Opening Pandora’s Evaluation Box

“Revolutions in science have often been preceded by revolutions in measurement.” Based on the premise from Sinan Aral of the MIT Sloan School of Management

Jason Saul presented to a full-house as part of the MaRS Global Leaders series in April 2016 on his latest venture – the Impact Genome Project (IGP). A public-private partnership to code and quantify the “genes” of what works in social science. The audio of the presentation can be found below.

If you spend 5 minutes in the social impact sector you are sure to be asked, how do you know you are making a difference?

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Jason Saul and Nolan Gasser present the Impact Genome Project at the Skoll Forum in 2014

Jason and his colleagues at Mission Measurement have been tackling this question by taking us from the current state: we are spending $400 billion to achieve social outcomes without any standard way to accurately measure ROI; the evaluation industry is in disarray; evidence is unstructured and unintelligible; and yet evidence is growing exponentially – it is just not readily accessible. We have no common language; no benchmarks that allows us to compare social programs; and ultimately no predictive data meaning we can’t forecast before we invest. This is what Mission Measurement calls the black box problem.

Yet other sectors have predictive data and use it to increase their impact: think credit scores, the human genome or even Netflix. The music industry has cracked this code with Pandora and their Music Genome Project, the original inspiration for the Impact Genome Project. Jason approached Nolan Gasser, the architect of the Music Genome Project, and together they embarked on a journey of discovery asking one question:  Can we not do for social programs what Pandora did for music?

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You can watch a short documentary on the story of Pandora and Nolan Gasser on FiveThirtyEight

As it stands the Impact Genome Project comprises 11 total genomes: education; economic development; public health; youth development; international development; human services; criminal justice; sustainability & environment; science & technology; arts; and culture & identity. With 132 common outcomes. The goal of IGP is to produce new benchmarks such as efficacy rate; expected outcomes; and cost per outcome. It is an open data project with advanced analytics available via subscription.

The IGP intends to create a more level playing field by:

  • Democratizing evaluation
  • Replacing guessing with data
  • Learning systematically across the sector
  • Unleashing innovation and creating twice the impact with half the cost

It is an audacious goal and yet the future is here. The UK government is already moving to pay for outcomes and have created a What Works Centres, a network of centres to “support more effective and efficient services across the public sector at national and local levels.” Our own governments are not far behind with the Centre of Excellence for Evidence-based Decision Making Support at the Government of Ontario, which was part of Minister Deb Matthews’ mandate letter.

The UK government released a report in 2014 providing an overview of the What Works Centres.

The UK government released a report in 2014 providing an overview of the What Works Centres.

Why Canada? We have supportive genetic infrastructure:

  • Un-entrenched philanthropic institutions
  • Integrated and collaborative philanthropic sector
  • Government prioritizing evidence and value for money
  • Institutions willing to lead
  • Access to top talent/academic institutions
  • Systems-thinking expertise

We are interested in what you think. Does this seem like a way to get ahead of the inevitable move to pay for outcomes? Can we work with funders to make this approach the standard, not the only way forward but one that is “directionally correct”? What are your concerns, if any?

Please let us know and help us determine how we can get to a better place around demonstrating our impact in a world that needs us to use all our talents to tackling our complex challenges.

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What I Learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

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It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

Alberta has a rich tradition of social innovation. It is the province of the Famous Five, who secured women legal recognition as ‘persons’ in Canada, leading to a radical shift in our social relationships and in Canadian jurisprudence. It is the only province where the Métis have a legislated land base, with the goals “to secure a Métis land base for future generations, local autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency” (Source: Alberta Indigenous Relations). And it was the first province to develop a formal interface for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues directly with government officials – the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative.

Alberta has consistently been the home of key justice and equality movements, from the United Farmers of Alberta to the Pembina Institute.

What is common to all of these milestones? Each transforms a critical relationship, introducing a new status quo that advances, in some way, inclusion, openness and deeper collaboration.

Author Thomas King (and a former professor of Native Studies at University of Lethbridge) writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories, 2003). The stories we tell about ourselves matter; they inform how we see, show up and act in our daily lives. The Fellows amplified Alberta’s story as a leader in doing what it takes for community well being and equality, shedding light on an inspiring legacy of operating at the radical edge of innovation.

It is time to raise a barn together.

While there is this rich history of social innovation in Alberta, one contemporary pattern the Fellows surfaced was in the opposite direction. Today, the social impact ecosystem celebrates and rewards individualism over collective action. There has been a shift toward communities of heroes, rather than heroic communities. Short time horizons for results and a focus on individual agency undercuts an otherwise deep interest in collaborative action and isolates successful initiatives embodying this approach.

Listen to speak.

When the Fellows began their journey last summer, social innovation was a vexed concept in Alberta, specifically in Calgary and Edmonton, where their efforts were concentrated. Some folks considered it a critical new process to advance long sought social change, others considered it an empty fad, others still saw evidence of neoliberalism in the approach, and yet others felt it was either a useful or obnoxious term to describe the kind of breakthrough work they had already been dedicated to for years.

The Fellows started from a place of deep listening, inviting each person they spoke with to share what they thought the value, definition, and possibility of social innovation is. In doing so, the Fellows killed two birds with one stone: they discovered that there is a common direction that people want to walk together  (toward solving root causes) and, by listening and resourcing, they empowered the work of a diverse array of actors in both their current work and towards that common direction.

