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Catalyst’s new Partners Leadership Program is the culmination of 9+ years of actively working with charities across Canada and internationally to grow their leadership for greater impact in their fields. It brings together the very best of what we have learned in funding, coaching, consulting, and walking alongside charity leaders.

We are now actively recruiting organizations to join us in this intensive project.

The Program Overview gives the relevant information about eligibility and what the program involves. It is worth checking it out and passing it along to others who might be interested. In talking with several interested leaders one of the important aspects of the possibility of applying is the question of whether this is the right time in their organization’s story to take on something like this. The timing is definitely not right for everybody.

It is may not be a good time to apply if:
-You are in the midst of significant financial, strategic, or human resources turmoil. Crisis management is not what we are offering in this program. A certain level of stability is necessary to dig deeply into organizational culture and leadership over time.
-You are currently taking on several other major initiatives. Our partnership will require sustained attention and effort. It will demand continued focus and can’t succeed if treated as a small side project.
-The current leadership does not have the confidence of the board of directors. We understand that transitions happen unexpectedly for a wide variety of reasons, but for us to invest this much in a leader we want to anticipate them continuing in their role for 3-5 years or more.
-Your Executive Director is new to their role within the last 3 months. Possibly longer if they are entirely new to the organization. It is rare for a new first chair leader to be able to establish their own credibility enough that quickly to bring on an internal commitment of this scale.
-You aren’t sure you can work closely with either Catalyst or other potential partners. Some people just don’t click together.

On the other hand; this may be the perfect time for you to partner with us if:
-You are experiencing or anticipating greater organizational impact
-You feel plateaued as a leader or organization and want to shake things up a bit
-You want to grow the size, scope, strategy, and/or impact of your charity
-You want to lead with greater confidence -Your leadership team is ready to get significantly more effective
-The upcoming opportunities or challenges are going to be a stretch for you
-You are eager to both learn from and share with peer charity leaders
-You need some challenge and encouragement to bring out your best
-You have a sense that there is more to grow into personally, as a team, or as an organization

If you have any interest or curiosity about the opportunity let me know.

In the last 2 days WestJet, a Canadian airline with a similar strategy and culture to SouthWest in the United States has generated an enormous social media response, and a lot of tear filled tissues, with this year’s holiday video. It’s well worth watching. The Dominican community they show is one I’ve visited several times. I recognize both faces and places. I have walked those streets and met those people. I know some people will bring a skeptical bias to this thing. It is in some ways a publicity stunt I suppose and no doubt WestJet is hoping it draws customers as well as “likes”. There is room for asking some questions. North Americans showing up in a struggling village a sleigh full of gifts the local folks simply couldn’t afford and then filming a party together for corporate promotion lends itself to the kind of critique books like When Helping Hurts do very well. Isolated acts of extravagant gift giving tend to offer more in good feelings to the givers than meaningful impact in the community. That’s why I’m glad WestJet also released a second video: For those who missed the line at the start of the first video, WestJet has been doing projects in Nuevo Renacer for several years. Their partner (and ours) Live Different have been there frequently for even longer. They know every person you see in the video, they understand the complexities present, and they took on this project not as a one time glory story, but as a legitimate celebration of an ongoing transformation that is truly rooted in what the local people are doing for themselves. So, enjoy the video. Shed a few tears. And trust that it is only a glimpse into a much more involved and more joyful process that is a whole lot longer than the six minutes or so you get to see.

