Inclusion Gone Wrong: How You Are Making Things Worse

It’s true, I am not going to commend you for creating a diversity, equity, or inclusion program or goal. Adding it in doesn’t mean you deserve a pat on the back. Let me be very clear, it isn’t enough to add it to your strategic plan, your HR manual, or even to intentionally recruit underrepresented groups to your company or organization. I’m here to tell you that what you are doing is not good enough and can do more harm than good.

Here are a Few Stories of Bad Inclusion

There is a local company - a nonprofit - a leadership group - I won’t name names but they all have an important issue in common. Their diversity plans have failed. All of them made a diversity goal and over the past few years they have intentionally sought and selected people of color, people with lived experience in poverty, people that identify as LGBTQ, and so on to be staff, volunteers, or board members. On face value the groups are more diverse than ever. All of their efforts, while rooted in a good place, have instead had a considerable amount of negative consequences for the “diverse” members of the groups and offices. While the stories and details are different, the results and issues are the same. Below you can read some of the pitfalls and advice on how not to do inclusion badly.

Preparing for Diversity - Do Your Homework Ahead of Time

diversity blog graphic.png

When you change the dynamics of a room and include more underrepresented groups, you need to re-evaluate everything from a minority lens. You need to examine everything from the perspective of these new members and their lives including timing of meetings, content delivery process, the content itself, the leaders, the agenda, etc. For instance, will your newly diverse participants/staff/volunteers be able to attend a daytime meeting without help with transportation or childcare? Will you need to change the language you use to be more inclusive? Will you need to analyze your content or presenters to create a more diverse environment?

Making Minorities Work Too Hard

People with lived experiences gathered together in a room with an otherwise homogeneous group are going to get exhausted if you haven’t adequately prepared yourself to help the rest of the group improve their equity intelligence. What do I mean here? If you don’t set the stage clearly, then systemic racism, sexism, homophobia will crop up in a room and as the minority representing this specific group they will be forced to work and educate the full group and it is exhausting. It also leads to a retention problem because who wants to work that hard to fight systemic issues at work or while volunteering as a member of group?

Baseline Education + Language

I think we can all agree that racism is bad, that homophobia is problematic, and that sexism is inappropriate. But most people suffer from some level of implicit bias. When you intentionally diversify a group, you must bring everyone up to date on language and complete basic equity training so otherwise well meaning folks do not inadvertently disparage people in the room. It’s important that everyone has a baseline on what to say and what not to say; to understand the inherent bias in common words, phrases, and actions; and practices the ability to receive feedback, reflect, and correct their actions.

At the end of the day, lazy inclusion won’t work. You must marry any equity plans with hard work ahead of time to prepare your company or organization.

The Missing Thank You Note: Lessons on Why You Need To Write More

thank you blog.png

Last week I received two thank you cards in the mail. The first one was from a dear friend who is expecting a baby soon and graciously took all of the stuff my twins have outgrown. The second was from my sister who thanked me for hosting her for a visit earlier in the month. As I read each card I noticed that my mood instantly brightened and my smile grew bigger—I felt so special and appreciated by people whom I love and respect.

My mother, while the very opposite of prim and proper, is a staunch believer in the handwritten thank you note. You may not be able to read half of the words because her handwriting is so poor, but dang it, you know she cared enough to scrawl it out. Every time she comes to visit me, all the way from Arizona, she sends me a note thanking me for the visit. I like to think that this is something she passed down to me, and I often joke that this is the value that makes me a born-fundraiser and organizer.

There is power in the thank you note—we all know it. Who doesn’t love receiving a hand written note in the mail? So why don’t we all write and send them more often?

It takes time, of course it does, and you and everyone else have very little time to spare. But this is just one of those things that is worth the investment. Every single fundraising study ever done tell us that a handwritten note to a donor is one the very best ways to retain them over time. Is anyone surprised by this fact? Not me. It doesn’t hurt to send one to a hard working volunteer, either.

When you send a note to someone thanking them for their donation of money or time you are reminding them of a really awesome thing they did and that feels good. And when you feel good you want to do that thing again. It’s really quite simple.

Play some upbeat music and let the gratitude flow.

