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Seeing the patterns in our work for systems change

There was a strong sense that our Canadian Inspiring Action Series event on May 12 would be special.

We had yet to host Al Etmanski in Toronto, but he has been a close colleague for years. Alongside Vickie Cammack, Al began an exploration into Canada’s social innovation ecosystem before SiG was launched in 2007. This scoping work, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, built on years of experience in the disability sector, where trial and error, bridge building and empathy-based approaches informed their development of PLAN and also eventually, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).

They brought this experience into the SiG partnership and we all benefitted from it. Now everyone gets a chance to read much of Al’s wisdom in the form of IMPACT: 6 Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation.


At the Toronto “un-launch” of IMPACT, Al and local changemakers dug into each of the 6 patterns in detail to highlight practical and inspirational ideas for application in our own work. Hosting the evening with us, Allyson Hewitt, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at MaRS, provided some reflections on what she heard from Al and the guest panelists.

Two struck a chord in particular: Al Etmanski observed that the patterns often emerged out of a crisis, as when he and Vickie Cammack realized they were not making enough long term impact in their work with PLAN. They had to do things differently. During their secondment research in social innovation, one of their first observations was that movements are the ONLY way forward. It’s never good enough to just have great content.


Another important and difficult pattern to recognize was that friends come and go, but enemies can accumulate. To work for positive change, we must set the table for friends, adversaries and strangers. This dialogue is an end that enables trust.

“MaRS founder, Dr. John Evans, always said: ‘it is amazing, amazing,
what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit'” — Allyson Hewitt 

Moderating the panel discussion between the inspirational changemakers was Susan Pigott, who is currently consulting with MaRS and has deep leadership experience in the non-profit sector.

Joining Susan and Al, with wonderful insights of their own, were:

Watch the presentation to unearth all the nuggets!

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Allyson also captured so much of the magic in the following poem. Although it’s hugely helpful, it’s still in your best interests to read the book. Enjoy!


By Allyson Hewitt – with rhyming inspiration provided by Dr. Seuss


When one reaches a certain stage in life

One seeks a way to avoid, living in strife 

So Al has taken time to reflect

And share his thoughts, and interject


The lessons he’s learned, the patterns he’s seen

He’s been collecting them now since he was a teen

So what are these patterns he did imbue

Sit tight as I share them all with you


1. Think and act like a movement

That is the way to systems improvement

Pay attention to what’s going on in your field

Expand receptivity, increase your yield


2. Create a container for your content

That seems like a plan on which he is bent 

Make it easy for people to do the right thing

Inspire people to action, get them into the swing


3. Set the table for allies, adversaries and strangers

A welcoming environment helps us manage the dangers 

Dialogue and convening is more than a means to an end

Cultivate new relationships, is how your time you should spend


4. Mobilize your economic power

Change makers there is no need to cower 

Turn your social capital to create economic success

Both of your networks and others, all moving to yes


5. Advocate with empathy

Embrace those thought of as the enemy 

Seek to find an approach that is solutions-based

Work with government on the issues with which they are faced


And remember this, I tell you now

6. Who is as important as how

 Social innovation is about character, not technique

Bold humility is the trait that we do seek


So read Impact and share your views

Are those the patterns you indeed would choose? 

Or do you have others you would like to share

Then write them down, if you’ve time to spare


If not, no worries Al calls us to act

But first read the words of wisdom you’ll find in Impact


Editor’s Note: We’d love to make our presentations more impactful for you. Tell us how by filling out our short survey.

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Geraldine Cahill About Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships, SiG National

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