My Final Assignment as a Graduate Student

I do believe this is the very last thing I have to do to complete all three of my graduate degrees. I want to have something especially insightful, but the reality is that much like graduate school started four years ago, I am still burning the midnight oil and insight cuts into sleep time. That said, this last week, including my final presentation to BEST this early morning is a real testament to the work I’ve done through these graduate programs.

Last week was my first full week as a post-graduate Hatfield Fellow working at Oregon Housing and Community Services, where I am a special projects assistant splitting my time between strategic planning, organizational development, and performance measurement on one hand, and policy analysis and data visualization on the other. Every single day so far I have found myself looking through the technicolor lens provided by my conflict resolution, public administration, and nonprofit management perspectives—applying this lesson and that to new situations.

In addition to my Hatfield work, this weekend I got to facilitate an Oregon Humanities dialogue on the values associated with Oregon public lands and forestry. I followed up the weekend with a marathon of meetings and presentations, including chairing the McKenzie River Trust Development Committee, finalizing training plans for my other internship with the City of Eugene, and presenting my recommendations to the BEST Board of Directors. At each of these meetings, I was essentially offered a follow-up job lead using this combination of group process, policy, and nonprofit skills to use. With eight months to go on my post-graduate fellowship, I basically turned them all down, but it is nice to know that it was all very likely worth it. Even better to know that such a diverse group of people see me as a professional that can offer value to their own work.

This is technically a post for my BEST internship, so specifically to that project, my presentation went great today. Although I talked about future value in my asset post, I actually got to see some instantaneous results as Board members volunteered left and right to create and lead new committees on my recommendation. I also got to take advantage of a teachable moment, by facilitating another part of the agenda in a way specifically designed to bring voices into the room. Afterwards, the Chair who has been rightly accused of stifling open discussion, came up to me and thanked me for so graciously modeling a new way for him to do his job.  Finally, as I am tasked at my new job this week with sorting through slide decks in preparation for an all-staff report out, I am reminded of the value of keeping it simple and not being afraid of a little color. Maybe in eight months time I can help to shift not only organizational culture in my new job, but also the culture of powerpoint!

And, I guess, that’s a wrap. A bittersweet good night.

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Big Data, Big Qualitative Data

As someone that occasionally plays in quantitative data world, I know that many quant researchers, including too many of my MPA teachers, place an infallible value on quantitative data over qualitative data. One reason quantitative data is so valued is its simplicity, very little context is needed to make grand analyses, and the bigger the n the better because that just increases your validity, and, after all, it’s not like you have to actually read all of those responses, just push a button and run your regression.

Now having the debate over quant and qual data is not the point of this post, but rather to ponder what to do with big qualitative data? There is no regression to write that will make analysis or recording easy, instead I have to actually read and make sense of all the individual responses, and if I was being methodical than code all of those responses. But when you don’t have the time to code, what is the best use of all that “extra” data? From my sixteen stakeholder interviews, I have scoured through and essentially categorized or coded for a few key topics that have generated and support my recommendations. But now I have pages and pages of transcribed notes that likely have all sorts of nuggets of wisdom for the organization that extend far beyond my project scope. Without just handing over my notes and breaking confidentiality (even if de-identified), I’m a bit perplexed what to do with all this information. I could write a 20, 30, 40-page report with all of the information collected, but that is the last thing this organization needs; in fact, they brought me on specifically to simplify and prioritize someone else’s big, long report. I wish this was a one-time problem, but it is something that I have faced time and again with client processes that involve semi-confidential stakeholder interviews. I still don’t have an answer, but maybe next time I go into a similar process I’ll spend more time with the client reality testing what different outcomes are appropriate for all the “rest of the data.”

Being a Professional Sounding Board

Today I met with Rob to discuss findings from the interviews and my draft report, but that’s not exactly what we accomplished. Instead he walked in, sat down, and said I just need to talk through some things. We ended up talking about all sorts of components of the organization, some related to my project and others more tangential. I provided a few insights here and there, and definitely kept his processing, venting, and thinking moving forward with a couple hopefully well-timed questions. People sometimes scoff at those organizations that provide their CEOs with an external leadership consultant, but after this lunch date, I get it. People in positions of power need safe, neutral, but not totally indifferent spaces to just talk things through, and, to use Sam Kaner’s term, have a thinking buddy. I’m definitely not a Catholic, but being in this role of hearing someone out, gives me an appreciation of the confessional. If kings of old had priests, maybe today’s leaders have consultants. Whether or not that analogy holds up, I’m glad I was able to provide the space that he needed that day for talking things through, even if we didn’t get to our original agenda.

Post-script: In searching for an image to accompany this post I found out that the original use of the term “sounding board” was not the bridge of a guitar or other string instrument as I thought, but actually the hanging structure above a church’s pulpit that was designed to project the speaker’s voice out to the congregation. Perhaps my religious comparisons were not so far afield.

