Reflective practice and research fellowship

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

What is a reflective practice and research fellowship? As the Executive Director of Pillar for more than 10 years, there was an intensity to my role during the growth phases of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital that had me all in and firing on all cylinders. I had reached a point in my career that I was looking for a renewed sense of meaning, energy and purpose both personally and professionally. I had heard of other leaders who had done something similar to a fellowship and how it was a transformational experience. I chose to design a reflective practice and research fellowship to explore leadership growth, succession planning, and reflective practices in a meaningful and sustained way. Having others step into leadership and documenting our network approach were intentional to create succession planning for the organization. My fellowship included five main elements including those below. Whether you’re able embark on your own fellowship or just adopt a few of these practices for yourself, I hope what I have learned will provide inspiration to you on your leadership journey.

  1. Reflective practices and coaching – I developed reflective practices that integrated pause, nature, arts and inner exploration supported by a life and leadership coach and a trusted circle of like-minded people.
  2. Network research – I met with impact and social innovations networks across the world to learn more about the network building principles that we had been exploring at Pillar including collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion and storytelling and impact.
  3. Strategic projects – The three main project deliverables from my fellowship were to develop a policy strategy, conduct a networking mapping exercise to illustrate our impact and reach and create a micro-site to share our network approach at Pillar.
  4. Learning opportunities – I participated in programs that fit with the themes of purpose, policy and networks and I also did a deep dive into resources related to these themes.
  5. Transition and change management – We prepared our staff team, board of directors, and network for the fellowship, did a mid point check-in through a survey with the staff and board, and we did transition planning for the re-integration.
Reflective practices and coaching
Nature practices

Through my coaching over the years I have recognized that being in nature is a place of renewal and healing. At the outset of the fellowship, my coach suggested a ‘sit spot’ practice where you go somewhere in nature and take a question and notice what your surroundings are telling you; the longer you sit the more you will notice. This practice connected me to the land, to my inner self and was an intentional way of slowing down each day. At first I was doing a sit spot daily and now it is two to three times per week, which seems more sustainable going forward. During each sit spot, I would capture a photo and share it along with the question on social media and then write a short reflection about it.

Leadership and peer coaching 

As part of the fellowship, I continued the coaching relationship I have with Janet Frood from Horizon Leadership. The dedicated time to think through the transition, learning, and challenges along the way was invaluable. We also did coaching sessions with the interim executive director and board chair to set intentions about how we would structure our relationships during the time and to reflect on the journey. Horizon Leadership did a survey to our staff and board at the mid-point, provided a summary and facilitated a staff team discussion about the results.

I also leaned on my learning sister and wise council throughout the fellowship. I reached out to these people in my trusted circle who inspire me and had knowledge around networks, purpose driven work and personal growth to be a sounding board and hold me accountable along the way. Sharing ideas, resources and what has surfaced for me with these peers has added to the richness of my fellowship experience.

Self care practices

After attending the Foundations of Purpose program, I wanted to test other reflective practices and I decided to start a gratitude journal. Each day I now journal three reflections of what I was grateful for from the day before. To keep on top of this and other daily practices I want to maintain, I use an app one of my team members mentioned that they use to track their reflective practices. The Momentum – My Habits App sends me a notification daily to remind me to do my gratitude journal, sit spot and drink water daily. I’ve also incorporated both reiki and massage as practices for stress reduction and relaxation that have helped me to create time for healing.

Expression through arts 

Like so many of us, I thought because I could not draw when I was younger, I was not an artist. During my fellowship, I wanted to explore my inner artist through various art forms. Why? Because innovative ideas are required to solve the big problems facing people and planet, and it is important to nurture creativity to spark new ways of thinking. I attended a ‘Sparks & Splatter’ workshop with Revel in the Mess to be playful while pausing to create the space in my life to unlock potential. After attending Foundations of Purpose, I was also inspired to delve into the world of watercolour painting. I asked my nieces and nephew to come over and bring their watercolours so I could try it. It was intentional to do this with younger people as I knew they were less inhibited when it comes to art and would be great coaches. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own watercolour painting supplies and now find it to be peaceful and playful.