Yesterday we welcomed leaders from our 9 partner charities for a day of leadership development. This was the 3rd Gather event for this cohort who are part of our three year leadership project. We come together twice annually for events that have become among our most anticipated days of the year. We actually began on Wednesday evening with a dinner for the first chair (Executive Director, President, CEO) leaders of each organization. The conversation was generally unstructured but included sharing the memory of the first moments of realizing we were actually the ones truly responsible for our organizations. Thursday we added several other key leaders from these charities. After sharing some of the successes and struggles involved in developing a solid leadership cultures, we returned to the REACTION Dashboard, a tool we’ve been using with increasing frequency for about a year and a half now. It gave us a chance to identify and plan action for potential problems as well as some things worthy of a celebration. IMG_3544 Doug Alexander challenged us to reconsider our approach to fundraising by recognizing the power and potential of making it more of a human encounter and less of a transaction. He also gave us a glimpse into the heart behind the generosity that he and Shirley have embraced, which has made Gather possible.IMG_3545Shirley brought us deeper into the idea of generosity, spurring us to consider more deeply the role generosity plays in our own lives. Breakout discussions on how to best empower others, what kinds of organizational structures support dynamic teams, how to handle difficult conversations, and what the application of Doug’s fundraising ideas might look like were interspersed with excellent food and plenty of laughs. We wrapped up a good day by receiving some helpful feedback on what Catalyst can do to better serve our partners, including some intriguing possibilities for our next Gather event in August. Thanks to all who were able to be with us.

Yesterday during a mentoring session with an amazing younger leader we came up with an analogy that seems pretty helpful. Let me know if it works for you too. My friend is the kind of person who is talented in just about everything. He has tons of interests and seems to find success at every turn. That’s great, but it also leaves potential for him to be overwhelmed with opportunities of many kinds; all of which are appealing, and all of which he could probably do pretty well. At this point he doesn’t have one key focal point to centre everything, and sometimes that makes it hard to know what to say yes to, and what to turn down. We began talking about how shopping malls are built with large department stores (called anchor stores) at the ends, where main entrances are often located, and a large variety of smaller specialty shops are scattered in between. The status of any mall is largely determined by which chains set up as anchor stores, and their well-being is critical to the business model of the entire facility. While many shoppers may come to the mall for the specialty shops, its the anchor stores that ultimately are most essential for success. An empty storefront in the middle of the lower concourse is no big deal, but if the two story giant at the North entrance doesn’t have a tenant for long the mall is probably in trouble. The same is true for high potential leaders. There are an enormous variety of possibilities that can be pursued, and there is lots of value to be found in them. The danger is that we dabble in so many different things that our impact is scattered and ultimately reduced. We need anchors that help us determine what to say yes to and what to turn down. For many people their paid role becomes the anchor, which makes sense, but isn’t always a reliable focus. For others it may be a particular cause or relationship. Over time the anchors are likely to change repeatedly and the most mature leaders I know find their anchors in a confident and realistic assessment of their own abilities and values, rather than in external contexts. At Catalyst we have worked hard to identify our anchors and structure energy, budget, and strategy around them, while still really enjoying having some margin available for specialty opportunities and projects that are compatible with our dreams. At this point we would say that Stronger Together, the Catalyst Award, and our Gather partnerships are our anchors. In among those are numerous smaller consulting, mentoring, supporting, and funding projects that we enjoy without permitting them to take us away from the needed focus on our anchors. When challenges arise, we know that the anchors get priority and the specialty shops can go without our attention for awhile without major repercussions. The point is, every leader and organization should be able to identify their anchors (or big rocks, or strategic priorities, or whatever). It makes a lot of tough choices easier and gives focus that multiplies impact. Something to think about next time you go shopping…

If wordpress is correct, this is my 200th post on this blog. My hope is that somewhere along the way there has been some value in it for those who read here, I know there has been value for me in the process of writing. Today, a glimpse behind the curtain. As Catalyst has grown over the last 3.5 years we have come to know vastly more nonprofits that are doing good work and could benefit from some additional attention to developing leadership. There is no shortage of opportunity for us to pursue our Why. Early on our greatest challenges were defining what we want to be about and finding organizations to work with; now things are quite different. Our budget used to allow us to give much larger grants to the few groups we supported, now that same budget is stretched across many more organizations, resulting in smaller average grants. We’ve also gotten a reputation for providing a certain level of insight and valuable information to leaders through both informal conversations and some official consulting. Our scholarship to Halton students has become a week long intensive crosscultural experience through Hero Holiday. All this has meant that I have had to become a better leader myself. Not only to have credibility when encouraging other leaders to develop themselves, but also just because the demands of the role are escalating. As part of my commitment to the Arrow Executive Leadership Program I’m in the process of developing a focused plan to improve as a leader over the next year. The intensive assessment process gives me some key insights to work from, and my current situations at work and home give me a context I need to treat realistically. I’m fairly certain I know what the major theme of my plan will be, but the details will need some more attention to clarify. I’m looking forward to it. Making an effort to develop myself is nothing new to me. In fact one of the challenges of this plan is how it will interact with some of the other things I’m already doing. But the focus and high level of accountability will be powerful. What are you doing to develop yourself?