The Fellows learned that it absolutely matters to have a shared story, but that story must be accessible, inclusive, inspiring and democratic. Here is how I heard it: our common ground is in our deep dedication to aligning our social change efforts with our fundamental intent. If the goal is to solve something, then we focus on solving it. If the goal is to change the status quo, then we reimagine it. There is a growing movement of processes, models, approaches and shared learning that will help us align intent with action, whether we must invent, innovate, adapt, adopt or collaborate to get there.

Social innovation is the stuff of culture.

With little or no preconceptions of what they would be sharing back with community at the end of their term, the patterns and opportunities the Fellows identified through emergent learning all relate to the cultural elements shaping how and why we seek to forge solutions to our most complex challenges.

What they heard and learned strikes at the heart of how we think about, enact and vision impactful social change. What we call it matters less than identifying the systemic patterns shaping how we go about it and working to break the patterns holding us from our core intent.

Like any journey without a map – and solving complex social and ecological problems is as far from having a map as possible – we must constantly check-in on our direction and our path, referencing the changing landscape, the local know-how, resonant examples, our experiences, the experiences and stories of others, and our own courage to try a path untested. With an appreciation that we alone do not have the answers, but the answers are out there, we can make a concerted effort to contribute to their collective creation.

Thank you to the Fellows for leading and inspiring a unique inquiry, learning journey and community. Thank you all – especially the funding partnershostsadvisors and contributors - for your time, contribution, support, insights and partnership. The journey continues with the Fellows’ insights offering pathways forward and a true shock of the possible.
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Cracking the Code of Internships

When my mother was just a little younger than me, she got a job by asking the receptionist in the lobby of a company if they were hiring. She didn’t just get the job but she also managed to get some of her friends interviews as well.

My job search after graduation was more complicated, which is the story for many new graduates. Competition is fierce with many entry level positions receiving a hundred+ applications. Social Innovation Generation at the MaRS Discovery District (SiG@MaRS) recently advertised for a summer internship and received 276 formal applications and about dozen more sent in offline. This number is not surprising. More and more young professionals are looking for jobs that more closely align with their values and create impact, so this unique position was expected to attract a wide range of talent. Given the size of the applicant pool, I was asked to assist in the selection process. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those applicants, so I was excited by the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table in the hiring process. Reflecting on this experience I’d like to share some tips on what I’ve learned on how to approach a job search.

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider's Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider’s Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

1. The job posting is your best friend, but it is needs to be decoded

A good job post will tell you exactly what the company/organization hiring is looking for, what the role entails, and what you will need in order to be successful. Not every job posting will tell you all of this, particularly what specific projects you’ll be working on (i.e. where you could really have added-value), but the Summer Associate posting for SiG@MaRS had all these elements. A lot of applicants ignored the clues, but those who decoded the job posting and made modifications to their application really stood out. With 276+ applications, many of whom had similar qualifications, this is the way to differentiate yourself. I heard once that the best way to prepare your application was to jot down all the skills that the job posting lists in one column and in a separate column list the skills you have that match those required.  I had originally dismissed this advice, but this exercise could help you clarify the skills you have and those you are lacking.

 2. Think of your application as a road map

Young people are eager to prove themselves to employers so they list everything they have done to show just how capable they are (I may or may not, have followed that school of thought once upon a time). We had very impressive young people apply for the position, but with 276+ applications it becomes a question of highlighting the relevant skills – not all of them. At the start of this process I became overwhelmed by how time consuming looking at an entire application was, but after a quick crash course on recruitment I learned what I have always suspected – most cover letters aren’t read. Your resume is your first impression to show you are qualified. You cover letter is an opportunity to prove your first impression right and should show that all roads lead to hiring you. Now, I understand that you don’t always have all the experience needed but make the best case you can. That is what any job application boils down to.

 3. It’s not personal

Job searching can feel like an inherently intimate and personal activity. You become attached to the possibility of a job you know you could be great in. However, whether it’s because they nailed the interview, but were not the strongest candidate, or because they were very qualified, but were challenged in their interview – everyone has been disappointed at one point or another. If you are not successful, remember two things:

  • There will be other jobs. Wherever you land, remember that every job has something to offer, and the skills you learn will help you land another job in the future.

  • The selection process is full of variables you can’t control. What the team is like, what your boss is like, how much time they have to provide guidance, the skills the previous employee had. Focus on what you can control, remember the skills you lacked and be intentional in future opportunities.

4. Be intentional and value your skills

provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

RECODE is a program by the J.W. Family Foundation that provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

Looking for a job following graduation is a nerve-wracking experience but every job has something to teach you, and who you work with matters just as much as what you will be doing. You can start as an assistant, but with a true mentor by your side you won’t be an assistant for long. Similarly, you can land a great job but with limited mentorship it may be a negative experience limiting your ability to accomplish your objectives. Don’t just find a position where you would like to invest your time, find a position where they will invest their time and resources in you as well. logo55

If you are trying to break into a new field there are plenty of ways you can learn new skills, make new connections, and stand out. Some good examples of this would be volunteering at conferences to learn about the field and network, but you can pursue other strategies like writing about what interests you. Many places like socialfinance.ca and the RECODE blog accept submissions from students.

