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Don’t think data, think stories

by Wendy Jeffries

Those of us trying to make a difference in the social sector are often asked to prove our organization’s value or to articulate the impact of what we do.

Many non-profits try to show their worth by throwing out lots of numbers and creating professional looking reports.

While this looks impressive and conveys how many people you have helped or all the great programs you are undertaking, does it really demonstrate your full impact? Too many times the answer is no.

So what is a better way?

Start by thinking about: What is the story you want to tell?”

While many non-profits have perfected the art of picking a case example and writing a compelling vignette to articulate their work, this is just not enough anymore.

Yes, these examples elicit empathy and can stir people to action.

But, what do these examples say about the full reach and value of your work?

What I’m asking (because this is what the founders, board, and others will ask) is: “Tell me the whole story of how your work is creating a positive change for the people you are serving.”

Make it real by painting a picture for stakeholders who care but who are not part of your organization’s daily activities.

What do I mean?

Recently, I helped a program that educates elementary school children about the journey of food from farm to table.

They were asked by a potential funder, “How will you measure impact?” as part of a grant application.

The program staff understood that simply providing the number of kids and schools that participate or sharing student reflections and drawings from their trip to the farm wasn’t enough.

Through conversations guided by the question of “what story do you want to tell?”, they decided to explain how this program led students to make small behavioral changes. For example, how many students tried to make the recipe at home and how many students were willing to try a new vegetable.

Through this lens, the program illustrated how the immediate activities were enacting larger change and having a lasting effect on the students.

So what should you be asking yourself when you set out to demonstrate that your work is not just doing specific good but making a long-term difference?

Here are three questions to get you started:

  1. What is the story? – i.e., what is the convincing narrative that proves you are making a difference or creating positive change?
  2. What are the details of my story? – i.e., what evidence or data do I need in order to tell this story, and where can I get this information?
  3. What is the point of my story? – i.e., how is your work having an impact by improving outcomes for your clients, creating positive change in the community, etc.?

From what I’ve seen, organizations in the social sector that best illustrate their impact are those that combine a compelling narrative (“the story”) with cold, hard facts (“the evidence”).

As Jacob Harold, President and CEO of Guidestar, sums it up in a recent article, “….data is simply organized story telling.”

This week, think through these three questions to get started on your story.

Wendy Jeffries works with the non-profit and education sectors to improve programs and outcomes through the effective use of data

The first need of Practical Idealists

Future tense

I want to change the world.

If you’re a Practical Idealist, you do too.

Here’s what I often forget: you already have.

More importantly, you even are right now.

It’s so easy to get caught up. Caught up in the categories that other’s put you in. The need for “key terms” on LinkedIn. Or the right way to pitch potential partners. How to frame your aims, or your accomplishments.

In these demands, it’s easy to lose yourself: more particularly, who you are right now. Who you are with all your past accomplishments and failures (you’ve learned from both). With your dreams and desires for more (whatever you’ve already done). With the specific experiences and sensations you are having right now.

As Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently reminds us in her TED talk, it is not our job to swallow the sun. As creatives (and world-changing is a creative act) we need something different.

We need to listen.

We need to heed the call for change right now. Whether that call is to take a kinder tone – or explore a new idea, one that just might change the world for the better.

Our first need is to listen.

To listen to the specific possibility that is appearing. Rather then writing, try to hear what needs to be written. Rather then speaking, try hearing the words that need to be said. Rather then thinking, try hearing what needs to be thought.

Let what is already here surprise you. It just might be the change you are seeking.


Photo: Creative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

Make Up with Time

Golden times -you & me- fading into memory ...

“I just don’t have enough time”

Practical Idealists have a tendency to take on a lot. Our practical side tells us to be reasonable about what’s possible, and to say “No”.

Sometimes we listen.

There is this other voice though.

It’s the Idealist, who can easily overreach. Believe that somehow you have to find the energy for just one more thing. Sound familiar?

Part of the problem is that we tend to frame time as the enemy.