Two weeks ago I spent a few hours in a garbage dump outside the city of Sosua in the Dominican Republic helping illegal Haitian immigrants scavenge for recyclables, and food. I was there leading a group of young people who have been recipients of the Catalyst Award. Having been chosen for their demonstrated commitment to a dream of spending their lives in the service of others, we invited eight remarkable leaders between the ages of 17-20 to spend a challenging week exploring a variety of charity works in the Dominican Republic on a trip managed as a private Hero Holiday by our friends at Absolute. Frankly, the dump was disturbing. I was glad for my shoes, gloves, and jeans as we literally waded through every kind of trash you can imagine; used toilet paper, rotting food, even medical waste. Many of the Haitians we were helping for those few hours were wearing flip flops if they had shoes at all. When we loaded into our air conditioned van to head back to our beach resort for buffet meals and showers we were a very quiet group, and we smelled terrible. After a fairly intense debriefing discussion I was glad to shed those clothes, get cleaned up, and put on something clean. One week later I was wearing those jeans again, in a very different environment. My wife and I joined six other friends among 50 000 screaming fans at Toronto’s Rogers Centre to see U2 in a concert that had been postponed since last summer. It was an amazing show with the stadium open, the lights on the CN Tower seemingly synchronised with the music, link ups to the International Space Station, and everyone singing along with one of the greatest bands of all time performing many of their most powerful songs. My ticket for the show cost more than the average dump scavenger will earn in six months, maybe a year. Same jeans, totally different experiences. The thing is, I don’t feel terribly guilty about the concert. I don’t think I’m heartless and I know that it’s nothing I’ve done that allowed me to be born in a time and place where I have more wealth and opportunity than almost anyone who has ever lived (which is true of almost all my North American peers). The fact is, I choose to live in the kind of tension where I can be moved by both the injustice and suffering of people living in generational poverty and the wonder of a massive crowd sharing a night of phenomenal entertainment. I accept the tension of both realities. I have to. One of the continual topics of discussion for the Award group was the challenge of living in tension. We saw good motives resulting in poor projects. We met people we didn’t entirely like or agree with who were doing significant good. We admitted that coming home was going to be difficult. We tried to prepare for the process of taking real meaning from everything we saw and progressively integrating it into our lives in Canada. We recognised that it won’t be easy. And so, we returned home, washed our jeans, tried to share our experiences with loved ones who can’t be expected to fully understand, and got on with our lives; hopefully lives that are now on slightly different paths than they were before we started wading through the trash in a dump in Sosua. Lives in tension.    