5. It’s not personal, but being interpersonal makes a big difference

One of the best investments you can make with your time is building relationships. The world is a small place and the world of social innovation is even smaller. When it comes time to look for an internship, tapping into these relationships will be the best way to find out who is hiring and even possibly getting a recommendation from someone on the inside. If you aren’t chosen for a position allow some time to pass and then reach out to the organization. Don’t necessarily ask for specific feedback, but ask to learn more about the organization. Making a contact will be far more useful in the long term. Your curiosity, engagement, and maturity is worth being remembered for.

Allyson Hewitt, the Senior Fellow in Social Innovation @MaRS, who helped lead the hiring process with me, also offers a few words of advice:

  1. Please send a cover letter with your application and clearly address the requirements outlined in the job posting. You need to make it easy for the screener to match your skills to those needed for the position. Start off by indicating why this position is of interest to you.

  2. Customize your resume based on the job posting and even if you don’t have an extensive employment history, indicate a few things you have learned at school that directly relate to the position. For example, I participated in a social enterprise competition and learned the value of getting market intelligence to back up my idea.

  3. Keep everything short: one-page cover letter, two-page resume. 

  4. Many people have great education, lots of you have great international experience, and it is really amazing to see how you juggle your course work alongside a part time job and extra-curricular activities. Indicate clearly how you prioritize all that you do.

  5. In a job like ours, highlighting your volunteer experience is important. Don’t minimize that experience and ideally indicate what you learned from volunteering.

  6. Finally, take your time when applying. Check for typos, especially the name of the company/ organization you are applying to. Ours is hard – MaRS Discovery District. Very few people got the spelling right with the right upper and lower cases but it makes a difference. It shows your attention to detail and that you really care about the place you are applying to.

Overall, Allyson and I were deeply impressed by the quality of the applications we received and we are very hopeful for the future of social purpose work in this country. If I can leave you with some lasting words, it’s that I interviewed back for a position at SiG National over a year ago, and I wasn’t the chosen candidate. I was gutted because I gave one of my best interviews yet. But I moved on, to get more experience, to look for the next opportunity – hoping I’d be successful next time. When a new position opened up 6 months later, I was invited back there to work.

Here are some resources that can help you find your way:

Careers at MaRS DD

Charity Village

C[ONN]ECT NonProfit Jobs

BMeaningful

Centre for Social Innovation Jobs Board

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Nesting Social Innovation

“What does social innovation mean?”
“Is my work called social innovation?”
“Is that social innovation?”

These types of questions are asked all the time, showing that definitions for promising ideas can be very useful, but also alienating. Too often, they come across as a value judgment, privileging some ideas and actions over others. But what if it’s not really a competition? More than any one individual piece of work, it might be even more important to consider the relationships between them. There is something about the interconnections between intention, involvement, invention and innovation that are central to social innovation.

Intention: it’s sparked by a moment in time when people become more consciously aware of a problem in a way that there’s no turning back from. They are changed and, as individuals, they now genuinely care about something that is broken in the world. They develop a deep intention; they care – and they sincerely want change to happen.

That intention often leads to new levels of engagement; their growing awareness and emotional connection wants to be translated into action and they feel compelled to DO something. Doing can take a lot of forms – learning more, giving money, volunteering, working in the problem domain. Whatever first (and next) steps mean to them, they move into involvement; they are actively helping change to happen.

To some extent, they are now part of the field, part of working for change, and some will get involved enough to develop more knowledge and experience in this realm. This allows them to creatively experiment with new ways of addressing problems. They are excited by invention; they can now imagine and act on radically different ideas for change.

Eventually, a number of these creative, adaptive entrepreneurs, either individuals or organizations, come to realize that even with some success, the fundamental brokenness that caught their attention in the first place, still lingers – the problem has barely changed at all. It becomes clear that their work is critically important, but alone, it is not enough. And, if possible, they turn their attention to whatever bigger picture elements appear to be keeping problems so frustratingly stuck. They, with others, begin to work for innovation; they step into new spaces to engage with strategies for getting at the root causes of these very complex problems.

Babushka Dolls of SI copy

Babushka Dolls of Social Innovation – image graphic provided by Karen Gomez

I’ve come to understand the necessity and the interdependence of each of these four different. but related, uniquely powerful parts of change-making.  I think of them like the Russian babushka dolls; nested pieces, one inside the other. While each individual piece can stand alone, the full impact is really only possible when they are together.  Social innovation nesting looks something like this; real, lasting innovation at a systems level cannot happen without enough creative invention to demonstrate and prepare the new possibilities. This rarely happens without significant involvement to gain deep understanding in the issue area, which itself will never occur without sparking individuals’ intention, their desire to be part of making change happen. When this interconnectedness is present, the energy of a whole field works for impact – and that can make all the difference.

So I’m really drawn to think about the whole – and, therefore, to holistic questions that unite rather than divide our change efforts; ones that point to the relationships between initiatives and to ‘nesting’ one piece of change work within another.  Rather than questions about what is or is not social innovation, let’s explore if and how this kind of initiative and that type of activity fits within, supports, leverages, communicates with, and connects to a whole web-like strategy, every single piece of which has a role to play in achieving real and lasting change.

