Moving Away From a Culture of Can’t

There is a lot of pressure on community benefit organizations to toughen up, to be more “business like”. Some of this business like behaviour is really code for “be more competitive”. On the surface, with governments looking for efficiencies and value for money, with donors and volunteers experiencing fatigue and with the culture of can’t looming large, it does seem that being a shark is perhaps a good plan!

Not so quickly, lone ranger! There is another road!

I am a big fan of John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann’s work on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)[1] and McKnight’s more recent collaboration with Peter Black re “Abundant Communities”[2]. Among other messages, ABCD says to us:

  • Help neighbours discover each other’s gifts;
  • Reduce dependence on “systems” of services; they can’t create community and evidence shows that systems NEVER get “fed” enough and usually under-perform (ref health); and,
  • There are many stories which support a “yes we can” narrative when it comes to community action.

The notion of communities as “abundant” and the potential for building on strategies and (as yet) unshared gifts, is compelling and encouraging. It’s a healthier and more empowering choice than the rational but ineffective (and costly) “culture of can’t” which invades our thinking.[3]

Hildy Gottlieb, recognized in the US as one of the “most innovative and practical thinkers in the public benefit sector” has written a great, practical book The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing “Non-profit Organizations to Create the Future of Our World” (Gottleib, 2009) [4] She encourages us to:

  • Think differently (boldly and optimistically) about the future we want;
  • Change the questions we ask, so that our orientation is ask how can we build on strengths and create possibility vs. asking how we can solve problems based on our experience and our assumptions about what limits us;
  • To “turn to one another; discover the future we want to create; discern what we can do together that we can’t do apart; and,
  • To support each other as we keep our eyes on creating the future rather than simply on sustaining our organizations.

Tall order, yes!     Possible…. Absolutely!

As I creep towards being of age to get (more) seniors discounts, I am selfishly concerned that we pull ourselves away from the culture of can’t. We owe it to ourselves to think differently, to change the question from “what’s feasible” to “how can we change the world?”


Mike Coxon February 11, 2015

[1] Asset-Based Community Development (
[2] Abundant Communities (
[3] Can-Do vs. Can’t-Do Culture
[4] The Pollyanna Principles
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A Focus on Partnerships…Stronger…Better Together.

I’ve just finished reading Paul Born’s excellent new book, Deepening Community: Building Communities that Sustain Us. Paul, who is the founder of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, differentiates among three forms of community: Shallow Community – people are relatively isolated, choosing to interact on a polite but “only when it benefits me” basis; Communities based on fear – to keep out “the other”, to promote self-interest or fight against something or someone; and Deep Community…”To deepen community is to find opportunities for ongoing connection with those we care about and those who care about us. This connection strengthens the bonds between us. It builds an emotional resilience within and between us that, in turn, builds mutuality and reciprocity. We begin to open ourselves up to receive and give. Mutual acts of caring become the basis of an ever stronger feeling of belonging.”

When I read this definition of deep community, it provided a clear image of what the work of the Mills is and should be.

As I reflect back on 2013-14, I am encouraged that we are serving the communities we work in through both helping individuals and intentionally engaging more folks in deepening community.

  • Workshops in June brought together over 200 folks in each of Mississippi Mills, Carleton Place and Smiths Falls to work with Bruce Anderson on creating practical actions to build more “welcoming” communities.
  • In July, we celebrated the official opening of Phase 2 of the Country Street Seniors Apartments in Almonte. Since then, we’ve made considerable progress in the design for an additional 28 units and a seniors’ community center. Getting to the “official opening” of this “Phase 3” will take a village but we are optimistic!
  • In September the 3rd Senior’s Expo in Mississippi Mills was a success, with over 500 participants and 75 displays. The Expo was a testament to the work of many organizations and volunteers.
  • Throughout the year, events such as the 5 Evenings in July concerts (to support Augusta Street Park in Almonte), the always growing Neighbourhood Tomato community gardening project (and its energetic Tomato Heads) and the , ” Good Life in Smiths Falls” community builders circle provided opportunities for community engagement and relationship building.

