EnviroScan21 – The Toronto Supportive Housing Sector Experience

If you’re a thought leader in your sector, chances are you receive regular invitations to complete surveys, participate in interviews and focus groups. There’s a lot of consultation going on… but when it comes to scanning the external environment, many non-profit organizations need and seek the same kind of information.

There’s no doubt that understanding what’s going on in the environment is an important aspect of strategic planning; but is there a better way for stakeholders to understand the system they operate in? Individual agencies generally analyze external forces through internal discussions about their findings. How can we break out of these agency silos to better understand the rest of the system?

In our consulting practice, we assist organizations in scanning their internal and external environments as part of a strategic planning process. This common quest for data and system understanding represents an opportunity for organizations to get smarter together.

Scanning Our EnvironmentsMany PESTEL (see diagram above) forces in the external environment affect every non-profit organization to some degree, while some impact only those working in a particular sector, or with a particular population. Historically, and with permission, we’ve shared such findings across agencies working in the same sector. Recently we experienced a more efficient and effective approach.

NetworkTreeIn the fall of 2013 we facilitated an environmental scanning process for 21 Toronto area supportive housing agencies. The process was collaborative, efficient and led to the identification of four areas of collective action for their 29 member Network – the Toronto Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Network (the Network). Network members have a long history of working on collaborative initiatives; this process gave them an opportunity to share knowledge and collectively make sense of their common challenges and opportunities within a shared and evolving system.

The supportive housing sector receives funding from a variety of sources and staying up-to-date with funders’ changing expectations, along with the changing needs of tenants/clients and staff requires significant effort. It’s almost impossible for any one leader or organization to stay on top of all the trends, forces and new research, even if leaders are involved in sector initiatives and diligently scan the external environment on an ongoing basis. As part of the scanning process, we surveyed Network members, consumer groups, funders, and private landlords to learn more about their perspectives on the supportive housing system and the changing needs of tenants/clients.

The sector scan process benefitted from the knowledge and insights of the 21 partner agencies and their Executive Directors (ED). EDs shared key reports and recent research that has informed their organization’s work. These documents were posted to an online repository that all partners can access at their convenience. We analyzed the content of the reports and survey data, and distilled the findings in an Environmental Scan Report.

Partner agency representatives met for a half-day strategic thinking session to explore the findings presented in the Report. Participants added to, and challenged some of the findings, and discussed the implications for the supportive housing sector and those they support. The discussion concluded with the identification of four areas for collective action. Leads for each area agreed to convene action groups to move the four initiatives forward.

StrategicThinkingAt the strategic thinking session participants commented that the collaborative process helped the group focus on the system as a whole. The collective action will reinvigorate the Network by giving it new direction. The Report will be of interest within and beyond each organization. Elements will be shared with a variety of external audiences. Ideally the Scan will serve as a common platform for supportive housing agency strategic planning processes and lead to an ongoing exchange of information and dialogue among Network members. Participants thought an annual strategic thinking session for the Network would be valuable.

We were thrilled to be part of the process and would like to thank the Project Oversight Group members that we collaborated with to co-design and implement the process. We think the process will enhance the supportive housing sector’s ability to respond collectively and creatively to the forces driving change and ultimately deliver better outcomes for those they support. It significantly reduced duplication of effort – for agencies and those consulted.

Q4L-EnviroScan21Although we recognize this process benefitted from the Network’s historical working relationships, we think it could be replicated in other sectors with less developed collaborative relationships or networks. It’s an ideal way to experiment with collaboration and build trust within a sector.

Interested? Let’s talk!

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services


Bold decision-making: letting go to leap ahead

Red LightStrategic discussions often surface compelling opportunities that board and senior staff are excited to pursue. The tough part of these discussions comes when we raise the question, “what can the organization STOP doing, or let go of, in order to free up the energy and resources to pursue these opportunities?” The typical response, after a moment of silence, is, “not much”. Staff and board members become attached to programs, and rarely wind down what may be a moderately successful service. So innovations exacerbate already heavy workloads… which might explain why some great ideas are never realized. One organization we worked with recently, Community Living St.Marys & Area (CLSMA), that provides services to people with developmental disabilities made a bold decision back in the late 1980s to stop delivering ‘programs’ and support people in the community in a more individualized way. This meant letting go of, and dismantling, the way things had been done in order to pioneer new approaches.