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Chrysalis – A Social Innovation Incubator

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on January 28, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

“Creating meaningful solutions starts with gaining a deep understanding of the individual’s need…”
Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

Chrysalis logo via Chrysalis website

On November 19th, I had the opportunity to visit Chrysalis. To gain a grasp on Chrysalis, its history is important. In 1968, Chrysalis emerged as a Centennial project guided by the University of Alberta. It was created by community members and parents who envisioned adults with disabilities having equal opportunities to be involved in community. Historically, Chrysalis trained adults with developmental disabilities to produce manufactured goods using automated machinery. It was the first of its kind in the world.

Over time, Chrysalis has evolved and now also provides personalized services to help adults with disabilities receive training, develop life and vocational skills, find employment, discover volunteer opportunities and realize a better quality of life.

A CATALYST FOR INNOVATION

When designing programs for clients, there are always many questions to ask and answer to understand whether or not programming supports a person’s needs. Above all, Chrysalis asks: How do organizations connect more deeply with the individual’s life to understand how programming can support them?

Staff at Chrysalis recognized that the traditional system of setting up highly structured, top-down programming was inherently chaotic. There were deep barriers around scheduling and pressures on staff to have every detail defined to the exact second. When one thing in the system broke down within the original model, everything fell apart. On top of this rigid and vulnerable approach to services, staff were not even sure if clients enjoyed the programming being offered. Chrysalis staff began to explore other models for supporting individuals in the community.

They landed on ‘Leaders as Designers’

LEADERS AS DESIGNERS

Leaders as designers inherently have to see things differently. Meeting with the leaders at Chrysalis, I learned about programs being co-creatively developed through a human-centred design approach and collective impact model. In discovering how this way of working became a reality, I began to notice that the leadership at Chrysalis understands themselves as those with the ability to think critically and use design to create processes for change.

I think this is happening because the leadership fosters a space for innovation through what John Kotter calls a dual or a secondary operating system. One side of the leadership spectrum is management working with reporting, budgets, and strategic planning in the space of caution, along traditional business lines. Simultaneously, the other side is building relationships and planning by design with the permission to be creative. This is supported through an environment that offers training for staff to think, learn and work in ways that add value by reimagining how programming can be designed. In fact, Kotter suggests the duality should not be in competition, but a confluence of the formal and the informal, if successful transformation is to be achieved.

The duality of this operating system enables Chrysalis to lead as an incubator for social innovation that is creating new ways to develop, design and implement services for the individuals they serve.

WHAT IS HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN?

Human-centered design is a tool for social innovators, and organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free for more information go to https://novoed.com/design-kit-q1-2016

Organizations like IDEO and Acumen offer courses on human-centered design for free.

Human-centred design (HCD) is a creative approach to problem solving that starts with the person and ends with an innovative solution to meet that person’s specific needs. It supports service delivery by better understanding what the individual and his/her/their family or community want. HCD does not claim to solve the root cause of a problem rather it is a process that gives designers and clients the opportunity to try together!

In learning about and understanding HCD, the Fostering Innovation Group emerged at Chrysalis and is what I call the creative nebulous for innovative programming that starts with the person!

Becoming a baker: a client of Chrysalis wanted to work in a bakery. Having a disability created barriers to access whereby the individual was unable to secure employment in a bakery. Staff turned to HCD. Through the process of listening, observing and being open to the unexpected, a new idea was tested and designed for the individual to have the opportunity to bake. This individual was able to bake her own goods and sell them at community fairs across Edmonton.

Using a creative yet structured problem solving process (HCD) develops trusting relationships and builds a strong sense of resiliency among staff and individuals. This culture is supported by strong leaders who preserve the culture of trust, allowing participants in the design process to try things out and fail at first, because they know it takes time, inquiry and iteration to provide meaningful opportunities for people to engage in designing their own solutions.

WHAT IS COLLECTIVE IMPACT?

Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinct. John Kania & Mark Kramer describe collective impact as:

“…the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants” (SSIR, Winter 2011)

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Image from the organization Doing Something Good

Chrysalis is in the process of using the Collective Impact model to provide improved services to the individuals they serve. In doing the day to day work at Chrysalis, and by interacting with employers and other service agencies, the Chrysalis staff had realized that everyone was operating in silos, while expecting global or broader outcomes. This acknowledged that the expected overall impact was not being met. Unemployment for persons with disabilities has remained at around 80% for many years. So the idea of collective impact was proposed. Chrysalis has managed to garner buy-in with service agencies, employers, and funders for a generative look at the real systemic issues that people face. The outcomes are unknown, yet the vision is strong. As the process continues to unfold, I will keep you updated on how it unravels.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT?

Creating new ways for developing new things is not easy, especially within historically strong and influential organizations. Yet, as the nucleus of innovation works in parallel with the traditional operating system at Chrysalis, the positive results speak for themselves and make the case for continuing to support HCD approaches and processes internally.

Embedded HCD as a change process within Chrysalis has led to the discovery of hidden talents among staff, a shift away from resistance to change towards an embrace of HCD among individuals’ parents, and a renewed sense of positivity, knowing individuals are participating in outcomes they want to see for themselves and being included in a process that supports their own vision of a good life.

As social innovation continues to grow in the province of Alberta, how do we begin to create a culture among organizations where it is “cool” to do things differently and place people and innovation at the heart of the how we design social change? Perhaps in the spirit of Chrysalis, this is our project for 2017 and Canada’s sesquicentennial.

