Is our playbook out of date?

A photo by Greg Rakozy. unsplash.com/photos/oMpAz-DN-9I

Canada spends over $300 billion annually on social outcomes, according to the OECD. Our fast-evolving societal challenges — ranging from mental health, Indigenous communities’ access to quality education, and a lack of affordable housing — demand equally fast-paced and nimble research, learning, experimental and replicating approaches so people can access the best possible services, supports and solutions, no matter where they live in Canada. This is where R&D comes in.

Canada’s not-for-profit, charitable, B Corp, and social enterprise organizations have built strong capabilities in volunteer management, donor stewardship, and program delivery, among other things. Along with an appreciation and celebration of these competencies, there is increasing consensus that social change in the 21st century requires an additional strong capacity and capability in research and development, or R&D.  

Just as R&D in the business world drives new and improved products and services, R&D can also help social mission organizations generate significant and rapid advancements in services and solutions that change lives. However, currently only a small proportion of social mission organizations repeatedly incorporate a wide range of new knowledge (like insights into how the brain works and how positive behaviours can be encouraged) or new technologies (like machine learning) or new processes (like human centred design).  

R&D is not yet well understood, funded or widely practiced by the social impact sector and thus is not yet adopted as a core organizational practice. It is a new field with a small body of codified knowledge and practice.

The “Social R&D” exploration aims to catalyze a change. The exploration is incubated by SiG, seeded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Open North, Community Foundations of Canada, MaRS, Engineers Without Borders Canada, among many others.

The new report, Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector authored by SiG Fellow Vinod Rajasekaran, with a Foreword by Nesta’s Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan, highlights 50 compelling R&D practices from 14 organizations across Canada, including: Saint Elizabeth’s field visits with frontline staff, GrantBook’s digital simulations, Skills Society’s neighbourhood prototyping and The MATCH International Women’s Fund’s 15% staff time for experimentation. The report illustrates that pursuing R&D helps organizations minimize costs in program growth, track improvements and learning more effectively, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for and with the people they serve. The intention in the future is to move beyond the report and host an online collection of practices with open access.

There are wonderful elements of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector and this report is an attempt to make a small portion of them visible to demonstrate that investment in R&D is a critical success factor in seeing measurable gains in social wellbeing. Against a backdrop of increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, together we can transform how social mission organizations enhance lives for the 21st century.

SiG invites grantmakers, philanthropists, governments, and practitioners to join the movement to boost Social R&D capacity, capability, infrastructure and capital in communities across Canada.

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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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