Community Engagement - The Role of Self-Evaluation in Strategy and Change for Nonprofit Leaders

community engagement model

It was such an encouraging experience yesterday at the Virginia Volunteerism & Service Conference to have 60+ attendees stand up and make personal commitments to increase the capacity and work of their agencies and organizations to incorporate community engagement best practices. This was the end of my presentation on moving community engagement beyond surveys and focus groups. 

True community engagement is a model of co-leadership that includes placing more value on community voice. There are two key moments that it makes the most sense to incorporate community engagement: 

  1. Strategic Planning - When done well, strategic planning should include community voices in discovery, planning, and ideation as well as adoption. 
  2. Creation of a New Program - Guided by data and expertise, nonprofits often come up with new program ideas that are irrelevant or undesirable to the community. Instead, involve the community in all aspects and test and ask and ask again. 
Community Voice needs to be weighted just as strongly as expertise from scholars, life-long employees, and data.

The shift that's being called for is to value lived experience not just in data gathering or satisfaction surveys but in the development of plans and goals. Community Voice needs to be weighted just as strongly as expertise from scholars, life-long employees, and data. A solution that the community is not receptive to will eventually fail. 

Want to get started, take a self-assessment. 

Download our free community engagement self-assessment tool and see where you are. 

Class Opportunity

Join for an all day class on community engagement offered by the Academy of Nonprofit Excellence in September. Stay tuned to our newsletter or calendar for registration information. 

Our Very Own Brand Reveal


Tomorrow is our 5th birthday, or maybe it’s our 5-year anniversary…anyway…The Spark Mill is 5!  What better way to celebrate than to officially reveal our sexy new brand?! Those super perceptive folks may have noticed the slight changes in palette and font over the last month but as of today, it is official. 

Since May 1, 2013, when TSM officially got a desk in a co-working space so much has happened.  We’ve grown from one consultant to a five-person firm, we’ve moved into our own building, and we’ve expanded our work – in the types of clients we work with, the types of projects we do, and the geographic area in which we regularly do business. 

Much of our work centers around helping clients recognize their own opportunities for growth and change.  Often that includes identifying when the story they are telling about themselves no longer captures who they are or what they are doing in the world.  Somewhere around the first of the year TSM team realized we were closing in on that moment ourselves.  When Sarah started this company back in 2013 she worked with a few talented friends to help her craft a brand that represented her vision.  It was perfect and lovely and served The Spark Mill well for many years and there will always be nostalgia around that first iteration of TSM.  Now that vision has been cultivated and nurtured into reality and a new vision has emerged.


We reached out to our super talented friends at Campfire & Co. who asked us some questions and genuinely listened to our answers - even when we didn't all answer the same.  They brought us a draft with a few variations of what they heard, and listened again as we talked through what we liked, what felt right, and what didn't.  We did this one more time and they had pretty much nailed it.  As we sat with them and chatted about one last tweak, they began to sketch in their notebook and we watched our words and half formed ideas manifest into the perfect graphics right there at the table!  Campfire helped capture who The Spark Mill is now and where we are heading as they worked with our team to turn TSM into shapes and colors and fonts and precisely hand-drawn letters.  We get to watch them work with other organizations on the regular – but having the opportunity to be their client was magical and so much fun! 

We feel inspired and whole again, now that our work, our vision, and our brand are in alignment. Our brand may have a fresh new look, but don’t worry, our core beliefs haven’t wavered. 


Change shouldn’t be boring, the process is just as important as the final product, the plan is yours not ours, and there are no one-size-fits-all boilerplate solutions. 