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Provoking innovation through stories of social entrepreneurship

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…”

―  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (2003)

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

In 2015, the Trico Charitable Foundation published four extensive case studies on the 2013 Social EnterPrize winners. Each case study was developed in partnership with the winning social enterprise and a post-secondary institution, converging the rigor of frontline experiential learning with the rigor of a critical academic lens.

The result? “A series of social entrepreneurship case studies that, in terms of the breadth of the organizations studied and the depth of the analysis, is the first of its kind in Canada” (Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015). Together, each social enterprise and academic team revealed and codified key insights, challenges and lessons from these four thriving social enterprises.

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful forces in humanity. As a private foundation, we have learned that our work is better when we tell stories and when we listen to them.”

― Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015

It is clear that an appreciation of the power of stories spurred Trico’s interest in developing the case studies. Why are stories so powerful? An audacious question, but one that provokes serious consideration of the role of stories in our lives.

In the context of social innovation, the defining stories we tell each day reveal our core beliefs and the conditioning beliefs of our broader social system.They tell us something about what we value, who we value, and what purpose we believe our systems (and selves) exist to serve.

Photo via Trico Foundation

TurnAround Couriers. Photo via Trico Foundation

In sharing – in depth – the story of the four Social EnterPrize winners, Trico Charitable Foundation contributed to a narrative that values business as more than a vehicle for profit maximization. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ is a story of sustainable social processes leveraging market solutions to serve social purpose. It advances another, broader story about our economic system, one where the economy thrives as products, services, and experiences put the best of our capital (financial, human, knowledge) sustainably to work producing (and reproducing) positive social and ecological outcomes.

The story of a new economy

Each case study offers a window into how this new story is taking root and reshaping economic life. Each case exemplifies business models succeeding not in spite of their social process and purpose, but because of it. And, to explain this success, each case brings to light that the triple bottom line of social enterprise (or social purpose business) is more than people, planet and profit – it is also process, purpose and outcome.

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

This is the triumvirate of a new economy where, similar to the case studies in the recently released book Citizen-led Innovation for a New Economy, “organized citizens are forging innovation, prying open cracks in the prevailing economic system and seizing opportunities to redirect economic life” (From the book blurb - Purchase the book here or the PDF summaries of the cases).

Stories describe where we come from and why we exist. They define ‘the good life,’ our expected roles in the society or how we should relate to each other. Stories tell us what our essence is: good or evil or somewhere in between; independent or interdependent; fundamentally threatened or enriched by difference. Above all, stories reflect and influence our perception of the world and, in doing so, our actions.

“A fundamental sociological premise is Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matter.”

Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed (2006)

embers-300x123

Each Social EnterPrize winner understood that “whether we think about things matters.” Whether we think about the potential of low-income folks living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (EMBERS); the common need for safety and comfort by travellers, students, women in crisis, families in transition or with medical issues, seniors and refugees (YWCA Hotel/Residence); the untapped work ethic of job-ready, at-risk youth (TurnAround Couriers); or the pedagogical opportunity to empower every student to be a math prodigy (JUMP), it is actually noticing and thinking about these things that shapes our understanding of the world, frames our actions and, through our actions, reimagines our communities.

How do we follow in these footsteps? Thankfully, the case studies not only exemplify how these social entrepreneurs advanced a different perception of the world – and in doing so, ignited cascading opportunities – each also reveals how that acute perception translated into tangible insights, challenges, solutions and outcomes. They lend evidence and advice to others seeking to leverage a new worldview and market opportunity to achieve sustainable, measurable social and ecological outcomes.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

Final takeaway

The ability to unlock market solutions that successfully redeploy capital to achieve transformational social and ecological impact often demands challenging the prevailing beliefs of our day. It butts up against the way so many people currently see or understand the world. The Social EnterPrize case studies remind us to know intimately the story we are telling through our actions and through our words…by whom, about whom, for whom, to what end. This story is our compass. As are these case studies which, with practical and inspirational insight, reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world

—     James Baldwin

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Philanthropic foundations and social innovation: How do we accelerate our learning?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) on January 24, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Albert Einstein

The last quarter century has seen significant changes in the world of foundation philanthropy. New pools of earned wealth (think Jeff SkollBill Gates or Skype founder Niklas Zennström) have accelerated traditional philanthropy’s shift from responsive grantmaking towards experiments with different forms and degrees of more proactive, targeted and strategic or collaborative philanthropy. Some of these changes have included the adoption and experimentation with the mindset, tools and methodologies of social innovation.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle via The Society for Experiential Graphic Design

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle. Photo via The Society for Experiential Graphic Design

To further and advance this adoption, social innovation grantmakers from three continents are being convened for the first time ever.

The goal is to share and explore what they and their peers are learning about social innovation philanthropy. This new “Funders Node,” hosted by Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), has the following goals:

  • Address the lack of shared knowledge among global organizations supporting and deploying social innovation;
  • Help answer vexing questions whose tentative answers could unlock transformational collaborations and high impact social innovation;
  • Increase funding for systemic change and social innovation while improving its likelihood of success. I began my career as a grantmaker four decades ago. Experience has taught me the truth of the adage: “it’s easy to give money away.”  On the other hand, it is incredibly hard for a funder to achieve major impact. Successful social innovation philanthropy is a tough occupation.
Funders Node hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City

SIX’s Funders Node hosted in the Rockefeller Foundation Facilities in New York City. Photo via Tim Draimin

Responsible foundations increasingly recognize their social change covenant to be a vital part of the R&D system for solutions to our world’s most complex challenges. But, by definition, these solutions are ill-understood. This means that it is an emergent and long term process to build new, generative pathways and social innovations spawning indispensable public goods (like a low carbon economy, global social equity, and purposeful meaning in daily life).