I experimented with poetry during the fellowship and found through this practice that it revealed parts of me I had not connected to and the darkness and light that were in the crevices of my mind and heart. The following is a poem I wrote:

It’s About All

A once in a lifetime opportunity created from nothing but a seed,
A moment about self, to reclaim purpose and direction, 
It was there and then taken away,
Slowly reflection and pause emerge between the crevices,
Not fully realized, sometimes forced,
More resilience peeks out,
Alone and lonely shifts to calm,
Time to think & listen to the thoughts,
Yearn for what was, pine for anonymity,
Lean into natural hopefulness despite its distance,
Find the rhythm in nature, in corners undiscovered,
Let go of what is expected & emerge into what is,
It is not about me, about other, about them,
It is about we, about us, about all.

I also took many pictures along the way and when scrolling through them, the theme that emerged was pathways – along the beach, canals, sidewalks, roadways and hiking trails – representing the journey I was on without any set destination or decisions. At the Foundation of Purpose program when we were to share a performance that was a culmination of our experience, I shared these photos as way to represent that I was still on the journey.

Through my travels I visited many art galleries and museums including Art Gallery of Ontario; Vancouver Art Gallery; Palazzo Pitti and Fort Belvedere in Florence Italy; Leopold Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Albertini in Vienna, Austria; Anne Frank House, MOMO, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands; National Museum of African American History, Library of Congress, National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC; and Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. I found meandering through art galleries and museums to be calming and almost meditative while sparking my curiosity and making me feel whole.

Network research

Throughout my travels, I met with 17 impact and social innovation networks across the world to discuss key research questions related to themes we were exploring at Pillar including collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion, and storytelling and impact. The discussions were a shared exchange of mutual learning and connection rather than formal research. As I embarked on the research and conversations, I quickly realized that our work in the impact sector is complex; I was coming at this looking for answers and what I found was more questions. Here is a list of the key questions I asked members of each of the networks I visited.

  1. Collaboration: How has cross-sector collaboration contributed to network building in your community? How do you engage with those who are outliers but are needed to move forward your vision?
  2. Leadership and governance: What is the governance structure of your network, what works well and what would you reimagine if you could?
  3. Equity and inclusion: How does your network support and live out empathy, equity and inclusion?
  4. Storytelling and impact: How has storytelling shaped your network? What story is your network currently telling? Where are the diverse voices in our stories? How has failure and learning played a role of innovation and systems change?

You can read more about what I learned from these networks in More Questions Than Answers: The Learning from Networks. 

Strategic projects

Policy strategy 

As part of the six-month program with Maytree Policy School, I developed a policy strategy for Pillar that is rooted in our strategic theme of equity and inclusion. It outlines our focus for government relations with the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Network mapping 

We are mapping our network through data visualizations in partnership with The CutlurePlex Lab at Western University to establish a baseline so we can monitor our network evolution to compare pre- and post- our membership redesign and inform our network strategy. We are testing this model with our new program CityStudio London to track the strength of the relationships and the increase in the relationships for students, faculty and partners from the outset of the program and to evaluate the change and impact in relationships.

See an example of network visualization analysis in this overview of annual Pillar events, 2011-2018.

I chose to design a reflective practice and research fellowship to explore leadership growth, succession planning, and reflective practices in a meaningful and sustained way. Having others step into leadership and documenting our network approach were intentional to create succession planning for the organization.

Network approach micro-site 

A key goal for the fellowship was to share our network approach at Pillar and share a cohesive story of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital. We decided on a micro-site “The Network Approach by Pillar Nonprofit Network” that would provide educational content about our promising practices using the network building principles of collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion and storytelling and impact. Developing this site has been a succession planning exercise to have myself and our team document our learning and promising practices since the inception of Pillar. It is our hope that is will also serve as a thought leadership hub for those starting a similar network to Pillar or for those who want to borrow some of our promising practices for their own organizational development.

Learning opportunities

When I was researching different learning opportunities I wanted to find a balance between personal and professional development. I applied to the Maytree Policy School with both my roles as ED at Pillar and incoming Chair for Ontario Nonprofit Network in mind. Up to this point, I had really learned about public policy and government relations by trial and error and I knew that having some theory and knowledge behind me would be an advantage as a leader for both organizations. I had heard about the programs at Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and in particular the Foundations of Purpose program. There are scholarships available and with a successful application I was ready to explore my next stage of purpose.

Learn more about my Top 10 takeaways and actions from Maytree Policy School and Journey of finding my foundation of purpose.

I also had the opportunity to attend the National Council for Nonprofits Learning Confab with Ontario Nonprofit Network and Imagine Canada. The National Council for Nonprofits gathers annually to bring together the leaders of the network of state associations. Given the current political climate in the United States, there was much to learn from the innovative and adaptive practices of our counterparts. The concept that change should be cross partisan rather than nonpartisan was one takeaway that I will integrate into my language for our approach to government relations. The principle of moving from diversity to equity and being more explicit about racism and oppression also resonated and aligned our organizational approach. A session on building better movements with Leslie Crutchfield based on her book How Change Happens reminded me that we need to change hearts and minds to change policy.

