About Andrea Gao

Andrea is the administration and research assistant at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National.

The Id of Collective Impact

As the first speaker in our Canadian Social Impact Spotlight series, Tonya Surman, founding CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), shared her insights on the role self-interest plays in the journey for solutions to complex social challenges.

As a business graduate, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by her question:

How do we use the power of markets to change the world?

-Tonya Surman

Tonya elaborated on how she has pursued the answer to that question. At a time when we are all looking for new ideas, and how to think differently about systems change, Tonya breaks it down to need, shape and impact, using the Centre for Social Innovation as example:


The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is a response to an identified need: the need for social entrepreneurs to have a space and common place to connect with one another, revealing possible projects and identifying resources or supports to leverage toward impact.


The CSI platform is also a shape, a model that meets this need. Serving 800 social innovation organizations, CSI facilitates and provides services through one single platform. The model – the shape of doing things was created; a platform that addresses the clear need. Shape is about rules and tools, parallel to that of the gaming industry. A culture and platform is created and players are enabled with the same objective, guidelines and accessories to achieve their mission statement – a clear game, a clear shape.


CSI’s impact is realized through supporting a culture of change. CSI has become a learning organization, continuing to work towards creating conditions that best foster social innovation. Their theory of change is communicated through a unique pyramid shape where the foundation is space, the next layer is community and the peak is the emergence of innovation.


Tonya also spoke of a newer endeavour; one that she says reflects her self-interest in building out the CSI platform. CSI’s community bond is an example of another shape. An investment vehicle for unaccredited investors to generate a ~4% return by investing in the purchase of a new building – 192 Spadina. She first offered a bond for CSI Annex.

The bond projects are about leveraging community. What brings community together can be seen as the magnetic attractor, which could be a common threat or an mutual opportunity. It can be seen as a call to action for individuals to work together. When you consider the magnetic attractor, who you work with is no longer determined by you; instead, it is about who sees themselves in the same ecosystem looking to address the same social problem or opportunity.

An example Tonya shared is one that resulted in the banning of BPA in baby bottles in 2007. A group of 11 organizations from childcare, environment and health care found themselves competing for funding from the same foundation. They did not expect the foundation to propose they all work together. This presented profound challenges. Childcare was focused on direct service delivery, environmental organizations were focused on advocacy and health care was obsessed with ensuring the peer review process was on at all times.

They had 6 months to figure it out. At the beginning they discussed all the things that were broken about the partnership. It was about power and ego, futility and frustration.

Why do we want to work together, and what’s in it for us?

Collective impact was only achievable if everyone’s self interest was put on the table leading to transparency within the ecosystem.

The governance model they developed, the constellation, became a new shape. Chaos was put in the top half and order in the bottom, self interest in the top and collective interest in the bottom.


Constellation Governance Model

Constellation Governance Model

Self-interest embodies drive and drive creates movement. So how do we create order around the chaos of collaboration without losing that energy and drive? How can we harness it for social impact?

If you understand the magnetic attractor, you understand where the energy comes from, and you can harness it for impact.

Different shapes designed to aggregate self interest will help us see things differently and enable the engagement of individuals and organizations that would otherwise be unlikely to work together.

There’s so much I could write from the presentation. Better to watch it for yourself. Tonya’s inspirational words are powerful enough to encourage individuals and organizations alike.

Nothing risked and nothing gained is the motto of many entrepreneurs and is the big learning takeaway from Tonya Surman, who has an extensive number of trials and successes. She says that even when she fails, it doesn’t hurt that bad, and often redirects her to a new possibility. What risk teaches us is to be more or differently prepared and to do more work up front. At the end of the day, maintaining great relationships can turn any unsuccessful endeavour around at a later time.

Editor’s Note: Our next Inspiring Action Spotlight features Al Etmanski at MaRS on May 12, 2015. See the details here.

Leaning in to Social Innovation

As the newest member of the SiG team, I am looking at how I can contribute to this space and empower others to do the same. This is my Why time. The Why for social innovation and the people involved can be seen through the rest of the W’s below:

What is social innovation?

In accordance with Frances Westley’s definition, a social innovation profoundly changes the defining routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of a broader social system.