Inclusion Is a Bad Word - It's Time to Throw It Away

Or, why the way most people do inclusive is lazy

Earlier this month I was in Chattanooga at the Startup Champions Network bi-annual summit. On day one of the summit, Paulo Harris, co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, got up to explain they were changing the name of the committee to shed the word inclusion. He said something along these lines, “Inclusion is the act of being included, but this means someone owns the table and they are granting you access.” These words shook me to my core.

consulting firm richmond virginia inclusion

My first thought was where did this word come from? (Thanks to an amazing English professor in college) Language changes over time – this is why Merriam Webster added 1000 words to the dictionary this year. Understanding the evolution of a word is necessary to uncover some of the bias that trickles through language over time. So, I started with the etymology of the word.

c. 1600, "act of making a part of," from Latin inclusionem (nominative inclusio) "a shutting up, confinement," noun of action from past participle stem of includere (see include). Meaning "that which is included" is from 1839. From Etymology Online

And now today’s definition, from the Oxford Dictionary - the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Read those lines with me, “within a group or structure.”

“Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.”

In our work we coach clients in building a process of change and growth that is rooted in the voice of the community. We most often find an appetite for this version of inclusion – “Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.” We are going to be pushing for a more radical view of community engagement that leans into the lens of lived experience and listens more than it talks and gathers feedback in constant loops.

So here’s the thing, I don’t have an answer for a new word – but I am making a commitment to stop using inclusion. It isn’t right and here’s why:

Inclusion is often used as a placeholder for all kinds of minority representation. Inclusion done wrong looks like, see we invited a woman to the table – we are inclusive. Inclusion done wrong looks an awful lot like the tokenism my co-worker Mariah wrote about in her blog a couple of weeks ago. This kind of inclusion results in systemic discrimination and problems.

Thinking back to inclusion in start-up ecosystems, odds are entrepreneur eco-systems around the country are patting themselves on the back for having a handful of women at their tables.  But that gets uneven results for a reason and there is data to back it up. According to Fortune Magazine, Female Founders Got 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2017. This isn’t because women don’t launch great businesses. This is because the funding tables and the ecosystem tables and the networking tables are all owned by men.

In Richmond this looks like inviting people of color to participate in focus groups and fill out surveys and thinking that you are being inclusive, or being fine that you have that one black board member. True community engagement that can create moments of respectful and appropriate change and growth doesn't mean this version of inclusivity. 

So what do you do?

  1. Look at your table. Is everyone the same color or gender or from the same town? Or worse, do you have token representatives of each?
  2. Build a new table, collaboratively, with a diverse audience of mentors and end users (clients or customers).

  3. Let the new table draft the agenda and create the questions to be solved for.

  4. Take a deep breath and listen and then restate and then ask for feedback, over and over and over. 

In my work, I am making the commitment to push clients not to give into the temptation to be inclusive and call it a done day and pat themselves on the back. 

What happens when you ask Black women and White women if they feel like they belong in Richmond?

Mapping Belonging and Inclusion in the City of Richmond

 Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to conduct focus groups with three separate cohorts of women from Richmond. One of our goals during these groups was to identify spaces on a map of the city where they felt a sense of comfort, belonging, inclusion, and safety.

Now, I’ve visited local establishments in Richmond on many occasions, either alone or with friends. While there are never any apparent symbols to suggest that I am unwanted or unwelcomed in these spaces, I often feel a keen sense of displacement; a feeling of emotional detachment from any of the activities taking place in the space around me. More times than not, unless my friends or I intentionally seek out environments where other people of color are the majority, we are among the few black people, if any.

During these focus groups, one of the conversations that emerged was the nuanced difference between being included and belonging, inclusion being where others work to make you a part of a space and belonging being a sense of emotional embeddedness in a space, where you possess shared values with those around you and feel connected to the people and the space itself. 

And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen.

The distinction between the two sentiments is important, as are the distinctions between say, tokenism and authentic community engagement. The former suggests that while the community may be invited to attend meetings or public hearings, their voices serve as a mere addition to an existing engagement process. Authentic community engagement, on the other hand, ensures that individuals feel both a sense of inclusion and belonging. And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen. Only then, can communities become the true vision of themselves and embrace the values that are important to them.

