Breakthrough Capitalism: “We are more than consumers, more than tax payers”

A UN Global Compact survey reported that 81% of CEOS believe sustainability issues have become part of their company’s strategy and operations.

Most people would see the survey as a positive sign for sustainable business. Volans’ Executive Chairman, John Elkington does not.

A few short weeks ago, John shared these survey findings to a crowd of Canadian business leaders and posed the question: if CEOs are ‘accounting’ for sustainability issues in their core business, why are we experiencing escalating pressures on our environmental, economic, political and social systems?


John Elkington speaks to business leaders in Toronto, Canada.

The Volans team believes that part of the answer rests on the shoulders of executive level corporate leadership. Around one thousand companies control half the value of all the world’s publicly listed organizations. The power of some of the largest corporations and their leaders has become colossal in magnitude.

In response to the expanding dominance of business, Volans catalyzed a movement called Breakthrough Capitalism. Breakthrough Capitalism is a global call to action for corporate leaders to “reboot” capitalism through radically re-envisioning their business models. Volans has hosted Breakthrough forums in Berlin, London, Singapore and most recently Toronto.

In early November, Canada’s Breakthrough Capitalism forum challenged Canadian business leaders to rethink the way they do business in context to increasing global complexity. In his opening address, John Elkington acknowledged the increasing linkages between systems such as the food-energy-water-finance nexus, where one system cannot be fully understood without considering the others.

Toronto’s event brought together leaders from a cross-section of industries including financial services, energy, consumer goods, food, health, media and retail. The day was heavy on interaction and light on speeches. It opened the space for candid dialogue, questioning and brainstorming. Participants were asked to understand their business in relation to projecting three future world scenarios: Breakdown, Change-as-usual, and Breakthrough as depicted in the video below.

Following a fairly morbid discussion, participants recognized that the Breakdown and Change-as-usual scenarios are one and the same. Both will result in over-consumption, resource depletion, widespread poverty, and failed governance. The only distinction is that Breakdown will reach systems collapse sooner. Consequently, managers were quick to agree that the only viable way forward is the Breakthrough scenario.


What does Breakthrough mean to Canadian Business Leaders?


1) Executive Leadership

All participants agreed that buy-in from the top is critical. One only has to look at the likes of Paul Polman at Unilever or Jochen Zeitz at Puma to understand that executive level leadership holds immense power over corporate strategy.

2) Aligning Language

From shared value to corporate social responsibility, conscious capitalism to constructive capitalism, corporate social innovation to sustainability, the field is a cacophony of competing language. It’s painfully ironic that each movement is attempting to achieve the same goal of making the world a better place. Participants accept that language needs to converge in order to shift the movement from the periphery to the mainstream.

3) Creating Opportunities to Act

During the afternoon, the forum broke out into four groups prepared to hack the assumptions and models driving their respective industries. These breakout groups gave attendees permission to dig deep into the heart of their business and posit potential solutions.


Hal Hamilton, founder of Sustainable Food Lab, facilitating a breakout session.

I.     Accountants

Generating a storm of new ideas and next steps, the accountants led the way for actionable solutions. Real time performance indicators, responsible resource stewardship, long-term thinking, and embedded sustainability education represented a handful of the accountant’s proposed objectives.

II.     Consumer Behaviour

Marketers wrestled with their dependence on ever-increasing consumption in order to meet their sales growth objectives. Group participants agreed that enabling consumers to align their social and environmental values with their purchases is the future of responsible consumer behavior.

III. & IV. Food

Solutions that bubbled up from the food systems group included creating a “sin food” tax, mitigating food waste, educating consumers, investing in local food, and collaborating along supply chains.


4) Personal Transformation

Although much needs to be done at the office, change must also start at home. Too often we ask the world to act differently and forget our own role in embracing the change we seek. It was widely recognized that we should be mindful of our own values and beliefs, and channel that energy beyond our workplace to permeate all aspects in our lives. Sandra Odendahl of RBC captured this spirit in her closing remarks: “We are more than consumers, more than tax payers. We are citizens.” As citizens, it is our duty and privilege to care for one another and support a healthy environment.


