Al Etmanski

About Al Etmanski

Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is an Ashoka fellow and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute. He is founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact and co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). He blogs at His new book, Impact-Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation is already a Canadian best seller.

My Challenge with Introducing Social Innovation to Indigenous Communities

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 12, 2015 on Al Etmanski‘s blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

A remarkable event is taking place in Winnipeg next week – Canada’s first ever Indigenous Innovation Summit.

Signing of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement by Chief Reynold Russ. Photo by Rolf Bettner

Signing of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement by Chief Reynold Russ. Photo by Rolf Bettner

I wasn’t certain whether I should accept the offer to participate. What could I say that would make a difference? Everything I’ve ever read about social innovation I’ve found alive and thriving in Indigenous communities. And Indigenous people hadn’t read the material! For example, consider the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. The Haida Nation grasped paradox and created something both magnificent and practical out of a seemingly unresolvable stalemate. The agreement acknowledges that the Council of Haida Nations and the Government of Canada share equal decision-making power to manage Gwaii Haanas National Reserve, despite conflicting views on sovereignty. This is sheer lobbying virtuosity resulting in the unimaginable. It is easy to understand why the agreement is studied by Aboriginal people all around the world.

I had a second fear. Social innovation technologies are still new and largely untested. And like all technologies they are embedded with the values of the dominant culture. That’s the same culture, which introduced and scaled residential schools and other tools of cultural destruction. I’m part of that culture. I’m sure there were many people like me at the time who thought they were doing the right thing by pursuing a policy of assimilation.

Gwaii Haanas National Park. Photo by: Parks Canada / Andrew Wright

Gwaii Haanas National Park. Photo by: Parks Canada / Andrew Wright

Then I realized I was looking at this event through the fog of my cultural bias. If any group of people knows how to evaluate the usefulness of any tool, technology or methodology, Indigenous people do. You don’t find paths back from the brink of cultural extinction without being wary of social innovators like me who are bearing gifts.

It slowly dawned on me. The reason to attend is not to contribute. It’s to receive. There is a heritage of aboriginal innovation and resilience that defines us as Canadians. “Innovation,” as the conference organizers declare, “is an Indigenous value.” The early settlers depended on it.

Today’s Indigenous change-makers are a dynamic mix of this heritage blended with cultural practices, ingenuity, strategic vision, entrepreneurship and reconciliation. And still they extend the hand of partnership despite how we have dishonoured and exploited their hospitality in the past.

The future of all our children depends on the leadership of Indigenous Canadians. And on folks like me stepping back and listening.

For information and tickets to the first Indigenous Innovation Summit, November 18-20th, in Winnipeg, click here.



“It’s not the truth unless everyone wins.”

– Cindy Boyko, Council of Haida Nation representative administering Gwaii Haanas Agreement

Have a listen to the music of Billy Joe Green a stalwart of Winnipeg’s music scene since the 1960’s and an elder of Canadian blues music. Listen here to Sharing Circle – Red Man’s Blues. 

Also check out Brown Town Muddy Water a new documentary about Winnipeg’s early indigenous music explosion. It’s produced by Jesse Green, Billy Joe’s son.

Becoming a Wise Traveller

Are you like me? Do you feel frustrated by the limited impact you and others have had? Do you feel that despite your best efforts, and indeed successes, you have hit a brick wall?

You may have mounted a fierce advocacy campaign, pioneered a social program, mobilized new funds or even changed a law, but the status quo has barely altered. Social and economic justice hasn’t increased. Power hasn’t shifted. The old paradigm survives. And the sharp, distinctive edges of your social innovation are in danger of being eroded, isolated or forgotten.

Credit: Jim Lawrence

Credit: Jim Lawrence

In my experience, lasting impact requires more than coming up with a new idea and proving that it works. It’s more than replicating an innovation in several places.

Novelty isn’t enough. Neither are dedication, hard work, or loyal supporters. Nor is a sophisticated strategy, money, or the most robust application of the latest technology, for that matter.

Are these things essential? Yes.
A good start? Certainly.
But they are not enough to tip a system.

Just because you have a shiny new solution, the world will not beat a path to your door. Enduring social innovation doesn’t spread by accident. We need to deliberately nurture the conditions in which it can flourish.

One of these conditions is to become a wise traveller.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid.  Photo: Bill McLennan.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe by Bill Reid. Photo: Bill McLennan.

In my new book, Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation, I suggest three types of social innovators – disruptive, bridging and receptive – are required to achieve long-term impact. While each group has its own set of skills, strengths and limitations, they all have one thing in common: they understand the boundaries of their expertise and experience and welcome fellow travellers from organizations and institutions that have complementary skills.