I say this to say: Community engagement work is not only about creating a sense of belonging, it’s about realizing the power of letting individuals and communities be self sufficient and lift up the things that matter most to them. In my focus group with Black women from the city, they mentioned there were many places where they felt included, but very few where they felt a sense of belonging, and the ones where they did were Black owned and operated.  For them, it was about being welcomed into a space, seeing Black art on the walls, or hearing music that reflected their culture and identity. It was also feeling a sense of community and being surrounding by others who look like them.

As we work with our clients around community engagement, I won’t lie and say these issues are easy to tackle or that there is a one size fits all solution for creating environments where marginalized groups feel a sense of belonging. In fact, there isn’t.  The whole idea of translating the ideas of belonging and inclusion into something tangible can be extremely difficult and only each specific community can figure out how these goals can be achieved in their community. But, I will say that it is worth it for organizations and businesses that have social missions to think creatively about how this can be achieved through:

  1.  relinquishing of traditional power structures
  2.  understanding that belonging can only be achieved when community voices are embedded in every part of the empowerment and change process.  

How can we help you design change that fosters belonging?



Tired of Nonprofits Asking for Free Stuff, It’s all your Fault.

 Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

originally posted on

As a former nonprofit fundraiser I want to tell you a secret… lean in a little… The truth is we train, teach, and coach nonprofits to ask for free stuff. Their boards question all expenses and they are literally forced to ask for free before paying. This is regardless of how big their budget is or how much their CEO makes. The problems with that system and methodology are for another day.

Lately, I have overheard and read countless stories of businesses, particularly start-ups, small businesses, restaurants and artists openly complaining about nonprofits constantly berating them for free stuff, discounts, auction items, etc. But I am here to tell you something hard to hear; the problem with all the complaining rests solely at the feet of the business owners.

Now before you get up in arms, you need to know that I get asked for free services all of the time. No, I haven’t attained a higher level of enlightenment. I am not so advanced in mindfullness as to not be bothered. What I did do, was spend time thinking critically about how to do pro bono, who should qualify, how I could create a win-win situation for both of us and common pitfalls that I experienced as a nonprofit staff member working with companies on pro bono projects.

Common Pitfalls in Pro Bono Programs

1. You over promise and under deliver — know your boundaries and what you can and cannot do

2. You lack an understanding of what makes nonprofits tick

3. You don’t understand the legal structure of nonprofit boards and how to manage them

4. You treat them as a “bench time” project and don’t devote your most awesome leaders to the team

5. You take on too many at one time and fail to deliver

6. You do not treat them as a real contract so it meanders as a project subject to mismatched expectations and scope creep

Create a Policy/Practice/Belief System

A few years ago I met Matthew Manos owner of through a client engagement. He is super passionate about pro bono and the delivery of quality services to nonprofits. He wrote a fabulous book “How to Give Half of Your Work Away For Free” that you can buy, download or read online. While that model did not prove to be sustainable for me, it was enough to get me thinking about the need to define a shape a program and put parameters and measurements in place.

Our Belief System about Probono Work:

1. They deserve to be treated just like a regular client

2. They should receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and

3. All services need to be delivered without strings attached.

So why is it your fault? Because you haven’t done the work to establish your own belief system and communicated it with others. Or because you think they should be grateful for anything and string a project out forever or get frustrated which causes the relationship to sour. Worse yet, you deliver a substandard product and word spreads.

Still interested? Here are some first steps you should take:

Your First Steps

1. Know your own market — Talk to nonprofit leaders

2. Know nonprofits and their distinct needs and differences

3. Understand how this builds off of your own portfolio of services

4. DO NOT make nonprofits jump through significant hoops to apply

5. Judge interest based on philosophical fit, capacity of nonprofit to receive services, and your own bandwidth

6. Be honest and set a threshold of time or a monetary amount

Two years into our own program and I won’t say it is perfect but putting the time in has meant that we can say yes, and more often no, and back it up with solid reasons. We have learned a few lessons along the way about capacity of a nonprofit needed to handle probono services, passion fit for consultants, and when to spot a project that is way bigger than what we can fit in our hourly limitation. We’ve also developed language around talking to clients about the program, its benefits, and what it isn’t designed for.

