Social Media for Non-profits – Five Good Ideas

I attended Maytree’s Five Good Ideas session on social media for non-profits in mid-October. Presenter Bhupesh Shah of Seneca College and ethnicomm inc. shared his thoughts on how non-profits can leverage the power of social media in their work.

Bhupesh Shah’s Five Good Ideas:

  1. Don’t be afraid to open up.
  2. Think like a for-profit.
  3. Offer value to your stakeholders by curating and sharing relevant information.
  4. Look out the window.
  5. Develop a social media strategy before dipping your toe in the water.

He addressed some common organizational concerns and outlined some interesting examples of how new tools are being used. Shah also introduced a variety of mostly free resources organizations can use to expand their presence and manage their social media activity.

Maytree has posted his half-hour presentation online ( The presentation is worth a watch for organizations that are thinking about how best to use social media, or for those who are in the process of developing a social media strategy.

It was the first time I’d managed to get to one of the Good Ideas sessions and I liked the format. The lunchtime session included an informative presentation, small group discussion, followed by a plenary Q&A (and food!). There was an interesting mix of participants, which made for good conversation. So if the topic is of interest to your organization – I recommend you go. You can sign up to be notified about future sessions:


Is Advocacy Heating Up – in the Face of a Chill?

Ironically, at a time when the Harper government seems to be trying to increase the ‘chill’ around non-profit advocacy by increasing funding to the Canada Revenue Agency to enable them to audit more charities, advocacy seems to be heating up. The explanation may be the austerity agenda that is putting the squeeze on agency budgets at a time when demand for services has been increasing.

Over the last couple of years we’ve noticed an increasing number of groups from different sectors – youth, child care, developmental services, and food – coming together to explore advocacy options. In most cases the groups recognize there is an advocacy vacuum; and individual organizations recognize there is power in numbers – the value of coalitions.

The advocacy chill has been building over the years, fuelled in part by organizations’ concerns about overstepping boundaries leading to loss of charitable status. As a result many organizations have tended to focus on service delivery, leaving advocacy to others. While some sectors have an association that does this work, associations are not always effective. In addition, funding for advocacy work is hard to come by although some foundations have stepped up to the plate.

In Forces for Good (a highly recommended read), authors Crutchfield and McLeod Grant outline six practices of highly effective non-profit organizations. They discovered that ALL of the high-impact organizations they studied at some point in their evolution engaged the ‘virtuous cycle’ which combines service and advocacy work. Some started with advocacy and later added services while others did the reverse; a few engaged in both from the start. Organizations that provide direct services tend to have the best information about a community, its needs, and what works. Organizations can help amplify the voices of those they serve, which may not otherwise be heard. These are critical inputs to public policy development. And good public policy is important in growing services and designing systems that work.

Despite the growing interest in advocacy – at a leadership and staff level, the lack of engagement in advocacy means there is a lack of skills and knowledge. Sean Moore has written about the need for infrastructure to build the sector’s capacity. Some resources for organizations and individuals interested in learning more:

Ruth and Sandi


  • In the current environment, what are the risks of engaging in, vs. not engaging in, advocacy?
  • How can advocacy at a public policy level expand your services and make them more effective?
  • For those that recognize the need for advocacy – who could you align yourselves with?

Join me at the Tools 2012 Conference

Iler Campbell and Prentice Yates & Clark are once again sponsoring their one-day Tools conference for staff and board members from non-profits, charities, co-ops and community groups. The law and accounting firms are committed to providing participants (many of whom are client agencies) with an opportunity to learn from experts on a variety of topics and exchange information with each other.

Over the years, I have presented on different topics at the conference. The audience tends to be diverse, friendly and open to learning. It’s been a great way for individuals to refresh their thinking by getting exposed to practical information and training. Participants also enjoy the opportunity to connect with others from their own and other fields.

This year I am presenting a session on:

Shared and Separated Leadership between Board and ED: Navigating the boundary                                                                                                                     We continue to debate and describe the boundary between the board and the executive director in different ways: oversight vs. operational, direction vs. implementation, policy vs. practice. The general principles are easy to state but challenging to honour. The session will focus on practical strategies for establishing the right conditions, addressing the inevitable tensions and making the Board-ED relationship work.

At the Tools Conference this year there are 12 workshops (you choose four when you register) and an inspiring keynote speaker who will share stories and strategies for engaging youth. Cost of $180 per person includes breakfast, lunch and great networking at the end-of-day reception.