We interviewed Marg McLean, CLSMA’s Executive Director (ED), to find out more. She confirmed that their vision – “a community where everyone belongs” – served as a strong foundation underpinning the decision. Environmental forces at the time created a supportive climate for the change. A number of people were moving back to the community after living in institutions for many years, and several researchers/ practitioners* were promoting thinking on inclusion and person-centred planning. Although there was an interest in doing differently, many organizations in the region continued to offer segregated and congregated programs.

Getting to the bold decision: CLSMA’s Board was a forward-thinking group. Staff, board and community members started to think deeply about what life could be like for individuals moving back to the community and what kind of support they might need. They talked about choice, empowerment, dignity, individualization and the kind of community they wanted to live in. CLSMA sought out best practices and invited some of the leading researchers to St.Marys to share their insights. Stories proved powerful in helping board and staff to envision alternatives. As part of an inclusive planning process in 1986, which engaged various stakeholders connected to the organization, CLMSA considered the bold decision to move away from programs toward individualized services.

Questions for LeadersImplementing the bold decision: Since the planning process was such an inclusive one, resistance to the decision to stop delivering programs was limited. An implementation team comprised of staff, management, board members and others was tasked with designing a smooth transition. Key to the successful transition was the significant investment in training designed to shift mind-sets – including values-based, moral coherency, and site-based training. A new budget system with individualized budgets was introduced in 1989. New staff roles and job descriptions were developed in 1990. Finally, prior to shutting down CLSMA’s last program in 1995, every person supported had an individualized plan that included meaningful activities – e.g. paid employment, a volunteer role.

Results of the bold decision. Making a decision they believed in on a deep level, which set the organization on a different path compared with other agencies in the developmental services sector, has emboldened CLSMA. In subsequent years it has given the organization greater confidence in addressing other challenges

Today staff and board members remain highly attuned to their values and principles, and CLSMA appears closer to realizing its vision. Their work is embedded in the community and the community’s capacity and understanding of concepts such as inclusion and accessibility have grown. Today, if someone with a disability has a problem in the community, community members respond. CLSMA’s commitment to helping people lead a good life in the community means that staff and board are always thinking about how to do better…and this has fuelled innovation.

What does this tell us about bold decision making?

  • Bold decisions require a willingness to ask bold questions and engage in deep conversation
  • Learning from research and others’ stories can embolden an organization to make decisions that might be considered risky
  • Involving those impacted by a decision in the decision-making process can reduce resistance
  • Supporting people in embracing bold changes involves educating them

Why not go out on a limb... that's where the fruit is. Mark Twain

*Researchers and practitioners included John O’Brien, Connie Lyle, Marsha Forest, Jeff Strully, and Wolf Wolfensberger.

Related resources

  1. When Good is Not Good Enough”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2013
  2. Resilience and Adaptability – Creative destruction. SiG – Social Innovation Generation.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo

Values: igniting boldness and creativity

We have worked with Participation House Support Services, London and Area (PHSS) for over 15 years on many projects. Each time we are impressed by their courage in the face of adversity and wicked challenges. Their mission: “PHSS supports individuals with developmental disabilities and/or complex physical needs to live in their own homes, participate in community and enjoy life with family and friends”.

What is it that enables PHSS to speak truth to power, to maintain a laser focus on what is precious despite budgetary constraints, and to do whatever it takes to support individuals and families? It’s as simple and as complex as being true to a set of values that guides every single organizational decision and action.

A deep commitment to values empowers everyone, from Board to staff to volunteers, to stand their ground when confronted by forces that threaten to drive the agency off course. PHSS stands their ground with grace and dignity. They respond to problems with creativity, collaboration and a solution-oriented can-do attitude.