Sandra Odendahl

What Now?

It’s up to us – business leaders, civil society and government – to push one another forward. As the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treurnicht, declared, “It feels like the world expects more of us than we expect for ourselves.” Let’s cut loose from the status quo and rise to meet the demands of wicked problems. We are ready. It’s time for a breakthrough.

The 150-Second Challenge

If you think the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter is tough, try taking the 150-second challenge.  That’s basically the amount of time you have to make your case in a crowd funding campaign.

giveeffect logoSo I was advised by Anisa Mirza from Giveffect with whom I met when the Caledon Institute decided to try this method of financing.  You need to tell a compelling story in 2.5 minutes or less.

In our case, Caledon is trying to keep alive the war on poverty, not exactly an easy sell.  And while we know the subject matter very well, we had never tapped into a crowd for this kind of support.

Oh and there’s more.  Within those 2.5 minutes, you need to say who you are, why you are launching a crowd funding campaign, why your issue is of concern to viewers and what you would like them to do on your behalf.

And don’t forget.  When you tape the video, you need to be serious but funny − or at least approachable.  You need to be authoritative but folksy.  You need to be confident but relaxed.  Could we seriously pull this off?

After the production, you need to bank on your social capital.  It is crucial to muster your forces − in this case your networks − to help spread the word as quickly and as widely as possible in order to generate interest in your campaign.  After all, that is the art and science of crowd funding.  Small amounts of funds contributed by large numbers of people can add up to a substantial sum.

So what is our cause?  Here’s the story and why we need help.

I met Ken Battle (currently President of the Caledon Institute) in 1986 when he was Director of the National Council of Welfare, an advisory body to the federal government.  He hired me to work on a study of welfare in Canada.  Its purpose was to explain this hidden, incredibly complex, program and to figure out welfare rates across the country.

Despite opposition from some who didn’t want the welfare system explained, we were able to develop a methodology for calculating welfare incomes that is still used today.

The initial study was called Welfare in Canada: The Tangled Safety Net.  It spawned a series of reports entitled Welfare Incomes that have been published on a regular basis since 1989.  These reports are the only way to track the amounts that provinces and territories pay welfare recipients, the poorest of the poor in Canada.  They are often seen as the ‘undeserving’ poor and receive incomes that fall well below poverty standards.

In 2012, the federal government announced that it was dismantling the National Council of Welfare and cutting all its work, including Welfare Incomes.

After much deliberation, we decided at Caledon that we needed to keep alive this vital source of information.  We had developed the original methodology and knew how very difficult it would be − and how long it would take − to reconstruct credible numbers. Naturally this additional work costs money, and so we have decided to try the crowd funding campaign.

But Welfare Incomes is only one example of a larger problem. Access to crucial information drawn from, among many things, the Canadian long-form census is no longer available. There will be more to come on this vital issue and a broader solution, the Canada Social Report, on which we are currently working.

Welfare Access

Why Welfare Time Limits Never Flew -The Tyee

In the meantime, we are seeking help to keep alive Welfare Incomes, which provides the objective evidence to make the case for decent incomes and for welfare reform.  We need to preserve this powerful weapon in the war on poverty.

Editor’s note: See how Sherri pulled off her first crowd funding pitch by visiting their Giveffect campaign page

Social Impact Analysis: Launching a National Conversation

Today, impact analysis and measurement are an essential part of social enterprise. As decision makers realize that institutions can and do have an impact beyond their financial bottom lines, impact analysis and related reporting will also become integral to the operations of businesses and governments from around the world. They will become as necessary as traditional financial statements. For evidence of the global importance of impact analysis, we can look to countries like the United Kingdom and India where bills mandating the use of impact analysis have been signed into law.

rulerContrary to the general belief that Canada’s early impact measurement adopters are content to achieve modest growth towards modest goals, I believe service providers and end-users, either non-profit or for-profit, are eager to raise the bar on impact analysis and social value creation.

