Catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem: Phase 1 — Following curiosity and testing the water

Author’s Note

This is the first of a three-part blog post series documenting the insights, decisions, signposts, twists and turns of a social R&D ecosystem catalyzing journey, supported by SiG. The purpose of this series is to candidly share that journey to help inspire and empower individuals in Canada and around the world to foster social R&D ecosystems specific to complex issues around their work, including homelessness, newcomer settlement, early childhood education, among others.

This post, as one of three, focuses on phase 1 — following curiosity and testing the water, which, in my case, was pre-my social R&D fellowship with SiG National and pre-SiG formally hosting social R&D as a national focus area. This phase was about exploring, question-finding, learning about the state of R&D in the social sector, sensing need, and mobilizing commitment to action.

This is not intended to be a how-to manual or field guide for fostering an R&D ecosystem. What is highlighted are some of the key ingredients. You could better your existing recipe by removing, adding or tweaking ingredients through exchange with others, or better yet – learn by doing.


“Where do I find literature on R&D in nonprofits?” I asked in 2015.

This question is the culprit. Not just the question, but Tim Draimin’s reply, “That’s a good question. I don’t believe there is any.” After much back and forth on the stark contrast between the legitimized and celebrated R&D investments of  the technology sector and life sciences industry, versus the meek and risk-adverse investment environment for R&D in the social sector, Tim and I decided to follow up with a blog post.

The idea behind the blog post was to get our questions out into the world. It was about getting a feel for the current status of Canada’s social R&D ecosystem. We published ‘Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine’ in May 2015. This garnered a fair bit of interest from academia, public servants, sector executives, frontline professionals, among others. Tim and I decided to take the opportunity to have these folks take a critical look at our assumptions and questions, in particular: “Is there value in hosting a multi-sector gathering to take stock of our collective questions, the state of R&D in the social sector, and if/where we could go from here?”

With enthusiastic affirmative responses, we set to work to host a first-ever multi-sector convening on potential for and the role of R&D in the social sector. The McConnell Foundation, who were holding similar questions, contributed one of their convening slots and support for a retreat on Wasan Island, a gathering and convening place in Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation and used in partnership with the BMW Foundation, the Bosch Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) and The McConnell Foundation. With additional support from the Canadian Red Cross, CFC, SiG, and The P.E. Trudeau Foundation the convening came to life for August 2015.

Approximately 25 individuals from diverse organizations, issues-areas, expertise, backgrounds and regions participated in this gathering. We collectively explored questions about the application and barriers to R&D practice, infrastructure language in the social sector, like:

  • How do we explain risk and failure as positive?
  • What is the discoverability of assets in the ecosystem?
  • What incentives are needed for organizations to pursue R&D?
  • What are the systemic barriers to R&D at the organizational and individual levels?
  • What is the emotional energy it takes for professionals in this sector to do R&D regularly?

We learned that existing social R&D entities, like Fifth Space, find a broader peer community valuable, that frontline professionals can rarely access academic research as they are behind paywalls, and that the social sector focuses heavily on services without investing in the underlying infrastructure and capacity to problem solve continuously, impactfully and in complexity. This began to paint a picture of the state of R&D in the social sector for us — by no means comprehensive, but a start.

Multi-sector convening on R&D in the social sector at Wasan Island

With the gathering, the sense of collective aspiration was apparent and palatable. We discovered allies, collaborators, thought partners and critical friends. As we imagined where we go from here, there were a number of possibilities. In fact, there were too many possibilities. Above all, we wanted to find a way to capture a collective spirit for strengthening and growing R&D in the social sector. The Hippocratic Oath was brought up a number of times during the gathering. Using this as inspiration, we came up with a Declaration of Action. While our focus had been R&D in the social sector, the Declaration outlined the need to seed and lead a vibrant ecosystem of public good R&D across corporate, academic, public and community sectors to generate innovations and lasting positive impact. This was better than a set of action items. Why? The Declaration helped us mobilize allies from across the country – which started to create a movement and gain legitimacy.

What was next?

Finding a way to harness that collective energy to jointly foster an enabling ecosystem.

Insights from Phase 1

(1) What’s next is always steered by who’s in the room

Acknowledge that and do not pre-determine the output. Find ways to sense the energy that is there — is it collective? is it regional? Is it individual? Craft a call-to-action appropriately. The Declaration of Action, as a call-to-action, was a function of the folks in the room. In this case, organizations like CKX, GrantBook, InWithForward, McConnell Foundation, Canadian Red Cross, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Open North, Imagine Canada, and Grand Challenges Canada.