I want to be good at what I do. Professionally this means I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring the fields of philanthropy and nonprofit leadership in an effort to understand best (and worst) practices. Being a good donor involves a lot more than the grants we issue, it relates more deeply to matters of intent, power, relationship, and ego. Many of my peers have given great advice, as have the charity leaders who have trusted me enough to be direct and honest (including three respected individuals who risked honesty at the Canadian Givers Roundtable last Friday). Trying to keep up with some of the diverse writing in the field and making my own observations along the way has given me a few starting points for how to support charities without harming them (or looking like a jerk). So here are a few thoughts on things that are dangerous to donors: -Being too rigorous: In an effort to gain as much understanding and information as possible to avoid weak grants there is a temptation to demand too much time, information, effort, and vulnerability from agencies. Using my head doesn’t mean that every application has to be an airtight lock for success. Respect for charities means that we need to have clear criteria, understandable formats, and reasonable time frames. At some point every grant involves an element of risk. -Being too sympathetic: Even terrible charities can use present an appeal to the heart. I’ve come to refer to these approaches as “a sob story and a slideshow”. It is difficult at times, particularly when there is an existing relationship, to turn down requests from people that are sincerely trying to do good; but if I don’t use some critical discretion I can easily contribute to affirming people, projects, programs, or organizations that are really doing more harm than good, to the exclusion of far more effective possibilities. -Being an expert: As charities educate donors there is a risk of beginning to believe that we really understand the complexity and challenges of an issue or community when we really have only surface knowledge. I’m very vulnerable to this one. I hear it in myself when I speak like an authority on something based on a few conversations, a couple books, or a short time spent alongside the real workers. My role gives me a high level view of a wide range of organizations and their work, not a truly insightful perspective on the roots and responses to problems. To believe that I am expert in any, let alone all, of the areas in which we provide support is arrogant and stupid. -Being in control: Money is power. when so many charities are struggling financially they are susceptible to being influenced by donors to do things and make changes that are contrary to their intended mission and practice. There is a time for donors to act in a directive way, but it seems to happen too often and should be approached with explicit candour and caution. We must resist the temptation to treat grantmaking like a parent using an allowance to make a child clean their room. -Being validated: Every human being has areas of insecurity. Those with wealth are often able to mask it with performance or indulgence, and are rarely directly exposed. Giving can be a way to have other people tell us complimentary things and for us to feel that we are good, kind, important, significant, influential, and spiritually advanced. We need to make the effort to examine our own motives and find a few trusted people who will call us out when our generosity is really just a way of purchasing affirmation. -Being superior: While most donors I know would actively resist this characterization, it is a subtle and common temptation. Having the freedom to give or not give according to our own pleasure puts philanthropists in a position from which it is perilously easy to become condescending. True humility is difficult in any circumstance, but all the more for the wealthy. It’s truly no wonder that Jesus said it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I am truly grateful that this past weekend gave me the opportunity to interact with many other donors at the Canadian Givers Roundtable and the Stronger Together 2011 granting sessions. Their example and interaction forces me to look more closely at my own temptations and desire a more rooted, humble, and open handed approach.

Catalyst’s uniqueness seems to be in our strong focus on leadership development as the area in which we seek to invest both our granting efforts, and our time and energy. Feedback from charities we interact with regularly affirms our strategy as helpful. Whether through funding or (formal and informal) consulting, we are becoming known for having a perspective that is appreciated. Being able to give my attention to matters of nonprofit leadership on the whole allows me to sometimes connect the dots for leaders in ways they may not yet have recognised. Frankly, it is very gratifying to play a part in seeing Canadian NGOs becoming more effective through my interactions with their leaders. That said, there is a dangerous temptation to becoming both lazy and arrogant. As my friend from The Gathering, Fred Smith put it when describing leaders who look impressive but are actually far from it; “In Texas we say they’re all hat and no cattle”. Perfect! While I’ve continued to avail myself of many opportunities to grow in my own leadership, at times I have found it easier to just rely on what I’ve learned in the past and trust that my experience, combined with the influence that comes from representing a granting organization, would ensure my effectiveness. Sometimes that really is enough, but as we seek to become more fruitful I am deeply aware that the challenges down the road will require more of me than I currently have to give. I need to become a better leader. With that in mind I’m about to immerse myself in the most intensive personal development program I’ve ever done. Next month I’ll spend a week at a beautiful facility in British Columbia with 24 other people from 4 continents who are enrolled in the 31st class of the Arrow Leadership Program. Over the next 15 months we’ll undergo intensive assessments, three residential weeks, focused mentoring (professional, personal, and peer), and complete a challenging array of reading and assignments that will both expose and illuminate us. I’m eager to see what will happen. In addition to trying to give attention to my assignments, I’ve already spoken with my assigned leadership partner, discussed expectations with my employers and my wife, and I’m reaching out to a small network of people to accompany me through prayer and conversation during the process. I’m making an effort to come in as open-handed as I can, admitting my weaknesses and insecurities, and genuinely wanting to be fully engaged in the program. I won’t promise to share details of the experience along the way. I’m certain there will be some hard topics and difficult discussions. At the same time, I do expect that some of the outcomes of Arrow will be apparent both in the near future and for years to come. This represents a significant investment of time, money, and attention. It is costly both for Catalyst and for my family in terms of time away and the attention required between sessions. I am trying to ensure that I get as much as I can in return for the commitment. And if it doesn’t work out maybe Fred knows where I can get a really impressive cowboy hat…