I think that we’ve balanced our community engagement work with some substantial achievements in terms of building organizational capacity. We have:

  • Piloted several new senior’s recreation and wellness programs and are on the road to broadening our work in an area which has been identified as a “gap” in many conversations.
  • Partnered with Adagio, a tech start-up, and four other developmental service providers to expand how MonAmi™ can enable adults with intellectual disabilities to have more choice and control over activities of daily living. MonAmi™ is a personal assistant/care connector integrated solution with easy to use “icons”, voice commands, or automatic notices. It is designed to enable the elderly, individuals with impaired cognitive function, mobility and other disabilities to connect with their support team(s) and community.
  • Supported four staff to be certified as trainers in Person Centered Thinking by Helen Sanderson Associates. This helps to grow an important facet of the Mills’ approach to providing services and allows us to provide training to other organizations.
  • Engaged over 150 people in environmental scanning and in updating the Mills’ Strategic Plan and, not least of all…
  • The Mills received accreditation from Imagine Canada. This was a lot of work! It dramatically improved our “business processes” and organizational capacity. This accreditation says to the public at large, “you can trust that the time, talent and treasure you invest in the Mills will be ethically, efficiently and effectively engaged.”

This latest chapter in the life of the Mills has featured progress in “deepening community” and in building the Mills’ capacity to have a positive impact in the communities we support. It’s fair to say that the “we” is deeper and broader now and we are stronger and better together.


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Beyond the AODA…Widening the Welcome

This talk was given as part of a workshop on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) for helping organizations-hosted by the United Way of Lanark County, Ontario on April 242014.

Welcoming is “the initial and ongoing interactions with people and environment that result in a feeling of belonging and a willingness to engage.”   Bruce Anderson1

As Sherri Torjman ,of the Caledon Institute, points out in a blog post, “Disabling the Disability Mindset”, there is major shift in how “disability” is viewed and treated as a matter of public policy.2 She notes that:

  • attitudes and lack of consideration in procedures and design end up keeping a lot of people with disabilities “on the outside”;
  • with the passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005 and its regulations now coming into effect, we have obligations to remove and mitigate barriers to inclusion; and
  • we also have opportunities to “be a powerful emissary for change” in our communities.

So where does this fit on the radar of helping organizations? I’d suggest that there are a couple of really important things relating to how we think that can transform AODA compliance in great opportunities for building more welcoming, healthier communities.

First, the AODA is intended to get all of us to think about, and to act to remove barriers to inclusion. It’s basically a pretty low bar (standard) when you think about it. Most human service organizations say some place in their literature, that part of their job is helping people who are marginalized (for whatever reason) to be part of the community. The United Way asks the community for funds to help us do this kind of work. It seems to me that in order to be credible with the public, we should do a good bit more than just comply with the AODA because we have to! Shouldn’t our common mission be to help all communities be inclusive and welcoming by design and as the norm?

Secondly, I think all of our organizations need all the help we can get in sustaining strong cultures and effective ways of contributing to our communities. We can do better and we should take some chances; however great our services and programs are, they are means to help create healthy, inclusive communities. Positive change for both individuals and communities are the ends we are seeking. Sometimes we are dazzled by our programmes BUT, to paraphrase the great community organizer, Saul Alinsky, it is vital to our survival that we can distinguish between means and end. If we can’t we may end up on our “ends” with much in the way of “means”.3

Bruce Anderson says that for professional helping organizations, focusing on welcoming is a wise strategy.4 He offers four reasons why welcoming is critical to our learning and thus to the impact we have:

  1. People we work with often feel isolated, vulnerable and “unworthy”. They may want a service to help them in certain ways but, as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs points out, we each want and need to experience belonging, inclusion and to be valued. Loneliness is the greatest disability!
  2. Creating welcoming spaces and engaging in welcoming behaviour helps to build the social capital. Social capital is essential to a civil, engaged society and clearly contributes to wellness. Take a look at the Canadian Index of Well-Being as an example of this type of thinking.5 
  3. As institutions, organizations, and agencies… we position ourselves as community leaders. I believe that most of us are acutely aware of the limits of what we can do to help the community. Certainly, as John McKnight, in his work on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) points out to us, services do not equal community.6 In fact, an over reliance by formalized helping and on the system has contributed to the erosion of community. With this in mind, as helping organizations, we need to serve as exemplary leaders in encouraging hospitality, welcoming and neighbour to neighbour, “community building”.
  4. We cannot achieve our missions and have the impact we aspire to create by ourselves and simply by providing services. We know that community acceptance and engagement is absolutely pivotal. We are also learning that when the “gifts “of the people we serve are recognized and accepted (vs their labels and deficiencies), it’s a game changer. Clients become citizens and neighbours.

