Nonprofit Spark: April 16, 2012
A nonprofit reinvents itself: LiveWorkPlay takes on social change
Interview with Keenan Wellar, Co-Leader, LiveWorkPlay.ca
(Transcript of Audio Broadcast)
Welcome to Nonprofit Spark, a show for leaders and board members of new and emerging non-profits. It’s National Volunteer Week in Canada so I speak this week with a leader of an organization that has transformed the way it thinks and manages volunteers.
This show is about a lot more than volunteers because you‘ll hear about an entire organizational transformation and how this agency serves its members and how the board and staff function.
This conversation ties in beautifully to the interview I did with Paul Schmitz of Public Allies a few weeks ago. Paul is the author of a book, “Everyone Leads, Building Leadership from the Community Up” and in our conversation he passionately shared that non-profits need to give up a programmatic model of operation to focussing instead on causing lasting social change. He wants you to seek out and nurture leaders in your communities.
Now Paul is a thought-provoking change agent and he manages a dozen offices throughout the country. So after that interview I wondered: where can I find a leader from a non-profit that is smaller, local, and who is actually doing what Paul was talking about? That is shifting from a programmatic model of service to focusing on social change. Is it actually happening somewhere out there?
And lo and behold I discovered Keenan Wellar, an Executive staff co-leader of LiveWorkPlay, an Ottawa, Canada based non-profit that supports people with intellectual disabilities to have a good life. Keenan is Co-Founder of the organization with his wife Julie Kingstone. He has a background in teaching and Special Education. He is a master with social media. And on the show this week he describes how the organization used to serve its members and tap into volunteers and function day to day and contrasts all that to what is happening now since they have a new commitment to causing change in the community to view people with intellectual disabilities.
If this show doesn’t challenge your paradigm nothing will. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to Nonprofit Spark Keenan.
Well it’s great to be here thanks for having me.
Keenan tell us about LiveWorkPlay.
We have entered a couple of milestones this year, we are in our 15th year of full-time operation and most exciting we now have 100 members. Members are people with intellectual disabilities that we serve in a direct fashion. We just surpassed 120 volunteers not including the family of people we support, about 100 of those; parents and siblings tend to help out in one way or another. And last but not least 11 full-time staff the largest team we’ve ever had.
Now I first heard about you Keenan when I saw your post on the Non-Profit Quarterly website. It was an article you responded to about how non-profits need to shift how they manage and think about volunteers. I was really impressed with your post and decided to have you on the show what has changed with the way you view volunteers.
Well going back about 4 years we used to restrict volunteer contributions to a few program-related tasks; we used to see them kind of like junior staff members and didn’t see them for all the connections that they had in the community; kind of ignoring all of that value. It was a waste of talent. We discovered this mainly because we decided to shift what we do and realized we needed volunteers in different ways.
What is the shift in how you are carrying out the work of your organization?
Well our mission is helping the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play in the community as valued citizens, and what we realized is that after 10 or 11 years of working on this, we actually created a lot of programs that were keeping people out of the community.
So we had kind of created a parallel society where people with intellectual disabilities would come and we’d kind of focus on keeping them happy and busy, but that definitely wasn’t what we started out to do. So when we started looking at what could get them involved in their own neighborhoods in the communities where they live we realized we need to reach out to the people that live and work and play already in those communities, and they can be gatekeepers and help expand the social network and build the social capital of our members.
OK, Keenan say a little bit more about that shift and how you were operating.
Well I think one of the biggest pieces of it was thinking of each member as having their own program. So we are shifting from a group program, where we are trying to schedule a whole bunch of things throughout the week and offer people a bit of something here or there, but like it or not, these are the 3 things on Wednesdays take it or leave it.
The transition from there was first convincing people that we were asking them honestly “what you would like to do” because they tend not to believe that – because they have been programmed their whole lives, so building some trust, and then working out a plan that is individual to each person.