Take for example the adoption of B Corp accreditation in Canada, which has a significant measurement component. According to Joyce Sou, Manager of B Corps in Canada, the number of B Corps tripled between 2010 and 2011. In this year alone, B Corps experienced strong growth, expanding the number of certifications by 50%.

Organizations that are connected to the impact analysis space, either as end-users or providers have a choice to make. They can choose to stumble along separately, painfully making mistakes along the way, or they can collaborate through sharing lessons and best practices, creating an open market of ideas. If we operate the way that we always have, we can achieve modest goals at a modest pace. The alternative grows a bigger pie for everyone by sharing and standardizing best practices. Everyone wins: Users can expect a certain level of quality and accreditation; and service providers can provide higher value-add options built on common understandings and standards.

In this sense, collaboration is both altruistic and self-interested. It’s a rare and powerful blend of motivations, and one that can propel Canadian impact analysis to the forefront of a global discussion facilitated by the Social Impact Analysts Association (SIAA) and other bodies. SIAA is a global organization that connects and supports professional social impact analysts. Social Asset Measurements and an Advisory Board that includes the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Charity Intelligence, and The Natural Step are facilitating the formation of a Canadian SIAA group.

SIAA logo

On September 13, 2013, Social Asset Measurements (SAM) is facilitating the SIAA-Canada Launch Event, which will set in motion a national conversation on impact analysis. The event is an open forum inviting analysts and end-users from a wide variety of methodologies, approaches and expertise to attend workshops, hotspot sessions, and networking opportunities. All levels of government will be involved in a panel discussion and the audience will be able to directly engage with these officials. It’s an exciting development, and one that we hope will kick-off a national dialogue that can lead to a more collaborative field.

Fair Exchange: Public funding for social impact through the non-profit sector

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 11.21.13 AMAfter more than three decades writing grant proposals in the non-profit sector, I switched sides to work as a public funder. For many years I held a granting portfolio with the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and participated in the funding reform discussions of the federal and Ontario governments. In the text Fair Exchange: public funding for social impact through the non-profit sector,  I offer the result of those experiences – a funder’s perspective on how we might do the work of public funding more effectively and increase the potential for impact as a result of our investments.

The world is changing faster than before. Civic organizations, often swifter than government policy, are emerging as the knowledge brokers pointing the way to the future and offering solutions to the “wicked” problems facing communities. How they finance that work – their access to public capital to generate public benefit – is a critical preoccupation. Governments and citizens’ organizations have a shared interest in ensuring that public funds flow in a way that best creates the conditions for recipient organizations to achieve social impact. This matters more than ever now in times of constrained public funds and increasing social need.

Good funding process is a matter of public trust

Public funders bear the responsibility of ensuring that what we fund is the best option on the table – but also of ensuring that how we fund is directly focused on enabling social impact. It simply makes no sense to spend more on the funding process than necessary, to create delays, limit other funding opportunities, or increase recipient costs with excessive red tape. It is a matter of public trust that funding processes and practices be cost efficient and geared to support outcomes of public benefit.

The case for public funding reform

Although we have an almost two decade history of discussion on public funding reform – and a comprehensive literature of sector critique – no single organization champions the reform discussion. There is no little red schoolhouse for public funders to learn their trade, few opportunities to look across programs for the best ways of doing business, and almost no theory of good design for funding programs. Also, funders seldom generate cost-to-disbursement ratios – a basic accountability measure that tracks how efficient funding processes are at distributing funds entrusted to their care. As a result, practice reform efforts have been far from stellar. Now, when every nickel in the treasury counts, high disbursements costs mean less money out the door to solve social problems.