Think about it.

How often have you said, “I have just the amount of time I need.” or “There’s plenty of time in my day.”? If you’re like most Practical Idealists, maybe never.

What would change if you started to talk about time that way?

What if you considered that time could be a friend instead of an enemy?

Research shows that the way we talk to ourselves sets us up for how we will act. When we talk to ourselves negatively about time, it’s easy to end up feeling stressed, overwhelmed and out of energy.

On the other hand, if we talk to ourselves about time in a way that feel spacious, it’s easier to be present to what is in front of us right now.

Ultimately, that focus is what will actually let us achieve more. People tend to overestimate what is possible in the short run and underestimate what is possible in the long run. What will actually help you achieve your vision is the small steps in the time you have.

Young children tend to be good models in this regard. They focus on what is right in front of them, and don’t seem concerned about not having enough time.

Somewhere along the way, our relationship with time went sour. We started feeling like no matter what there just isn’t enough.

This week, make up with time. It’s always been there for you. Can you be there for it? Would love to hear how it goes on twitter or Facebook!


Photo: Creative Commons License jinterwas via Compfight

Tiny Houses for the Homeless: An Affordable Solution Catches On

Architect's rendering of Quixote Village. Image courtesy of Panza.

An architect’s rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, N.Y., outside of Ithaca.

On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.

The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that’s beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike.

“It’s certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at,” says Lee Jones at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn “extremely low income” (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But Second Wind is truly affordable, built by volunteers on seven acres of land donated by Carmen Guidi, the main coordinator of the project and a longtime friend of several of the men who now live there. The retail cost of the materials to build the first six houses was somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 per house, says Guidi. But many of the building materials were donated, and all of the labor was done in a massive volunteer effort.

“We’ve raised nearly $100,000 in 100 days,” he says, and the number of volunteers has been “in the hundreds, maybe even thousands now.”

The village will ultimately include a common house, garden beds, a chicken coop, and 18 single-unit cottages.

“Camp Quixote” becomes a village

“The typical development for extremely low-income housing is trending up toward $200,000 per unit. That’s a lot of bills,” says Jill Severn, a board member at Panza, a nonprofit organization that sponsors another tiny-house project called Quixote Village. (The organization’s name is a play on Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel.)

Quixote Village opened in Olympia, Wash., right before Christmas. But it began in February 2007 as “Camp Quixote,” a protest held in a city-owned parking lot. A group of homeless people assembled there to oppose an Olympia ordinance that made it illegal to sit, lie down, or sell things within six feet of downtown buildings. When police evicted the campers eight days after the protest began, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation stepped in to help, offering temporary refuge on their land.

Residents move their belongings into Quixote Village. Photo courtesy of Panza.

Residents of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., move in with their belongings. Photo courtesy of Panza.

For five years, the camp’s location rotated, moving and reassembling every 90 days at one of several different local churches. Panza was formed by a corps of volunteers from the faith communities assisting the camp, and the organization worked with the city council to secure and rezone a parcel of county-owned industrial land near a community college and create a permanent site for the village. In December of 2013, the residents of Quixote Village settled into their new homes there.

Quixote Village has fostered a positive relationship between its residents and local government and police, says Severn. Despite this, the project was held up in court for a year by a local organization of businesses and landowners called the Industrial Zoning Preservation Association, which cited concerns over the potential impact on local businesses in a nearby industrial park.

Panza used the time to fundraise and build an outreach campaign to win over the public. They had the support of legions of volunteers, mostly from local churches, who had staffed the camp.

“Having hundreds of [residents] get to know people that were homeless made a huge difference in the success of getting this off the ground,” says Severn.

Today, the 30 structures that make up Quixote Village are home to 29 disabled adults, almost all of whom qualify as “chronically homeless,” by the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Homelessness in Austin, Texas, costs taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

The residents also have a common space with shared showers, a laundry, garden space, and a kitchen. By sharing these amenities, the community was able to increase the affordability of the project and design a neighborhood they believed would fit their needs and make them more self-sufficient.

