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.

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About Andrea Gao

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


  1. This was awesome! I would like you to clean up all this spam though

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