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Facilitating a Priority-Setting Exercise

By Kim Hodgson, Community Consultant

This is the fifth blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches that will be written by various HC Link staff over the next while.

Community groups and coalitions often request the services of an HC Link consultant to assist with strategic planning and priority setting. This is an exciting and often challenging activity for groups; they’re eager to deliberate and decide on where to put their energies, but at the same time, it’s easy for groups to become thoroughly muddled about what, in fact, they are comparing and ranking.

This is where a good facilitator can help you design a decision-making process that makes sense to your group, is transparent, and where decisions made can be justified and documented.

New partnerships and collaboratives may approach priority setting somewhat differently than those groups that have a long history and a list of initiatives and activities underway and completed. So where to start?

In the case of a new partnership trying to decide which activities support their newly crafted vision, mission and strategic directions, I always start the broader “buckets” – in this case the strategic directions or broad, overall objectives. It can be helpful to ask the group if there are particular strategic directions (i.e. communications, fundraising, partnership development etc.) that they feel are more important to focus on sooner than later. In some instances, the group will decide that there should be a particular emphasis on one or two, but more frequently, there’s agreement that all of the strategic directions need to be addressed.

In the case of existing partnerships that have a history of planning and implementing activities, it can be helpful to take stock of what’s working well or not, prior to generating ideas for future activities. This can be done through Appreciate Inquiry as outlined by Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition Executive Director Lorna McCue. This focuses the group’s attention on what is working well and what could be.

Generating Ideas

The next step is for the group to generate a list of activities that will support each of the strategic directions. Several methods or processes work well for generating these ideas, including the "1-1-2-4-all" exercise from Liberating Structures that Andrea Bodkin has written about previously in her blog on Priority Setting . The Appreciative Inquiry approach has this step built into its process.

Some groups like to generate activities by doing a mini-visioning exercise around the question: If we are successful in what we are doing in 3 years, what will be in place?” What do we need to do to get there? What activities need to be put into place? Are these activities the same activities that we are doing now? If not, what should we be doing?

Sometimes I have one group generate possible activities for one strategic direction, or sometimes everyone participates in a “free for all” – writing down any and all activities that come to mind. Regardless, the intent of this process is for the group to generate as many good ideas as possible.

The next step is to have participants present their ideas to the rest of the group, and visually group like ideas together. The group decides which strategic direction the activity supports, and we simply tape an index card or a piece of paper with the name of the activity under the relevant strategic direction.

In many cases, the group will come up with new ideas and activities that aren’t directly related to their current strategic directions or objectives. It’s important to capture these ideas in a way that shows that they are innovative, but don’t fit easily into previously agree upon areas of focus. The group can then decide if it’s worthwhile to broaden their objectives to include the suggested activity, or put it in a “parking lot” for consideration at a later time.

Determine how activities relate to each other

As ideas come forward, it’s common to find that one idea is a discrete activity within a larger activity i.e. “social media” and “webpage development” are components of a “communication plan.’’ In other cases, discrete activities support a common initiative (like “communication plan”) but one activity naturally occurs before another, e.g. development of key messages likely happens before writing media releases etc. The clearer a group can see how the possible activities relate to each other, the easier it is for them to do the final prioritizing. Otherwise, people are in the baffling predicament of having to compare, rank and choose from very different suggestions, e.g. "encourage more non-organized sports for youth 12 – 15 years" vs. “establish a Twitter account”.

Only when you have a the ideas/activities visually pieced together so that it makes sense to everyone should you proceed with having people cast their vote. I hope that by understanding these potentially confusing, “tricky parts” of priority setting that you’ll be able to carefully craft a priority setting exercise for your group that is logical, clear to all, and that ultimately gives the group clear direction for moving forward.

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Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play

Last winter, in the midst of a particularly frigid deep freeze, I had the opportunity to comment on a draft Position Statement circulated by Shawna Babcock of KidActive on the role and risks of "Active Outdoor Play. I was so excited about what I was reading. I had visions of printing it off, and running it down to our local Board of Education office, waving it in front of any administrator who would listen.

While I'm normally not that impassioned by policy statements, I was this time. For the last several weeks, in the grips of an unrelenting cold winter, the students at our local school were prohibited from playing on the "back field" at break, due to the risk of slipping on the ice. Three times that week, I drove past our school when kids were on their recess. I had expected to see a flurry of winter wonderland activity: snowfort building, sliding on snowpants, broomball maybe. Instead I saw hundreds of bundled up students, standing around like unhappy penguins trying to keep warm.

When I inquired as to why they weren't allowed to play in the playground in the snow, I learned of a board-wide policy intended to protect students from slipping on the ice and hurting themselves. My immediate thought (which I didn't actually say) was "Gee - that's ironic. I spend good money every year making sure my kid does slip on the ice . It's called hockey, and yes I know it's different because he wears a helmet. " The point was made. I got the intent, but that old school Mom in me was screaming "Are you kidding?? Let's just thrown them their iPods and a pack of smokes and hope for the best." There had to be a better way.