The shared space has also helped them create a supportive community. The residents, who are self-governed, have developed a rulebook that prohibits illegal drugs and alcohol on the grounds and requires that each member put in a certain number of service hours per week. They meet twice a week in the evenings to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.

The main complaint right now, says Raul Salazar, the village’s program manager and only full-time staff member, is that the postal service still hasn’t started delivering mail.

The cost of units at Quixote Village is significantly higher than at Second Wind—about $88,000 per unit—but that’s still less than half the cost of the average public housing project, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Quixote has had access to state funding and local community grants, as well as private funding from individuals, businesses, and two Native American tribes. The project also received a Community Development Block Grant for $604,000 from the State of Washington Department of Commerce and a $1.5-million grant from the Washington State Legislature.

Two architecture and design firms, MSGS Architects and KMB Design Groups, also contributed design services pro bono, and the Thurston County Commission is leasing the land to Quixote for $1 per year.

Gaining acceptance

Many other tiny-house projects are just beginning to get of the ground, raise money, find land, and gain approval from local officials and members of the public. But the unorthodox nature of the small houses presents unique legal zoning limitations and barriers that limit where tiny houses can be stationed.

In Madison, Wisc., Occupy Madison has been facing this very challenge, as the group forged ahead with plans for a tiny house village.

Each home will be about 99 square feet if you include the porch, and volunteers enjoy the joke: “We are the 99 square feet!”

In the spring of 2011, prior to the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol—focused on the state’s controversial anti-collective-bargaining bill—prompted additional legislation that prohibited groups from gathering without a permit. When the protests joined forces with Occupy in the fall of 2011, this created a unique opportunity for the voices of the many homeless people in Madison to be heard.

“There were some great moments throughout the Occupy movement where a lot of dialogue was going on between the people without homes and the people with homes,” says Allen Barkoff, one of the board members of Occupy Madison, Inc., a nonprofit formed in December 2012 to address the need for legal places where homeless people in Madison could congregate and stay safe. The organization first looked into buying an apartment building or a shared house for the homeless but ultimately settled on tiny houses as the most flexible and economical way to create homes for people.

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In this case, the cost of building the tiny homes comes to around $5,000 each, funded by private donations and an online crowd-funding campaign. The nonprofit also plans to apply for some city grants. Each home will come with a propane heater, a composting toilet, and an 80-watt solar panel array—and will be about 98 square feet in size, 99 if you include the porch. (The volunteers enjoy the joke: “We are the 99 square feet!”)

But the question of where the houses can legally be located is still up in the air. Volunteers are now building houses for six people. Because of a recent ordinance change, the houses are allowed to sit on church property in groups of three. City regulations also permit them to be placed on the side of the road, as long as they are relocated every 48 hours. But Madison’s snowy winter makes the houses hard to move, explains Barkoff.

Now Occupy Madison, Inc., is in the middle of a lengthy process to purchase a parcel of land on the east side of the city to accommodate 11 houses, along with a central building (a converted gas station) that can serve as a workshop for making more homes. This spring, they will continue to hold neighborhood meetings about the project, talk with police, and work with the Madison Planning and Development Department—and, eventually, the city council—to negotiate zoning issues for the village.

The real cost of homelessness

Efforts to break through the red tape and raise money to house the homeless almost always pay off for a community. Even the most expensive tiny-house projects—such as a new, ambitious $6-million campaign to build a 200-person tiny-house park this year in Austin, Texas—can’t rival the cost of homelessness to taxpayers, which was more than $10 million per year in Austin, for example, as YES! reported in December 2013.

“It’s a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance.”

“Chronically homeless people—people who have disabilities and are homeless for long periods of time—can be very expensive to systems of public care,” explains Roman. In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness compiled three studies showing that it costs the same or less money to provide permanent housing as it does to allow people to remain homeless. In Denver, Colo., a housing program for the homeless reduced the costs of public services (including medical services, temporary shelter, and costs associated with arrests and incarceration) by an estimated $15,773 per person per year, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.