Funders grapple with their support role enabling globally-significant social innovations. Are there minimum specifications high impact social innovations depend on?

Seven topics are increasingly visible:

1. COLLABORATION & CO-CREATION

How does transformational collaboration among funders happen? How do collaborative competencies support genuine co-creation involving frontline-practitioner-innovators, citizen beneficiaries, funders, business and governments?

2. SYSTEM CHANGE

How are social innovations developed, curated, and aligned towards system change?

3. COMMUNICATIONS & CULTURE

An innovation’s success can be foiled by weak communications. How does a communications strategy employ a meaningful narrative? Similarly, how are successful innovations lifted up by — and embedded in — many diverse cultures and values. What intentional steps can be taken to advance a positive cultural embrace?

4. POLITICS OF CHANGE

How do social innovators manage the politics of social change, conceiving social innovations in a jujitsu manoeuvre that guilefully co-opts the power of opponents at the same time as enfranchising groups and peoples historically excluded;

5. ETHICAL VALUES & SHADOW SIDE

How are innovations both grounded in ethics and  values, as well as probed and tested to anticipate and manage the shadow side, their inevitable and unanticipated negative outcomes?

6. INNOVATION PIPELINES

How are integrated innovation system pipelines built in order to support all parts of the life-cycle of necessary social innovations? How are early stage components nurtured in ways that empower contributions by passionate amateurs who are embedded in community and reflect authentic local needs? How is scaling enabled? How can philanthropic capital beyond grants leverage other forms of capital?

7. LEARNING SYSTEM

How do we build deep, agile learning platforms of critical friends?

These “min specs” are difficult to embrace and then successfully execute. Coupled with the nature of complex challenges, this means risks are an occupational hazard.

The bottom line is that success for social innovation funders flows from building, participating in and being guided by a high quality peer learning system.

Funders Node participants from three continents joined together in New York City via Tim Draimin

Funders Node participants from three continents joined together in New York City. Photo via Tim Draimin

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Shooting for the Moon: How can we make Social Missions as inspiring as Space Missions?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Medium on January 21, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

In the last couple of months, the world has seen the successful SpaceX ORBCOMM-2 launch and landing, heard US Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘moonshot to cure cancer’, and witnessed the unsuccessful SpaceX attempt to land first stage of the JASON-3 rocket on a drone ship.

Now, I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but a quick check on Twitter shows that Joe Biden’s cure for cancer moonshot announcement received 1,792 retweets and 4,307 favourites while Elon Musk’s successful landing announcement received 5,494 retweets and a whopping 11,100 favourites. I’d argue that far more people are impacted by cancer than they are about the future of space exploration. So this delta is intriguing for me, and raises a variety of questions.

How might social moonshots be as inspiring and compelling as, well, actual moonshots? What if we followed social missions as closely as space missions? What if we embraced social mission failures as learnings, in the same way as we did the recent unsuccessful drone ship landing?

As a trained aerospace engineer, having worked in the field for a few years and now working on things that help us do good better, I’m intrigued by these questions. There is such excitement, inspiration, and sense of possibility during a space mission launch. So where’s the wonder during a social mission launch?

I believe social missions can be as compelling and as inspiring for the future as space missions. For anyone who’s passionate about solving the world’s toughest problems, there are a number of course corrections (see what I did there) that we must consider for the future of social impact to be an exciting and inspiring one. Here are 10 ways that come to mind:

1. The narrative can’t be one of scarcity. 

People don’t say space exploration is needed because Earth has a scarcity problem or it needs fixing. This is almost never the narrative. It’s always been about extending human potential and building human capability. However, the narrative in the social impact space falls under “not having enough X” or “fixing Y.” Entire campaigns are built and run on this narrative.

The take-away: The scarcity narrative isn’t an inspiring one.

2. It’s about high-risk and high-value. 

There is a recognition of the quantum of investment and risk that’s needed to build a vehicle that can reach outer space. There is no room for ‘drip funding.’ One doesn’t hear, “Let’s commit to fins this year, perhaps guidance system next year, and maybe nose cone the year after. And to qualify for year 2, submit a report on how the fins are doing.”

The take-away: It’s easy to get distracted by drip funding but this often leads us to mediocre and piecemeal, not high-value solutions.

3. Find a sustained energy source. 

A sustained energy source is required for long space missions. Flying by Pluto takes time. In fact, New Horizons launched in 2006 and it only approached Pluto in mid-2015 — almost 10 years later. So, the spacecraft must be designed with the ‘right-sized’ energy source that can deliver on the mission as well as mild course-corrects, and not with a source that can only get it half-way. Spacecraft are built to mission and ambition specs.

The take-away: Building to ambition specs is inspiring.

4. Celebrate escape velocity (output), not securing the parts (input).

Reaching escape velocity (minimum speed for a spacecraft to break free from gravitational pull of Earth) is everything in a launch. This is celebrated by everyone. However, in social change, there exists a strange practice of, to use a food analogy, congratulating the chef for getting the ingredients. This is not inspiring.

