Provoking innovation through stories of social entrepreneurship

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…”

―  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (2003)

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

In 2015, the Trico Charitable Foundation published four extensive case studies on the 2013 Social EnterPrize winners. Each case study was developed in partnership with the winning social enterprise and a post-secondary institution, converging the rigor of frontline experiential learning with the rigor of a critical academic lens.

The result? “A series of social entrepreneurship case studies that, in terms of the breadth of the organizations studied and the depth of the analysis, is the first of its kind in Canada” (Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015). Together, each social enterprise and academic team revealed and codified key insights, challenges and lessons from these four thriving social enterprises.

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful forces in humanity. As a private foundation, we have learned that our work is better when we tell stories and when we listen to them.”

― Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015

It is clear that an appreciation of the power of stories spurred Trico’s interest in developing the case studies. Why are stories so powerful? An audacious question, but one that provokes serious consideration of the role of stories in our lives.

In the context of social innovation, the defining stories we tell each day reveal our core beliefs and the conditioning beliefs of our broader social system.They tell us something about what we value, who we value, and what purpose we believe our systems (and selves) exist to serve.

Photo via Trico Foundation

TurnAround Couriers. Photo via Trico Foundation

In sharing – in depth – the story of the four Social EnterPrize winners, Trico Charitable Foundation contributed to a narrative that values business as more than a vehicle for profit maximization. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ is a story of sustainable social processes leveraging market solutions to serve social purpose. It advances another, broader story about our economic system, one where the economy thrives as products, services, and experiences put the best of our capital (financial, human, knowledge) sustainably to work producing (and reproducing) positive social and ecological outcomes.

The story of a new economy

Each case study offers a window into how this new story is taking root and reshaping economic life. Each case exemplifies business models succeeding not in spite of their social process and purpose, but because of it. And, to explain this success, each case brings to light that the triple bottom line of social enterprise (or social purpose business) is more than people, planet and profit – it is also process, purpose and outcome.

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

This is the triumvirate of a new economy where, similar to the case studies in the recently released book Citizen-led Innovation for a New Economy, “organized citizens are forging innovation, prying open cracks in the prevailing economic system and seizing opportunities to redirect economic life” (From the book blurb – Purchase the book here or the PDF summaries of the cases).

Stories describe where we come from and why we exist. They define ‘the good life,’ our expected roles in the society or how we should relate to each other. Stories tell us what our essence is: good or evil or somewhere in between; independent or interdependent; fundamentally threatened or enriched by difference. Above all, stories reflect and influence our perception of the world and, in doing so, our actions.

“A fundamental sociological premise is Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matter.”

Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed (2006)

embers-300x123

Each Social EnterPrize winner understood that “whether we think about things matters.” Whether we think about the potential of low-income folks living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (EMBERS); the common need for safety and comfort by travellers, students, women in crisis, families in transition or with medical issues, seniors and refugees (YWCA Hotel/Residence); the untapped work ethic of job-ready, at-risk youth (TurnAround Couriers); or the pedagogical opportunity to empower every student to be a math prodigy (JUMP), it is actually noticing and thinking about these things that shapes our understanding of the world, frames our actions and, through our actions, reimagines our communities.

How do we follow in these footsteps? Thankfully, the case studies not only exemplify how these social entrepreneurs advanced a different perception of the world – and in doing so, ignited cascading opportunities – each also reveals how that acute perception translated into tangible insights, challenges, solutions and outcomes. They lend evidence and advice to others seeking to leverage a new worldview and market opportunity to achieve sustainable, measurable social and ecological outcomes.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

Final takeaway

The ability to unlock market solutions that successfully redeploy capital to achieve transformational social and ecological impact often demands challenging the prevailing beliefs of our day. It butts up against the way so many people currently see or understand the world. The Social EnterPrize case studies remind us to know intimately the story we are telling through our actions and through our words…by whom, about whom, for whom, to what end. This story is our compass. As are these case studies which, with practical and inspirational insight, reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world

—     James Baldwin

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Apply Now to Trico Foundation’s 2015 Social EnterPrize!

Note: This article was originally published on May 4, 2015 on socialfinance.ca. It has been cross-posted with permission from socialfinance.ca and the Trico Charitable Foundation.

The Social EnterPrize Awards were created by the Trico Charitable Foundation in 2011 to recognize and celebrate leadership and excellence in social entrepreneurship across Canada.

Social-EnterPrize-Jubulation-crop-10-1080x675The awards look for the best practices, social impact and innovation of organizations and their social entrepreneurial strategies. Presented biennially, the awards provide organizations with funds and support that can be used to take their social enterprise to the next level. Awardees have included: Potluck Catering, Mission Possible, Caroline Arcand of Groupe Convex, Embers Staffing Solutions, YWCA Downtown Vancouver, TurnAround Couriers, and JUMP Math, and applications are now being accepted for the 2015 Social EnterPrize.

Over the past four years, we’ve been privileged to learn about and from these Canadian social enterprises. Trico’s goal for these awards has always been the chance to shine the light on the best examples in Canada, as well as provide resources for their continuation. However, it has not been just a journey for the awardees, but the awards themselves. In 2013, our jury had just met to decide the Social EnterPrize winners when Kevin Starr published Dump the Prizes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Starr wrote: “Too many of these things are winner-or-very-few-take-all, and too many focus on the usual suspects. In any case, the notion that even a smart selection jury can somehow discern which is best from a dozen stellar organizations is kind of silly.” While we winced at his commentary, his call was the first that perked our ears. Rather than simply disagreeing with his premise, we took a look at where our awards were not living up to their potential.

YWCA-CoverOur first insight was that a biennial awards process leaves the entire “off” year with little opportunity to learn from our winners and better understand their journeys. A video segment had always been part of the production of the awards, but with our 2013 winners, we went a step further. Coordinating with four post-secondary institutions across the country, we developed case studies on each of the organizations. The collaboration between academic institutions meant that professors and students were involved with the social enterprises themselves – providing an academically rigorous, yet practioner-based case study. Our goal was to develop a case study that would give the reader key takeaways to implement in their own social enterprise. We are pleased to be releasing these case studies, along with our own analysis, throughout April and May 2015 at Trico Foundation.

Our second insight came from the case study process as it enlivened our own understanding of what it takes to successfully implement a social enterprise – the internal operations, the organizational readiness, and the team behind-the-scenes. To that end, we enhanced our ‘prize pack’ by adding consulting services from the Business Development Bank of Canada and bringing the recipients to the wealth of expertise at the 2015 Social Finance Forum.