I suggested parents could sign a waiver, I attempted to sign my child out at break and allow them to go a nearby park to build forts or play hockey. None of my workarounds were going to work - from the school's perspective. But now, here in my hot little hand, were cold, hard facts, also known evidence and research, to back up my position.

Snippets of facts with footnotes to support them:

  • "Canadian children are eight times more likely to die as a passenger in a motor vehicle than from being hit by a vehicle when outside on foot or on a bike."

  • " When children spend more time in front of screens they are more likely to be exposed to cyber-predators and violence, and eat unhealthy snacks."

The Position Statement

The position statement gave recommendations to set us on a different path (an evidence-informed track by the way) that would result in happier, fitter (and warmer) students.

Here's what the experts had to say:

Educators and Caregivers: Regularly embrace the outdoors for learning, socialization and physical activity opportunities, in various weather conditions—including rain and snow. Risky active play is an important part of childhood and should not be eliminated from the school yard or childcare centre.

Schools and Municipalities: Examine existing policies and by-laws and reconsider those that pose a barrier to a ctive outdoor play.

Provincial and Municipal Governments: Work together to create an environment where Public Entities are protected from frivolous lawsuits over minor injuries related to normal and healthy outdoor risky active play.

The report ends with this great question: In an era of schoolyard ball bans and debates about safe tobogganing, have we as a society lost the appropriate balance between keeping children healthy and active and protecting them from serious harm? If we make too many rules about what they can and can’t do, will we hinder their natural ability to develop and learn? If we make injury prevention the ultimate goal of outdoor play spaces, will they be any fun? Are children safer sitting on the couch instead of playing actively outside?

The full report is available in both English and French at:

Workshop on active play at our upcoming conference!

Active Outdoor Play Position Statement: Nature, risk & children's well-being

Presenters: Shawna Babcock, KidActive @KidActiveCanada 

Marlene Power, Child and Nature Alliance of Canada @cnalliance

Join us to learn about the history, evidence and expertise that contributed to the development of the Active Outdoor Play Position Statement. We will share insights, stories, tools and evidence-based approaches to support the connection between healthy child development and nature, risk and active outdoor play.


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The importance of collaboration

By Kim Hodgson, HC Link Consultant

[Partnership] is an idea with which anyone can agree, without having any clear idea what they are agreeing about" (Guest and Pecci, 2001).

If you have had the privilege of working with community organizations for any length of time, you will likely smile wryly at the above quote. Leading and participating in collaborative endeavours is the new normal for most, if not all community organizations and civic institutions these days. Sometimes, these partnerships are "strongly suggested" or a pre-requisite for funding opportunities, and in other instances, representatives from diverse groups and organizations seem to almost effortlessly connect to each other, knowing that working together, they can achieve more than they ever could alone. And this, it seems, is one of the crucial success factors for collaborative work. Reflecting on her work with the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, Nancy Johnson observes that: It must be clear that the complexity of the issue demands a collaborative response and that collaboration is the only approach that has a chance of success. (N. Johnson, 2010)


 Photo Credit: jairoagua via Compfight cc

It is the complexity of the challenges that we face today, that makes working in collaboratives both necessary, and in fact rewarding. When individuals from diverse sectors and perspectives get together to talk about a problem, (getting them all together at one time is another story altogether), a fascinating albeit predictable, phenomenon occurs: We begin to understand the problem in all its messy complexity. And if we can sit in that uncomfortable spot for an undefined length of time, we begin to understand how certain organizations and agencies respond to a situation because of their organization's mandate, a provincial regulation or municipal bylaw that we didn't know existed, or because they simply don't have enough warm bodies to respond in the way that they would like. And through listening to people talk about their work, what they do, and what they would like to do, we create a better understanding of the issue at hand. It has been said that "a problem well-defined, is half solved." I believe that this is the beauty of collaborative work; each person brings a deep understanding of one piece of the puzzle, and they are able to see how they might "fit" into another person's piece.

A critical, if not the most crucial, component of making this first stage of collaboration (understanding the issue) successful, is finding and supporting a person who has the leadership and people skills to bring individuals from very diverse backgrounds together in a room, help make them feel comfortable, and create a safe, respectful environment for people to share what they know, and perhaps more importantly, share what they don't know. On top of this tall order, this individual needs to be able to tease out common issues that the group can rally around, and at the same time, be mindful of people's organizational self-interests. This is an exceedingly difficult task, especially when many groups are "chomping at the bit" to get "real work done." This is perhaps the biggest learning that I've had in my many years of working with collaboratives: the time-consuming "getting to know you", " What does your organization really do?" conversations are absolutely crucial for building a shared understanding of an issue, as well as for building relationships and trust. As the song says..."You can't hurry love", and you simply can't rush this stage of the collaborative's development. My advice...put the busy work of strategic planning and development of workplans on the backburner for a good chunk of time until the group is" well-gelled". It will be infinitely easier in the long run.

Question to leave you with: (please comment below!)
Why would well intentioned, skilled, time-strapped individuals from diverse organizations come together to undertake the time-consuming, complex and often messy task of figuring out how to work together?

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