Disruptive innovators are inspired by love and motivated by necessity. They challenge the prevailing way of doing things and shake the lethargy off the status quo. They wrestle a big idea to the ground. And yet, even when they prove that the idea works, it does not easily become the new standard. It can be ignored or misunderstood and may even be perceived as a threat to the system.

It is not easy to move from the margins to the mainstream. That’s why we need bridging innovators. Bridging innovators spot the big ideas surfaced by disruptive innovators. They leverage their connections, reputations and resources to make sure the potential is realized. They translate and interpret the value of a disruptive innovation to the system. Bridging innovators are the necessary link between disruptive innovators and receptive innovators.

Receptive innovators are key to implementing big ideas and spreading solutions far and wide. They have an insider’s knowledge of the key levers to advance an issue within a system. They know the formal and informal channels inside bureaucracy and who the key players are. They are navigators, steering the innovation so that
 it may flourish and become the new standard.

Credit: Komal Minhas for Komedia

The three types of social innovators. Credit: Komal Minhas for Komedia

Wise travellers know they can only go so far on their own. They respect the roles and functions of each type of innovator. They know that social innovations not only emerge from relationships, but also thrive and endure in relationships.


Join Social Innovation Generation, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Innoweave on March 12 at 1pm EST for a webinar and in-depth discussion with Al Etmanski on his new book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.

Register here

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Download the Introduction to IMPACT: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.

Register here to be notified when you can purchase, IMPACT: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.


Continue the #impact6 conversation with @aletmanski

The Social Innovator’s Journey

BC Ideas Guest Blogger, Al Etmanski, is an author, blogger ( and social entrepreneur specializing in innovative, multi-sector solutions to complex societal challenges. Al is also Director of  SiG@PLAN. BC Ideas launched today and this blog is reposted with their permission.

Photo Credit: robin_24

Then, when he had flown a while longer,

Something brightened toward the north,

It caught his eye, they say.

And then he flew right up against it.

He pushed his mind through

And pulled his body after.

These words by Skaay, an oral poet from Haida Gwaii whom many consider British Columbia’s Shakespeare, describe the start of the social innovator’s journey.
[Read more…]

BC’s Advisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship Releases Interim Report

The following post was first published by Al Etmanski on November 27, 2011

Together: Respecting the Future is now on-line.

You can access and comment on the draft report using Google Docs. To download a full copy of the Draft Recommendations click here.

This draft report represents the current thinking of members of the BC Government’s Advisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship on how best to address our province’s tough social challenges now and in the future.  We have chosen Bill Reid’s Spirit Canoe as our enabling metaphor.  This mythical canoe which is on the back of every twenty dollar bill holds a variety of diverse occupants, not always in harmony, who have to work together to navigate the challenges of their environment.
[Read more…]

Future Quotient – Loving Future Generations

The following post was first published by At Etmanski on his blog on November 1st, 2011.

200 Japanese pensioners volunteered to begin the cleanup of the Fukushima power plant earlier this year. The self-proclaimed ‘Skilled Veterans Corp,’ asserted that they, not younger people, should risk radiation because, “they are more likely to die of natural causes before the cancers take hold.”

This example jumped out as a loving illustration of future thinking in, Future Quotient, a report just released by Volans a leading UK consultancy, think tank and innovation lab and JWT. Authored by John Elkington, Alastair Morton and Charmian Love (a talented young Canadian many of us hope to some day lure back to Canada), Future Quotient is designed to stimulate thinking in advance of of the 2012’s UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio.

The report’s implications are broader.
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Social Innovation – Doing More With More

The following post was first published on Al Etmanski’s blog, posted 6 April 2011.

The phrase social innovation is surfacing everywhere.  The European Union has just launched Social Innovation Europe.  The UK has multiple initiatives around social innovation. President Obama has an Office of  Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The Canadian Government has established awards for social innovation.  The British Columbia Government has created anAdvisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship, “to maximize social innovation.”
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Fighting the Crime of Poverty: The Life Work of Dr. Fred MacKinnon

The following entry is an excerpt from Al Etmanski’s blog, posted 22 February 2011.

“The sad and unfortunate fact is that we continue to view poverty as the fault of the individual and ignore the social and economic systems and mechanisms that are so often responsible for it.” FR MacKinnon

Fred MacKinnon served as a Nova Scotia public servant and poverty fighter from the 1940’s to 1990’s.  He retired after 55 years of public service in 1995 at the age of 83.
[Read more…]