At the same time, we were involved in dialogues that asked questions around “How can we attract talent to social enterprises?”, “How do we find COOs?”, and “How do I have a career in social enterprise?” that started us thinking that somehow we’d left behind the teams of the social enterprises, by focusing solely on the founder. We are in good company in this mistake, as many Awards processes do. However, we started to take inspiration from Mass Challenge and Hult Awards in how they celebrate the diversity of the team. In addition, we heard the strong calls to move beyond ‘superhero syndrome’ by social entrepreneurs such as Liam Black.

The combination of all these factors came to us while watching the Skoll Awards in Oxford. We realized that we had the opportunity to improve the 2015 Social EnterPrize awards and kick-start the conversation on teams and to shine the light more broadly across the organization.

We’ve added the team feature for 2015 because two things became crystal clear:

  1. We wanted to get away from the lone entrepreneur myth and have conversations about the value of multi-faceted teams;
  2. We think the winning organizations will benefit from having more than one team member soak in all the wisdom and expertise available through the Social EnterPrize.

We share these insights with you because they mean that in 2015 your favorite Canadian social enterprise benefits even more from the Social EnterPrize. Our hope is that our learnings benefit not just social enterprises, but also the organizations that support them. We welcome you to support your favorite social enterprise by sharing this opportunity with them.

The deadline to apply is May 29 at 4pm MST. Applicants can learn more at tricofoundation.ca and can apply directly at: https://trico.fluidreview.com.

Patterns, platforms and time for play

We’ve all seen the headlines.

The world is rapidly changing. Technology is iterating at great speed, pushing our minds and our bodies in ways we don’t fully comprehend.  The economy, which by definition is equal to the wealth and resources of a country or region, is under serious stress – and will be for some time.

Our natural climate is throwing us huge curve balls, thanks in no small part to the hits we keep sending her way.

And yet we know all is not lost.
c/o socialfinance.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

At MaRS, it is believed that entrepreneurship is key to leading the way through all of this change. Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka — and credited with coining ‘social entrepreneurship’ — would agree and add that the skill of pattern recognition is equally imperative.

Understanding how and identifying where particular stresses exist focuses the entrepreneurial mind.

Tonya Surman has been paying attention to patterns for a long time. Most recently, she has been considering what motivates the work of an entrepreneur – more specifically – her work as a social entrepreneur.

Tonya is no stranger to success. She was the founding director of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, whose work catalyzed a new legislative framework to manage chemicals and ban bisphenol A in baby bottles.

She co-founded and chaired the Ontario Nonprofit Network, an organization that serves 55,000 non-profits. She was also a founding trustee of the Toronto Awesome Foundation, an organization that distributes monthly $1,000 grants to fund local projects.

However, it’s Tonya’s work as Founding CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) that has garnered her the most public attention. Not content to seed and grow one thriving co-working space in downtown Toronto, Tonya and her team successfully pioneered the use of Community Bonds – an innovative model for grassroots, sustainable capital campaigns. CSI used this financial product to purchase a second co-working space in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and have now offered a second bond to purchase a building on Spadina Ave – opposite their inaugural home base.

c/o socialinnovation.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

In addition to all of this moving and shaking, CSI has a space in the Daniels Spectrum building at Regent Park and a whole other co-working space in New York City!

With all of this success, she might be content to sit back and smell the roses she’s been growing in her roof-top garden, but Tonya continues to push herself. As an Ashoka Fellow, she would likely agree with Bill Drayton that entrepreneurship is a life-long process. The work is never done. Just like the world of social innovation, once one peak is reached, another mountain reveals itself and one must keep climbing!

Talking through what she has learned on her journey and the secret to her impressive energy, Tonya joins the MaRS Global Leadership Series & SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact for the first time on March 31.

Register for Tonya’s talk here.

A conversation and Q&A with the Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter will follow Tonya’s presentation. Catherine writes about everything from climate change, women’s rights, poverty, mental illness, international development and community activism. She has won two National Newspaper Awards for her work. Their discussion and your questions will be a great way to end an inspiring presentation.

Whet your appetite with this recent video interview below
where Tonya discusses her current motivations:

 

Scheduling Change

SiG Note: This blog post is written by former SiGster Satsuko, who is now a business ethnographer at social enterprise InWithForward. The post showcases a tangible example of how ethnography is used by labs to uncover opportunity areas in order to build system tipping solutions, like Kudoz. The post has been re-posted from InWithForward with permission from the author.

8:12am     Ashley: Ok, I just got a text that Kelly is sick.

Don: What time does she start?

Ashley: 10:30.

Don stares at his computer screen, toggling between tabs on the google spreadsheet.

Don: Has Saul worked with Randy?

Ashley: I think Clay has.

Don: Clay? Before we do that, let’s call Saul.

Ashley: We’ve pulled almost all the *casuals, oh Mick is extra today.

Don: Melody has worked with Randy.

Ashley: Ya, we can do that.

Don: Ok, I’ll change it in the schedule if you call.

Ashley [starts dialing]: Right!

Don: Better put it on the chat before Francine steals her.

8:15am      Ashley: Yup.

This was exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping to catch. From 7:50am to 10am, perched on a chair beside Don, I scribbled in my notepad as quickly as I legibly could. I was attempting to capture Don’s moves on a pretty micro level: his mouse clicks, the number of times he toggled between web browser tabs, text messages sent and received, facial expressions (concentration face, calm, joking around, adrenalin), timings, interruptions, conversations between colleagues. We’re trying to learn everything we can about staff scheduling at our Burnaby project partner agencies, because the success of Kudoz depends on it.

Learning about scheduling at one of our partner agencies

Learning about scheduling at one of our partner agencies

I was hanging out with Don because he is responsible for managing the schedule of two disability day programs, comprised of about 35 staff. He is part of a 4 person scheduling team. If any of his 4 colleagues receives a sick call, even if the shifts in Don’s programs are balanced and none of his staff cancel shifts, he may need to move around his staff to figure out a new configuration. There are tons of variables and rigid union regulations that schedulers juggle in their head.

 A simpler staff switch may take a couple minutes to sort out. A tougher one can take a couple hours and up to 9 shift swaps, not to mention the accompanying calls to each of the staff and families affected (this was the case with a sick call two days earlier, Don told me, where he couldn’t find anyone to cover the shift and ended up going on the floor himself). I recorded tons of clicking between google docs, one-handed text messages sent, scrunchy foreheads, jokes between the team, and greetings to individuals. By 9:35am, I already had 9 pages of notes.

