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Playdates & discussion groups: Creating safe spaces for nonprofit professionals to tackle challenging issues

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Somewhere between winding a ball of yarn into a head and creating a flower pot out of construction paper and Popsicle sticks, Shaun Dyer had an epiphany: coming to this workshop was a great idea. Executive director of Saskatchewan’s John Howard Society and director of communications for the provincial organization, Dyer was spending too much time putting out fires and not enough time pressing pause - and was starting to feel isolated. “I was covering two significant portfolios in our organizations and approaching a place of no capacity to think strategically, think new thoughts; it was all reaction,” he shares of what he calls his season of uncertainty.

So when Dyer was invited to the Playdate, the totally offbeat initiative seemed just what the doctor ordered. An initiative of Colludo (Latin for playing together), the Playdate is the brainchild of Saskatoon-based writer and communicator, Sheena Greer. The idea came out of a decade of employment in the sector facing many of the same challenges that others do. But it was only upon going out on her own a couple of years ago that Greer found the freedom to have conversations about the sector. “Everyone was saying what I was feeling,” she shares. “They were passionate, driven and intelligent people who felt so bogged down with the hamster wheel of the sector. They wanted to be leaders and solve problems but didn’t know where to start.”

Let’s face it: working in nonprofit can be both a blessing and, well, a difficult calling. Thankfully, some of the most passionate and invested folks are drawn to working in our sector. But the challenges — being overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, isolated, to name but a few — can sometimes feel overwhelming. And traditional get-togethers, workshops, conferences and internal events (often with one’s boss or other leaders at the helm), are not always the best place to address those issues.

A playful approach to conversation

Welcome to the new grassroots un-workshops, designed to create intimate and safe spaces for those looking to share, vent and move forward with greater strength and toward greater success. A fan of lifelong learning and classes, Greer initially searched for something that would help her connect and recharge. “But I found there wasn’t enough time to talk to people about my problems or to assess issues,” she says.

Thanks to her four kids, play had become so integral to her day-to-day life she decided to expand its intrinsic value to adults. “People let their guard down when being playful, she explains, adding that the safe place she creates allows conversations to happen. Giving the group permission for flowing, unfiltered dialogue, all while keeping their hands busy, allows participants to forget their stress and tension points, adds Dyer.

And lest you think Greer created a space only for venting and moaning, you’d be wrong. For example, during an activity Dyer took part in, called “pain points and pompoms”, the group wound their balls of yarn all the while sharing the most difficult aspects of their jobs, naming their finished craft after their biggest one. A conversation followed on what issues were solvable, which weren’t and which would require more work. Solutions were offered. They then moved onto another craft while discussing what they loved most about their jobs, as well as their own greatest qualities. “Most people don’t stop and pause to think of what they really excel at,” says Greer.

At its heart, the Playdate initiative is about bringing together a diverse group of people who share resolve and passion for the sector to possibly forge new connections and collaborations and to spark conversations between organizations that may not have made sense before, she adds. And, yes, it’s about having fun. “Play is a great way to draw ideas out,” says Greer, who has already hosted two such events with an average of 10 attendees each (who are invited individually) and plans on more.

Ms. Rupt: Disrupting the fundraising status quo

Meanwhile in Vancouver, fundraising experts Rory Green and Beth Ann Locke started their own grassroots conversation-starter last March. Ms. Rupt is a salon-type session with a simple goal: to bring together women who share an interest in fundraising and to provoke stimulating conversation around a single topic. Having completed four sessions last year, their plan is to run six this year, all in their homes. “I came up with the name because I want to 'disrupt' the status quo,” explains Locke of an objective she shares with her partner-in-crime. “We want to engage as many people in important conversations as we can.”

Topics range from finding work-life balance and breaking the glass ceiling to the challenges of turnover, exploitation in a dominant culture, bullying and the need to rethink current nonprofit sector systems. “It’s good to talk,” offers Locke who adds these topics aren’t often on traditional conference agendas. And while it’s essential to examine common fundraising concerns like direct mail and events, Locke says these deeper issues need to be addressed too.

Like Greer’s Playdate, Ms. Rupt isn’t just a place to whine, vent or be dismissive. Just ask Sharon Kennedy, a retired fundraising professional who still works as a part-time consultant and who has attended a few Ms. Rupt sessions so far. “I was a little skeptical at first that it would become a gripe session or something like that,” she admits. “But I found they were very good at elevating the conversation, asking intriguing questions and ensuring everyone felt they had something to say.” Kennedy adds she was impressed with how professionally the duo would draw out of people their concerns and challenges.

Participants represent broad age groups with a diversity of experience, which suits the event nicely. “It was interesting to hear what other people’s challenges were, some that I’ve experienced when I started out and some were new because the world is changing,” says Kennedy. As for the long-term goal? Locke says it’s to expand their discussion groups, to engage more women in the field to talk. Really talk. “We need to look at the challenges our profession is not facing and what we can we do individually to move that forward,” says Locke, who has worked in fundraising for 23 years.

Greer’s aspirations are similar. “If you come out of it with nothing more than renewed personal resolve, that’s wonderful. People need support,” she explains. “But my hope is that you go back to your desk and are able to have a clearer head about things or have someone to call upon, or a community who wants to rally around you or collaborate.”

To be sure, Dyer left the day-long Playdate with a small network of fellow nonprofit executives with whom he can share a cup of coffee, ad hoc consulting and support. And he got something else. “I rediscovered that creativity is essential to the work we do,” he says, adding it’s a nice change from the typically linear strategizing, reporting, planning and problem solving of his job. The experience also inspired him to install a giant white board in his office, with the newfound belief that creativity in one’s physical workspace is critical.

“I’ve always thought so much of nonprofit leadership is subversive,” says Dyer. By creating an offbeat, innocuous looking opportunity, Greer put that into practice. “It ended up becoming really formative for me and for people who attended with me,” Dyer explains. “That subversive mentality is really important.”

With that glowing account, it’s no surprise that Dyer paid it forward, sending a staff member to the next Playdate workshop. Now the John Howard Society has two craft pieces gracing their office shelves, reminding everyone who walks by of the importance of talk – and play.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Photos (from top) via Sheena Greer. All photos used with permission.

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