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This is the 100th post on this blog. It’s taken just over a year to get here. Thanks for lurking, thinking, and especially to those who have commented. Take 14 seconds to watch this: Diet Coke and Mentos Our desire is that our credibility, influence, and investments bring a catalytic effect to the leadership of every organization we work with. As we do so there will be a release of energy that will sometimes be messy, but always impactful. When we say Catalyst, this is what we mean. We use all our resources to accelerate the changes needed to move nonprofits forward. As we do we expect to see results; greater efficiency and effectiveness, stronger commitment, more people helped. Along the way the value placed on developing leadership, the growing sense of generosity, and the confidence to work in synergy with others show us that we’re on the right track. We hope our interaction with nonprofits is a little bit like throwing a couple Mentos into your Diet Coke. (And for those who need to understand, the Mythbusters can explain what’s happening in that bottle).
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This week I am preparing for our annual strategic planning retreat. It’s an important and quite enjoyable time where we review the past year and ready ourselves for what’s next. I’m sure it will be both energizing and exhausting. As part of our review I sent several of our contacts (organizations we funded, people we’ve mentored, some who have shared wisdom with us, even some who’s requests we didn’t support) a simple feedback form to gain their perspective on Catalyst. I’ve been surprised by the response in two ways: 1. It seems like almost everyone who received the request is returning a completed form. 2. Several have commented that it is very unusual for a donor to ask for strategic input from charities. I can’t understand why a foundation wouldn’t seek out this kind of insight. If we aspire to be as effective in our role as we expect those we support to be in their roles we need this perspective. I am grateful for those who have already taken a few minutes and shared their understandings of who we are and how we work. It will be very valuable information as we set our course for another year. If you want to add your 2 cents worth (though the current economy precludes me actually sending you the 2 cents), here are the questions we’re asking:
As Catalyst wraps up our first year of work we are continuing to make efforts to better define our role in the community and the world. I am hoping you can help us by taking just a moment to answer a few questions about your experience and perceptions of Catalyst. 1. How would you describe Catalyst to a professional colleague? 2. How has your interaction with Catalyst impacted you and/or your organization? 3. What key questions do you think Catalyst needs to ask and answer as we move forward? 4. What “blind spots” about our organization, processes, or work do you think may limit our effectiveness? 5. Is there anything else you think Catalyst should consider as we do our strategic planning?
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People have asked whether Catalyst is a Christian foundation. I don’t really like the question. The founders are committed followers of Jesus and I am also; in that respect everything we do is in some way Christian. But we are somewhat reluctant to identify Catalyst with that adjective. The reasons are slightly complex, but basically we wonder about all the assumptions that are made when anything is tagged as Christian. We have determined that within the work of Catalyst we are not funding programs that are focused on explicit evangelism and church planting. We are active in our own churches and we certainly do believe that there is a need for the truth and grace of Jesus to be shared sincerely and broadly. We just don’t believe that is the primary role for Catalyst. So, where does faith fit into to our work? That too is complex sometimes. Most of the best leadership and relief/development organizations and resources we can find have Christian people in positions of great influence. In some cases the organizations identify as Christian, in some they don’t. Today I read an article arguing that the greatest social need in the world is not health, economics, or even justice; but restoring proper relationship with God. I certainly believe the hope and direction that come with salvation are the ultimate deliverance, and I hope that in some way my life points to that reality. At the same time, I’m wary of those who encourage people to “go, be warm and well fed” while they pass out religious literature and warn of the peril of hell. I find myself thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s pretty hard for people to consider the claims of Christ if their children are dying of polluted water. Medical Ministry International understands this well, as do some of our other partners. I would truly love to hear how the above article resonates with some of the rest of you.
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I’ve always been something of a jargon junkie. When I enter a new subculture I quickly seek to understand and adopt the particular language that marks one as a member. That has also been true in Philanthropy. The most difficult word to parse has been “Partner” as I blogged about months ago. In our society the word is used to describe business arrangements, romantic relationships (same sex and straight), friendships, and numerous other aspects of human interaction with varying degrees of formality. In philanthropy it seems to indicate the relationship between donor and charity, but this can have so many different aspects. When we identify what we call Strategic Partners for Catalyst we intend that the relationship extend beyond the merely mechanical exchange of finances, but also incorporate something more involved. But it has been difficult to define what that involvement might be. Here’s a draft list of aspects that might become a part of a Strategic Partnership Agreement as we continue forward: 1. Site Visit by Catalyst staff or principals to field work of the organization. 2. Informal Consulting between organization’s leadership and Catalyst 3. Promotion of partner through Catalyst website, blog, newsletter, and other materials, as well as personal advocacy 4. Annual Leadership Event with other Catalyst contacts 5. Catalyst Bonus Awards applications available to reward superior performance by staff 6. Catalyst Mentoring Program made available for a small cohort of staff and/or volunteers at no cost 7. Board Consideration for Catalyst director or principals to join partner’s board of directors 8. Strive/CCCC/Catalyst board development teleseminars could be made available 9. Referrals through the developing Catalyst menu of leadership development opportunities 10. Volunteer Involvement by Catalyst at programs or events 11. Fund Raiser participation/promotion through Catalyst channels What could you add to the list? Where are the landmines?