The typical chain of events when Don receives a sick call

The typical chain of events when Don receives a sick call

We were observing Don with a very specific aim: to spot opportunity areas, which are often disguised as bottlenecks and barriers. Specifically, we are seeking to understand: what is the most annoying, time-consuming or anxiety-producing part of the scheduling process, what are the most rewarding moments that make it worthwhile, what is considered a good scheduling outcome, what skills help you excel at this type of work, what motivates schedulers and how do incentive structures support that? Don used the above diagram to talk me through his answers.

Scheduling? So what?

I joined InWithForward about a month ago, bringing a business lens to the team. My main focus has been on the business model for Kudoz. And related to that, how this new service will fit into the existing organizational structure and systems of our three partner agencies and the developmental disabilities sector as a whole. Staff scheduling quickly rose to the top as a potential barrier for Kudoz. That’s because Kudoz uses paid staff time in 1-3 hour increments during regular program hours.

Kudoz

Kudoz is a catalogue of taster experiences for people with a learning disability. Essentially, Kudoz matches people — disability agency staff, small business owners, or community members — who have a passion to share with individuals-served who are bored and curious to try something new.

For frontline worker Frank, it means having people join him for a drumming circle and getting better at teaching about soundscapes. For community member Andrea, it means having a friend to go for a walk in the forest and that nudge to get back into photography. For person-served David, it means discovering he is pretty good at making his own video clips, having more things to talk about with friends and family, having more positive self-talk, and growing his curiosity. Kudoz aims to enable individuals-served like David to flourish and lead a meaningful life.

For Don, this means that if any of his staff become a Kudoz host, the schedules he manages would be affected. In order for Kudoz to take hold and spread, we are working hard to figure out how to integrate Kudoz into existing structures and to make it easier and more convenient than the existing system. Because Kudoz will be squashed if it creates extra work or a headache for schedulers like Don.

Some early thoughts on different ways Don’s staff could work around the schedule in order to become a Kudoz host

Some early thoughts on different ways Don’s staff could work around the schedule in order to become a Kudoz host

(Early) insights & hunches

Based on our ethnographic observations thus far, we have a couple hunches.

One hunch is that Kudoz will be able to collect, accumulate, and leverage idle work hours in order to enable staff to share their passion with persons-served, all during work time.

For salaried staff with flexible hours, this hunch means using slower office times during the day, week, month, or year towards hosting Kudoz experiences (we are currently testing this).

For hourly support staff with defined shifts, this hunch means shaving off and banking idle work hours from a shift, in order for the hours to be re-purposed towards hosting a one-on-one experience to share their passion with an individual-served.

For example, some possible idle time that disability day program staff could potentially bank include:

  • (±40 minutes) when program staff are on the clock at the agency, but their person-served hasn’t arrived yet for their day program;
  • (±20 minutes) allotted to program staff for writing and reading log notes; casuals usually aren’t required to do so;
  • (3-4 hours) when casual staff are on shift, but an individual-served ends up not coming in; due to union regulations, the shift cannot be cancelled;
  • (1-2 hours) when a casual staff is called to cover a 2-hour staff meeting, but a casual cannot be booked for a shift that is less than 3-4 hours (minimum shift hours are different per agency).

These examples alone free up 6-7 hours for meaningful experiences that equate to individuals-served learning and growing their sense of self. And, staff get to share their personal passions on work time, leading to higher productivity and morale and lower absenteeism/presenteeism.

Another hunch is that much of the scheduling process could be automated to create efficiency gains and eliminate many of schedulers’ pain points.

One of the partner agencies has recently switched over to a bespoke software program for scheduling, that has been rolled out over the last year. Another agency uses google docs. Another uses paper. No matter the system, there are tons of variables that schedulers hold in their head. Some of this information is written somewhere, often the result of a scheduler going on a holiday and needing to share the info with their colleagues. But most of the tacit knowledge is not. And most of it is not reflected in the software they use. We think it could be!

We are making a list of specs that a Kudoz enabled scheduling system would need to include and we are learning more everyday. Some of these specs include:

  • automated text/call/email notifications of shifts when there are changes, based on the staff member’s preferred method of communication, how soon the shift is, etc.;
  • the option of a daily automated text to families of persons-served that let’s them know who will be working with their son/daughter that day, based on the family’s communication preferences;
  • drop down menu per specific shift, with all the staff that are trained and available to work on a given shift (even if they are scheduled for another shift), and the number of swaps that would be required if that staff was chosen;
  • recommendations of the most desirable swap, based on relationships between staff and the individual-served, an individual’s preferences (would like a different staff every three days), past interactions with family, etc. — all of which would be inputed by schedulers;
  • include “long shot” swap options; ie. staff who are likely unable to cover a shift (based on the availability they provided), but might be able to.

These specifications aim to minimize/eliminate the need for staff to negotiate swapping staff across programs (one of the major pain points identified by schedulers) and lessen the burden of communicating changes (calling people, waiting to hear back and adjusting the various systems to reflect changes is often the most time consuming part of shifting the schedule).

For now, we are pulling inspiration from restaurant scheduling apps and flight comparison aggregators sites to think creatively about what is possible. Any suggestions of ideas are super welcome ~ please include them in the comments section!

We’re left wondering…

There are many things to test and work through over the next 5 months. Some of the questions we’re trying to figure out and are working through at the moment include:

  • How do we get parents on board with Kudoz? How do we help parents see Kudoz as an opportunity for growth for their children?
  • How do we work with managers whose staff are signing up to be Kudoz hosts?
  • What is the economic activity surrounding an individual-served? Can we put a dollar amount on this? How can we bring out the stories behind the numbers, ie. What is the cost to quality of life and the ability to flourish? What are the positive deviant stories of individuals-served?

There is nothing like a deadline to keep one moving and motivated.

– Satsuko

Jargon alert!

Some of the sector specific language used in this post:

 *Casuals: a type of Support Worker that is on-call and employed when and if needed for disability day programs and for group homes (where 3-4 people with learning disabilities may live).

*Support Staff/Workers: assist adults with a learning disability on a day-to-day basis, either one-on-one or as part of a small group (usually no more than 4).

*Disability day program: a place where adults with learning disabilities go during the day. Day programs are staffed by support workers that help individuals work towards their personal development plans.

Don’t build a start-up, become a systems entrepreneur

560px-Morne_Seychellois_NP_footpath“Make sure you start the year on the right foot…”

…my grandmother always used to remind me. Given that I work at what is externally referred to as one of Canada’s main entrepreneurship centres (though I much prefer describing MaRS as an innovation hub), starting the year by writing a piece on why you should NOT build a startup probably wouldn’t meet her standard. But you have to put your job on the line at least once a year to make the ride worthwhile, right?