It’s hard to remember to send thank you notes so add it to your calendar, maybe every Friday morning you save a block of time to write notes, or at every staff meeting you take 10 minutes for everyone to write a few cards and mail them all together. Buy a special pen that’s just for thank you notes or pick out the specialty stamps at the post office. Play some upbeat music and let the gratitude flow. Make thank you note writing a regular part of your life and you won’t forget. It’s worth it.




HR Matters: 3 Tips to Ensure You Are Asking The Right Questions


Hiring soon? Here are a few of my favorite interview questions for you to customize during your next round of interviews. Making the right hire is the single most important job and sometimes we rush the process because we are stressed about the timeline or the work not getting done. But a good hire will pay you back dividends. So take a deep breath and slow down your process.

Tip #1: Ask neutral questions that don’t guide your interviewee to respond in a way that you want…

“Tell me about how this position fits into your future career goals.”

“What qualities in a manager work best for you?”

“If you could dream up the perfect job for yourself right now, what would it be? What would the responsibilities be?”

Tip #2: Ask them about what they have done in the past, not what they would do in the future. We all have the ability to dream up how we might handle a hard situation or approach our work in the future, what really matters is what they actually did.

“Tell me about a time you had to manage multiple deadlines for a team of people. What worked? What didn’t? How did you adapt when something changed last minute? How did you keep your team on track?”

“Your resume says that you have experience with database management, can you tell me more?”

“Tell me about a time something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. How did you work through it? What did you change so it wouldn’t happen again?”


Tip #3: Focus on the emotional skills and personality traits that would be the best fit for the position, not simply the specific skill the job requires.

“Tell me about a time you received feedback that was hard to hear. How did you process it? What did you do to address it?”

“What do you need from your colleagues to do your very best work?”

“If I asked your past supervisors to tell me about their experience working with you, what would they tell me?”

Most importantly, have a game plan going into the interview. Curate a set of questions that give you the full picture. It’s not uncommon to bring someone in for a second interview so it might make sense to create two sets of questions. Asking someone too many questions in an interview is a common mistake—you can find out a lot with a few carefully crafted questions. Finally, make sure you allot time for them to ask you questions—it’s only fair and you can learn a lot based on the types of questions someone asks.

We understand hiring is a significant investment and finding the right person is important! If you have any questions about upcoming interviews or could use a little help with the process, we would be happy to chat with you.  


Introducing Feed More - The New Brand: A Promise, a Logo, and so Much More


Our office space, The Woodlot, is the keeper of secrets.  Between The Spark Mill and our friends on the other side, Campfire & Co. – there is regularly a confidential, use the back door, kind of project in the works. A new restaurant, a merger, a big rebrand.  (Please don’t start hanging around our back alley trying to get the scoop – that would be creepy.)

One of our favorite moments around the office is when we can finally let the cat out of the bag, or maybe in this case, spill the beans…

Feed More has a beautiful new brand and a powerful brand promise y’all and today they are revealing it to the world! Read about the story of the brand here.

 The Charge

In late 2016 The Spark Mill was hired by Feed More to complete a brand study as the first phase of what would become a three phase rebrand journey.  Below we document the phases and the work done by TSM and Campfire & Co. with input and guidance from the Feed More Brand Team and a huge number of Feed More stakeholders.

The Process


This phase included an audit and assessment of who Feed More was and how they talked about themselves including: the current social media and online presence of Feed More; an extensive review of existing studies and documents; as well as an environmental scan of more than 20 local and national food banks, Meals on Wheels programs, and other similar local organizations.  We then compiled all of our findings into a brand study report that included our data, insights, and some recommendations. 


This phase belonged to Campfire & Co. We gave them our findings and recommendations and then we stepped out so Campfire could do that magical thing they do with brand strategy and logos and marks and design. Our two firms have worked together on a number of large projects over the years, and have developed a good flow for sharing information and complimenting one another’s strengths in a way that is optimal for our clients.   

As the Campfire team diligently worked, we would frequently find Sarah meandering over to the other side of the office asking them to see “something pretty” – the logo, collateral, etc.  While we believe brand is more than a nice logo, that certainly does not diminish the significance or appeal of physical branding done well.  Watching the words, ideas, and ideals of who Feed More is and the change they are making in the world transform so thoughtfully and perfectly into a mark, and logo, and colors was nothing short of incredible. 