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Too often we get the impression that leadership is a topic or skill set that can be learned in isolation from other things. I know of more than one “leader” with outstanding credentials who are making significant, obvious, and damaging blunders with stunning frequency. As we’re nearing the end of our pilot project of the Catalyst Leadership Program at Abbey Park High School in Oakville, I am more aware than ever that leadership can’t be developed independently from action. There must be a cause, group, or effort you are currently pursuing for their to be meaningful benefit to leadership training. Context is crucial. That belief may be the distinctive of our program. We begin by trying to help the students identify their own dream, the thing in this world that they are uniquely able to address. Often they find that the seeds of their purpose have been in there lives since childhood. Only after identifying that dream can they get the real benefit of the rest of the program where we dig into how we can and must develop our Competence, Character, and Context in order to bring about our desired change. This week I saw some of the students “get it”. Somehow a little light went on and they began to see that there are certain things about them that are truly unique, and that it is in those things that their dream should be found. I loved connecting with a few of them after class to explore what that might mean. When I was in high school one of the classrooms had a poster with a stanza of that famous poem: Two roads diverged in a wood And I took the road less travelled by And that has made all the difference One of my friends thought that was an expression of regret rather than a victory cry. I consider his response tragic.
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Last week I was pleased to be with the first cohort of nonprofit organizations participating in World Vision’s FreeFORM program for a jazz cafe in Niagara Falls. In addition to the always great entertainment from Mike Janzen, I had a chance to connect with several people I’ve met in the last several months through Catalyst. A highlight was seeing the workspace where 6 Canadian nonprofits were spending three days processing their strategies and developing their futures. My reason for being there was to announce that Catalyst has reached agreement to support the FreeFORM program with a scholarship fund to assist those groups who are unable to afford the tuition cost. The fund is administered by FreeFORM. We are very excited to see the outcomes of this extremely well developed new program.
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This morning we began our first program of leadership development for high school students. We are with a class of 24 through the business department of Abbey Park High School in Oakville, ON. It was a good start as we explored the ways in which those things we did as children that we really enjoyed and thought we did well can often lead us to themes or patterns for the rest of our lives. It was encouraging to see many of the class appear to be engaging with the ideas and process. We’ll be together for a total of 7 sessions over the next 8 weeks and each student will ultimately have the opportunity to produce a personal action plan to take steps toward turning their life dreams into reality. Already a few took the risk of sharing some areas in which they want to do something meaningful; from being in a position to care for their own families as well as they’ve been cared for, to educating poor children around the world beyond a basic level, to improving recreational facilities in the local community. There was a tangible energy shift in the room when a few people talked about their lives accomplishing something they identified as meaningful. As part of the session I recommended the book “What’s Your Red Rubber Ball” by Kevin Carroll, who also wrote “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball“. It was great to be able to leave a copy of the book for the students to dig into. A couple other highlight moments: -the look on their faces when instead of saying good morning I opened with a game of Simon Says -watching some faces light up as they started telling each other their own childhood stories -seeing an enthusiastic teacher and being able to quickly affirm in front of the class that she has had a lifelong preparation for what she is doing right now -having one of the students join the accompanying facebook group for the program before I even made it to the parking lot I’ll post more on this as the weeks go by
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Years ago I interviewed for a job and during the process I was told the salary was based on the pay grid of school teachers in the region. That was quite appealing, but the actual salary offered was quite a bit less. It seems the salary grid was a basis only in terms of being something they looked at, cut down by 25%, and then modified by several other factors. It was a disappointing aspect of an otherwise very exciting opportunity. In the years since that event I have encouraged many young adults when they pursue work in nonprofit and ministry roles that the taboo discussion about compensation should be surfaced very early in the process and with frank openness. Not doing that creates the potential for people to invest significant time and energy in a recruiting process that ultimately becomes pointless and frustrating when something so simple as dollars is finally revealed. One of the causes is a cultural expectation in church circles that is someone is “called” to a role they will trust God to provide for them. To even ask the salary is somehow inappropriate and unspiritual. After all, we don’t do this kind of work for the money… Just once I’d love to hear a candidate turn that around and ask the search committee if they are willing to be the ones to act in faith and place a generous full year’s salary in a designated account because they trust God to provide the needed resources. This does relate to Catalyst. When we are approached by leaders and organizations who are interested in applying for our funding there is some risk that I can give the impression that we are likely to offer support when we really are not. I realize that in our current funding cycle I may have done this inadvertently, simply because our strategies are becoming more apparent as we work through applications. Today in a conversation with a new contact I was complimented for my honesty when I explained that I thought it unlikely that we would be interested in supporting the projects under discussion. Apparently it isn’t common for donors to do this. It should be.
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We are partway through the process of evaluating our applicants from this funding cycle. It has been a large learning experience. In a few weeks I will post some of what we’ve learned in the hope of becoming better at it next time around. One of the challenges at times in our discussions has been in explaining what it is about certain applications that appeals to us. There are obvious factors: people we know, those who have clearly done their homework on us, ones that presented their request effectively, those that are intuitively a fit for our strategy and direction… But there’s also something else, something that I couldn’t easily explain around our table but that is more clear to me after reading an excellent article by Andy Crouch this afternoon. I am enthused about supporting and partnering with people who are engaging with our culture in ways that involve creating and cultivating. I’ve had Andy’s book on my shelf for a couple months at the urging of Mark Petersen, but haven’t taken the time to read it yet. That will have to change. In trying to be strategic about the use of the finances at our disposal we need to be thinking about the issues raised here.
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