“Research shows that people who feel like they belong are more likely to engage with others, give their time, and participate in their communities. By focusing on welcoming, we are building the hidden capacity of our community without relying on grants, government assistance, or outside experts. ~ Bruce Anderson

I sincerely hope that for helping organizations, compliance with the AODA will not be an end in itself. I’d advocate that we choose to look at the challenge differently. Compliance with the AODA can be the starting point and can provide a positive example to our communities. We need to seize this opportunity and , as community leaders, engage people in conversations and practical actions which will make our organizations more welcoming and then widen that welcome as we contribute to the development of “deep community”.7

“I work from the firm belief that whatever the problem, community is the answer” ~ Margaret Wheatley8


1 Bruce Anderson, There are a lot of great resources on Bruce’s 

2 Sherri Torjman, “Disabling the Disability Mindset (February 6, 2014)

3 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) by Saul D. Alinsky

4 “Professional Helping Organizations: Why focus on welcoming?” This is a really useful 1 pager by Bruce Anderson of Community Activators. There are a lot of other great resources on his website

5    Canadian Index of Well-Being Canadian Index of Well-Being

6 See McKnight and Block website, Abundant Community , for ideas and resources  

7 Paul Born, President of the Tamarack Institute , inDeepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times, distinguishes among “shallow community”, communities based on fear and “deep community”. In encouraging “deepening”, Born speaks to what should be at the core of the work of helping organizations

8 Margaret Wheatley writes and teaches about community and leadership development. She is a great inspiration and encourages us to change our minds, our approaches and the spirit which guides our work. 

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Organizational Identity – More than the sum of our services

Over the past few months, the Mills has been “rethinking” its Mission, directions and organizational identity. One of the “traps” we’ve encountered and managed to make peace with, is that of identifying ourselves as solely as a service delivery agency. The Mills’ new strategic directions put community development and capacity building first. The provision of “supportive environments” (e.g., support services and housing) is positioned as an important means but not an end in itself. As it now stands, we are now looking at ourselves as community builders. We look at our service provider role and the services we provide as means to support individuals to move from presence (as clients) towards contribution (as citizens). The impact we are seeking isn’t “x” people supported. What we are hoping to be a part of is the development of welcoming, healthy communities.
We’re used to seeing organizations such as the Mills portrayed in brochures which list a menu of programs or in Organizational charts. These portrayals make it easier to understand what a combination of staff, volunteers, building and funding is supposed to do. It helps to understand “how” we work, not so much “”why”.

In this post, I want to take a somewhat different look at the Mills. I’d like to introduce several themes which I believe “weave through” the work that we do. I think that these themes might be a better portrayal of “who” we are and what we are truly about. As good people who work in good organizations continue to experience diminishing support from funders, we need to think about ourselves not simply as part of this service system or that sector, we need to rethink who we are and what impact we want to have as “associations” of committed citizens.

The Mills’ “tag line” is “People Helping People” – Although I think there might be a couple of other organizations who use this line too, I’d hope that we are able to see ourselves not as a “vending machine” for services, but as a network of caring people who support each other. It’s a challenge, but I hope that peoples’ experience of the Mills is that we are compassionate; person centered/family centered and trustworthy. Whether it’s through the provision of affordable housing, support services, activities and programs or public education there are some common themes in what we are hoping to accomplish and how we work together:

      • Connecting People – help people to be connected in their community (community presence) and support people to be active members of the community (participation). This ties in very closely with… Relationships – we help people to form and sustain relationships. We support families (e.g., to support loved ones and to stay together)
        Inclusion – people of all ages and abilities to belong and to be accepted; we support people and families at various life stages. We work with other organizations to remove barriers to a “welcoming community”.
      • Transitions – support people with transitions in life/lifestyle. Historically, this has focused on helping people to move from institutions (e.g. Rideau Regional Center) to community living. It also takes the form of supporting older people to “age in place” and, in relation to housing that we provide, to support some people who have been victims of violence to re-establish themselves
      • Good Life and a Safe Life – regardless of the population /group that we are serving, two common threads are: Promoting healthy, active lifestyles (holistic health) and promoting a safe community and safe living environments
      • Community Capacity Builders – The Mills has a network of community resources and partnerships. We support/engage volunteers to contribute and to grow (community engagement). We also try to serve as a catalyst and supporter for projects which benefit the whole community. We believe that everyone has gifts. We see it as part of our work to help people identify their gifts and to share them in efforts to build community vitality.

The Mills “engages” with over 1000 people in Lanark County. What’s important about this number is that it reflects a caring community, characterized by “People Helping People”. The organization is a means by which people connect and a structure through which energy and resources get aligned. Our services, our relationships with funders, our affiliations with the “sectors”, the brands and movements and even the communities in which we work, combine differently for different people. We care a lot about how people see us – it has a huge bearing on support and credibility. That said, we want to help create more welcoming communities … to be generative … to be more than the sum of our services.

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