Whenever I am trying to solve a problem, whether it’s in my personal life, at work (first in management consulting and now in innovation) or in my relationships (where I get a lot of slack for treating problems like projects), I generally go through a three-stage process:

The why

How is success defined? How should it be defined? What is the North Star or goal post we’re going after?

The how

What are the options? What pathways can we imagine to get us there? Which one(s) should be chosen?

The what

Where do we start? What’s the first step? How do we track progress and learn?

There is also a big “who” question that runs through all three stages, but we will leave that for another time. For now, let’s consider the challenge proposed in the title of this article through these questions.

(Re)defining success: Why people build startups

When I consider the wide range of underlying motivations for why people decide to build startups, they generally fall into one of the following (non-comprehensive) categories:

  • Necessity: “This is my best chance at providing the basics of life for me and/or my family.”

If this is the case for you, you should absolutely take what you believe to be the best path forward. Nobody else understands your specific context better than you do. Just make sure that you understand the realities of the startup life and the risks associated with it, and also be sure to get access to the fast-growing range of public resources that can help support you along the way.

  • Achievement: “I am going to do this so that I can have more money/power/freedom/excitement/etc.”

While I have my own opinions about why these are the wrong settings on a personal compass, fortunately I can just defer to Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, who explains why you shouldn’t build a startup if these are your goals.

  • Impact: “I want to change or create a positive impact in the world!”

I’m lucky enough to meet a lot of people for whom impact is a primary motivation. Listening to them express their motivations makes my heart both melt and ache every time. It makes my heart melt because these are absolutely the kind of people we need much more of—those who seek meaning, are driven by purpose, and have a vision for the future. On the other hand, it makes my heart ache because I see so much of their amazing potential go to waste (or, at best, not go very far). This is due in part to their choosing the wrong “how,” even though they have the right “why” as their starting point.

Mission Big Change: Why building a startup isn’t the best path

Of those in that final category, almost everyone I speak to genuinely wants to create real, meaningful, positive, long-lasting, sustainable change—what we will call ‘big change.’

The next question is whether building a startup is the best way to get there (most people default to this option and only ask how to build the best startup.)

To answer that question, we can compare the most significant conditions necessary for big change with the most common pieces of advice given to the founders of new startups. As we can see in the chart below, for every one of the five key conditions, the common advice for startups is the exact opposite:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 4.43.19 PM

A whole article could be written analyzing each condition and piece of advice, their respective underlying logic and their stark contrast, but we will leave that to another time. For now, I will just share a quote from Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child fame (who has, with freakish accuracy, predicted the future over the last several decades), from his interview with Stewart Brand of The Long Now Foundation:

“Startup businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus’…they’re doing these startups and their venture funding tells them focus, focus and become cash-flow positive—which is a really stupid idea in a startup…keep the risk high, don’t become cash-flow positive.”

To be abundantly clear, no part of this is a criticism of entrepreneurial thinking or entrepreneurial spirit—both of which I love, with the former featuring prominently in our curriculum (led by our amazing faculty member Assaf Weisz) and the latter being a big part of our culture at Studio Y. Both are necessary ingredients to becoming a truly successful systems entrepreneur. The issue is that these really powerful, bold ideas and concepts have been corrupted in the way in which we’ve built our dominant startup ecosystems.

“But what about Elon Musk?” is an unavoidable counter to the arguments outlined above. Elon Musk, in this case, is exactly the exception that proves the rule. He thinks big, he gives away his intellectual property and he takes on big societal challenges that matter to our future. In fact, the fact that Elon Musk is celebrated for being such an outlier in how he goes about working on his ventures is what should concern us most.

Another great (and Toronto-based) example is Aled Edwards, director and CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium, who has championed the view that drug discovery advances would be made more rapidly within an open access research environment in which no patents are filed, and materials and ideas are exchanged without restriction on use.

C/O NASA

C/O NASA

So if not ‘launch a start-up!’ then what?

The road less traveled: The rise of systems entrepreneurs

To make the case for an alternative path, it is important to also consider how big change happens. Two distinguishing factors include adoption and success definition:

Let there be light.  

The fundamental transformations in our world come from large-scale adoption, not from the act of invention. For a number of reasons, including very innate human tendencies, we reward invention significantly more than we do adoption, despite adoption being an absolutely necessary condition for big change. In my research for this piece, I came across Dr. Marc Ventresca, an economic sociologist in strategy and innovation at Saïd Business School, who makes this point in a TEDx talk using a great example. He argues that it is large-scale power-grid systems (each unique to its particular context) that have changed the world, not simply the invention of electricity.

We need to grow.

This is the shared mantra of almost every organization across industries. Even in those organizations focused on growing impact (rather than profits), the problem is that the “we” is the organization; our dominant, if not exclusive, approach to success definition is at the organizational level. Just think about the mind-blowing amount of resources that go into setting up, growing and promoting individual organizations, or about how highly we regard leaders (again, across all sectors) who grow an organization’s budget, size, reach or, in the best case scenario, actual impact.

Yet, what we know to be unequivocally true is that our biggest issues are so complex and interdependent that no single organization or solution can alone achieve the level of fundamental systems change required. One of the biggest issues with the startup model is that it fundamentally defines success as organizational success (and how fast, big and far you can grow it) with zero accountability for system success.

So who, then, are systems entrepreneurs? The concept of systems entrepreneurs is not widely recognized, as can be seen by performing a Google search for  “systems entrepreneur” or “system entrepreneur,” which return 25,000 and 5,000 results respectively, almost all of which are related to information, communication and power systems.

Both Engineers Without Borders and our team at Studio Y have used the term “systems change leaders” as a frame over the past couple of years, in developing the people we work with.

In her paper, “How Actors Change Institutions: Towards a Theory of Institutional Entrepreneurship” (2009),  Julie Battilana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that while all systems entrepreneurs are change agents, to be considered a systems entrepreneur, two criteria must be met:

  • First, you must initiate divergent change (something that breaks with the status quo rather than simply improving or enhancing it).
  • Second, you must actively participate in the implementation of these changes, demonstrating an ability to marshal the resources required to implement change (speaking to the adoption point made earlier).

She and her colleagues then describe three sets of activities that systems entrepreneurs undertake:

  • Developing a vision — encompasses activities undertaken to make the case for change, including sharing the vision of the need for change with followers.
  • Mobilizing people — includes activities undertaken to gain others’ support for and acceptance of new routines.
  • Motivating others to achieve and sustain the vision — consists of activities undertaken to institutionalize change.