The take-away: Let’s be mindful of celebrating inputs and be present to celebrate reaching escape velocity.

5. Jettison items that no longer add value. 

In space missions, the payload is exactly what is required (weight is everything) and in cases where redundancy is needed, extra equipment is worked in. When something is no longer relevant, it is shut down or jettisoned. Obsolescence is part of the design of a mission. Space missions cannot afford to service obsolete items or items that no longer add value as it might jeopardize the mission. However, more often than not, social programs and services are built with a sense of permanence in mind.

The take-away: We must design-in active obsolescence management such that programs and services stay relevant and inspiring.

6. Share the mission in real-time. 

Major space launches have been broadcasting live ever since live broadcasts were possible on TV and then on the internet. Today, anybody from anywhere in the world (this is key) can go to NASA’s website to get updates on any active missions. Launches, delays, blow ups, lost communications — you can see it all. In social change work, much of real-time progress is shielded, progress is typically shared in a closed-loop fashion with funders or donors. We have become accustomed to shield experiments, failures or delays from the public.

The take-away: When we share by default, we inspire.

7. Build with foresight. 

SpaceX could easily make a compelling business case just launching satellites — and potentially accelerate reaching profitability. Instead, they have decided that this isn’t enough. They bring a high degree of foresight to their work. SpaceX doesn’t just want to launch satellites the way we know how to do it today, but set the pace and build for how space missions might happen 25 years from now.

The take-away: If we build for how we want social programs 25 years from now, we would inspire millions.

8. Use natural forces as a slingshot. 

Gravity is our friend but can also be a nightmare. Once we reach Earth’s escape velocity however, gravity can be amazing and be used to our advantage — to boost the spacecraft farther and save energy. In space missions, everything (even natural forces) are viewed as assets. With an open mind, and a bit of creativity, we can look beyond classic forms of assets for social change. We could flip something that might appear to be a nightmare in one context but could act as a ‘gravity boost’ in another to advance the mission.

The take-away: Assets are everywhere in social missions.

9. Design to dock with a larger system. 

Interoperability is critical in space missions. Europeans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese and Americans all contribute components to the International Space Station. The parts are designed a bit like LEGO pieces — they are designed to “dock or connect” with one another. This level of interoperability makes platforms like the Space Station possible. Imagine organizations in different sectors working toward a shared social change ambition designed projects, programs or interventions with interoperability as a core function…we might have shared knowledge, shared assets, and shared human capital. We might even look at liabilities, governance, empathy, and risks in a shared way.

The take-away: Interoperability levels the playing field, gives us all peripheral vision, and allows us to bring our best ‘LEGO pieces’ to solving complex problems.

10. Steward ambition. 

People might come and go but leadership around an ambition stays. It is rare that a long-term space mission, like New Horizons gets unmonitored or falls to the bottom of the ambition stack upon change in people. Nothing is protected 100% of course, as there are always economical, political, and other factors at play. However, there is a recognition that space missions require a sustained level of ‘ambition stewardship’ by a variety of actors, and that a “start, stop, start” approach causes disruptions that ultimately causes setbacks to the mission.

The take-away: What if we moved beyond the 1 year, 2 year or 3 year support approach in social change and curated ambition commitments that last 10 or 15 years? This is inspiring.

This note is a thesis. My intention is to push us to disrupt ourselves, and to provoke a more nuanced way of thinking about our practice of generating social change. I hope you can use this to reflect on how you might make your social moonshot more inspiring, engaging, and compelling.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jason Pearman.
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Two tales of a city: converging realities of culture in Toronto

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting – Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion

How do we imagine this city?
What are the rumours and tall tales charting…?

 

Tale One: The Soho Effect

Artists bring vibrancy, cohesion and activity into our neighborhoods – Yorkville (1960s); West Queen West (1990s); Regent Park (2000s). Real estate prices go up. Artists – often renters – get priced out, along with other low-income residents. Artists drive the yuppification of our communities, inspiring demonic growth and displacement, the hapless victims of their own success. We are more shallow, disconnected, and cold for the loss.

 Here’s where the wrecking crew tore out the heart of the ward
No street signs remind you that a neighborhood died here before 
But things are working out well
Don’t believe what you see on the streets
No threadbare armies of men broken and dead on their feet 
No more bending your back to the weight of the world
No more sorrows, no setbacks, and no more diving for pearls in the ditches and drains
All our history’s remade and no memory remains of us now
- “History Remade” by The FemBots (2005)

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

Tale Two: Artistic Antidote

Artists are the antidotes to the homogenization of place. We have the knowledge and practice to leverage the power of the arts to both help artists and inclusively build the city. We can leverage ‘growth’ – the dynamism of a growing city – to counteract the displacement of artists and low-income Torontonians. We can not only creatively ‘make place,’ we can creatively keep what artists and neighbours have already made, through a combination of tenacity, collaboration and strange bedfellows, charting a real city imagined over time through deep connection and relationships.

Talking about a new way
Talking about changes and names
Talking about building the land of our dreams
His tightrope’s gotta learn how to bend
We’re makin’ new plans
We’re gonna start it again

(Rise up rise up) Oh rise and show your power

(Rise up)
Everybody
Time for you and me
- “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club (1983)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ - Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ – Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

On November 26th, Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, shared both of these tales of Toronto during his MaRS Global Leadership and SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk.