Essentially, a social innovation addresses a complex social problem with an idea focused on getting to the root of the problem, as opposed to temporary relief that only remedies the surface issues. In order to truly disrupt a system, a social innovation must cross social boundaries and reach different people and organizations at different levels.

A traditional approach…

The World Wildlife Foundation, founded in 1961, is dedicated to conserving and restoring the environment. It has over 5 million supporters worldwide and, in 2014, it generated over a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue (WWF-US Annual Report 2014). The WWF brings attention to important issues regarding our planet, and it does so by capturing the attention of individuals and institutions alike. But even with all this activity, environmental conditions continue to decline and the number of endangered species continues to rise.

Transforms to…

C/O The Finance Innovation Lab

C/O The Finance Innovation Lab

Determined to tackle one of the root causes of this continued decline, the WWF-UK joined forces with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) as of 2008, leading to the creation of the Finance Innovation Lab. The unusual collaboration of these two organizations was brought on by their shared desire for a financial system that sustains people and the planet.

This call to action is derived from the shared challenges that every individual, organization or government is faced with — resource constraints, a current economic model that assumes perpetual growth, growing disparity between rich and poor — as well as from the outcomes both organizations strive towards: a system that enables people and the planet to flourish and one that builds resiliency.

At WWF-UK, we perceive finance as a key lever to influence business strategy and corporate supply chains to reduce their threats to the natural world, and to provide financial mechanisms which protect and encourage sustainable ecosystems – WWF-UK

Their big picture is to repurpose finance to have a positive impact in the world. Their work encourages and accepts open discussion about the root causes of issues, and they strive to take a bird’s-eye view across the financial system to identify where they can best make a difference.

Who is involved?

There are different types of social innovators, according to Frances Westley:

Social Entrepreneurs: create innovations and bring them to market through team building.

System Entrepreneurs: find and connect the opportunities to leverage innovative ideas for much greater impact.

Institutional Entrepreneurs: individuals or networks that actively seek to change the broader social system through changing institutions.

The inclusion of the people social innovations are designed to serve is important. A successful ongoing project is Family by Family in South Australia. Families going through a hard time are paired with families who have come through a hard time. Families learn from one another and help each other. It is not a one-stop solution for every family; Family By Family takes into consideration the uniqueness of each case and continues to learn from every participating family how to improve their methodology.


C/O Family By Family

What conditions are needed for social innovation to take place?

Market demand, cultural and social demand, and political demand are complex factors, but can open the way for new ideas for change.

An example of demand-led change is smoking: in the past, smoking in a public place was tolerable, but now if you light up a cigarette you are more likely to receive looks of disapproval.

It is a culture shift and transformation that took decades and may be attributed to the culmination of grassroots initiatives, public service advertising , evidence-based policy, and publicizing the effects of smoking on health.


C/O Lucas Zoltowski

How is THE question…

How do you identify what you can do?

I have been encouraged to discover and build upon my strengths. Asset-based thinking works to develop strengths as opposed to focusing on weaknesses. Depending on who you are, you may find your strengths pulling you in one direction, connecting with others, and supporting or creating an idea.

How do you socially innovate?

Collaborate with others. Change Labs create a physical and intellectual space designed to encourage and facilitate collaboration and the co-creation of meaningful and innovative solutions to complex problems.

Continue learning.

It is a truth ever-increasingly acknowledged: by engaging with the knowledge of others, you better your own understanding. If you are an organization, becoming a learning organization has benefited the most successful institutions in the world.

When a social innovation is successful, it becomes part of the norm, which may lead to the emergence of new problems. As Frances Westley says, social innovation is not a fixed address. Once a social innovation is put in place, it becomes the new system. It is a cyclical process – a never-ending infinity loop – a continuous who, what, when, where and why to ask.

I have come to learn there is no step-by-step approach to creating, implementing and following through with socially innovative ideas, because that is the nature of these problems and solutions – they are embedded in institutions, complex, chaotic, and ever-changing. I look forward to learning so much more this year, deepening my understanding, satiating my curiosity and exploring what’s possible. As with social innovation, I too am not fixed, but constantly growing and evolving. What an adventure!

Puzzle Pieces

C/O Ken Teegardin

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