Experiencing the shock of the possible in uncertain times…

SiG Note: This article is cross-posted from MaRS Discovery District, with permission from the authors. 

Indeed these are uncertain times that we live in… — Stephen Huddart

Speaking to an over-200-person audience at MaRS Discovery District on November 24, Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, challenged the growing contemporary narrative that our future is bleak and looming ahead with daunting uncertainty.

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Reminding us of a long history of Canadian precedents for testing systems-level innovation, and of the new big experiments underway today, Stephen invited us to experience the shock of the possible (a term coined by Eric Young).

It’s a shock catalyzed by the deepening of strategic philanthropy, as the philanthropic sector reorganizes itself to collaboratively address the complex issues of today with new and unusual partnerships.

In particular, foundations are becoming leading participants in systems change efforts, accessing new tools and—in support of their grantees—exploring cross-sector partnerships that scaffold up the possibility of new systems.

In his MaRS Global Leadership and Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk, Stephen exemplified the sector’s new direction with key initiatives from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and beyond, elucidating the radical shift in how we do good that is fostering new possible futures for Canada.

Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

New tools enabling systems change

A new series of mindsets and tools is reframing how foundations approach their entire cycle of work, from funding to programming to endowment management, facilitating an accelerating shift toward systems change aspirations.

Stephen referred to this collection of tools as the “Social Five.” These rapidly developing new tools are enhancing our capacity to nurture social change at scale and transform the systems that, if left alone, are otherwise on track to dramatically underperform for communities and Canada.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.17.36 AMThe Social Five consist of:

While individually significant, the full potential of the Social Five lies in their integration as a web of interconnected action, cumulating in a vibrant ecosystem of mutually supportive markets that collectively enhance our capability to collaborate toward systems change.

MaRS was celebrated in Stephen’s talk as a strong institutional example of seeding and nourishing the integration of these tools to enhance the capacity of others. Starting with MaRS’ and Social Innovation Generation’s 2010 collaboration on the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, which advanced the field of social finance in Canada, MaRS has become a hub of convergent social innovation, with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing fostering the social finance and B Corp markets in Canada; SiG@MaRS nurturing social entrepreneurship in Ontario and beyond; and the MaRS Solutions Lab leading the uptake of social lab processes by a broad range of cross-sectoral stakeholders in Canada.

In other words, MaRS works to support the integration of the Social Five—including social technologies, pathways to scale and, broadly, social innovation—into a thriving ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change.

Philanthropy’s big experiments to solve complex problems

15698113727_a24108f35b_z‘An ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change’ broadly describes one approach influencing the philanthropic sector’s reorganization.

The theory of change is that collaboration is critical to solving our most entrenched social challenges and fostering new systems (via key platforms such as collective impact, shared outcomes or shared value).

In this spirit, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s initiatives depend on and involve hundreds of partners working together to enhance the resilience of communities and our national capacity for social innovation. For example:

  1. In partnership with over 150 organizations, Innoweave delivers webinars, workshops and mentorship around the Social Five to hundreds of participants, with the goal of enhancing the social sector’s capacity to innovate and scale social impact.
  2. Cities for People is a “collaborative experiment of urban leaders and thoughtful citizens innovating to raise expectations about how cities could be.”
  3. RECODE is a network of hubs within Canada’s higher education institutions designed to inspire, incubate and support students in creating social enterprises and becoming social entrepreneurs.

Broadly, each initiative highlights a radical shift in philanthropic programming—where the critical focus is collaboratively seeding and nourishing the Canada we envision into a real possibility.

Possible Canadas

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Quote by Khalil Z. Shariff, CEO, Aga Khan Foundation Canada

As foundations take new directions in their philanthropic work, multiple possible Canadas are unfolding and defying the dark stories of an uncertain, fearful future.

But for Stephen, the brightest and most significant possible Canada is one where all of our collaborative energy and new tools are focused on reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

We are living in an age of reconciliation in this country, and it represents an opportunity that, if taken, can change the course of our history for the better. But, if not, can lead to the perpetuation of terrible circumstances  — Stephen Huddart

Recently, several transformative initiatives launched and are starting to both immediately enhance community well-being and work at a generational scale toward reconciliation. These initiatives include:

To continue on a path of new partnerships, healing and systems change, Stephen emphasized that the first step is empathy. Empathy for each other. Empathy for communities unlike our own. Empathy as a pathway to both speak out and listen to new voices.

When you introduce new energy into systems, the elements reorganize at a higher level of sophistication. A remarkable analogy for what we’re doing here. And I would say that if there is another word that would describe that, it’s not social innovation, or any of the tools, it’s empathy. Empathy is really a seven-letter word for love. That is what is powering the future that we want to build together — Stephen Huddart

More from the presentation:


Philanthropy for Uncertain Times – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District

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Tim Draimin and Kelsey Spitz About Tim Draimin and Kelsey Spitz

Tim Draimin is Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and an advisor to the JW McConnell Family Foundation. Kelsey Spitz is the Senior Associate at SiG which works with governments, businesses and charities to strengthen Canada’s inclusive innovation ecosystem.

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