Social R&D



For the social sector to have lasting impact in a fast-changing world it must have capacity, resources, infrastructure and permission to conduct research and development, or R&D. This is the hypothesis that has fuelled the Social R&D Fellowship, originally at SiG: an initiative to seed a vibrant ecosystem of public good R&D-enabled innovation across corporate, academic, public and community sectors to generate lasting positive impact.

Why? According to the OECD, Canada spends close to $300 billion on social outcomes and well being per year. However solutions are not being found at the pace required to address rising social and environmental challenges.

  • The suicide rate among Canadian girls has increased by 38% over the past decade

  • Food insecurity prevalence rose to 46% in Canada’s north – the highest rate since 2004

  • Hospital admissions for opioid poisonings have jumped 53% in the last decade, with 40% of that increase occurring in the last three years

  • Half (50%) of monitored wildlife species are in decline in Canada, from 1970 to 2014

Strong R&D leads to transformative and scalable social innovations.

Social R&D Fellowship uses a multi-disciplinary approach to pursue this work. There have been policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, among others contributing to the journey so far. Each phase of the project has informed the way that social R&D functions thrive such that they are inclusive, resourced and have sustained long-term value.

We envision Canada’s innovation ecosystem becoming inclusive of social R&D such that knowledge, experiments, unique insights, capacity and infrastructure from across public, private, academic and social sectors are integrated to address grand challenges future.


Canada has an emerging social R&D practice: organizations like E180 in Montreal are using data science to strengthen peer-to-peer learning, Kudoz are applying ethnography in the disability sector in Vancouver, the Winnipeg Boldness Project are using social lab methods to create a new framework for childhood development in Winnipeg, and many more. These organizations are finding ways to deliver services while investing in research, design, development and delivery of new practices and services.

A central focus of the Social R&D Fellows has been to support the individuals leading this work.

Social R&D practitioners use a range of R&D tools and processes including behavioural science, randomized control trials, lean prototyping, positive deviance, and ethnography across the spectrum of social change work from immigrant settlement and urban sustainability to youth employment and disability.


To date, this work has evolved over the following four phases:

Phase 1: Following Curiosity and Testing Water

This early phase of the journey was about exploring, question-finding, learning about the state of R&D in the social sector, sensing need, and mobilizing commitment to action. It included milestones like the thought-piece by Tim Draimin and Vinod Rajasekaran, Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine, and the Social R&D Declaration of Action that captured the intent of a diverse group of front-line professionals, foundations, creatives, entrepreneurs, public policy professionals, academia, NFP leaders to embark on a discovery process.

Phase 2: Conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning

This phase was about empowering a collective ecosystem-catalyzing process, identifying positive deviants in the social sector and understanding their R&D practices and needs, creating an enabling environment for practitioner peer to peer exchange, coaching and learning, and beginning to inform federal innovation policy development. It included milestones like the Getting to Moonshot report that showcased the R&D habits of 50 high-impact social mission organizations, and the 2016 Social R&D Practice Gathering, a first of a kind gathering for social R&D practitioners to help them strengthen their craft.

Phase 3: Seeding value of R&D in public policy community, grantmaking community, and deepening the practitioner peer community

This phase was about deepening the engagement with the public policy community, raising awareness with the grantmaking and funding community, and adding new layers of connectivity for practitioner community. This phase also had an international dimension, with engagements with the innovation ecosystems in Silicon Valley, the UAE, UK, and with the UNDP network. It included milestones like the How Can We Support R&D in Canada’s Social Sector? report that highlighted actionable recommendations for funders, the Field Notes: Insights from Practitioners on Growing Social R&D, the 2017 Social R&D Practice Gathering, social R&D being included in Government of Canada’s social innovation and social finance strategy consultation document, and an experimental fund hosted by McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada to support social R&D.

Now, at the end of 2017, looking across Canada and across the globe, it’s clear that R&D to help social mission organizations generate rapid and continuous advancements in services and solutions to enhance lives is an idea that resonates.

Phase 4: Holding Ground

This phase of the work focused on holding momentum post-SiG. Tactically, it meant tightening the bonds across practitioners and keeping the curiosity of funders, policymakers and influencers alight. It included milestones like launching a Community of Practice for alumni of the Social R&D Practice Gatherings, hosting a Social R&D storytelling masterclass for funders and practitioners, and a letter writing campaign to keep practitioners’ voice at the national Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy table.

Phase 5: Preparing the ecosystem for growth

coming soon…

“If our societies are to thrive in the 21st century, we’ll need to make R&D mainstream in the social sector.” Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, Nesta


Contributors to the Declaration of Action, saw social R&D as complementary and reinforcing activities that unleash continuous process, product, policy, service, structural, and systems innovation across society.

These activities include, but are not limited to:

Exploring, community-led inquiry, ethnography, lit review, case studies, data sourcing
Brainstorming, generating hypotheses, leveraging small, big and open data
Designing and testing, piloting, prototyping, evaluating, designing feedback loops, co-production
Building/sharing capacity, aggregating/sharing lessons from success, failure and process development, leaping by learning

Though a number of definitions are emerging, our working definition is that Social R&D can be described as the art and science of applying research and experimental processes on the frontline to generate new knowledge and new innovations that transform lives.

It’s important to note that R&D functions can take a number of guises within organizations. Some have a problem-first orientation and others have a curiosity or discovery-first orientation. Some have a dedicated structure independently or adjacent to the core business, while others are embedded into everybody’s job descriptions. Some are shared across organizations and others are in service to a single organization.

Overall, R&D is not yet well 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. This is changing.



Strong R&D systems (whether in cleantech, fintech, ag, lifesciences, education, etc.) demonstrate again and again their ability to nurture leaps in value creation. Why not for social missions?

This exploration, first hosted by Social Innovation Generation (2015-2017) and now McConnell/CommunityFoundationsCanada (2018-now), has managed to build some solid momentum: R&D activity that is happening in social mission organizations is now visible, and there is a practitioner community now connected to funders and policymakers.

Progress has been good, but it’s insufficient.

Key next steps for us to grow R&D capacity past ‘early adopters’ (service providers and funders) towards a tipping point are to:

  1. Uncover ways to rapidly increase R&D knowhow and availability of R&D tools/talent across the sector.
  2. Successfully embedding the Social R&D ecosystem mandate into other key organizations across the country.

With Employment and Social Development Canada and the McConnell Foundation investing $2M over the next 2-years to continue the development of a network of supports for Social R&D in Canada via the Investment Readiness Program Ecosystem Initiatives, the Fellowship is transitioning away from an ecosystem stewardship role.

Moving forward we’ll be exploring how to apply what we’ve learned to crafting R&D infrastructure for targeted social missions and increasing Institutional Readiness for R&D (funders and service providers).

Reach out via if you’re curious to learn more.




Jason Pearman

Tim Draimin

Vinod Rajasekaran


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