The Book Shelf: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

If you regularly read our newsletter you are familiar with our special section we lovingly refer to as "The Book Shelf."  Its origin story was a happy accident stemming from our own strategic planning session in 2017.   We discovered we were all voracious readers, but our book choices could not have been more different.  I personally have a Fiction then Nonfiction flow to my reading. 

The Why

To be in our line of work we have to be adaptive and regularly evaluate our tactics and tools. We promise not to use boilerplates, so we must constantly review new materials and new thoughts. We've been exploring design thinking and its application to strategic planning and change management. At its core, strategic planning done well is 100% in line with design thinking methodology. put this out as a guide to trying out human-centered design. Their web presence is amazing and you can download the guide for free. Thinking it would be a resource for all of our staff, I went ahead and grabbed the real-paper-smells-delicious version.

Top 3 Things I Learned

1. It's a gorgeous and quick read that is thoughtfully designed (always a big bonus)
2. Includes a few really awesome exercises that we look forward to trying out
3. Most important was a real heavy section on empathy work in order to design within a community 


As we delve deeper into authentic community engagement work with our clients we are often faced with decisions on depth and scope of engagement. This book provides a great resource to share that articulates the goal and purpose of human-centered design and co-designing within a community being impacted. 

Meet Mariah Williams, New TSM Team Member


Mariah is the newest member of The Spark Mill and serves as a Project Manager for the team. After spending two years working as a consultant for the federal government at Deloitte Consulting in Washington, DC, she left to pursue her passion for community planning in communities of color. She brings a wealth of knowledge in qualitative research, community engagement, participatory practices and is passionate about social justice, inclusivity and equity in the city.  If you have ever been through a facilitation with The Spark Mill, you know that we often use the “20 things” icebreaker activity for people to learn more about each other. We asked Mariah to tell us 20 things about herself…in no particular order!

20 Questions

1.     I was born and raised in Harlem, NY

2.     I attended a Quaker boarding school from 9-12th grade

3.     I am obsessed with all things Beyoncé Knowles

4.     I have my B.A in Sociology from the University of Richmond

5.     I am pursuing a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University

6.     I am an ENFJ

7.     Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat are two of my favorite authors

8.     I love to dance

9.     I used to dance with a professional African dance company

10.  I love to travel

11.  Lisbon, Portugal and London are two of my favorite cities

12.  A Different World is one of my favorite TV shows

13.  I have one older brother

14.  One of my favorite restaurants in Richmond is Ginger Thai

15.  I am an avid moviegoer

16.  I love sushi

17.  I went paragliding in Colombia

18.  I love candles

19.  One of my favorite albums is “A Seat at the Table” by Solange Knowles

20.  I love to drink herbal tea


Please welcome Mariah to our team!  And please don’t hesitate to ask her more about herself. 

Self Care Only - No Work Allowed

A tale of an employee engagement session with hard rules for no work or training

employee engagement retreats

Last month we spent two full days with the staff at James House having fun. Yep, a two-day retreat with a fantastic goal: self-care, team bonding, and fun. It was AWESOME.

The James House is the only accredited nonprofit organization helping people affected by sexual violence, domestic violence, and stalking in the Greater Tri-Cities Region. During our kick-off meeting with Executive Director, Chana Ramsey, she told us she wanted absolutely no training.  Since The James House has experienced tremendous staff growth in the past year or so they have had little time to build relationships with one another.  Chana explained how her staff works really hard doing work that is life or death for their clients and they deserve a break. For an organizational development consultant who is constantly trying to fit 10 goals into every one-day retreat, I was like a kid in a candy store creating the agenda.

Over the two days they painted with Heide Trepanier, made collages, and went on an epic across town scavenger hunt with old-school Polaroids. The staff shared personal details with the group - some deep, some goofy, and some very surprising. They built marshmallow towers and talked about self-care.  They acknowledged that despite knowing the importance of self-care, they rarely practice it and worked to identify how co-workers could encourage one another to make time to take care of themselves.  There was a lot of laughing.

At the end of the second day we came together and asked everyone to share a reflection about their time together—and we heard about how this was exactly what they needed, how refreshed they felt, and how very grateful everyone was that their leadership gave them the space and time to leave “work” behind for two days and engage deeply with one another. The energy had completely shifted and you could see the stress leaving the staff’s bodies.

We work with people who do important work. Lifesaving work. Life changing work.  It’s common to put your head down and immerse yourself in the daily grind. We’re here to use strategy to help you do the work, but we’re also invested in leading you through those deep breath moments where you step back to have fun, be silly, and refresh. We believe this is essential. Contact us if you’d like support in finding the balance.

Racial Equity and the Health and Wellness of Your Company or Organization

What not to do to tackle racial equity in your workplace or organization..png

Richmond is full of robust and amazing reports these days like the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg 2017 indicator report , the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation Equity and Health Fellows report  and Richmond Magazine's Navigating Richmond's Nonprofit Article

The pervasive theme in all three was racial equity and its place in our city. These are dense and important reads that your business or your nonprofit need to take to heart. In the last two weeks we have called the question with clients - "Look around your table - are all of the people making decisions on behalf of others representative of the community?" This is an uncomfortable question with complicated, hard, and often expensive solutions. 

Here's a List of What Not To Do

1. Don't put "Diversify your Board" in your strategic plan without a real and detailed plan of how you intend to accomplish it. Saying it isn't enough.

2. Don't let unconscious bias slip by in meetings. Call out all forms of racism - intended or otherwise. 

3. Don't think that a focus group or community meeting really cuts it. You need to do true community engagement featuring shared leadership and group processing. Don't just study a community, involve them. 

