Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo – Seeding a Social Innovation Ecosystem

Can a cross-sector partnership, that bridges the gaps between corporate, academic, public and social profit entities — with their different cultures, values and perspectives — foster a lasting ecosystem of social innovation in a region known internationally for its reliance on oil extraction?

This was an unusual partnership in an unsuspected place.  Starting in 2009-2010, the Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF), the University of Waterloo (UW), the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) and the United Way of Fort McMurray came together to build the capacity of the not-for-profit sector (renamed the social profit sector) in the Wood Buffalo region and create the preconditions for a culture of social innovation that would long outlast the project itself.

11UW001_ProjectID_tagThis partnership is the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) project, which has sought to take advantage of the complimentary strengths of reflection and action to build an ecosystem for social innovation in Wood Buffalo, within the social profit sector. Five years on, the project is winding down and taking stock of how much a lasting ecosystem for social innovation has developed.

SPWB began in part with the ideas presented in Getting to Maybe (2006), which guided much of the project’s work with the community.  Some of the most powerful ideas that practitioners in Wood Buffalo have embraced include:

  • the importance of grasping the whole system;
  • the value of developmental evaluation to inform decision-making and ongoing work, and;
  • the importance of social entrepreneurship, linking ideas to power and windows of opportunity.

Through workshops, learning events, resources and reports, SPWB gave its social profit partners the opportunity – sometimes even described as ‘permission’ by participants – to look above their foxholes, to pause, to take stock, to talk, to reconsider, and to celebrate.  This space was also a place for participants to explore the murky adjacent possible and create new partnerships and programs to serve the community.

While SPWB looked to Getting to Maybe, as well as the growing academic analysis and next practice of social innovation coming out of the University of Waterloo, Social Innovation Generation, Tamarack, Innoweave and other groups, this project has always been at its core community driven.  Surveys and brainstorming conversations allowed community partners to identify their priorities, while on-going questionnaires and reports allowed these partners to hold the SPWB team accountable over time.

It took a long time – several years in some cases – for SPWB to earn the trust of its social profit partners, highlighting the importance of long time commitments for projects that seek to support social innovation.  This time invested was not time wasted however, as it made the hard conversations about wicked problems possible.

A constant focus on trust building and community voice also built a sense of community ownership around the outcomes related to SPWB interventions – whatever SPWB did, it did walking alongside community partners.  SPWB acted as an incubator and backbone — convening meetings, acting as note taker and reporting back, doing research and communicating results — which allowed its partners to explore new partnerships, test out new initiatives, and take risks.  Some of the successful risks included the creation of shared space for social profits; a new arts council; a new, amalgamated capacity building organization called, FuseSocial (from Capacity Wood Buffalo, Leadership Wood Buffalo and SectorLink); and the annual Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards.

FuseSocial Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap

FuseSocial Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap

As this phase of the SPWB project ends, is the interest in social innovation it has supported in Wood Buffalo sustainable? Has it created that rich ecosystem for social innovation that will last for generations?  There is definitely increased awareness and knowledge of social innovation and complexity, and an increased use of developmental evaluation, and the social profit sector is more valued by the public and private sectors, as well as more confident in themselves.

This success has conversely translated into a concern, however, among SPWB’s social profit partners about what will happen when their champion of process passes the torch to the community.  Will the sector still have the depth of research? Will there still be safe spaces, where competition for resources and clients is left at the door?  Is the embrace of social innovation thinking deep enough that it is the new norm?

These questions are yet unanswered.  Although some will be addressed as the project members define the tangible elements of SPWB’s immediate legacy (who takes over what, where do resources go), with others, only time will tell. One challenge will be the ongoing clash between standing still (making ‘reflective practice a centrepiece of action,’[1]) and the inherent action-oriented focus of the social profit sector in Wood Buffalo.  While many organizations, at several scales, embraced the value of grounding themselves in evidence and asking probing questions, very few of SPWB’s community partners wanted to pause.  Learning and reflection were valued as long as they were paired with moving the conversation forward or could be tied to organizational goals.  Thinking always had to be paired with action.