My friend and colleague Mark Petersen posted some of his thoughts on partnership based largely on what he’s noticed while working on our shared Stronger Together 2011 project. Earlier this year we hosted a small conference for charities we work with called Gather. (Some of my thoughts on the event can be found here). The highlight of the event for me was having a series of what we called “Firehose” presentations on the first morning. Inviting some of the most insightful thinkers and effective communicators in our network to give us 20 minutes on key topics was excellent. Clayton Rowe from World Vision’s Canadian Programs department spoke on how to have productive partnerships between organizations. He brings both extensive experience and a rigorously established strategic approach to the topic. He also demonstrated he kind of pedagogical presentation style that their outstanding Freeform program has become known for. You can watch Clayton’s presentation here: Clayton Rowe: Power and Peril of Partnership I have to admit I generally don’t follow through on the degree of negotiation up front that Clayton advocates, but there have been at least a couple key situations that would have been much better if I had.

Today I read an article from Fast Company on how to decide if a conference is worth attending. I’m still in the review/recovery stage from our Catalyst Gather a couple weeks ago. It was the second time we’ve brought together leaders from many of the organizations we work with on an ongoing basis for some interaction and learning. It is a major event on our calendar and something we deem to be of very high importance to our work. The question is: Is it worth it? Putting this event together is a significant undertaking. We had over 50 participants from more than 15 organizations for two days. Some flew in from out of province, others drove far enough to require overnight accomodation, and it wasn’t cheap to do it. In designing the event I had two key ideas in mind: 1. The work these people do is important, do not waste their time and energy 2. If we put the right people in the room together, provide useful stimulus, keep them well nourished, and don’t get in the way there is every probability that something good will happen. At the start of the two day program I told the group that beyond the programmed agenda my real desired outcomes were synergy and surprises. There were clear examples of both. We had some issues and things we won’t repeat: -the facility wasn’t ideal; we had heat/cold problems throughout our time and they actually changed the name of the building while we were inside on the first day without telling us, making it tough for latecomers to find us -we expected too much of the consultants we hired; even with the information from a pre-event survey the volume of material we hoped to cover and the diversity of the audience made it a near impossible task to satisfy the entire audience -I imposed too much of my own personality on the program; I don’t drink coffee so I dramatically underestimated the need to feed the dragon of caffeine addiction :), I also relied too much on my an insufficient set up to our planned break out times -I asked too much of myself; in trying to handle both the front of the room and the back end details for a lot of the event I missed out what should have been a great opportunity to connect with some great people I don’t see nearly often enough, the help I had was excellent, but I should have had more throughout the planing as well as the event itself With that said (and the appropriate number of lashes with a wet noodle administered); overall Gather was a success. I saw great dynamics in the room with people from a variety of organizations mixing well and having productive discussions. I heard from several participants that they began or deepened relationships with both professional and personal value. Our Firehose sessions were really good. Each of them was mentioned on feedback forms as being particularly worthy for at least one of our organizations. The differences in presentation style (which I hadn’t anticipated) really helped keep everyone engaged for the high volume content. All of the sessions are now available through our website at: The fundraising training we provided was considered valuable by nearly everyone. It is an ongoing an significant issue for the large majority of our partners and many found advice for specific issues they are currently facing. Highlights were the breakout topical sessions. Organizations that had never interacted or had not done so in some time engaged in strategic discussions that (in a few cases) have already revealed themselves in programmatic partnerships. We had the opportunity to share the Catalyst Story with our partners all at once in an environment where there was time to interact afterwards. It served as our “State of the Nation” and accelerated the next steps moving forward. I don’t know yet if we will host another Gather. It certainly seems to have been worthwhile from our end and the things learned this time around could be applied to significantly increase the impact. Ultimately we’ll rely on the participants to tell us if it was worth their time and energy.