We kind of just broke it down to live work and play. We went to each person and asked them about their living situation, and where are you now, where would you like to be? Same with work, same with play; your citizenship, your recreation and relationships; out of all those things, what are the important ones? And here’s how we can help and here’s how someone else can help. So everyone kind of gets their own individual plan, we review it every three months, see what needs to change, do a larger review on an annual basis, and that way everyone kind of has their own program. And so that’s the shift!
A lot of organizations that provide direct services and are very program oriented, they, like you, can get quite insulated and pull the people that they are serving close. And for all the conversations that the non-profit sector is having about engagement, I don’t see it very often Keenan that Executive Directors like you are actually out there regularly connecting with people in the community, outside of a circle of people that do what you do and are interested in what you do. So is that shifting…not just with volunteers, but I mean, shifting in you…how you spend your time?
Absolutely, my job is 100 percent different and you know it took 10 years to figure it out so I’m happy to have finally figured it out. Initially my job was honestly like a teacher or a principal which is kind of how programmatic we’d become, and now it’s completely shifted. My job description is almost exclusively about connecting with people outside the charitable sector or outside of working with people with intellectual disabilities so employers, people who work in recreation programs, things like that.
Who are you interacting with that you haven’t before?
A recent example is we became a corporate member of the Rotary Club of West Ottawa and started an employment initiative. There was a province-wide initiative called Rotary At Work and it wasn’t going on in Ottawa, and we had a conversation and connected with some Rotary leaders and they said “Yeah, let’s talk about it” and so just last week attending my first meeting as a Rotarian and being in a room full of people, where not only was I not having to sell this idea of people with intellectual disabilities getting jobs in the community, they were excited about it! They scheduled a presentation with all 8 clubs in the Ottawa region and we prepared a presentation and we are going around with two Rotarians that are almost like LiveWorkPlay volunteers, they seem to always be at our office seeing how we are going to get this going and it’s just a great feeling.
You know I’m struck Keenan by what you were saying about how you used to deliver programs and it was like you’re keeping the people close almost like a big safety issue. We’re going to keep them safe. I think it was almost like keeping yourself safe and insulated as well? But now you are out there playing with a very traditional but very active group like Rotary, whoever would have thought stepping out you would have that level of support?
You know the thinking used to be more like working with service clubs maybe they could give us $5000 and we could get more computers for the computer lab. Now, we haven’t considered asking them for money, and we don’t want any. We want them to help us get jobs for our members.
It’s kind of sad actually. I’m happy what we arrived at, but to think of my mind set 10 years ago I really didn’t believe there were people in the community that could help make this happen. That’s kind of where the protectionism came from. There are also issues around the structure of funding and what funders like to see and the kind of matrix they are looking for. It’s very difficult to report on what we are doing now. We are changing people’s lives in very dramatic ways but it’s very hard to slot into the Excel sheet. That way the day program was very easy. So we’ve had to make some big adjustments on that. We have to do what’s right and now that we’ve awoken to this there’s no turning back and let’s go for it.
So you must be heavily government funded I’m guessing.
We started with no government funding, and that kind of changed things when it did come, because it kind of did push us in a more programmatic direction and especially the family members that we were working with for years. They were looking understandably for some stability. We had to be honest with them from year to year in the early days “we don’t know about next year” and I think they needed a break from that. So we could kind of normalize things is the right word; give them a little bit of a schedule.
Also the type of reporting that’s expected, it was basically structured around how many people how many hours how many days. I mean, that’s the basic metric. In some ways it still is. So how do you adapt to that. “It took six months but now John is able to go to his local fitness club on his own where he knows a whole bunch of people and now has a great life there.” How do you put that into an Excel spreadsheet? I haven’t quite figured it out but we’re working on it.
How is your board because you are basically creating as you go in response to something that’s showing up? How is your board going along with this? Because a lot of times an Executive Director might be really gung ho about making a shift like the one you’re talking about. But the board is not going along with it and doesn’t get it. How is that working for you?
Well I think one of the important things what the board of directors themselves did: they brought in outside help. There is a wonderful guy Professor Al Condeluci out of Pittsburgh who’s kind of one of the world leaders in the concept of social capital and bringing it down to the community level…what it means for a marginalized person to go from a protected state to go out into the community with a network of people.