We are spending time as a staff, (currently an all white staff) to think deeply about this as we expand our team of contractors and employees. But awareness is only half the battle, action steps are required.

A tip for your first step, discuss the difference between equality and equity with your staff or board and make sure everyone is on the same page. 

The Value of Team Development: Our Inside Story

The prize you win when you beat a room!

The prize you win when you beat a room!

While we regularly meet as a TSM team to talk strategy about our work, to share and brainstorm, and stretch our brains, we recognized the need to get together and have fun. So, we decided to take a day, to invest in ourselves, and do fun things together—yes, the whole day! We even put up away messages on our email accounts and everything.

We started the day with an Insights retreat. We all took the Insights assessment and reviewed our individual and team results together. Building self-awareness and examining characteristics about each of us we may not have fully realized led to a few team breakthroughs.  We plan on leaning into this information in the future as we work to understand the best ways to communicate and collaborate with one another. The Spark Mill will be exploring other assessments in the future – both to strengthen our own team and to examine what tools are available and best for our clients.  Most of us have previously participated in quite a few assessments similar to Insights, and we are happy to talk through which might be the best for you if your team is interested in doing a group assessment.  

All of that self-reflection made us hungry – so next, we were off to lunch, where of course we talked more about our Insights profiles but we also spent time talking about things that weren’t related to work in the slightest. Kids and holiday plans dominated our conversation, and it was nice to take a long, leisurely lunch and to get to spend time with co-workers in a relaxed setting with delicious food (thanks Mekong!).

We wrapped up the day with a trip to an escape room run by our friends over at Escape Room RVA.  Check out the link if you’re unfamiliar with escape rooms. Richmond Magazine voted it the best “out of office employee activity” this year. It was by far the highlight for our team, not only did we beat the room (at 52 minutes!) we all had a blast in the process. I can’t recommend this activity enough—we are all in agreement we want to incorporate this into our organizational development work with clients…and we wouldn’t be opposed to doing it again ourselves!

We finished up around 3pm leaving a couple of unexpected free hours, which for a staff with young kids, having free time on a Friday afternoon while you already have childcare felt like a true gift!

We challenge you to take time out of your busy schedules to have fun together—play, get creative, think outside of the box! Whatever might work best for your work culture. It’s worth it!

When to Hire an Outside Facilitator

The cost and benefit analysis of hiring outside help

facilitation richmond virginia consulting

How many times have you been in the following situation? You attended a meeting to address an important and time sensitive question, opportunity, or crisis. The meeting ran over 2 hours, there were multiple points during the meeting where you literally had no idea what was happening, your stomach was twisting in hunger, you felt totally depleted, and worst of all there was no resolution.

I’ve been involved with nonprofit and community work for many years, and I can tell you that I’ve been there. Many times. Actually, when I think about the amount of time that I have spent in meetings or retreats like that I get a little twitchy. We’ve all been wasting way too much of each other’s time for the amount of important work we need to do. Our time is too valuable to not make the most of our precious time together.

5 Key Questions

When you are charged with pulling together a meeting, a retreat, or an important conversation you should immediately ask the following questions:

  1. What is our facilitation plan?
  2. Is this conversation so juicy, important, or contested that we need to bring in an external trained facilitator to prep and lead us through the process?
  3. Does our group include people that need extra support to ensure they reach their optimal level of productivity?
  4. Is it in the organization’s best interest that everyone be fully present in the meeting, making it unreasonable to expect someone internally to take on a facilitation role?
  5. It is disadvantageous to have someone so close to the issue or decision leading the conversation – are they able to lead without bias?

The role of a facilitator is larger than simply making sure the group moves through the agenda in a timely way. A good facilitator will anticipate rough spots in your proposed agenda and craft an agenda that’s responsive to the needs and cultural norms of the group. They will pick up on the emotions and body expressions of the people who may or may not speak up when asked. Most importantly, a good facilitator will make sure you take breaks, press through the difficult conversations, and keep your eye on the purpose of your meeting.

I get it, facilitators cost money, and sometimes you feel like they will be more work than they are worth. But we all know a meeting gone awry can end up taking on a life of its own and it takes an unreasonable amount of time to recover and get back on track. Investing in a trained, outside facilitator is one of the best ways to say, “Your time is valuable and it’s important to this organization/company that we use it wisely. We know when we are able to harness this group’s very best thinking and ideas our work benefits.”

If you have a stressful or really important meeting coming up, and think you could benefit from an outside facilitator, we are comfortable navigating the hard conversations.  We can even make them fun and creative if that feels appropriate.

And we always promise to end the meeting on time. 

2017 Probono Bonanza and the First Draft of Our Probono Manifesto

probono program corporate structure

This week we welcomed four new probono clients into the fold and finished work with two others. This brings our total number of probono clients to eight for the year. It is our goal to work with at least one probono client per month. The clients below represent $16,000 in free services in 2017. 

Why Probono?

We have a firm belief that nonprofits deserve access to high quality consulting. We also think that businesses get frustrated by being asked to offer probono services on a regular basis. So, we took time to think of our ideal probono clients, our capacity, and what nonprofits need to get out of a positive probono experience. At the end of the day, they deserve to be treated just like a regular client and receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and all services need to be delivered without strings attached

Kicking Off With New Clients

Recent Successes

Qualifications for Probono

  1. Annual Budget under $150,000 rationale - need services, but no or little capacity to pay
  2. At least one paid staff member rationale - you need capacity to handle consulting work
  3. Nonprofit or church rationale - we reserve this service for non-profit motivated entities


Want to Start Your Own Program?

Are you a company and want information on our probono program and how to structure your own? Feel free to download our PROBONO MANIFESTO and please feel free to reach out to our Founder, Sarah Milston at sarah @