Note how none of these criteria and activities require building a startup. In fact, the dominant startup model limits one’s ability to truly focus on some of the most important elements of systems entrepreneurship.

More recently, Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline and a guru in systems thinking and organizational learning, co-authored a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled: The Dawn of Systems Leadership. In it, the authors offer the following advice for those interested in getting started on a journey of becoming a systems leader/entrepreneur.

  • Learn on the job.
  • Engage people across boundaries.
  • Let go of control.
  • Build your own toolkit.
  • Work with others on a similar journey.

A plea and a pledge

I may not have listened to that piece of advice from my grandmother about how to start a new year, but one thing I learned through her actions (rather than her words) was never to shy away from a healthy debate about the future.

So whatever your vision or passion for the future, consider this a plea to make the pledge to take the road less travelled by way of systems entrepreneurship because, as Robert Frost said, we will look back years from now and know “that has made all the difference.”

For more on systems change roles, thinking, mindsets and initiatives, explore Ecosystems for Systems Change.

Microtainer: social innovation & lab links we’re following (August 2014)

C/O Louise Boye

C/O Louise Boye

This mini blog, or bloggette, is part of our ongoing effort to spread information that we think will be interesting, insightful and useful to lab practitioners and the lab-curious. Below is a collection of resources that crossed our desks over the month of August 2014. In no particular order:

1. The final essay of a three part series on the future of independent work: “Fringe Benefits” by Bryan Boyer. In this third installment, Bryan discusses what independent workers have expressed as core needs (effort, flexibility, responsibility, pay, and security), as well as needs that are ripe for innovation (identity, community, professional development, and scaling ones own efforts), trade-offs that independent workers juggle, and questions that he is left pondering. Also see essay one, two, and zero (the prequel), the series is an interesting read for entrepreneurs, freelancers, contractors, consultants… that is, what Bryan terms: independents.

2. Another one related to Bryan: Blog post, “Bryan Boyer: Stories from 5 years at Helsinki Design Lab,” summarizes a GovLab Ideas Lunch session by Bryan, about his work at Sitra and the notion of “dark matter.” (for more on the vocab of strategic design, check out this book by Dan Hill)

3. Streamed half hour conversation with Bruce Katz (author of The Metropolitan Revolution) and Geoff Mulgan (Nesta) and moderated by Alexandra Jones (Centre for Cities), on “How to encourage innovation in city economies.” The trio explore the shifting innovation landscape: revaluing needs and assets; technology fusing with other clusters like education/health etc; countries leading the innovation charge; the role of creativity, etc.

4. Blog post: “We Need New Civic Institutions To Confront The Challenges Of The 21st Century,” by Thomas Neumark, explores the debate around whether to renew declining institutions or to create whole new institutions (as the title suggests, Thomas argues for the latter).

5. Blog post: “Why social entrepreneurship has become a distraction: it is mainstream capitalism that needs to change,” by the very wise Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Said Business School. Some great lines include, “The key to sustainable capitalism is reasonable profits as opposed to maximizing profits…Fortunately, there are a growing number of people, particularly among the young, who embrace the notion of ‘entrepreneurship for society,’ rather than commercial or social entrepreneurship.  They are not waiting until they are 50 years old when they have ‘made their money’ and can ‘give back’.”

6. There is still a strong buzz about the book “Labcraft.” Here is a blog post about the making of the book on La 27e Région’s blog (en français) and Kennisland’s blog (in English). The book can be purchased from the Labcraft website (take a sneak peak of the book here).

7. Book: “Public Innovation through Collaboration and Design,” by Christopher Ansell and Jacob Torfing, with a chapter written by Christian Bason of Mindlab on “design attitude.” The book brings together empirical studies drawn from Europe, the USA and the antipodes to show how collaboration, creative problem-solving and design are important features of public sector innovation in many Western democracies with different conditions and traditions.

8. Article: “Finding a radical solution to a common challenge” explores the merits and potential of the Radical Efficiency model by describing the development of Family Voices — a project that emerged from work done by the Innovation Unit and the Children’s Centres in the Whiston Area of Knowsley (UK). Family Voices enables the Children’s Centres’ staff to achieve their universal mission, tailor delivery to local needs and reach more families, all while creating a measurably better service at a reduced cost. That is a win-win-win-win-win!

9. The DIY (Development Impact & You) Toolkit’s YouTube channel has a collection of thirty social innovation tools in the form of video tutorials. The DIY Toolkit has been specifically designed to arm people working in development with the tools to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better development results and outcomes.

10. Nesta released a guide on 18 everyday social innovations — big ideas with positive socio-cultural impacts in the UK & beyond. They are:

  • Kindergarten
  • Cooperatives
  • First Aid
  • Girlguiding
  • Meals On Wheels
  • The National Childbirth Trust
  • Fair Trade
  • The Hospice Movement
  • The Open University
  • The World Wide Web
  • The Big Issue
  • Police Support Volunteers
  • Shared Lives Plus
  • Patients Like Me
  • Avaaz
  • BeatBullying
  • The Pennies Foundation
  • Code Club

11.  A great list (with hyperlinks) of the social innovation labs around the world, as part of next week’s Social iCon conference taking place in Singapore via the Lien School of Social Entrepreneurship. The list covers labs from Afghanistan (UNICEF Afghanistan Innovation Lab) to Zimbabwe (CCore Zimbabwe Lab),  and 40+ social innovation labs across Asia.

12. Great post: “6 Ways To Make Your Work More Effective, From Entrepreneurs Who Want To Change The World” on FastCoExist, by Finance Innovation Lab’s Rachel Sinha and The Point People’s Ella Saltmarshe. The six strategies highlighted are:

  1. Understand the system you are trying to change. But not too much.
  2. Experiment, prototype, test, and be prepared to be wrong. Dive in and act. Experiment. Learn. But don’t do it alone.
  3. Stop and learn. Reflection is essential to systems change.
  4. Don’t go it alone. Get smart about collaboration. If you want to create impact, you will have to collaborate. Full stop.
  5. Create liminal spaces that allow you to move in and out of the system you are trying to change. It can be hard to create radical change from within the status quo and it can be hard to influence a system from outside of it.
  6. Get humble. Become comfortable leading from behind. Don’t make yourself too central to the result. It’s often when you get out the way that the magic happens.

13.  Article: “Hacking democracy – nine interesting GovHack projects” talks about GovHack – one of Australia’s largest hackathons — where teams of programmers and designers compete to come up with novel ways to use government data over the course of a weekend.

