invest in branding, building trust, and being open to collaboration exude a sense of purpose and relentless innovation. Purpose-driven organizations don’t wait for opportunities to fall into their lap – they seek out opportunities for growth. They tap into the latent energy of the organization and encourage others to be passionate and purposeful.

Employee engagement is key to success! An employee is engaged when they believe in the overall purpose of an organization. They will strive for success and will be passionate about meeting goals.

 

4. They support a passion for growth:

Part of being a purpose-driven organization is not pigeon-holing your staff. Employees are highly skilled and have a variety of interests. Development – personal and professional – is key to overall success because it taps into staffs’ passions and drives.

Employees in the nonprofit sector want to make a difference and are passionate about their work, but the sector experiences high turnover. It is easy for staff to burnout from heavy workloads, move onto higher paying jobs, or seek out workplaces with better benefits.

One way to keep employees engaged throughout their career is to invest in professional development. Encourage staff to pursue their interests and learn a new skillset – their professional and personal development will bring passion and purpose to their work. Staff will be more likely to be engaged, contribute, and stay with your organization.

 

What are some other characteristics of successful 21st century nonprofits? What is your organization doing already? Let us know in the comments!

Daniela Seiferling
Volunteer Alberta

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