As civic organizations begin to tap into a much broader funding economy of social finance, corporate social responsibility, crowdsourcing and the like, organizations are diversifying their revenue sources, some drawing funds from as many as a hundred different sources. Consequently, their needs as recipients have changed. Often they are also working collaboratively, bringing unusual partners to the table to increase innovation in their approaches to public issues, taking up opportunities as they arise. You can see these emerging resourcing trends through Ajah’s Fundtracker initiative, a web based directory of who is funding who. As the non-profit sector’s opportunities to contribute increase, funding practices must shift to account for the more complex financial environment in which they work. 

Evaluating funding programs for how they disburse funds

Funders often evaluate recipient’s efforts at outcome achievement, but seldom examine their own processes for how they enable, or hamper, efforts to produce social impact. Taking a design approach to funding programs enables us to be deliberate about the elements of process, and evaluate the effectiveness of administrative processes, risk management, and the funding relationship. Recipient critique tells us that funding programs must be more predictable, more flexible, reduce administrative burden, and develop stronger relationships with applicants and grantees. These elements of program performance can be measured.  Too much red-tape, for example, is an almost inevitable result of longevity of a funding program. We can predict it, track it, and shift practices to reduce it. “Streamlining” is not just about web portals, but also about how good people working in well-designed programs make use of strong relationships to understand the sector they fund and constantly evaluate how their work contributes to the ability of organizations to generate impact.

A Fair Exchange

In Fair Exchange, I offer a beginning theory of practice for public funders in Canada. I suggest language and frameworks common to all public funders and consolidate the most effective practices from prior reviews. It is my hope that this paper will help public funders to build a richer theory of design and practice that not only accounts for internal risk management but also evaluates funding processes for practices that are most effective in supporting the production of social outcomes, which is the reason why we fund.

Partnering skills are essential to scaling social finance in Canada

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared on on March 28, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

Moving the field of impact investing forward requires governments, businesses, social entrepreneurs and foundations to work together. This need for collaboration is precisely why social finance has the potential to be so transformative. And yet, this cross-sector work is also what makes the field a tricky one. In many ways, a fragmented and siloed reality persists.

My friends in the world of social finance have told me that specific challenges to collaborations include:

  • Managing the varied expectations that collaborators bring to the table about the work, themselves and other partners
  • Understanding the philosophies, approaches, and languages that are commonly used in one sector but may be unfamiliar in another
  • Ensuring transparency around organizational goals, motivations and values between collaborators

The good news is that these are common challenges faced by all collaborations that span sector boundaries.

The bad news? Unless we develop the capacity to overcome them, these challenges will make our work slow and frustrating, and will ultimately reduce our ability to create real value. So what should we do?

We need to get skilled in the art of brokering partnerships.

What is partnership brokering? Partnership brokering is the “skilled management of the partnering process”. This unique approach to managing multi-sector collaborations was developed by the Partnership Brokers Association in the UK. Their vision has been to create, “a more equitable and sustainable world by building capacity for innovation, efficiency and excellence in cross-sector collaboration”.

Since 2003, they have worked towards achieving this vision through the development and delivery of capacity building training and professional development for people who find themselves in the often undefined and murky role of coordinating and managing collaborations.

These roles have many names. I have recently learned about tri-sector leaders and boundary spanners, and I’ve also heard of weavers and change managers. What they all have in common is a requirement to make sense of the different realities, needs, expectations and motivations of partners in order to develop collaborations that deliver value and impact.

That means “brokers” often need to influence, negotiate, build consensus, and acknowledge and manage conflict while at the same time representing their own organization’s objectives at the partnering table. Adding to this complexity is the fact that brokers are often operating in situations where power dynamics are unclear and/or unbalanced. Sound familiar?

If it does, then you may benefit from learning how to use the partnering process framework and a set of partnering tools to bring greater success to your work. As Greg Butler, Senior Director of Education Partnerships at Microsoft explains in Good for Business? An enquiry into the impact of Microsoft’s investment in partnership brokers training:

“Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. In the private sector, many so-called ‘development partnerships’ are essentially transactional and tactical involving philanthropy on the one hand or service-type contractual arrangements on the other.

