Experiencing the shock of the possible in uncertain times…

SiG Note: This article is cross-posted from MaRS Discovery District, with permission from the authors. 

Indeed these are uncertain times that we live in… — Stephen Huddart

Speaking to an over-200-person audience at MaRS Discovery District on November 24, Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, challenged the growing contemporary narrative that our future is bleak and looming ahead with daunting uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.15.42 AM

Reminding us of a long history of Canadian precedents for testing systems-level innovation, and of the new big experiments underway today, Stephen invited us to experience the shock of the possible (a term coined by Eric Young).

It’s a shock catalyzed by the deepening of strategic philanthropy, as the philanthropic sector reorganizes itself to collaboratively address the complex issues of today with new and unusual partnerships.

In particular, foundations are becoming leading participants in systems change efforts, accessing new tools and—in support of their grantees—exploring cross-sector partnerships that scaffold up the possibility of new systems.

In his MaRS Global Leadership and Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk, Stephen exemplified the sector’s new direction with key initiatives from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and beyond, elucidating the radical shift in how we do good that is fostering new possible futures for Canada.

Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

New tools enabling systems change

A new series of mindsets and tools is reframing how foundations approach their entire cycle of work, from funding to programming to endowment management, facilitating an accelerating shift toward systems change aspirations.

Stephen referred to this collection of tools as the “Social Five.” These rapidly developing new tools are enhancing our capacity to nurture social change at scale and transform the systems that, if left alone, are otherwise on track to dramatically underperform for communities and Canada.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.17.36 AMThe Social Five consist of:

While individually significant, the full potential of the Social Five lies in their integration as a web of interconnected action, cumulating in a vibrant ecosystem of mutually supportive markets that collectively enhance our capability to collaborate toward systems change.

MaRS was celebrated in Stephen’s talk as a strong institutional example of seeding and nourishing the integration of these tools to enhance the capacity of others. Starting with MaRS’ and Social Innovation Generation’s 2010 collaboration on the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, which advanced the field of social finance in Canada, MaRS has become a hub of convergent social innovation, with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing fostering the social finance and B Corp markets in Canada; SiG@MaRS nurturing social entrepreneurship in Ontario and beyond; and the MaRS Solutions Lab leading the uptake of social lab processes by a broad range of cross-sectoral stakeholders in Canada.

In other words, MaRS works to support the integration of the Social Five—including social technologies, pathways to scale and, broadly, social innovation—into a thriving ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change.

Philanthropy’s big experiments to solve complex problems

15698113727_a24108f35b_z‘An ecosystem of breakthrough opportunities for systems change’ broadly describes one approach influencing the philanthropic sector’s reorganization.

The theory of change is that collaboration is critical to solving our most entrenched social challenges and fostering new systems (via key platforms such as collective impact, shared outcomes or shared value).

In this spirit, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s initiatives depend on and involve hundreds of partners working together to enhance the resilience of communities and our national capacity for social innovation. For example:

  1. In partnership with over 150 organizations, Innoweave delivers webinars, workshops and mentorship around the Social Five to hundreds of participants, with the goal of enhancing the social sector’s capacity to innovate and scale social impact.
  2. Cities for People is a “collaborative experiment of urban leaders and thoughtful citizens innovating to raise expectations about how cities could be.”
  3. RECODE is a network of hubs within Canada’s higher education institutions designed to inspire, incubate and support students in creating social enterprises and becoming social entrepreneurs.

Broadly, each initiative highlights a radical shift in philanthropic programming—where the critical focus is collaboratively seeding and nourishing the Canada we envision into a real possibility.

Possible Canadas

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Quote by Khalil Z. Shariff, CEO, Aga Khan Foundation Canada

As foundations take new directions in their philanthropic work, multiple possible Canadas are unfolding and defying the dark stories of an uncertain, fearful future.

But for Stephen, the brightest and most significant possible Canada is one where all of our collaborative energy and new tools are focused on reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

We are living in an age of reconciliation in this country, and it represents an opportunity that, if taken, can change the course of our history for the better. But, if not, can lead to the perpetuation of terrible circumstances  — Stephen Huddart

Recently, several transformative initiatives launched and are starting to both immediately enhance community well-being and work at a generational scale toward reconciliation. These initiatives include:

To continue on a path of new partnerships, healing and systems change, Stephen emphasized that the first step is empathy. Empathy for each other. Empathy for communities unlike our own. Empathy as a pathway to both speak out and listen to new voices.

When you introduce new energy into systems, the elements reorganize at a higher level of sophistication. A remarkable analogy for what we’re doing here. And I would say that if there is another word that would describe that, it’s not social innovation, or any of the tools, it’s empathy. Empathy is really a seven-letter word for love. That is what is powering the future that we want to build together — Stephen Huddart

More from the presentation:


Philanthropy for Uncertain Times – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District

A cup of sugar

In a September Globe and Mail article, Doug Saunders compiled “Five schools of thought about where the world may be headed next.” It is a thoughtful and robust analysis that includes scenarios as dire as wholesale climate panic to the beginnings of a new Cold War. The focus is on power — emerging or declining, shifting allegiances, the possibility that we soon will have no world super-power — and seeing ourselves “rudderless,” but as likely as not to continue muddling through the decades to come.