Rather than resolve this dilemma, perhaps there is a space to manage or embrace what seems like an insurmountable tension between action and thinking.  Future projects could embrace the fierce interest in doing, while still maintaining the value associated with standing still.  New approaches such as social innovation change labs have certainly embraced research to drive meaningful, deep exploration and possible action – what possibilities lie in these emergent processes?

[1] Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton, Getting to Maybe (2006) p. 89

[Part II] Collective Impact in Action: Thinking Differently and Embracing Paradox

SiG Note: This article was originally published on September 19, 2014 on Tamarack CCI - the online learning community for collaborative leaders. It is Part II of the fourth post of our Collective Impact Series leading up to the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Summit this month. It has been cross-posted with permission from Tamarack.

In Part I, Sylvia introduced three mindsets essential to successful Collective Impact initiatives, based on her experiences with Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA) and her reflection on an influential Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, co-authored by John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown and Jennifer Splansky Juster of FSG. This post introduces a fourth key mindset for Collective Impact. 


Practitioners of Collective Impact often find themselves confronted by paradoxes as they explore the complex issue they are seeking to impact. Asking questions, considering multiple points of view, attending to the relationships between things (and people), and embracing paradox are the practices that help people to most effectively understand and navigate such situations.

The ability to work with paradox is not something that is typically required when work unfolds within the context of a single sector. Those working with Collective Impact often find themselves having to develop greater comfort with working with ambiguity than has been required when using other, more traditional, approaches to doing their work.

The ability to recognize paradoxes, and accept the ambiguity they illuminate, is an important skillset for those of us engaged in the work of Collective Impact. Some of the common paradoxes that are found in the work of complex community change and Collective Impact are described below (and have also been well documented in Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton). They include:

  • Changing Others Means Accepting Change in Oneself – Because social innovators are part “of the system,” the changes they champion within the system inevitably evoke changes within the themselves as well.
  • Profound Uncertainty Co-exists with Deep Understanding –The journey to implement social change often creates new levels of understanding between once disparate groups within the system; at the same time, those engaged in this work together find it extremely difficult to predict the end result of their work from the outset.
  • Working with – and Challenging – Power – Successful social change almost always requires the unlocking of resources that are currently part of the status quo, while simultaneously advocating for radically new approaches.
  • Success and Failure – The end-point of success in any social change effort is rarely “fixed” and therefore can never fully be achieved. Conversely, a “failure” can often be the source of opening a new pathway that leads to new success.
  • Learning, Doing and Being “In Charge” – In the implementation of a Collective Impact effort, learning IS doing and doing IS learning. At the same time that project leaders are required to set a course and move into action, they must also surrender the idea that they fully control the outcome of the process.
  • The Cassandra Paradox – This paradox reminds us that often the most obvious possibilities for change are ignored or dismissed because they are so obvious that they are often unseen.
  • The Social Innovator as Leader – The attribution of individual praise or blame in the complex realm of Collective Impact is virtually impossible. While individual leadership plays a crucial role in advancing Collective Impact, no one effort by any one individual can be attributed with achieving the results.

In the work championed by HCIA, the notion of paradoxes, and the ability to embrace the ambiguity reflected within them, has helped to reframe current community issues and challenges in ways that successfully help identify new opportunities for creativity and innovation.

As our understanding of Collective Impact continues to be refined and deepened, it is important that effort is made to capture and share not only the resources and tools used to make implementation easier and more effective, but also to focus on the insights and learnings of practitioners. This will enable the field to ensure that deliberate attention is paid to identifying the internal capacities and mindsets that those championing Collective Impact initiatives must cultivate and demonstrate within ourselves and each other.

To learn more about Collective Impact and essential mindset shifts from John Kania, register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.

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