The first tale is a story that happens to us. The power to shape the city lies with amorphous forces of real estate, gentrification, homogeneity and private profit. The city grows itself mysteriously around us, burying the sincerity of neighourhoods with ever-rising towers of glass and concrete, enriched by the cultural roots that others – now displaced – nurtured.

The second is a story that we co-author, where the tools of the arts empower us to be savvy, thoughtful brokers of the value that rich artistic communities create; we know, appreciate and foresee the value of deep, cohesive place-based culture and leverage it to creatively, deliberately and inclusively ‘keep place’ as the dynamism of city-building introduces new energy, offers, interests and investments into neighborhoods.

Both tales are true. Because these stories not only reflect what is happening, they actively generate and construct reality by shaping what we believe to be true and therefore, how we act in response.

Through the experiences of Artscape, a broker in the manner of the second tale, we learn about practical, actionable approaches and prototypes to inch away from lamenting the Soho Effect to embracing and reclaiming the artistic antidote.

While there is nothing simple about the Artscape model, in its simplest form it honours artists’ natural tendencies – to cluster, to collaborate, to invest locally and in each other, and to engage as changemakers – as a critical city-building asset and community development force.

It stands to reason that when a critical mass of people come together in a neighbourhood, everyone is drawn to this, creating a strong, powerful push for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

This powerful push for residential development that follows where artists thrive is the carrot for development deals to accommodate artists, make space for low-income residents and accommodate urban growth at the same time.

In other words, it is an opportunity to innovate urban growth that Artscape first began playing with in the 1990s. Their innovation: work with the city, community members, and developers together to manifest prototypes of creative place-keeping into public-private development deals. How? By taking advantage of a little extra density, inclusive zoning and a new tale about the imperative role of cultural value-creators –artists – to ensure they and other low-income community members remain in community.

You can build all kinds of social capital and social infrastructure, because in part together we are creating a multibillion-dollar market for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

If we understand how culture creates value for urban development (and if we know that the value is predictable, as it has been throughout Toronto), we can shift from advocating for creative place-making as an endangered need to deliberately and effectively appreciating culture as a critical lever for creative place-keeping – a fundamental case for more community and artistic ownership in public-private development deals.

Tim calls this engaging in culture as a form of “urban acupuncture” – engaging in small- scale, neighbourhood-level innovation to have a city-wide (city-building) impact.

There can be healing in cities by stimulating ‘nerves’ (creative, original expression) and ‘releasing pressure’ (through unusual partnership or collaboration) to create transformation…charting a new reality where self-interest compels policymakers, developers, community activists and artists to put culture at the heart of city building.

Let the beat of the drums harmonize with the beat of your soul
And let it travel miles.
Even if you are spiritually drained as you dance, as you dance, just smile.
Smile until you forget sadness and laugh at anger.
Until you can look into the eyes of anyone as a future brother
And not a stranger.
To invest in relationships you don’t need to be a banker.
- “Spectrum of Hope” by Mustafa Ahmed

Art – music, poetry, installations, painting, craft, writing – is “the quickest and easiest way to get back to something that makes you feel tied to where you are, and who’s around you, and who came before you, what they were doing” (Philip Churchill, The Once). It is how we imagine the city, how we engage in it, understand it and connect to a through-line of histories woven into this place.

Converge the realities.
Ice, wind, pain
Love, sun and rain.
Converge the realities.
Past, present and future.
- “Converge the Realities” by Charmie Deller

Watch Tim’s Talk: Culture as Urban Acupuncture (Full Video)

MaRS Global Leadership: Culture as Urban Acupuncture from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

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Learning from our past; innovating for a stronger future

Understanding how and where change has happened in our past, can provide an innovator with important learning for designing and introducing a new idea today. It also honours and celebrates those ideas that make our lands and our systems more positively resilient.

The History of Social Change is a multimedia project of SEE Change Magazine profiling social change movements in Canadian history – and their key players – that have shaped who we are as Canadians today e.g. Suffrage, Marriage Equality, Cooperatives, Environment, Social Economy, Labour etc. With a focus on the 20th century, each profile will offer an in-depth look at the movement’s origins, its activists, challenges, victories and its status today.

As publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, Elisa Birnbaum explains: “Social change is not an easy process. It takes effort, stubbornness and the ability to persevere in spite of all obstacles and opposition. Once achieved, social change and any newfound rights and freedoms should never be taken for granted, yet they often are. When that happens, we not only lose our sense of who we are, we lose sight of how we got here, which makes looking forward that much more challenging.”

And so Elisa set about interviewing and developing profiles with people who have changed Canada for the better. There’s dozens of inspiring stories on their site and SiG is happy to amplify their messages. It’s the kind of project we love. Elisa also took the time to chat with SiG National Executive Director, Tim Draimin about where his passion for social change began and what social innovation is all about.

Spend some time trekking through these stories and let Elisa know what you think. I’m sure she would agree that it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a significant contribution to honouring our history. Importantly The History of Social Change project provides additional information and written history to give the interviews due context.

Leaving the last words to the producer herself: “It is my hope that this project will offer a valuable examination of the diversity of issues, people and social causes that define our country, remind us of the values we hold dear, celebrate the successes and illuminate the steps we must take next.”

For further stories of social change, visit our profile page as well.

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