“It’s certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at when it comes to creating solutions for housing the chronically homeless,” says Lee Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “It’s a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance.”

Currently, the various efforts to house the homeless in tiny-house villages comprise a small and pioneering movement: But each new project helps create lessons and a model for other communities.

For example, Quixote Village, as a recipient of state funding, is considered a “pilot” project: It is required to report its progress to the state legislature in five years. In the meantime, says Severn, the residents will be settling in, putting in garden beds, building a carpentry workshop, searching for jobs, and simply living their lives.

“One of our residents has been homeless for about 25 years,” Severn says. “He told me he’s excited to start a little rose garden. It really touched me to hear that.”

Erika LundahlErika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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Startups and Parenting: A Match Made in Heaven

Cynthia and her daughter

Cynthia and her daughter

This post originally appeared on Women 2.0 here

One entrepreneur offers three ways being a founder and a mother benefit each other.

By Cynthis Jaggi (Chief Practical Idealist, GatherWell)

I’m a mother and the founder of a startup using technology to democratize and disrupt leadership development. I started up both “projects” at the same time.

Being a founder for me is a huge opportunity to model for my daughter what it means to have a clear vision and the will to go after it. Yes, it’s a challenge, but what I’ve realized is how much being a founder and a mother benefit each other.

Here’s how you can get those benefits too.


My daughter is great at reminding me what a lean startup looks like. She experiments with everything. What doesn’t work gets tossed out. What does work, she focuses on completely and repeats until she nails it solid. That’s exactly the approach I’m taking in rolling out a new way to cultivate leaders.

When you have so much to get done, there’s a risk that you’ll think of time with your child as slowing you down. But children are full of wonder and exploration – qualities that can help you solve problems in new ways. My daughter constantly shows me extraordinary ways to look at the ordinary.

Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Have fun with your child while holding a specific challenge in mind. Let it simmer while you play. Take a moment to reflect afterwards. What new perspective did your play bring?


You probably have moments where you feel literally torn in two. You want to be with your child. You want to work on the next big idea. Get intentional about your time by understanding how your energy works.

Map out the hours of the day and what your energy is typically like during different periods. Mid-afternoon? Not a time for me to get great thinking done, but I love to swim or walk. Late night? Produces new ideas and room to expand on them.

Link your energy map with parenting and business activities. Use creative combinations wherever possible.

For me, mid-afternoon is great time to swim with my daughter, which gets me active and gives me quality time with her. There is such a temptation to barrel through the day and cram in as many emails as possible or one more phone call. But I know that this physical time and the restoration it brings ultimately makes me more effective. I’m often in the middle of a swim when a new addition to our curriculum pops into my head.

Look over your energy map to identify where you need more support. Ask for it. My husband is in charge of the evening routine so I have that time to focus. As a founder, you often have the ability to create the schedule that lets you shine in all areas of your life. Use it!


“You’ll never get any sleep.”

“Forget about doing any work from home until they are toddlers.”

I was pretty shocked by some of the things people said when I shared that I was starting a company as a new mother. Often the naysayers are coming from concern for you. Appreciate that they care. If they are personal relationships, direct the conversation to what did work well for them as a parent. If it’s someone who is interested in your business results, refocus them on what you’ve already achieved and point out that you’ve been able to do it while parenting.

Remember that you already are doing it! You don’t need to defend what’s working for you.  You are the kind of the leader the world needs now. One who models being an incredible mother while leading a remarkable new organization. Reminding yourself of that can grow one of your biggest assets – your confidence. Don’t let what others say shake it.


Cynthia Jaggi _3About the guest blogger: Cynthia Jaggi is the Chief Practical Idealist at GatherWell, the Think + Do Tank for Practical Idealists. She’s passionate about cultivating leaders for good who have the inner resilience and the entrepreneurial skill set to make change happen. Cynthia was formerly a partner at Fitzgerald Analytics.

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