During the fellowship I read and listened to more than 100 books, blogs, and podcasts about networks, inclusive economies, equity and power, and leadership and tracked them along with their key themes. These have shaped my learning and thinking and really sparked my contemplation about how philanthropy and social impact work needs to be deconstructed and reimagined since the very systems we have assumed are helping people and society are holding power and privilege. To decolonize and reshape it requires giving up power. With our propensity in society at this time in history for an individualistic rather than a collective perspective, we have some critical thinking and action ahead of us. To check out the resources click here.

Transition and change management

My fellowship journey all started with a proposal to the board along with conversations and a transition plan. This document was created to help our team navigate leadership and functional changes to the team during my fellowship. To read more about how we managed the transition with the staff team at Pillar read this article.

About half way through the fellowship we sent out a fellowship survey to the staff and board to check in on how they were feeling. We then held a team meeting to discuss and unpack their responses and provide further support and direction. With about six weeks left in the fellowship, we created a reintegration and change management plan as I re-enter my role as ED.

By the numbers
Aha moments
  1. I resonate with being an ecosystem tender and how do I prioritize tending to myself?
  2. How can we embed in the organization the mantra – Everyone follows, Everyone leads?
  3. How do I and we “paint it done”? What is the future state and impact we collectively want and how do we clearly communicate this with new staff and new programs?
  4. Is Pillar is an “impact network” not a network based on legal structure anymore (nonprofit, social enterprise, co-ops)?
  5. Daring leadership is about serving others not ourselves, how do we choose courage over comfort?
  6. How as a network are we mindful of power we hold and that systems hold power, how do we use our power as a bridge?
  7. Does our network feel they have a voice for change?
  8. How can we measure the ways our network and shared space creates a sense of belonging, connections and reduces loneliness?
  9. In a time of such uncertainty, how can we hold true that optimism is not uncool, it is rebellious, daring and vital?
  10. How do I become a human being not simply a human doing?
  11. How do we check our own blind spots daily?
  12. How do we make sure that individuals are authors of system innovation and give more resonance to community voices?
  13. How can we support that place-based networks are a driver for change in addition to being social and economic drivers?
  14. How does our consulting program go beyond a transactional in and out and support those by providing them with the skills and training to not need us in the future?
  15. What would it take to do an audit of our programs and practices and how they could be perpetuating the power structures and colonization that we are trying to address through our work as organizations?
  16. The fellowship is not a book end but a series of inflection points that requires care and attention. How do I carry forward the reflective practices as I go back to the intensity of an ED role at Pillar?
  17. How do you prepare for the inevitable change that will happen during a fellowship and provide clarity about what decisions the leader would be engaged in during this time?
The next stage

As I re-enter my role at Pillar, there are a number of projects and practices that I plan to continue going forward. Here is a look at some of the outcomes of my fellowship that I will complete going forward.

  • Re-evaluate my reflective practices to make sure they still serve me and continue those that do
  • Have regular check ins with coach and learning sister to hold me accountable
  • Being present for the Pillar team at outset and pacing meetings
  • Share learnings with board, staff and community
  • Continue with the expression of art
  • Spend as much time on the implementation for the policy strategy network mapping and micro-site about our network approach as the development stage
  • Be authentic and open about what worked and did not work during fellowship
  • Be gentle with myself as I step back into leadership and accept I will make mistakes and need to own them and recalibrate
  • Have a conversation about our advocacy role as a team and board
  • Have a conversation about who are our key audiences and our role with business as a team and at board
  • Have a conversation about our role connecting to land, climate change, planet-first with team and at board
  • Host a workshop with Janet Frood, Executive Coach called Leadership Time Out – Power & Purpose of Structured Reflection
  • Partnering on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council research partnership engagement grant with Dr. Neil Bradford at Huron to research opportunities for learning and intellectual capacity for leaders and collaborative network structures as a continuation of the fellowship themes
  • All About Boards session on Boards & Government Relations on Dec 5th with Sara Middleton from United Way who also took the Maytree Policy School last year
  • Booked one Friday off a month for reflection and strategy for rest of year and will have team help me be accountable to keep them open
  • Speaking at Global Co-Working UnConference in Toronto October 30th about my reflective practice and research fellowship