One of the cool things the board did was while we did bring Al and he did his “regular speech” which was excellent to share with the community, we invited everybody, and there was over 100 people but then the board said Al just come and sit with us and let us tell you about LiveWorkPlay and what we need to do and just be honest and give us feedback.
They did that twice. They did that with Al and they did that with a guy from Canada named Dave Hinsburger who is an expert in all these safety issues which he calls ‘”The Prison Of Protection” that keeps people from accessing life, because we have to protect them from it. It’s just a fascinating and very clear and concise explanation about all those issues, and it gave the board a lot of confidence and they were the lead on the process of reworking our mission, vision, and values and uniting everybody around it. That was very exciting.
What had them bring Al in in the first place?
OK, he was at a Community Living Ontario conference, it’s a federation here in the province of about 115 agencies, and he did a short keynote at the conference and it was like “we have got to get more from this gentlemen” because I kept nodding my head so hard I almost got whiplash . It was very refreshing because it wasn’t an intellectual disabilities/developmental services speech. it was so outside of that…it was about “How do we get there?”
Well you’re listening to Non Profit Spark I’m your host Renee McGivern and I’m speaking with Keenan Wellar. He is one of the executive staff Co-Leaders of LiveWorkPlay; it’s based in Ottawa, Canada. So let’s go back to talking about volunteers for a second. That must have been quite challenging and you must have had to talk to the staff quite a bit about opening up to volunteers or even opening up to the idea of people who haven’t been in your organization or working for your organization, doing some leadership-related things in your organization. How did it work with the staff in making the transition there?
What made it easier was from the minute we cancelled the day program and transitioned to supporting people with whatever they wanted to do in the community where they lived, we were overwhelmed; almost instantly. It was an easy decision, we cannot do this as a team of 9 or 10 people, we need a lot of help, and not only can we not do it, we would not do it as well.
Take one of our members living in a certain suburb where I’ve never been. It makes no sense that I would go there and try to locate the type of recreation or arts and culture or whatever their interests are or even find a job. I don’t shop at that IGA. It’s not good for me to go and approach that manager. It would be wonderful for someone there to make that initial approach for us and get us an interview discussion. So it was a necessity and also recognition that there are resources out there and people that are going to be much more effective than we are. You know, instead of an alien process of inserting ourselves in other people’s neighborhoods, we really need to work with who is there.
How did you start making these connections because it’s really quite a shift? From doing all the work yourself and then kind of tapping into a volunteer to actually engaging them in their community with your members?
Well the first thing we did was hired our first full-time dedicated volunteer coordinator which isn’t a full job description, that really doesn’t cover it; but full-time dedicated to our volunteers and the work that they do and the people that they work with.
We just started getting really specific around what we were looking for where we used Volunteer Ottawa and everyone knows about it and we have people going to their website and looking to volunteer. And I think one of the really clever things we kind of fell into, was something like “Wanted: 2 hours Sunday to help an individual to shop for their own food.”
Now we didn’t know this was clever, it just turned out to be, because what happened was that all sorts of volunteers who tended to be younger, they were really concerned if I walk in and say “I want to volunteer, is it going to be so broad that I am not going to be sure what I am doing? Will I be overcommitted? I will have to quit and feel bad.”
You know they have been through this before. So what happened that was fascinating was the male volunteers; we have always had trouble with that. It went up from about 20% to where it’s right around 50% at this point. Turns out they love the specific; they don’t want to come to an open-ended discussion about volunteering. They want to come and I’m here for the 2 hours on Sunday playing Gameboy.
You haven’t only got males you got young people and I keep hearing in the sector “how are we going to attract young people?” There’s something about the specific short-term thing that is really making a difference for your organization.
Not only the short-term but the types of processes, as you know. Ask your long time volunteers “why are your here, why are you doing this? You’re so great what did we do to deserve you?”