(2) Find an elder or two

Have individuals who can help create balance, focus, and hold space for actors from different sectors and with seemingly opposite views of the world. Individuals with tremendous ecosystem-building wisdom, like Tim Draimin, executive director of SiG National, David Phipps, director of research services and knowledge exchange at York University, and Indy Johar, co-founder of Project 00 & Dark Matter Labs, among many others, helped to kick off this exploration, acted as allies, and held my feet to the fire.

(3) Make friends

The early sharing journey with sector leaders helped us to formulate better questions, understand challenges in a more nuanced way, and start to build a narrative that empowers everyone. Questions are good, but validated questions are better and often require trust before honest evaluation can take place Before the first convening, we had phone calls and meetings with several people often in their own contexts and settings, to share our hunches and initial research and to develop trusting relationships.

(4) Resist the temptation to immediately bound an exploration as a new project or organization

Resist the temptation to articulate the vision and exploration through a single container. My response to the question of what model social R&D would follow was, “nothing is off the table.” We got many questions on the business and organizational model soon after the blog went live. It’s a bit like deciding your child’s career path and earning based on what they do or don’t do as a toddler.

(5) Get a good sense of need versus demand

We don’t demand an ecosystem, we discover it – and often slowly. We don’t know what we don’t know. People who rode horses didn’t demand the market for a car. That’s where demand for an ecosystem is the wrong question. Don’t fall into the trap of asking people if they need an ecosystem. Help them discover it, engage with it and find value in it.

Signs and Signals to Notice

(1) Whose velocity matters

In physics, velocity incorporates direction of travel and speed of travel. Notice the differences in velocity between your group, yourself, and the broader sector as you introduce R&D. Whether it’s your blog, your convening or your output, some people will make a lot of positive noise, some will make critical noise and others won’t make any noise. Who does what are important signals to notice as you chart ways forward following an exploration phase for fostering an R&D ecosystem. Noting where direction and speed might not be aligned between you and your group can give you a sense of when and where to slow down or change course in fostering an ecosystem.

(2) Paradox of choice

It can be easy to get crippled by paradox of choice. In this early phase, less is actually more. The positive energy and momentum can lead to multiple pathways and priorities for what to do and where to go next. Stay focused and work closely with your elders to identify what’s urgent and important in phase 1.

(3) Who jumps off the deep end

Everybody brings something to the table. In the early phase, keep an eye on if people empower you to take a leadership role in moving things forward and why. This blessing helps you to build legitimacy and credibility to carry the torch alongside others.

(4) Where people don’t want to go from here

There are (metaphorical) places people are ready to go and there are those that they aren’t ready for. For us, some conversations got uncomfortable – intellectual property in this sector was one. Note where people don’t want to go at the outset and slowly bring them along.

Frequently Asked Questions

(1) Can you have a different starting point?

Yes, certainly. A different starting point could have been domain-specific context, such as a particular goal or ambition in early childhood education or newcomer settlement or battling hunger — which we did not have. So, your initial launch point (in our case, the blog post and an ecosystem perspective) might dive right into research and observations around interventions in a specific domain and role of R&D in that domain.

(2) How did you find the capital for this work?

I got this one a lot. By being a scrappy entrepreneur, I suppose. What I discovered is that ‘ecosystem catalyzing’ is not something that is an explicit stream for a single funding organization, but a handful of organizations could be convinced. In this case, along with a number of people, Tim Draimin and Stephen Huddart were critical investors in and champions of the exploration early on. I would suggest to engage potential partner organizations in an advisory capacity first to test fit.

(3) How did you decide who to engage in phase 1?

This is a tough call. You can get seduced by ecosystem mapping but it’s so dynamic and fast-changing that you’ll never get it all mapped or have bandwidth to engage everybody at the same level in this phase. You’ll also realize that not everybody will engage with you and with R&D at the same intensity and frequency. My take: that’s ok. Build a small but strong constituency and grow it.

(4) How did you hold off on not defining a structure?

Let me put it this way, if you define a structure or container for this work in phase 1, then you limit questions or perspectives or actors to that container. Keeping it ambiguous and without a formal structure through phase 1 enables you to develop and test a range of possibilities before boxing yourself in and missing a potentially valuable option.

(5) What are the success metrics for phase 1?

They are quite simple: Are people drawing others in to join this exploration? Do people feel engaged, empowered and share in the aspiration? How likely are they to champion this exploration with potential funders? Do you have 1-3 focused ways forward that people are excited by?

Thank you to Stephen Huddart and the McConnell Foundation team, Tim Draimin and the SiG National team, Canadian Red Cross, Community Foundations of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, and practitioners and sector leaders from across the country for supporting phase 1 of the journey of catalyzing a social R&D ecosystem for Canada.


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Vinod Rajasekaran About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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