Executive Director, Brian Dunne has always led PHSS from a strong vision and values platform. Up until a few years ago, PHSS had no formal strategic plan apart from its vision, mission and principles. The organization flourished and advanced its mission by focusing on creating alignment between its values and actions. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, supports such a practical approach to values, saying “The world’s most visionary organizations concentrate primarily on the process of alignment”.

                Image source; Aligning Action and Values by Jim Collins in                          Leader to Leader, No. 1 Summer 1996

In a recent interview Brian Dunne articulated how being person-centred and values-driven has benefited individuals and families and helped PHSS advance its mission. He noted that when an organization is true to its values, “you don’t lose your soul to money”. Cultivating a reputation for being values-driven can make it easier to deal with government funders because they know they can’t dictate how the organization operates (within legislated boundaries), that the primary “customer” is the client and that you’ll do whatever it takes to address their needs. When full funding is not available, PHSS finds creative ways to address the needs of individuals and families.

Staff and board members are committed to the values that drive PHSS. Staff are loyal to the individuals and families they support, and the organization. Many PHSS staff approach their work as an avocation that is more than a job; turnover is low and satisfaction is high. The Board reaches for PHSS’ values when making decisions and addressing difficult problems. The Board regularly revisits and re-establishes its commitment to the values so that everyone is aligned and prepared to defend PHSS principles – to funders, community, donors, elected politicians and other organizations.

How does PHSS do it?

  • They don’t just accept what they’re directed to do without question – they confirm compatibility with their values
  • They seek out partners with compatible values – e.g. a local developer who helped them build a four-unit home
  • Board and staff reference values when making decisions
  • They provide values-based training for staff
  • A Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach (engaging individuals and families in the evaluation process) is used to evaluate how their values are expressed through their programs and services
  • The Board pauses periodically to discuss, reflect on and re-commit to PHSS’ values
  • The leadership carries PHSS’ values into conversations with government (politicians and civil servants), community meetings and other organizations
  • They translate values into action! With boldness and creativity.

O’Reilly and Pfeffer’s research found that organizations that consistently report growth and positive results share three best practices:

  1. Clear, well-articulated set of values that are widely shared and act as the foundation for management practices.
  2. Remarkable degree of alignment and consistency in the people-centred practices that express their core values.
  3. Senior Managers are leaders whose primary role is to ensure that the values are maintained and constantly made real to all of the people who work in the organization.

Ruth and Sandi


  1. “Aligning Action and Values”, by Jim Collins, Leader to Leader, No. 1 Summer 1996
  2. “Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People”, by Charles A. O’Reilly III and Jeffrey Pfeffer, Harvard Business Press, 2000

Sharing the Plan – Communication Innovation at Durham Children’s Aid Society

As part of our planning processes we encourage clients to invest some energy into attending to communication throughout the process. Doing so helps ensure that staff, clients and funders are aware of the importance placed on planning, how the process will unfold, and opportunities to participate. We find this helps generate interest in and commitment to the final plan.

Durham Children’s Aid Society recognized the importance of communications and used technology creatively to keep staff up to date and engaged throughout the process. As strategic priorities were being developed, it became clear that innovation would be a priority and that part of this involved greater and different use of technology. Durham’s Executive Director, Wanda Secord, with support from her communications manager, anchored a brief newscast (think CBC’s ‘The Journal’), to thank staff for their contributions, update them on progress in the plan and introduce Durham’s preliminary strategic priorities. It was a great way to reach all staff in a way that was fresh, informative and entertaining (bloopers were included).

Wanda could have circulated the information in an email, or presented to staff at different team meetings. But communicating via video sent a clear message about the organization’s commitment to innovation and doing differently. Staff got the message… provided feedback and encouraged more of the same. Wanda followed up with a second newscast after the plan had been approved by the board.

Ruth and Sandi


  • How could you use new and low cost technologies to share your plan and/or keep it alive throughout the year?
  • How effectively are your organization’s and the Board’s communications aligned with your audience’s preferences?