So it turns out very basic things. Number one: it looked like it would be fun, and we hear that a lot. Number two: it was easy. Number three: you were fast I think the expectations of a lot of the volunteers, not exclusively younger people, is that if they send you an email, you can’t send the email back 2 or 3 weeks later. We heard that that was going on a lot and it’s going to be about a day with us. That’s something you’ve got to get going quickly. There are orientations every month. You are never going to be waiting more than three weeks to be just about ready to get going. That really gets people excited and you’re going to lose people if they have to wait too long they will just find something else to do. The internet age, just click and go and find somebody else.
Alright Keenan lets go back to your life and how your role has changed in the organization. So can you give me a vivid example of your working and how that’s shifted? Give us something really concrete so we say “Oh wow that really is different when you go from programmatic to a social change model.”
Well here’s one thing, I used to think of marketing as a dirty word. That’s wasn’t “something we do” in non-profits. Then I realized, well, this is about getting people to change their thinking and actions and someone pointed out to me: that’s what marketing is. So I took a professional course at a business school in marketing. It was specific for non-profits and government and really to get a foundation; I really needed to apply myself in this area on behalf of the organization. And I really needed to know a little more about what I’m doing and not just learning on the job, and I think just kind of the non-stop advocacy through multiple channels.
My whole day is using social media. I’m meeting with people, sometimes working with mainstream media and it’s all about this fairly simple message of “This is a group of people that is largely excluded from the community. It doesn’t have to be that way it would be better for them and better for you if we can change that” and that’s a simpler and more affective message than the very very long messages I used to communicate, which was very technical, and going into elaborate detail about the type of disability and all this kind of thin. It turns out these guys at Rotary for example they don’t care, it’s more like “Oh I get it: nice guy, works hard, needs a job, let’s get her done.”
You know, how important is building trust now with groups like Rotary?
It begins with honesty. I think the honesty begins with having a mission, vision, and values. Having all those things that you actually believe in that really helps. And I think I always thought I believed in everything that we said and talked about before. Probably there was a little nagging somewhere in my mind or in my heart that says that is not quite right. Now when I am talking to someone about LiveWorkPlay, you know, you don’t have to look away. I believe in everything I’m saying and they feel that and that comes back to you.
There’s a lot of passionate people in every sector non-profit, private sector and government, and if you find those people and you are like-minded, maybe in your way of thinking about the world, maybe they have never even heard about an intellectual disability and you have to invest five minutes trying to explain what that is. But then you move on and say “let’s solve this problem together.” There are a lot of people like that you just have to find them.
OK very good, so if you’re ready to make a shift…anything else you want to think about?
Well I think obviously there is going to be a lot of fear but what we’ve discovered is that people will respect you for making the change. You don’t know that until you do it. I look at all our funding relationships and maybe some funders might not have thought about supporting the most innovative or leading edge or cutting edge…but maybe no one had offered it to them?
You know, because ever since we’ve done that shift, there hasn’t been a case of those former relationships going to us and saying “I don’t like what you’re doing any more.” Everybody’s been positive and that’s obviously a good case scenario. But also looking back to: “Why did you start this?” or what the people who started this did get this going…often you go all the way back and the thought process and the thinking behind it and the motivations are very strong but become warped. And if you go back to the early stages, you wanted to change something, that’s why you did it, and so revisit that and then make sure that you are true to that.
We are going to take a break for word for sponsor. Welcome back. You are listening to Non Profit Spark I’m your host Renee McGivern and you can learn more about me on my company website at sparkplugconsulting.com. I am speaking with Keenan Wellar. He is an executive staff Co-Leader of LiveWorkPlay, and this organization is based in Ottawa, Canada.
When you started making this shift how many staff did you have at the time and what happened there because I could see you saying “What am I going to do with my staff?” How do you plan for this? You are very intentional but also open to seeing what shows up and seizing the day.
Now I have to insert my wife Julie Kingstone who is the other co-leader because this is kind of her job. I’m actually the heel-digger. I’m a little more cautious. You can imagine it’s kind of a wild environment but yeah she’s usually the one, pretty fast to say…you know it comes up at a team meeting, we have those weekly. Someone says “You know I’ve been doing it this way…but this would be much better” and Julie would like it to happen starting next week! So that’s kind of the environment we live in, that’s the kind of staff that we attract, and we do attract people, there are people knocking on the door at a time when I know many agencies are worried about their succession planning. Julie and I are already thinking about that. We’ve got some really cool 20-somethings that would just love to be the 12th 13th or 14th staff member, believe me.