14.  Along a similar vein, UK’s FutureGov held a “Design Meets Social Care” Design Camp, which brought together the FutureGov team and 20 up-and-coming young designers for an intensive day of thinking big about the future of adult social care. The blog post contains images, tweets, and some of the provocations (“How would Zappos deliver social care?”) from the event.

15.  Blog post: “Reflections from Accelerate 2014: What does it take to collaborate?” by Saralyn Hodgkin of The Natural Step Canada’s Sustainability Transition Lab, emphasizes the need to collaborate across boundaries as the key to getting things done. Saralyn shares how she will pull this thinking into her work at the Lab; for example, “ask different types of questions, see their efforts within a system, and effectively shift systems to build a thriving society.”

16. Workshop: “Tapping the Power of Networks: Strategies for Innovation and Renewal,” with complexity inspired facilitator-coach-animator Liz Rykert, co-led by network weaving guru June Holley (a huge influence for SiG’s field building two-pager). The workshop introduced the network approach, an approach where everyone is potentially a leader. “Connections and relationships are key to unleashing innovation and amplifying your work to reach more people, more deeply.”

17. Article: “New Community Planning Method Evolves and Deepens Community Engagement” explores a week-long design charrette to build community engagement and consensus for an Official Community Plan in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. The process was led by Urban Systems, an progressive engineering firm with a sister social enterprise Urban Matters that is worth checking out.

18. Great (and humble) blog post: “Burnaby Summer Update,” by InWithForward, talks about which of their initial assumptions they got wrong and how they’re re-calibrating their prototypes based on what they learned. This post is helpful in getting a sense of why prototyping is hard and what it requires.

19. Also by InWithForward, an absolute must-read-immediately-if-not-sooner discussion paper, “Grounded Change,” about the next iteration of their approach. This approach dives deep into what the team has found to be the 7 missing links between Social Policy, Social Services, and Outcomes that keep coming up across the many projects they have led and been involved in. The team is also soliciting feedback on the paper, so please do read and respond with your (constructive) critique!

19. Blog post: “Minding the gap: Georgia takes a page from UK’s innovation guidebook” by the Public Service Development Agency of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia (PSDA), talks about their social innovation learning tour to the UK. The tour covered a wide range of organizations from different fields and foci, including government innovation labs, think tanks, and social enterprises. A nice way to take a virtual vacation!

20. From the i-teams blog: MindLab’s Christian Bason writes “Ask citizens and bring order to the chaos of society,”. In this post, Christian describes the value of i-teams (or innovation teams) within government. “…you might consider i-teams as organizations that help to create meaning in chaos by inviting, involving and engaging citizens, policy makers and other stakeholders to find new and more powerful solutions for society. You could say that they institutionalize innovation processes.”. Helpful in finding ways to articulate the value that labs offer~ thanks CB!

21. Adore this project: “The Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe” is a growing collection of stories about amazing people and their innovative projects — people who are actively and creatively nurturing community together and transforming where they live. The website is a wider collection of blog posts and reflective essays on this emergent new community culture. The aim of the Community Lover’s Guide is to surface and share this new community practice widely. How great is that! And, I heard that Zahra Ebrahim of archiTEXT is involved (why am I not surprised?).

What have we missed?
What lab-related links have you been following this past month?

Disequilibrium: the disconnect between impact investors and social entrepreneurs

Social enterprises are on the rise.

B Corp: Fresh City Bag

Fresh City Farms (B Corp): Toronto-based urban farm and farming network

In Canada alone, there are now over 100 certified B Corps actively using the power of business to tackle social and environmental issues. Each and every day, talented young entrepreneurs are improving their communities on a local and global scale. Just like traditional businesses, social enterprises need capital to expand their operations and achieve their organizational goals.

Similarly, impact investing is growing too.

The number of progressive investors interested in having their capital generate social returns, in addition to financial gain, is growing not only in Canada, but around the world. Now, more than ever, investors want their money to impact the world as well as their bank accounts.

Social entrepreneurs and impact investors must have an ideal relationship then, right? Well, sometimes.

If there are an increasing number of social entrepreneurs seeking money and a growing population of impact investors looking to invest, shouldn’t the supply and demand of impact transactions satisfy the marketplace?

Unfortunately, we are not in utopic equilibrium. Yet.

There is a disconnect between the capital needs of enterprises and investors. The disconnect has to do with risk. Turns out, investors don’t like it. While impact investing is indeed a budding asset class, most impact capital is allocated to mature social enterprises and investment vehicles. This is because these opportunities marry a high probability of earning steady returns with a low risk of failing. Unsurprisingly, safe investments with healthy income are attractive to investors.

The consequence of risk-aversion is that most impact investments are made in social enterprises or financial vehicles that have already been vetted and de-risked. This trend has significant effects on both individual social enterprises and the impact investing sector as a whole. While there might be a considerable sum of impact capital invested in the marketplace, a limited amount is allocated to early stage ventures: this is when entrepreneurs need capital the most to innovate, build their businesses, and accomplish their organizational goals. If too many early stage enterprises lack growth capital, a pipeline of de-risked investment opportunities will never fully develop. A consistent flow of early ventures must graduate to mature enterprises to satisfy the demand of more traditional impact investors.

Twenty One Toys: re-imagining toys as tools for social change

Twenty One Toys: re-imagining toys as tools for social change

The solution is simple and clear: invest in early stage ventures! Invest with intention and longterm time horizons by targeting early stage social enterprises with the goal of maturing a strong pool of de-risked ventures.

If the trend is towards risk-aversion and the solution is to invest in higher risk early stage ventures, how do we move forward? Understanding that there is a problem doesn’t catalyze capital.  

Simply put: some must lead the way. There are pioneering investors that deem the investment rewards to be worth the financial risk. Impact investors looking for both higher financial and social returns will see the value in early stage impact investing. Leading investors are also focused on intentionally supporting innovation by closing the pioneer gap – the gap between capital access and the capital needs of new social entrepreneurs. As the goals,  strategies, and potential rewards align for these investors, their investments enable new waves of social entrepreneurs to make an impact.

One investor already leading the way is Youth Social Innovation Capital Fund (YSI for short). YSI (disclaimer: I lead it) does what others don’t do. We provide capital and support to entrepreneurs when they need it most: in the early stages of building their ventures. Our goal is to graduate YSI-supported social enterprises from very early ventures to ones ready to take on more growth capital.

There needs to be more investors like YSI (or more investment flowing through YSI) in order to satisfy the capital needs of social enterprises at every stage of growth at all times – not just sometimes.