The one-day conference is being held at Oakham House on the Ryerson University campus in downtown Toronto on November 22, 2012. Check it out!

Hope to see you there – Ruth.

Questions for leaders:

  • What does it take to engage in shared leadership while respecting the separate duties and responsibilities of Board and ED?
  • How do we navigate a fuzzy boundary that shifts in different circumstances (e.g. new ED, mature organization, small agency)?

Shifting the Non-profit Sector Narrative

I attended the Ontario Non-profit Network’s (ONN) 2012 Conference ‘Policy to Practice’ in late September. Tonya Surman of ONN updated participants on the Network’s work in relation to five policy priorities identified 3 years ago*. ONN is playing an important role in changing the narrative about the sector and shifting the relationship between the sector and the Ontario government.

We can’t underestimate the power of language to shift perspectives. A number of speakers commented on the disservice we do when we define the sector by what it’s not – i.e. ‘not-for-profit’, ‘non-governmental’. Tonya Surman highlighted some of ONN’s efforts to put the sector on a more equal footing with government by redefining the sector as: “solution innovators”, “community assets”, “community stewards”.

MPP Charles Sousa, from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration offered opening remarks that reflected greater government appreciation for the sector – he was well-informed about the size of the sector (e.g. representing $50 billion and 15% of jobs) and spoke of the sector as a ‘third pillar’ supporting Ontario’s society, on the front lines of public service. Assistant Deputy Minister Katherine Hewson spoke about how the provincial government’s OPEN for Business Program, which was initially designed to make government easier and more responsive to business and put clients at the centre of services, was expanded to include the non-profit sector. She praised ONN’s attitude of collaboration and interest in working together with government to find solutions.


Questions for leaders:

  • Do the words you use when you talk about your work emphasize solutions and assets, or deficits?
  • Do you offer compelling solutions when engaging with government partners?

*ONN priorities

  1. Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations Act – influencing the content of the Act (note: conversations continue as proclamation has been delayed until July 1, 2013)
  2. Sale of Surplus Public Lands – expanding the sector’s ability to express interest in the purchase of public lands before they go on the wider market
  3. Infrastructure Ontario’s Loan Program – gaining access to government’s low rate capital financing for non-profit organizations (NPOs)
  4. Police Record Checks Process – seeking greater clarity around process requirements to lessen the burden on NPOs
  5. Procurement and Vendor of Record – gaining access to public procurement program discounts for NPOs

Toward Participatory Governance? Launch of a Solutions Lab at MaRS in partnership with the Ontario government

The Ontario government has partnered with MaRS to launch a ‘Solutions Lab’. Assistant Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Katherine Hewson, at the ONN Conference in September 2012, noted that part of the intention of such an initiative is to put clients at the centre of government services.

This signals a shift toward a more participatory approach to governance. Social Innovation Labs like this have been implemented in other countries to change the way public policy and/or public services are developed; SiG at Waterloo provides a helpful description. It’s about the co-creation of solutions WITH citizens.

Christian Bason, of MindLab in Denmark, presented on MindLab’s innovation work within the Danish government at MaRS in June 2011. It was a compelling story – you can view his presentation here: Bason noted he was also in Canada to meet with the Ontario government to share his experience with them… apparently they liked what they heard. Bason’s book, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society is a great source of practical advice on how to apply design principles and work with end-users to develop innovative and impactful solutions to social problems.

Participatory governance and co-creation of solutions have applications for organizations and the way they govern and do their work. In terms of governance, this involves engaging the communities served in the decision-making of your organization. For organizations serving marginalized populations or youth, this may require the provision of support in the form of education, mentorship and changing the way the board engages in and beyond the boardroom. Creating an environment that is comfortable for those who could otherwise be intimidated means ensuring they are not a singular voice, and actively encouraging them to share their perspectives on different issues. Engaging this diversity at a governance level will lead to richer discussions and different decisions.

A number of marginalized groups have adopted the term ‘nothing about us without us’ – and this speaks to their interest in participating more actively in shaping decisions about services. Beyond governance, engaging those you serve in the design and evaluation of your services is another path to greater participation and innovation.

Ruth and Sandi


  • Why might your board, staff, community and clients get excited about a more participatory approach to governance and/or program design?
  • How could a more participatory approach lead to greater innovation?
  • What could your board do differently to share decision making more widely?

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?