Ok let me pin you down a little bit more on that. It sounds like you attract staff who like change, like to improve upon something and are pretty darn creative.
Definitely! The horizontal leadership thing is something I haven’t mentioned. When you come into something as founders, it takes a lot of work to get rid of that. It’s not a negative thing. I’m proud of starting something. But it is so “not about us” anymore. But you really have to work at changing that perception even after people agree with you. They’re just saying that since they have a certain respect for you. We worked hard at helping people understand that that all 11 staff members are leaders. We have certain particular responsibilities with the board but, on a day to day level all 11 staff members are in leadership roles. I can’t be all over the city talking to every single employer or partner, so everybody sooner or later becomes what you call “senior staff.” They are going to have responsibilities like talking to a CEO of a major corporation and trying to set up a new job development program. That’s the way it is.
You say that it doesn’t always go through you and your wife. It is them taking charge with a funder because the traditional model is a top down and funders and organizations like Rotary will only work with the top perso?. Do you know what I mean? How are they making the shift and welcoming somebody other than Keenan to talk to?
That is another thing with Rotary. They’re going to owe me a couple of “happy dollars” after this. The person who was the lead on this is Jen Bosworth, our Manager of Employment Supports. She’s actually been the face of this pretty much all the way through. She hosted an event with the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario with Rotary. I was actually out of the country at the time. So she’s always been the face of it. And I have been tagging along to the meetings lately. They are happy to meet me. They’re happy to meet the guy that works with Jen!
Isn’t that great! Just trying to get a sense here of how the work gets done and it sounds like everyone’s responsible and everyone has their part and you’re all in agreement and run with it. Is that right?
There are boundaries but they are set very quickly and they can be challenged very quickly, almost on a weekly basis. There is definitely a plan but it’s ready to shift and we shift as a team. There is absolutely guidance, boundaries, accountability measures. All that has to be there, because we bring that up to the board, we have to provide them information that allows them to govern responsibly. So it all has to be organized in a somewhat traditional manner.
We have found ways we can act quickly and you have to have good communication with the board, all the way through the organization with our volunteers who are now directly connected to outcomes. That’s a new and exciting thing as well. We are all trying to embrace that, wrap our heads around it, so just like you said, we don’t have it all figured out. Things just seem to get going in more and more positive directions and I’m sure by next year another revelation will have taken place.
Right! OK, Keenan, you mentioned that you took on and really got to the root of your mission, vision and values, when did you do that and how did that happen was that a board/staff retreat?
It would have been a combination of things we held annual visioning days with our members for quite a long time. Three years ago coming out of a visioning day event there was some pretty clear directions that first the staff processed and Julie and I brought it to the board with some ideas about where we might go. This was working in parallel with the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities which we thought was a great document and it was an amazing process people with disabilities from all over the world working on it together.
So we started working from the basis that this is a great document. How could we adapt it to our particular population we are supporting, our geography, and our politics and make it work for us? We didn’t reinvent the wheel we had a great basis to work from. That’s really the basis when you read our values statements, that’s where they come from, and for me we have something called our “core value” which states people with intellectual disabilities are valuable contributors to the diversity of our community and to the human family, and that’s the one I use a lot. I think everyone has their favourites. I use that to challenge myself when I am trying to make a decision and when I’m feeling conflicted, I ask myself: “Is this valuing these individuals as full citizens by respecting them appropriately? And that usually gives me the answer. So it’s very powerful.
So your whole staff team is regularly doing something like that. Are you talking often about your values and the mission that sort of thing?
One of the most important things we do at our weekly team meetings is everyone has to contribute at least one way they feel they failed the mission or a value that week, and that is one of the most important discussions we have I find.
How have the board meetings changed?
I think, for boards with similar experiences as you go through, as a staff, when you transition away from programs, the busy work of boards – if I could use that expression – it’s made much easier with programs: let’s review the program report. Look at this, pencils are up 5 cents this year! I’ve been on boards and you have been on boards: that is the typical board busywork.