This part of the project kicked off June 1st at the employee brand reveal day, as The Spark Mill detailed to the employees how brand is indeed about more than the sharp new logo or fresh new colors...and what that meant for Feed More. TSM then embarked on an in depth process to pair Feed More’s rebrand with an internal culture change project involving all of the staff, as well as volunteers, partners, and donors with one quest - alignment of their new brand and its promise to the work they do and all of their interactions.  To date, The Spark Mill has gathered data from around 750 stakeholders, through surveys, interviews, and multiple staff department meetings. We have analyzed the data, compared the numbers, found the themes, written the reports, and met with the Feed More Brand Team many times to discuss the findings and the transformation opportunities.

Both Campfire and TSM are continuing to work with Feed More to ensure a smooth rollout of both the physical brand and the cultural embodiment of the brand promise. 

A great brand embraces and exudes your mission, vision, and values internally and externally in everything you do. A great brand does all of those things in a way that is simple and clear and meaningful.  Feed More’s new brand is strong, consistent, and cohesive. It is dependable. It is caring.

Congratulations to Feed More for a great new brand!

feed more new brand richmond va

A Cohort Leadership Experience: Reflections on LMR2019 First Weekend

No. 1: September Retreat Weekend

You cannot live in the Richmond region without awareness of LMR. Their Leadership Quest program is entering its 39th year of cohort leadership development. I was excited to join this year’s class and kick off our experience this past weekend. To fully live into the experience I have made three commitments:

  1. Unplugging - I left my phone in my purse and didn’t do work during our 3 day retreat. I let family know I would be checking in after dinner each night. This was an unusual behavior on my part as being a relationship oriented small business owner means I try to be accessible to clients.

  2. Journaling - With a tiny bit of ADD I discovered a few years ago that in order to really dig into a full day experience I had to doodle and journal my way through it. The new iPad and pencil really opens up this experience. This way I could capture tools, techniques, and my observations. Just a warning - I can’t really draw!

  3. A Blog Series - I wanted to capture my journey in a way I can revisit. I am sensitive to not “give away” any of the magic of the cohort experience for anyone interested in being part of the 2020 class.

Humbling Moment

At one point during the retreat we separated into two groups - for and against the death penalty. It was an exercise designed to get us thinking about the difference between dialogue and debate. I was surprised to observe different people on each side - people that I had made assumptions about based on their job or a conversation we had engaged in earlier in the day. It was a reminder that I walk into the space with my own biases.

Insights/New Facts

In 2017, out of 46 schools, 24 Richmond schools had less than 20 white students.

In reviewing the regional data presented by Matthew Freeman of Dialectix Consulting I was surprised by very few items given our role in data collection and synthesis through strategic planning for over 50 organizations a year. The one data point that really jumped out was the number of schools in Richmond with 20 or fewer white students. In 2017, out of 46 schools, 24 have less than 20 white students. I think it was less surprising than sobering. It certainly underscores our work in the city specifically to desegregate our schools a legal decision that took place 64 years ago.


It was exciting to know 10 or so people in the room of 70. While I loved spending time with them I also enjoyed meeting a few people and digging below the surface including time spent with:

Jess Powers - ACLU of Virginia, Josh Fararr - Town of Ashland, Christopher Rashad Green - VCU, John Richardson-Lauve - ChildSavers.

Parting thought Session No.1


I left with one amazing piece of wisdom from Jonathan Zur of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. When engaging in these experiences always remember to ask yourself:

Does it need to be said?
Does it need to be said right now?
Does it need to be said by me?

Lessons from the NFL: What they can teach us about Strategic Planning and Community Engagement

Strategic Planning Community Engagement Ideas

It’s no surprise that the NFL is going through some major changes, ones that are forcing the organization to think more consciously and critically not only about their bottom line, but also about who their key constituents are, both on and off the field. Although professional football players of color have long used their platforms as a way to bring attention to social justice issues, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016 in protest to the treatment of African Americans and other minorities in this country, he brought to the surface a flood of controversial issues regarding, race, class, police brutality, and the commodification of black athletes. It’s fair to say that the NFL has been pretty tepid in their response to this issue, offering very little by way of making a statement that shows they understand what Kaepernick is really protesting. And quite frankly, when 70 percent of the league’s players and only 7 percent of head coaches are black, and 94 percent of franchise owners are white, now would be the perfect time for the league to gain insight on their strategic direction.[1]

Throughout any strategic planning process, we never promise our clients that it will be easy. In fact, we often warn them that the process will likely be uncomfortable as it deals with issues of race and class and that the information gathered may force them to grapple with key issues as they pertain to their work and the communities they serve.  It is also our practice to encourage our clients to be intentional about the voices they include in the strategic planning process in order to ensure that all of their key constituents’ needs are heard and valued.

