Posts Tagged ‘systems change’

Building Innovators for Social Impact

By Vanessa Faloye, Social Impact Education Consultant

NOTE: This article was originally published on Whatamission and has been cross-posted with permission of the author.

There is much debate as to how social impact education can up the ante in building social innovators. (For an expert and very insightful cross-examination of this ongoing debate, check out The Stanford Social Innovation Review: The Future of Social Impact Education in Business Schools and Beyond). But for the sake of bringing something new to this discussion, first let’s reverse engineer this question of how to build innovators for social impact? What exactly does it actually mean to be an innovator? What does an innovator look like, think like, and feel like? Perhaps you instantly imagine the typically young, white founding fathers of some trendy startup named Airbnb, Uber, or Bla Bla Car? In fact, you probably don’t think of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement who created one of the earliest carpooling systems during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (where black people refused to ride on segregated buses and therefore had to find other forms of transport).

Innovation always seems so shiny and new but to be an innovator is to be a rule breaker; someone who seeks new opportunities to push the boundaries and has the guts to not take no for an answer. An innovator is a risk-taker who disrupts the status quo despite a wall of resistance or a lack of readiness to think outside that box we are so often reminded of. Not everyone is an innovator but for those who are, it can be a long lonely road full of doubt, frustration, and rejection.

So how can we help these forward-thinkers, anti-bandwagoners, and anomalies to threaten our old and comfortable habits with weird and wonderfully new ideas in the spirit of social innovation?


The future of SiG: Social Innovation at an Inflection Point

As Social Innovation Generation (SiG) transitions from its current status as a largely McConnell-funded initiative, social innovation’s future trajectory is promising, but uncertain. What are your thoughts?

A decade ago, Social Innovation Generation (SiG) was launched as a partnership among McConnell, the PLAN Institute, the University of Waterloo and MaRS Discovery District, with the objective of stimulating continuous innovation in Canada’s social sector.

SiG’s logo — an image of seeds being scattered from a flowerhead — aptly describes its role as an ecosystem builder. Today, while refraining from taking any direct credit, SiG’s impact is observable in the growth of impact investing, the spread of social innovation programs in universities, the emergence of Indigenous innovation, in the mandate letters of several federal ministers, and in the evolution of Canadian philanthropy.

In short, mission accomplished. But is this the end of the story? As SiG Executive Director Tim Draimin’s blog makes clear, social innovation is a crowded field, with people and organizations in multiple sectors of society applying its principles and practices to a wide range of issues. And so, we ask, what is still to be done? Who will lead in ensuring that social innovation continues to flourish, and that Canada continues to contribute and connect to the emerging global network of policy makers and practitioners working on systemic change using social innovation approaches?

To help us answer these questions, we are mapping the social innovation landscape in Canada — both to set an agenda for SiG’s work until the end of the year, and to inform what may follow. We invite you to take part, by reading Tim’s reflections, and taking fifteen minutes to fill out the accompanying survey.

Thank you. We look forward to sharing the results, and to the discussions that will ensue.

– Stephen Huddart


SiG was only a twinkle in instigator Tim Brodhead’s eye in the mid-noughties. By 2007, SiG was born as a partnership composed of a charitable foundation (The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation), a business-sector-spawned urban innovation hub and convergence centre (MaRS), a university (Waterloo), and a serially innovative non-profit (PLAN Institute). SiG National emerged in 2008 in response to a recognized need for a backbone office, which was documented after the fact in the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s 2014 Evaluation Roundtable report.

What was the Challenge Prompting SiG’s Birth?

The catalyst for SiG was leadership in the McConnell Foundation sharing the frustration of the broader community that proven social impact innovations they and others funded were having a challenging time scaling. Too many entrenched systems didn’t like accommodating change. And Canada lacked enabling programs and services to add booster rockets to each social innovation’s liftoff.

The original SiG idea was that a diverse group of partners could directly create the conditions for scale by fostering or encouraging institutions and governments to develop the missing or nascent elements of a robust social innovation ecosystem: the mindset, resources, partnerships, curricula, platforms and strategies needed for social innovations to scale, endure, and have impact.

These partners integrate funders, innovators, academic researcher/teachers, MaRS’ civic-minded business leaders and governments. Each SiG institutional node made individual contributions, while concurrently collaborating as a team to be more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts and produce impact that would not be possible as individual actors. SiG National was created to be the vital backbone to enable collaborative impact for activities as diverse as the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, communications and narrative building, policy support and connecting the dots on national and global network building.

In order to encourage new players to enter the field, the SiG partnership was conceived as an unincorporated initiative with a sunset clause. Originally funded for 5 years, SiG has been extended twice, with a broad range of partners (foundations, governments and corporates) joining McConnell in investing in activities it spawned. Legacy assets catalyzed with many partners over the decade range from:

  • field building for social finance (e.g. MaRS Centre for Impact Investing)
  • post-secondary courses and certificates in social innovation
  • research contributions on decoding the genome of social innovation and its definition
  • support for integrated social entrepreneurship education (e.g. RECODE, Studio Y, etc)
  • enhancing policy receptivity and cross-sector regional networks
  • broadening Canada’s participation in a growing and dynamic global social innovation community of practice
  • contributing to new grant-maker approaches, competencies and traits helping shape new narratives for how civil society can impactfully initiate and co-create large scale social change.