However, we came to realise in Microsoft that a true partnership approach is something very different. A better managed and understood partnering process can lead to genuine win-win collaboration—where the conversation moves from ‘here’s some money, this is what we expect you to deliver’ to ‘this is the problem/challenge, how can we solve it together?’

A few years ago, Microsoft’s desire to move away from a traditional “vendor-client” relationship to that of a “true” partner led them to the Partnership Brokers Association Level 1 course which focuses on developing this initial understanding of the partnering process and works to develop the skills needed to move through this process effectively. A recent examination of the effects of this training on Microsoft’s team of 94 brokers discovered the following benefits:

  1. An increased ability to conduct effective and productive conversations, leading to an increase in efficiencies in the process and increased overall value from the relationship
  2. An increased ability to make faster assessments of a partnership’s viability through effective conversations to understand each potential partners motivations
  3. Brokers were better equipped and more confident to approach others as agents of change, creating linkages, opening doors and suggesting new ways of working
  4. An increased ability and confidence to acknowledge and work with complexity rather than ignoring it

In addition to these benefits, many on Microsoft’s team were able to describe how changing their approach to developing partnerships (as a result of what they had learned in the training) had increased the success of the collaborations they worked on and led to a greater number of beneficiaries.


If this type of training piques your interest, learn more about being a broker and the Level 1 training on the Partnership Brokers Association website.

The next training is coming up in Toronto on April 8th, courtesy Social Innovation Generation, and there are only a few spots remaining,  so sign up!

I took my Level 1 training last year in Wales and am now undertaking my Level 2 accreditation. If you’d like to ask about my experiences as a broker or my thoughts on the Level 1 training, you can reach me at ahamilton[at]marsdd[dot]com

We Day Toronto 2012: The Energy is Contagious!

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

                                                      – Mahatma Gandhi

Video produced by SiG Intern, Komal Minhas

I attended We Day for the first time at the age of 22. I can only imagine how much more motivated and engaged I might have been within the realm of social change with access to such a community and movement when I was in middle school or high school.
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The importance of being mindful

As leaders, we are increasingly called to create spaces where inspired thinking, deep learning, and bold emergent action can take hold, wherever we are. – ALIA Institute

Social innovators are motivated by a variety of people and experiences: they may be driven by a desire to make life better for those who are most vulnerable; they may be inspired by people close to them who they know they will lose one day; and even more personally, social innovators may be motivated by a desire to make life better for themselves. However, having a desire to help and being motivated to change things doesn’t necessarily mean we will be very good at it. I believe until we learn how to take care of ourselves, and learn to be ‘mindful’ and reflective, we will not realize our true potential to innovate for others.

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Social Innovator Wisdom: Partnering To Tip Systems

When developing solutions for complex systemic issues, social innovators know it is futile to operate in silos.

“We act like systems in creating large-scale problems but we act like individuals in trying to solve them” – Eric Trist, Social Scientist and Co-Founder of the Tavistock Institute

In a recent talk, Dan Hill of Helsinki Design Lab explains that ‘wicked’ or complex problems are unclear and interdependent, with no client to take responsibility “except the entire human race”. We are very much all in this together, so what better way to take a whole-system approach and pull in wisdom from different perspectives/stakeholders than via partnerships.

(image via Western Washington University)

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Optimizing Public Sector Innovation Platforms

Public sector innovation is a top-of-mind subject in government hallways across Canada. Innovation in the public sector has taken on new urgency as austerity budgets accelerate the necessity to re-think how government services can be provided or even how, in some cases, the system can shift from service delivery to tackling root causes that have given rise to the demand for support.

Ambitious public sector reform necessarily will range from new policies, to new ways of engaging with provincial and national innovation ecosystems, and to creating innovation Labs that support change makers inside government.
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What if we all thought like Charles Leadbeater?

Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity, visited MaRS in mid-September as part of his tour with Social Innovation Generation’s Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series, and delivered a public presentation on innovation in the public service as part of the MaRS Global Leadership Series.

Charles Leadbeater on Social Innovation – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

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