The walls are covered in flip chart paper hung haphazardly with painter’s tape. Two of us sit around an old dining room table: Eden is armed with her laptop and I have a mountain of post-it notes and smelly markers in front of me. Maybe it’s grade school nostalgia or maybe it’s the lesson we learned last time using permanent markers- the fumes giving us headaches by the end of the night.
Time passes stretching into the night. Hours tick by.
This is program planning.
Or, at least our version of program planning.
It takes weeks to complete and feels like a form of mental gymnastics that would even turn off Simone Biles.
We needed help.
HELP IS THE NEXT DESK OVER
It’s not everyday that we at Spark get to be one of the recipients of a match. But last year I reached out to Spark, that is to say I leaned across my desk and asked Geoff and Lindsey, for help with an issue I was struggling with in my volunteer work at the Friends of Sherbrook Pool (FOSP).
At that time, I was the Board Chair of FOSP as well as a KidSwim Coordinator along with Eden. FOSP is a local nonprofit that is dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and improvement of the Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool as a local facility serving the aquatic recreation, education, social, and fitness needs of the neighbourhood. The cornerstone program of the organization is KidSwim, a free swim lesson program for low-income families living in the area.
The organization and the program has been running since 1992 and has seen thousands of kids progress through their swim levels, learn vital life saving skills, and have some fun. Since the re-opening of the pool in 2017, the KidSwim program has seen an unprecedented amount of interest with the applications outnumbering the available spots at a ratio of 3:1.
Having a successful program doesn’t seem like a challenge, in fact many of you are probably wondering why this was an issue at all. Successful programs are something to celebrate! The thing is, FOSP is a completely volunteer run organization and we were struggling to juggle our day jobs and invest the time it takes to properly run a (growing) program like KidSwim.
We would spend months planning, designing, and executing each KidSwim session and it became increasingly clear that we needed a tool to help save us time. We needed to automate some part of our process.
Yacine Bara has a background in Actuarial Science and met with Spark in 2017 interested in pro bono matches around financial planning. Our request didn’t meet his initial criteria of the type of work he wanted to do, but he was interested in the challenge of building an automated tool that was low cost (i.e. free), accessible on any computer, and would produce a session schedule.
Yacine believed that the right tool was Google Sheets with a built-in algorithm. If successful, all we would have to do is enter the raw data collected from applications and the algorithm would sort the data and produce an optimal session schedule. It was a complex job but Yacine was up for the challenge.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
In order to create the tool Yacine needed information, so he assigned us two pieces of homework. The first piece was to create a workflow chart. He wanted us to map out, in detail, our work process from the initial task of making a registration form through to the very last day of KidSwim. We took advantage of an upcoming session and wrote down every little step we took. Next, he requested dummy data. So over a Christmas break I hunkered down with my laptop and filled out 100 registration forms for 100 Harry Potter characters (I had just finished watching the movies.) Once we completed our assignments he got to work.
Yacine returned with exactly what we needed- a customized Google Sheet that can save us days of work.
The end. Right?
Not so fast.
Although the end result was a success I want to talk to you about the smaller, secondary outcomes of this match. The ones that we and Yacine didn’t intend but were incredibly impactful nonetheless.
So what were our secondary outcomes?
Before we started this match we didn’t have a current ‘how-to’ guide for KidSwim written down. We had data, but lacked documentation that outlined best practices, how to design and process applications, make a schedule, time table, etc. This meant that we were reinvent the wheel each time a new KidSwim session would start.
So when Yacine asked us to map out our work flow what he did was make us create a document that outlined the exact steps of how to create a session that we and future coordinators can follow going forward. This homework also inspired us to document everything KidSwim related- email templates, forms and waivers, signage, equipment lists. You name it, we documented it.
Now any future KidSwim coordinator can open the program file and see how to execute the program from start to finish. Consistency is helpful to coordinators but also incredibly helpful to participants- the processes, rhythms, and communications for the program are now standardized and (hopefully!) easier to understand and navigate.
The second surprise outcome is related to the second piece of homework- the Harry Potter dummy data. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our intake and make the questions we ask clearer and more accessible. Creating 100 fake profiles required us to engage the application process more deeply and root out questions and language that wasn’t working. As a result we added more questions, included places for explanations, added reminders, and deleted some language from our intake forms that proved confusing.
MORE TIME FOR THE FUN STUFF
I’ll miss my dining room walls covered in flipchart paper and the smell of a grape scented marker, but having the additional time to invest in other FOSP programming really benefits the volunteers, programs, and the participants.
I can go on about this match, FOSP, and KidSwim because, despite the time and (sometimes marker related) headaches it produced, I really loved the program. At the start of each session, Eden and I got to go to the pool to welcome the families. We got to meet kids who are excited to be in swimming lessons for the first time. We got to see familiar faces ready to tackle a new swim level. We got to chat with kids and parents in the lobby while their siblings are in the pool. I learned a lot about YouTube personalities.
I loved the program and because of Yacine’s help I and other volunteers now get to spend less time planning and more time on the fun stuff like the first day of KidSwim.
I’m usually on the matchmaking side and tend to focus on a project’s final goal. Whatever it was, and if it was met, indicates if the match was a success. Being on the receiving end made me reflect more deeply on the work, and I discovered that the homework and secondary outcomes were just as (and in some cases more) impactful than the original goal.
So, if you’re an organization I encourage you to think about the potential secondary outcomes of a match because if you are anything like me, the homework your volunteer assigns you might just have some amazing unintended benefits.
If you are nonprofit interested in working with Spark make sure to read this blog post to maximize the benefits of your match. If you are a volunteer interested in pro bono work check out our website.