Collaborative Practice: From Evolution to Revolution

By Paul McArthur

Picture yourself in a large hotel conference room, wearing your best ‘dress casual’ attire and sporting a lanyard proudly displaying your name and organization to the hundred or so fellow conference attendees. Like most people here, you travelled far and took time away from work in the hopes of developing new knowledge, insights, and connections to advance your work to make the world a better place. In the afternoon workshop, an important theme emerges: the key actors in the system are operating in ‘silos’ and missing opportunities for synergistic, collective impacts. Inspired by this insight, your workshop team frantically scribbles notes on a flipchart and report back to the larger group: “Working in silos is leading us to approach this challenge inefficiently, ineffectively, and is leaving large gaps for those most in need!” Your report back is received with energetic applause and is affirmed by other participants. After some closing remarks, the conference comes to and end, and you begin your journey back home.

As you return to work the next week, you begin to tackle the mountain of tasks you’ve been putting off while at the conference. You wonder “what will happen to all those great insights we wrote on that flipchart? No time to follow up now, off to the next meeting”. Two weeks later, you have the same reflection and come to this realization: you, a self-described champion of collaboration, have returned to YOUR silo, as have many other champions of change that attended the conference.


Is our playbook out of date?

by Vinod Rajasekaran



Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges — ranging from mental health, Indigenous communities’ access to quality education, and a lack of affordable housing — demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimental and replicating approaches so people can access the best possible services, supports and solutions, no matter where they live in Canada.


This is where R&D comes in.


Canada’s not-for-profit, charitable, B Corp, and social enterprise organizations have built strong capabilities in volunteer management, donor stewardship, and program delivery, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that social change in the 21st century requires an additional strong capacity and capability in research and development, or R&D.

Just as R&D in the business world drives new and improved products and services, R&D can also help social mission organizations generate significant and rapid advancements in services and solutions that change lives. However, currently only a small proportion of social mission organizations repeatedly incorporate a wide range of new knowledge (like insights into how the brain works and how positive behaviours can be encouraged) or new technologies (like machine learning) or new processes (like human centred design).   (more…)

Major step for social enterprise in Canada: Federal Government launches social enterprise directory

Guest blog by David LePage, Principal, Accelerating Social Impact CCC:ASI. This post originally appeared on the Accelerating Social Impact CCC website. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.

With little fanfare the Federal government has taken a major step forward in supporting the social enterprise sector – providing clarity on a definition and supporting the development of a national directory.

The directory defines social enterprise as “an enterprise that seeks to achieve social, cultural or environmental aims through the sale of goods and services. The social enterprise can be for-profit or not-for-profit but the majority of net profits must be directed to a social objective with limited distribution to shareholders and owners.”


The Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development’s definition is clearly signalling that from their perspective a social enterprise has to blend a community impact and insure the majority of profits are also reinvested in community. Rather than looking at a corporate structure, they have opted for a performance based model, which allows several different corporate forms to be included – if the purpose and the structure both align with and meet this definition.

social enterprise


An Emerging Community of Practice for Canadian Social Innovation Labs

Darcy Riddell_Blog Author EN

We are living at a time where some individuals seem to have tremendous influence over political events, media narratives, and even global philanthropic agendas. However, we know that individuals acting alone – no matter how powerful or charismatic they may be – cannot address the complexity of current social and ecological problems. Our long-term challenges call for comprehensive and collaborative work across sectors, because they are deeply rooted in cultural values, encoded in our institutions, and re-enacted each day through the behaviour of countless people. In the face of their systemic nature, it can be hard to know where to engage on social problems, or how to adapt when change efforts aren’t working.


Photo credit: Social Innovation Generation

Social Innovation labs offer one promising entry point for collaborative work aimed at the roots of wicked social problems. At their heart, labs offer a structure to use where no one institution or sector can solve a complex challenge alone, and where no single solution or intervention is likely to work. Labs provide a container for ongoing experimentation and learning – so new insights and interventions can be developed, and great ideas from elsewhere can be tested and adapted. When undertaken with the discipline and commitment to achieve implementation, labs can extend their impact to a system level.

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has been funding and supporting a growing community of labs in Canada for several years (since 2012). Earlier this summer, we convened a group of lab practitioners from The Natural Step’s Energy Futures Lab, l’Institut du Nouveau Monde’s Labis, MaRS Solutions Lab, and WellAhead along with staff, to harvest lessons learned from diverse lab efforts across Canada. These labs work on issues including the acceleration of Alberta’s economic transition away from fossil fuels, the shift to sustainable food systems, the need to connect health issues to social determinants such as access to housing, and proactive approaches to stem the increase of mental health challenges in children.