* Editor’s Note: While the author writes of social enterprise as a collective term to describe all businesses with a social purpose, due to regulatory and incorporation differences, SiG differentiates between non-profit social enterprises and for-profit social purpose businesses. See our Knowledge Hub for more information.

Top Ten Takeaways from the Social Enterprise World Forum

Last month Calgary hosted the annual Social Enterprise World Forum. Here are Charmian Love and Tim Draimin’s top 10 takeaways from the conference.

1.   System Change. The Next Frontier.

While “entrepreneurship is about the creation of tangible value,” says the godmother of social entrepreneurship, Pamela Hartigan, “in the case of social entrepreneurship, it is about creating systems change.”

 2.   The Social Enterprise Movement Is Tax Status Agnostic.

Calgary was the sixth SEWF and the first to be tax status agnostic. For example, the competition for TRICO Foundation’s Enterprizes were open to for-profits and nonprofits. “Social entrepreneurship,” said Pamela Hartigan, “… is paving the way toward a much larger transformation of capitalism where the creation of positive social change through markets will be the key to success rather than the result of a special kind of business.” The corollary is that blended value can produce change regardless of its tax status. Ultimately the biggest impact of social enterprise will be its ability to help kick-start the shift from traditional capitalism to Capitalism 2.0, or what John Elkington calls Breakthrough Capitalism, or Umair Haque’s constructive capitalism.

pamela hartigan

Pamela Hartigan spoke at the Social Enterprise World Forum

3.   Heroes Welcome. Teams Required.

Not everyone can be a social entrepreneur, says Pamela Hartigan, if it doesn’t stand for “promoting disruptive business models” and transformational change that addresses root causes.  At the same time, visionaries require teams to make change. While Pamela highlighted that only a few are social entrepreneurs, many people can be involved in the entrepreneuring (Pamela’s term) efforts to make societal change happen.

4.   Disruptors Need Bridging and Receptive Innovators.

Al Etmanski, the co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) and social entrepreneur behind the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), described entrepreneuring systems change roles slightly differently. He says that “it takes three distinct types of innovators or entrepreneurs to achieve broad systemic change: Disruptive, Bridging, and Receptive.” Al’s Disruptive Innovator is the social entrepreneur. Bridging Innovators excel in identifying big ideas and leveraging their connections, reputation and resources to make the value of the disruptive innovation clear to the system. Receptive Innovators are the institutional entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs, who are skilled at advancing the big idea throughout the system. All are required.

5.   Events Can Kick off the Conversation.

MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and TRICO capitalized on the unique character and size of SEWF by hosting a half-day lead-up event: Canada’s first gathering of impact investors. The event began with an update from Sir Ronald Cohen, video-conferenced in from Washington where he had just hosted the G-8 Impact Investing meeting. Also joining this landmark event were federal and provincial ministers and their delegations from across Canada who also attended Canada’s first-ever national social enterprise gathering by government policy makers.

6.   Labs, Labs, Labs.

It appears there is a huge push in Canada to develop labs to support multi-sector collaboration in solution generation and scale up.  How these activities happening across the provinces stay connected to each other – and learn from one another’s successes and failures – will be instrumental in making sure this movement transcends the fad-ism that some fear will consume their activities.

Stickynotes

The Social Enterprise World Forum hosted several Finance Solutions Labs that generated plenty of ideas

 7.   Top-down support from across party lines

From Federal Minister Jason Kenney to Ontario Minister Eric Hoskins to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, intergenerational and cross-party support signal growth for the social enterprise sector. Whether through an openness to explore addressing the needs of the sector through policy reform or through investment funds or tax credits for social enterprises – the bottom line is that very senior levels of government are watching and ready to do something different. The question will be how to make their interest leap from conceptual conversations to practical and pragmatic action.

8.   Community capitalism.

Dr. Wanda Wuttunee has devoted her research to understanding how Aboriginal values interact with capitalist values. Opening the conference alongside Dr. Ilse Treurnicht of MaRS and Mary Gordon of Roots of Empathy, Wuttunee asked attendees to reflect on the unique lens indigenous experience provides to enterprise and economic opportunities. The term “community capitalism” reflects her emphasis on the need for economic development to be in sync with Aboriginal communities. There are under-valued benefits in seeing the economy through this perspective.

9.   Resiliency Required.

The SEWF taking place in Calgary was a metaphor for the change needed. This is about resiliency and an ability to pick up when times get tough. This was most pointedly drilled home by the Mayor of Calgary indicating that only 52 days earlier the venue for the evening rodeo was under water due to mass city-wide flooding. As he pointed out, responsive community cohesion led to a quick recovery.

 10.   Value – for whom?

One of the most re-tweeted one-liners from Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS.  Harvard’s definition of innovation is invention with value.  But Ilse rightfully asks – “value for who?”  This is a powerful reframing of the role of innovation and how it must be leveraged as a force for good.

Reflections on the Social Enterprise World Forum

Now, I may be a bit biased given that it was hosted in Canada, but I honestly believe that this was the best Social Enterprise World Forum I have ever had the pleasure of attending. The forum built on the tradition of social enterprise, recognizing in particular the historical leadership of the United Kingdom, and moved us to think about the links between social enterprise and the broader social change imperative—a uniquely Canadian positioning.

The organizing team worked so hard, by design, to ensure inclusion. If you were just discovering the field of social enterprise, you had the opportunity to learn the essentials from terrific leaders in the field through sessions like Social Enterprise 101, which was offered in both English and French.

For those of us who have been around this game for some time, it was terrific to see the engagement of new players. I heard an elder state that this was the first conference of this type in his memory to have a stream and keynotes reflecting the experience of indigenous peoples, and the session on rural realities was critical, especially given the increasing focus on urbanization as more and more of us move to cities.

Broad government representation

The event welcomed all three levels of government and, given the state of our federation in Canada, this is virtually unprecedented. This monumental task was achieved in part by the leadership of the Government of Alberta, who organized a pre-conference session with other political and bureaucratic staff from across the country. I am especially appreciative of the efforts of Dr. Eric Hoskins of the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment and the Hon. Jason Kenney of Employment and Social Development Canada for taking so much time out of their intense schedules to join us. Obviously the issues we discussed are resonating in political circles.

Corporate representation

It was also wonderful to see so many players from the corporate world join us. In one of the sessions I attended on corporate social innovation, the attendees were lined up along the sides of the walls and out the door. We often talk about the fact that social change requires multi-stakeholder engagement, but we spend a lot of time talking only to ourselves and to those who agree with us. With this conference we have broken down many of these silos and there is some discomfort in our wake as we transition to a broader, more inclusive approach to social change.