BEST Evaluation: An Asset

Although we didn’t have much time to talk about it, Rob completed my internship evaluation this week. Overall I did quite well with no particular criticism, save for his common refrain that I need to learn my value. Ever since our “negotiation session,” he has been on me to make sure I come to appreciate my value as a consultant, even a student consultant, and to not undersell myself. At the end of the list of 4’s and 5’s, he wrote that I have been a great asset to the organization. I’ve learned he is a man that is very deliberate with his word choice, and so I decided to look up the word asset. The common definition is something of value, use, or quality. However, I think the finance definition might be more appropriate in this situation. An asset is a resource that is expected to provide a future benefit, or more casually something that can be turned into cash down the road. I know that by dedicating so much time this summer to having me do this work, BEST and Rob were choosing to put more mission direct activities on the side, add that to my stipend, and you have a real investment in something that they don’t expect to necessarily have instant results, but that will pay back dividends in the future. I work for organizations like this and years later they are still talking about that time they brought in that one consultant that made them re-think things or get some operation under control, and you can hear it in their voice, the value they got from that experience went far beyond the monetary contract. I hope I can continue to be a forward-looking “asset” to many organizations.

Working Board, Governing Board, … Policy Board?

Red fish, blue fish, but where’d this yellow fish come from? In providing BEST with organizational development consulting, I have come across a term that never came up in my nonprofit management work: policy board. Rob and many of the other Directors keep saying, “but we are a policy board.” At first, I thought they were referring to being a governing board, which is one that, in addition to legal requirements of a board like being a fiduciary, focuses on setting internal policy and strategic direction for the organization, but doesn’t do much actual “work.” At least that is in contrast to working boards, which essentially take up some of the day-to-day operational duties that in larger or more sophisticated organizations would be accomplished with staff. But no, to many involved with BEST, they believe that they are a policy board that sets the external policy or positional stance of BEST, such as setting the position the organization takes on a given ballot measure and providing guidance on strategy for political success. As a political scientist, I’m all game, that is the fun stuff, but just doing the fun work of policy analysis and lobbying strategy doesn’t make a full organization run–heck it doesn’t even make a good campaign run. There is work to do, organizational work.

In a young organization with one paid staff person, everyone doing the fun work of policy leaves a potentially dangerous vacuum for both the internal governance and the day-to-day mission-fulfillment work. While such a situation would be utterly untenable to most organizations, BEST has survived and even thrived because of their superman Executive Director, who is a one-man machine with the most impressive Rolodex I’ve seen in Eugene. It is also evident that this is why they (read: Rob) went both to the Nonprofit Law Clinic and to me. That superman is getting burned out. No man is an island, and no man can be a whole organization, no matter how capable. Now to be fair, many board members are engaging and doing some work, and there is a history a few years back of a highly engaged strategic planning process, but right now there is not remotely the level of work or the systems sophistication that is necessary to leverage and support their minimal staff capacity to meet their ever-expanding and urgent mission.

Much like their Advisory Board, I actually like that BEST has taken the nonprofit model and made it their own, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of that old fashion model was there for a reason. Whether monthly meetings or traditional committee structures or dare-I-say-it the Board being responsible for fundraising, I think a fair number of my final recommendations will be a call back to the tried and true of nonprofit board governance.

Crepes, Cider, and Chartpaper at 9 o’clock at night

In balancing my new fellowship in Salem with wrapping up my summer projects in Eugene, scheduling meetings during “normal business hours” has become quite difficult, especially since I’m living part time in Salem. Thus, Lorna and I ended up sipping ciders, eating crepes for dinner, and sharing our table with a big pad of chartpaper late at night this week—mind you after I had just finished facilitating a nearly two hour committee meeting for McKenzie River Trust, and of course after a full day of work in Salem. But it was a dinner for champions as we went through the remaining to do’s for our pilot training next week. This included everything from finishing touches on the oversized worksheets (thus the flip charts) to crafting examples for participants. The examples will end up being really helpful, but it is not easy to retroactively create plans for a project done almost two years ago (and one that I was only peripherally aware of let alone involved in). We have one more late night prep meeting scheduled for next week, but its really coming together. I’ve got some final tweaks to make to the powerpoint, and, of course, a bunch of charts to make, but I am so glad that I will be able to actually co-facilitate it and see my agenda in action. It is scheduled for less than a week after the internship deadline, but who knows maybe I’ll still write a blog post about how it goes.

HRNI Evaluation: I’m collaborative!

Had a great evaluation with Lorna who gave me 5s straight down the evaluation. Having struggled a bit in her class back in winter 2017, but it not mattering because I was taking it P/NP, doing well on this project for someone I so respect has been particularly rewarding, and a bit vindicating. She had no constructive criticism to offer, but we talked about some particular strengths including my (theoretical/academic) background in public participation, creative thinking, and my expertise in training design. She particularly emphasized this last strength, saying how impressed she is with the deep intentionality I put into every aspect of my program design.

Finally, on her evaluation she jotted down “collaborative” and then a big smiley face. At this point that word is an inside joke. Much like sustainability, collaborative is a concept and word that is all the rage. It is also one of the types of public participation listed on the IAP2 Spectrum (see below). And, of course, that means that everyone wants to believe they are doing said type of P2, but in reality true collaboration is really hard. The goal of the collaborate type of P2 is “to partner with the public in each aspect of the decision,” and the promise is that “we will look to you for advice and innovation and incorporate that into the decision to the maximum extent possible.” Each aspect, look to you, and, especially, maximum extent possible are not light words coming from a government agency and certainly don’t match up with a P2 plan that includes a bunch of open houses, outreach materials in Spanish, and maybe an online survey before the expert planners ultimately recommend a decision that is adopted by political leaders. But everyone wants to be collaborative these days, and maybe if they say they are doing it for long enough they will actually figure out how to do it, then maybe we will have a government that truly collaborates with its constituents. Until then though, I know that Lorna appreciates the depth of what it takes to really be collaborative, so I will take it as a very strong compliment.