Introducing Solutions Finance: A New Vision for Our Work

SF for newsletter

Erica Blog Author_ENBy Stephen Huddart and Erica Barbosa VargasStephen-Huddart-author

In the coming weeks, the Foundation is rolling out several new resources on Solutions Finance: a series of white papers and related case studies, illustrating some of what we’ve learned over the last decade from our successes—and failures—in deploying capital for systems change. The first white paper is available today. We hope these resources will be useful to a growing community interested in financial innovation for positive social and environmental impact.

Until recently, we did not talk about Solutions Finance. The new term requires a bit of unpacking.

Social Finance refers to financial instruments that generate social and environmental impact alongside financial returns. It is a term widely recognized in the field and the umbrella term we have been using to describe the Foundation’s market-building and impact investing activities. However, as our experience and practice expand, we see that the promise of this work goes beyond investments with blended returns.

Successful systems innovation requires adequate resourcing, and calls for different forms of capital allocation across the multiple stages of design and implementation. To make this happen in the context of our work, we’re advocating for — and adopting as our own practice — an integrated approach to deploying financial capital and adapting financial models to catalyze, sustain and scale systems transformation. In other words, Solutions Finance. This approach includes, but is more than, continuing to grow an investment portfolio with the expectation of a financial return as well as a positive social or environmental impact.


How Canada leads the way in charity data


Guest blog by Michael Lenczner, Founding Director of Powered by Data. This blog was originally published on the Powered by Data website. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.




Let’s take a moment to do something thoroughly un-Canadian: brag about Canada.


The GovLab recently launched a new report, having scoured the world for the best examples they could find of open data’s positive impacts. The first edition includes a dozen case studies, and one of them hails from the great white north.

The GovLab report zeroed in on how Canada publishes financial data about charities, which is collected using the T3010 form. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts at Powered by Data since we began as a side project of Ajah, which got its start working with the T3010 dataset.

What’s so special about Canada’s approach to charitable sector data? Three things stand out:


#1: Canada’s data is machine-readable.

As the GovLab review points out, the T3010 is broadly similar to the 990 form that charities file in the United States. But our neighbours to the south lag far behind us in terms of making this data accessible.


Lessons From the Sandbox

By Jakob Wildman-Sisk, Social Lab Manager, UNB’s Pond-Deshpande Centre and Chad Lubelsky, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. This blog was originally published on the RECODE website. It was republished here with the author’s permission. 


Building an entrepreneurship ecosystem is a tall order. Yet in nine years, the community of Hubballi, India has been transformed through exciting investments in education, innovation, and collaboration. What can we learn from them?


The Deshpande Foundation creates entrepreneurship ecosystems by supporting and harnessing the power of financial capital and educational opportunities. In doing so, they hope to lay the groundwork for more robust and sustainable communities.

Deshpande Centre1

Deshpande calls this support work building “sandboxes.” These sandboxes have expanded to New Brunswick and Massachusetts, however, they found their start, and their inspiration, in Hubballi, India. Recognizing that building ecosystems is difficult work, and in the spirit of continual learning and improvement, Deshpande hosts an annual Development Dialogue at its Hubballi sandbox.


INNOVATING INNOVATION: Connecting technological, business and social innovation

Tim Blog Author


We have reached a watershed moment.

After a century of robust development of technological and business innovation, plus several decades of cracking the code of social innovation, the time has come to create an integrated innovation system.

Innovation has long been recognized as necessary for a nation’s economic and business success. But citizens have relied on a trickle down approach for the benefits from technological and business innovation to trigger broad societal well-being. Unfortunately today’s social, ecological and economic problems – ranging from preventable chronic disease to social exclusion to youth unemployment to climate change – are escalating in scale, severity and urgency. They won’t wait for laissez-faire innovation.

Society’s needs and innovation’s benefits can be more directly connected and aligned. The opportunity of the 21st century is to harness the combined power of social innovation and mainstream (technological and business) innovation.


Mainstream innovation is an advanced ecosystem of technological, business, financial and human resources wired to produce efficiencies, profit and, increasingly, disruption. Social innovation works primarily at the margins to take on the most pressing social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. Social innovation responds to gaping tears in our social fabric made more visible as aging systems fall behind or fail to use new tools like behavioural economics, human-centred design, collective intelligence, and both open and big data.

The urgent call is to steward a new collaborative mindset and approach. One that integrates today’s tools and technologies with new knowledge emerging from across all sectors on innovation, social behavior, social capital, collaboration and networks.  We need an innovation system driven by a new integrated innovation paradigm and a solutions-oriented economy.



The OECD reports that “[i]n 2014, OECD countries devoted more than one-fifth of their economic resources to public social support”.  It is estimated that 17% of Canada’s GDP, or $338 billion, is spent on social outcomes. In the US, that figure is closer to 19.2% of GDP or $3.4 trillion USD and in Spain, it is higher still, at 26.2% of GDP.