Sometimes neither the staff nor the board is sure what they should be doing with their board meeting time, to be honest. I’ve been in meetings and asking myself those questions. Now that the board clearly sees what their job is: we have this mission, they are a forward-thinking board, not focused on day-to-day operations. They have their boundaries around reporting on those things, and they monitor and they have responsibility.
But what’s the exciting work? It’s what’s happening five years from now! Will we still be doing this? If so why? If not why not? What would it take to get there? What other assets do we need? Who’s retiring next year? How would we replace you? What would add to the diversity of the board? We’ve got some issues to discuss around growth. What happens if we continue getting bigger? Will those things change us, or can you hold on to the positives of how you do things?
Keenan is there anything else you want to say about the process before we wrap up our interview?
Make sure what you stand for, you really do stand for it, that you can get behind it, that you are proud of it, that you feel you’ve challenged it internally, first as the starting point. But be open to outside sources, for example as I mentioned Al Condeluci and Dave Hinsburger. I think that a kind of coaching prospective which I didn’t talk much about but reaching out to people that are not necessarily directly in your sector can serve as mentors and advisors and bounce things off. It’s so valuable. You can feel so alone in a city of a million people sometime running a non-profit. It can feel quite lonely and you really need to reach out and build networks for yourself. Unfortunately you know we sometimes neglect ourselves as leaders in the field.
So what is your website Keenan so we can direct people there?
You are so good with social media what’s your twitter account?
@liveworkplay for the organization @socialkeenan for me!
Wonderful! Keenan, this has really been an interesting conversation very thought –provoking. Thanks so much for being on Nonprofit Spark.
Thank you for reaching out. This has been great.
We are going to take a break for a word from our sponsor we’ll be right back.
Welcome back to Nonprofit Spark. Keenan Wellar, his wife Julie, the staff, and board of LiveWorkPlay deserve a lot of credit for their courage in charting a new course for the organization. Their emphasis on non-stop advocacy using multiple channels of communication that cause community change about living working and playing with people with intellectual disabilities is beginning to pay off.
I, like Keenan, gave up the thought in his head “no one cares about our issues.” Or “marketing is a dirty word.” It’s just not possible to make social change without hundreds of conversations and also relying on an ever increasing amount of volunteers. Too often, non-profits brush aside the marketing of a distinct message to change public perception and attitude. Instead, they are keeping clients and themselves safe, in a really tight circle. Safe from what, I do not know.
Enthusiasm for what the folks at LiveWorkPlay are doing is palpable to me. That’s a sign that you are on the right track when more and more people are eager to contribute to your cause and board members enjoy coming in on Saturday mornings for board meetings. Keenan had good advice about the new era for managing volunteers: make it fun, easy and get back to them right away. Allow them to create and lead. Allow them to interact with your clients. Allow them to get in to the nitty gritty of the organization. Isn’t that what they have the talent for?
I’m struck with the lack of possessiveness of the staff. They’re not going around saying “this is my turf, it has to go my way, it is my idea.” This is the ideal non-profit environment for a multi-generational workforce. I’m particularly impressed with everyone’s ability at LiveWorkPlay to live with the unknown and take risks. Can you imagine working and shaping your non- profit on the fly in response to your members and the community all year long?
No one there is pretending to have all the answers, which is great. But the leaders, staff, volunteers and board members are partners. They create together, they make mistakes together, they learn together, and the organization is thriving. Finally I like Keenan’s honesty in revealing that he used to think he believed in the old LiveWorkPlay mission and values. Now since shifting to focusing on social change he lives and breathes them daily and the staff talks about them weekly! It is a whole different commitment.
LiveWorkPlay is an amazing , gutsy non-profit and I’ve no doubt that within in a couple of years Keenan and Julie will be on the speakers circuit themselves coaching other non-profit leaders how to transform their organization and cause lasting change in their communities . I hope you enjoyed the show. Follow me on twitter @NonprofitSpark. Finally thanks so much for sharing the show with your colleagues and friends.