If we could do Strategic Planning for the NFL

For the NFL, this would mean making a decision to not only speak to franchise owners or head coaches about the direction of the organization. It would mean ensuring that the 1,187 black players in the league[2] are included in the process and have their voices heard. It would mean seeing them as actual human beings who have the right and ability to use their spheres of influence to bring attention to social justice issues, and most importantly, it would mean seeing them for who they are: black men who, despite their professional athlete status, still have to deal with the inequalities that come with being a minority in this country.

The Possibilities

There are middle of the road strategic plans, ones that encourage an organization to stay the course, and there are transformative plans, those that not only force an organization to move beyond the status quo but force them to really lean into their goals and strategies in a way that makes clear who and what the organization stands for.

Perhaps your organization is not at a turning point as pivotal as the NFL. But, it’s fair to say that as the political and social climate in this country change, it is important to constantly be thinking about how issues of race and class play a role within your organization. Look internally at your workforce, or externally, out into the communities you serve. What are they saying and how are you choosing to listen or not listen to their needs? How are you choosing to value their voices as you plan for the future of your organization?






The Art of Listening: Ideas for Leaders on the Impact of Being Present

RPEC Conflict Resolution Training – A “4 Part Listening” Recap

The Art of the Deep Listen.png

My colleague Lindsey and I recently had the opportunity to attend Richmond Peace Education Center’s Two-Day Conflict Resolution Training, designed to strengthen communication, active and empathetic listening, and conflict problem-solving skills. It was an insightful and engaging 2 days, but one of the activities that resonated with me the most was an activity called “Four Part Listening.”

Now, in general I’d like to think I am a pretty good listener. I stare down at my phone or computer while someone is talking from time to time (you know, millennial multitasking) but for the most part, I am actively listening and engaged in a conversation, body language and all.

What I loved most about 4 Part Listening is that it forces you to actively and closely listen to what someone is saying by giving you the opportunity to listen for something specific. In a nutshell, one person is assigned the task of answering a question (speaker) while the three other group members listen for one of the following: content (listener A), facts and details (listener B), or values and needs (listener C). It may seem simple, but how many times are you engaged in a conversation but walk about not truly understanding what you’ve heard? Or, how many times have you spoken to someone and realized they understood none of what you said?

3 keys to close listening

  • it is not just hearing the words

  • it is about discerning what is important TO THE PERSON SPEAKING

  • it is about understanding what they value and need

4 Part listening is important as we engage daily in conversation with those around us, but it is particularly important for those in leadership roles who desire to really understand the people they work along side, both staff and leadership. At The Spark Mill, when we are helping clients through organizational change, we often ask them to look at how they engage with their staff and ways these encounters may be strengthened. One way to do this is to consider the ways in which you listen to employees in your organization – by not just hearing what they are saying, but working to discern what their true values and needs are.

During this activity, I shared my personal story about being a black woman dedicated to bringing the narratives and experiences of other black women into urban planning and why this mattered to me. For about 3 minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the community I belong to. Afterwards, my group members had to repeat what facts, values, and needs they heard me express. Although a short exercise, hearing what they said made me feel seen and acknowledged; I appreciated their investment and time in closely listening to my experiences.

During this activity, I shared my personal story about being a black woman dedicated to bringing the narratives and experiences of other black women into urban planning and why this mattered to me. For about 3 minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the community I belong to. Afterwards, my group members had to repeat what facts, values, and needs they heard me express. Although a short exercise, hearing what they said made me feel seen and acknowledged; I appreciated their investment and time in closely listening to my experiences.

As a leader of an organization, you are often faced with a million and one tasks, and while it may seem daunting, included in those tasks should be taking time to hear your employees. Not just listening to them talk about their experiences at work, even though this is important. Take some time to hear who they are, where they come from, and their personal stories and journeys. Many times, it actually informs why they do the work they do, and as a leader you may be able to discern their values and needs and use that as an opportunity to understand how they align with your organization’s work.

Need some guidance on better connecting with your employees? We are here to help!