What if the next time someone asked you for free stuff and services you directed them to an application instead of feeling burdened by their request? (Here’s ours) It is simple, but also provides us easy places to say no.

Interested in starting your own probono program, email us for our probono manifesto with tips and ideas. Also, feel free to reach out. We are really passionate about helping companies think through this.

Process, Data, Maps - The 3 Things that connect Urban Planning and Strategic Planning

Insights from my first three months in Strategic Planning

Williams Blog Data-2.png

Three months ago I joined The Spark Mill team. I remember being nervous on my first day, unsure of what it would be like to be back in consulting but eager to start making connections between my urban planning work and the strategy consulting we do at The Spark Mill. As a graduate student, my last two years have been spent immersing myself in planning theory, learning about urban planning methodologies, and pushing for the experiences of black women in urban environments to ensure they are more visual in the planning profession.  Considering my background in planning, it has been the lens through which I view our work, and I have been able to make a number of connections between the strategy work planners do on daily basis and our work at The Spark Mill.   


Whether you are working with a group of residents to design a park, or working with an organization to understand their long-term goals, you can expect the process to be messy. Like urban planning, while certain models can be applied to make the process easier, there is no “one size fits all” approach here at The Spark Mill. Especially when working on plans that will ultimately shape the lives of people.  There are visioning sessions, multiple iterations of a deliverable, and countless opportunities to engage with key stakeholders; much like a comprehensive planning process. While these processes may make stakeholders feel uncomfortable and deal with undesired ambiguity, the process can result in a strategic plan that drives meaningful change within an organization, or in the case of urban planning, become a blueprint for a city that is vibrant and inclusive and meets the needs of all of its residents, especially those that have been marginalized.   


Data, both quantitative and qualitative, are important in any strategic process. At The Spark Mill, I have been able to witness how our survey data, interviews from stakeholders, and other client materials allow us to get a holistic sense of an organization. As urban planners, we are constantly encouraged to collect data from various sources, being sure not to over rely on quantitative data in our work, as this can limit the less formal and less technical understanding of how people exist in cities. Strategic consulting is the same – it is important for us to collect information from key client documents as well as to be on the ground engaging with an organization’s stakeholders.

3.     MAPS, MAPS, AND ROAD MAPS (not in GIS) 

Maps provide a depiction of relationships between various elements and can be used to capture themes and create a vision for the future. Geographic Information System, or GIS, is urban planning’s bread and butter and allows us to analyze and show spatial relationships using local and regional data.  At the end of a planning process, GIS can be an effective way to help community members understand the impact of a process spatially in both the present and overtime, much like a strategic planning roadmap which guides an organization’s work into the future. 

While all urban planning requires strategy, it is important for planners to also be aware of the informal processes that residents lead in their communities, processes that may not be driven by formal data and community meetings but are equally important to a community’s fabric. It is also important for consultants to read in between the lines and make connections between the practices we observe from our clients and the information we gather.

I look forward to continuing to use my planning lens in our work at The Spark Mill, especially as we expand deeper into community engagement which requires us to be creative, nuanced, and open to gaining a true and meaningful understanding of real community engagement in order to better help our clients.




Feedback as a Vital Tool in Innovation and Planning

design thinking nonprofit consulting social change

We are in the middle of several feedback loops for change management and strategic planning projects. For some clients, this is an important part of their core values. For others, it is an essential tool in building consensus. Regardless, amazing things happen when you ask for people's opinions.

1. Consensus: You are able to slowly build consensus - especially if you practice iterative feedback loops seeking tweaks and input throughout the process.
2. Clarity: People highlight places where you lack clarity. You are often so close to the plan you are unable to see where you have lost the intention of your words. 
3. Dream: Your ideas might spark amazing dreams from your stakeholders that you hadn't even considered!

Feedback loops are an essential part of a planning process that is rooted in good community engagement practices, a ground up approach to engage clients and customers in the design of your vision or product. Whether you gather feedback via a website, in person meetings, or focus groups - the key is to ask and be very open to feedback. You will be better off for it.