None of Saunders’ possible futures imagine a sustainable global ecosystem led by the young leaders being educated today. Nor are any scenarios informed by the young people we come into contact with at SiG, or the dozens of agencies and organizations in our orbit. It also strikes me that none of Saunders’ scenarios imagined the announcement that came hot on the heels of his speculations.

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

In the same month, the heirs to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments. “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a statement published in The Guardian, “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

This obviously made the news because the Rockefeller fortune was made in oil and yet this increasingly progressive foundation sees no future in its further exploitation. And then, there was this: just last week, multiple news agencies reported that the U.S. and Chinese presidents have laid out ambitious new targets to cut pollution in a deal that negotiators hope will inspire similarly dramatic commitments from other countries.

I like Doug Saunders’ writing very much, but I don’t think it need be naive to suggest a brighter future is at least worthy of consideration.

We see evidence that positive change is occurring and that younger generations are engaged with co-designing plausible alternatives.​ The world needn’t be so bleak and power-led — a tug-of-war between old enemies. 

Of the sectors engaging in positive futures, the philanthropic sector appears very interested in leading the way. Foundations are getting out in front of the curve. Unconstrained by policy or profit margins, they have been re-imagining their role both in our uncertain present and our possible future.

While Rockefeller may be jumping ahead south of the border, in Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is leading and creating the conditions for the exploration of social innovation acceleration and the amplification we need to get in front of our shared social and environmental challenges.

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

At the 2014 Social Finance Forum, McConnell’s Stephen Huddart launched RECODE, inspiring social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives led by young people in higher education institutions. This is one of dozens of initiatives being designed to build capacity for the next generation of leaders to see the possibilities, not the barriers in the systems around us.

Recently, I was very fortunate to hear Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak to a small circle of people about Re-imagining Philanthropy. He described the sea-change coming with the growth in young indigenous populations in Canada and how getting to change will necessarily mean integrating all parts of our national systems with aboriginal teachings and practice.

â„… The Daily Mail

â„… The Daily Mail

Nothing could be more exciting and more overdue. I see a convergence of challenges, certainly, but not hopelessness in our shared future. Atleo described philanthropy as being aboriginal in nature — like the give and the take of a neighbourly cup of sugar, the exchange is one of friendship.

On November 24th, Stephen Huddart will speak at MaRS about Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change. And if I may be so bold, I don’t think he would disagree with me: the times are uncertain, but we have more than just the best of bad choices to make. Informed by history, indigenous practice and contemporary systems approaches, together we can work towards a more resilient, sustainable future.

Register for Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change — November 24, 2014 at MaRS Discovery District, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM (EST)

Social Innovation Nation

SiG Note: This article was originally published by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation in their June 2014 Newsletter.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

9c3906ff5c7a03c2fc161a81_280x216Recent events suggest that the field of social innovation is maturing to the point where it is possible to envisage adaptive, evolutionary shifts in our social, economic, and environmental systems.

Consider: May 26, MaRS Solutions Lab hosted Labs for Systems Change—the third and largest global gathering of practitioners leading this type of work. In her remarks to the gathering, Frances Westley— J.W. McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo—described how our understanding of psychology and group dynamics; design thinking; and complex adaptive systems theory—together with data analysis and computer modeling—affords us new ability to examine and improve institutional behaviour, and to generate testable solutions to wicked problems.

Meanwhile, May 26-30 was Social Innovation Week in Vancouver, produced by BC Partners for Social Impact and SiG. A public Ideas Jam and an academic conference were among several events surrounding the global Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Summer School, which Canada was hosting for the first time. SIX Vancouver 2014 was opened by BC’s Minister of Social Innovation—Canada’s first—who predicted that in five years every government will follow suit—crowdsourcing ideas, introducing hybrid corporate structures, employing new social finance measures, and supporting civic engagement in the search for solutions to our most pressing challenges.

With its recent announcement of a $1 billion endowment for social and cultural innovation, Alberta is also moving in this direction.

This is not just work for governments, corporations, philanthropic foundations, and community organizations. A recent blog by Joe Hsueh, of Foundation partner Second Muse, titled Why the Human Touch is Key to Unlocking Systems Change, quotes Peter Senge: “What is most systemic is most personal.” A reminder that change begins with ourselves—with shifts in our own habits, and our customary ways of seeing and dealing with others.

~ Stephen Huddart, President & CEO, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

Learn more about these social innovation events and policies:
Labs for Systems Change
Social Innovation Week Vancouver
Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Summer School Vancouver 2014 
Social Innovation Endowment (SIE) Alberta
Social Innovation Canada 2014