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. 

Trying on Another Pair of Shoes: Empathy Building in Strategic Planning

empathy design thinking for social good

Have you ever been in a meeting where one conversation completely changed the feel of the room? Almost as if you could physically feel the change? I had one of those experiences the other day - and it was pretty amazing.  

This particular shift had to do with changing shoes. (No, not real shoes - that would be gross.) We asked retreat participants to spend a few minutes considering what it would be like to be in their clients’ shoes.  

Prior to this exercise all conversation had lived in what I would call the idea realm. Now don’t get me wrong, I love ideas and learning about new concepts. What I love more though, is when ideas move from the realm of theory and become tangible. Like in that room the other day, as we asked our clients to do their best to step outside of their experience and into the experiences of the people with whom they work. 

As each group reported on their conversations, the whole feel of the room shifted. It was palpable. The depth and the quality of the work we were doing shifted too. We were no longer simply capturing ideas to put on paper; we were employing empathy as a tool to help change lives. All because we “changed shoes.” 

Where might "changing shoes" with someone change the tone of a conversation, meeting, or project for you? Click here to read more about the idea of empathy and see some tangible ways to make it part of your process or organization.


What about #METOO? 3 Things You Can Do Now


Last week a board member of a national nonprofit called me and asked if I had a #METOO guide for organizations in the wake of a national movement towards women feeling more comfortable coming forward about hostile workplaces. My immediate gut reaction, "No and I won't." She was thrown by my resistance to comment. 

Why Not Have A Guide?

Basically, I am not a lawyer and sexual harassment claims and issues are legal problems with implications well beyond my training and expertise. We did talk for another half an hour.  I gave her some advice on what to do in light of their Board President having submitted his resignation as news was breaking that he had a long history of sexual harassment. In this case, the issue was separate from the organization (i.e. harassment claims were from people external the nonprofit) and the organization was taking swift action to accelerate a succession plan to bring the Vice-Chair into Chair immediately. In effect, they were handling it just fine. I suggested they have a prepared statement should the organization get connected to the allegations and also that they set aside time at their next board meeting to review organizational culture. 

So Why Write Now?

Yesterday, the CEO of The Human Society of the United States, resigned in the wake of his own #MeToo allegations. The day before, the Board of Trustees voted 17-9 to keep him in place. But, the Washington Post's article this morning contains some alarming statements from board members and employees including this from state director Josh Skipworth, 

“The organization’s revenue has gone up significantly since he’s been CEO. It’s viewed as a positive shift since he became CEO,” Skipworth said. “But it’s ridiculous to put the business outlook over the female employees,” he said.

On its face, this statement comes to a fundamental conclusion, however,  it was necessitated as a reaction to the views of the 17 that voted to keep him...he was doing a good job, so he should stay. 

The disclaimer: I wasn't on the call. I have no knowledge of the intricacies of the decision or the legal facts. But, I know that a decision by the board that results in major donors turning away and 7 board member resignations is likely problematic for an organization in the long term. 

What should you do if you have this problem?

1. Consult a lawyer. Sexual Harassment in the workplace is illegal and you need immediate and qualified legal advice. Seek the advice and listen to the advice.

2. Preserve the organization, as a board member your utmost responsibility is a Duty of Care - you are most beholden to the organization's future and the mission, not to an individual. 

3. Once ready, make a swift and clear statement to assure your donors and volunteers that the organization is taking the matter seriously and has taken appropriate actions.

4. Rebuild your internal culture. Examine your policies and procedures, engage your employees, and take corrective actions to ensure the continuance of your mission. 

What should you do right now before you have a problem?

1. Examine your internal culture and review your policies and procedures. Have them looked at by a lawyer to ensure your employees are protected. 

2. Conduct a staff climate survey to better understand the workplace atmosphere and bring to light any issues that you don't know about. This should be constructed and organized by an external third party to ensure anonymity. 

3. Conduct board training on the major duties and responsibilities of boards. 

Whether you are a nonprofit or a private business, it doesn't matter. Prepare now legally and culturally. 

What if What You Want Isn't What you Need? or, is it a Broken Arm or a Bruise?


Quick question: Let’s say someone came to you complaining of arm pain and asking if you have some ibuprofen.  Upon chatting with them, you discover they actually may have a broken arm.  Would you simply give them ibuprofen and expect it to fix the arm?  No, you’d probably advise them to seek medical attention to fix the break and not just treat the symptom of pain. (At least I hope you would…)  

Many times clients call us seeking guidance on a very specific problem they have identified.  They are experiencing some pain and are looking for help to alleviate it.  Often, after we spend some time chatting with them, we discover there is actually a deeper need behind what they are asking for.  

Here are 4 ways to address underlying issues while keeping your attention on the source of pain

1.  Get curious.  First, it’s important to ask questions. And not just the surface questions, but the deeper ones too. It’s almost as if we need to turn back to our preschool selves and remember how to ask “why?” Not a defiant-give me a justification why but a curious, wondering why.

2.  Name your assumptions.  In the absence of real information our brains fill in the blanks - oftentimes with inaccurate ideas.  It's really important to name preconceived notions and assumptions...and then set them aside to make space for new information.   

3. Listen.  Listening is a lost art. I don’t mean just hearing what is said and being able to regurgitate the words. (“I was listening to you dear, you said "empty the dishwasher.”) I mean listening with curiosity and wonder across our organizations with the intent of learning of seeing something from a new perspective. This listening is a gracious act of valuing others, their perspectives, and their observations. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with or like what we hear. It does mean we need to suspend judgment for the purpose of learning and be open to the possibility of change.

4.  Get it on paper.  Now we are ready to put it all out on paper see what the data tells us. What did we learn? What assumptions were inaccurate? Which were spot on? What is all of this telling us?

Much like going to the ER for x-rays versus taking ibuprofen and hoping for the best, this approach is not the quickest or easiest fix. However, it can help identify the true source of the pain, ensuring that we are treating the real issue and not just its symptoms.  The end result is a healthier, more productive company or organization.


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.