Social finance

One area where those silos are blurring is in the field of social finance. My colleagues in the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing worked with the Trico Charitable Foundation to bring our extremely popular Social Finance Forum to Alberta. Started in 2007, under the visionary leadership of Tim DraiminTim Brodhead and Bill Young, among others, we were able to engage Sir Ronald Cohen in our work in Canada, which was fledgling at the time, and to keep him engaged in that work as we moved forward. It was terrific to welcome him back to Canada—via Skype—and to have him share his deep knowledge and unique perspective with the corporate, political and social enterprise leaders at this pre-conference event.

On a personal level—and because I am privileged to attend so many of these events—I rarely expect to learn anything new. However, I, along with many other seasoned practitioners, walked away inspired by the wisdom of everyone from Al Etmanski and Mary Gordon to llse Treurnicht (more bias), the Hon. Paul Martin and Pamela Hartigan.

Allyson Hewitt with Wayne Chiu, head of the organizing committee for SEWF 2013 and chair of Trico Foundation

Allyson Hewitt with Wayne Chiu, the head of the organizing committee for SEWF

They consistently recognized a place for us all in this movement. They talked about the role of social entrepreneurs at the systems level, about disruptive, bridging and receptive innovators, and about “entrepreneuring.” They challenged our complacency, they offered hope and they offered a way forward—and that is well worth the price of admission.

To everyone on the organizing committee in general and to the remarkable leadership of Wayne Chiu and Daniel Overall of the Trico Charitable Foundation, congratulations on a job well done! As for the rodeo, well my friend, that was the proverbial tasty icing on the well-baked cake. Yahoo!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the MaRS website. It has been reposted here with permission from the author.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Seeding the Roots of Empathy

Over the course of the last 12 months I have read a plethora of articles and blog posts on the importance of empathy and the urgent need to nurture it. From Arianna Huffington’s words at the 2012 Skoll World Forum to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Project, from Bill Drayton’s article in Forbes to Paul Bloom’s more challenging piece in The New Yorker. Why the growing call?

We are moving in this world at a heightened pace, images fly at us from multiple media platforms. Tragedies from mass murder, to the drumbeats of war, to teen suicides rise in number and our hearts and minds struggle to makes sense of it all. The absence of empathy underlies the creation of these conditions; without empathy there is insufficient traction for conflict resolution. This is the problem Mary Gordon has been trying to solve since 1996 when she started Roots of Empathy.

Exported ROE

Mary will share her thoughts on empathy’s surprising power at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary next month. I spoke to Mary to get her thoughts on how we can foster this most beneficial and necessary trait in our communities.

With a growing chorus of people calling for the development of empathy, do you believe it is well understood?

Mary Gordon: I believe the value placed on empathy varies from country to country. For example, there are big differences between Canada and the United States. In the U.S., empathy is regarded as a soft, female trait, and is often confused with sympathy. In Canada, it is considered a desirable, non-gendered trait. So you have to begin work in a country knowing how empathy is perceived.

We know that empathy is developed by the attachment relationship between a primary parent and child. Exposing children to the experience of empathy gives them the capacity to build good relationships – it helps them learn and develop skills sets for entering adult life. Good relationships help in every aspect of life. You cannot be in a meaningful relationship with anyone unless you’re able to feel with them. In understanding this, you then realize that fostering empathy is not just the responsibility of the family, but of everyone. For example, in order to break out of the cycle of poverty we need to ensure that impoverished individuals experience empathy. That means those with power to inform policies must also operate with empathy.

What are some of the best ways we can develop empathy in ourselves and others?

Mary Gordon: One of the dreadful things I encountered overseas, was the lack of support for the bonding between child and parent. Many parents know they will lose their job if they stay home with their newborn. They are forced to give their baby to multiple people to take care of and the crucial serve-and-return exchange is undermined. One example of an empathetic Canadian policy is the extension of maternity leave to one full year. In doing that, policy makers supported a healthy attachment relationship between a baby and parent. What we haven’t done is extend it to people who don’t have benefits, which is also necessary.

If society wants to do something at a general level, they need to look at policy decisions that allow parents to spend time with their children and meet their needs. When families are well supported, there are better attachment relationships, and aggressive behavior like bullying is reduced. Empathy is about fairness. Citizens that have empathy make life fair.

Is empathy simply the ability to take the perspective of others?

Mary Gordon: Empathy is not cold cognition. It is the combination of emotional connection, understanding and care. You can be a true sociopath with the ability to take the perspective of the victim without the ability to care for what they’re feeling. For me, it’s very much a combination of the two. A little child’s brain, empathy and cognition are tightly aligned.

Sara Konrath wrote on The Empathy Paradox at the University of Michigan, after finding that there has been a dramatic decline in perspective taking and empathic concern in college students since the 1970s. She didn’t mean to have an impact but people went nuts over it. It’s a sign of the times, not just an American situation.

So we must ask: what is the difference in the landscape for children growing up? What are the policies? What are the points of connection and contagion for good or for bad?

I think you can have an impact if all of those that are trained to work with others – in corporate life, education or government – are aware of the needs of those that are learning or working with them. To be aware of an individual’s needs is to understand that at the very basic level, people desire a feeling of belonging. How do people feel like they belong? When they feel understood. It’s all about empathy.

This is a conversation about humanity.

Exported ROE2

You have been working on Roots of Empathy since 1996, and even longer on understanding how empathy can be fostered. What gives you energy to maintain your focus in this work?

Mary Gordon: I’m not a Pollyanna in terms of optimism, but I do believe in the power of humanity to create an empathic space in which we all can live. I believe we have that capacity. I don’t think we’ll see it delivered in my lifetime and I don’t think it’s up to me. I don’t feel the weight of this on my shoulders, as long as people like you want to talk to me. And as long as people want to train for Seeds of Empathy or Roots of Empathy, they want to understand, to learn, to make things better. I feel very encouraged. I see acts of courage and hear about them every day. And I pass the stories on because they encourage people.

Someone once said to me, “It’s a curse being an innovator.” I don’t agree at all. I am very encouraged by the world I see. For every horror story I hear, I hear a positive story.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?

SEWF

Mary Gordon: I think there is a particular surge of energy having so many people together that care about innovation. The fact that many in the audience may not have necessarily thought of empathy as a lever for change. That they’re already cued into social change and that it might help some of their initiatives to put on a lens of empathy. That by talking to all of them, it will open me up to having new relationships. I’ll get a lot of learning after the fact. It’s an electrifying group. I love talking to people that are switched on. I think that’s going to be great fun.