Important Moments for Canadian Social Innovation in 2018

This was a important year for social innovation in Canada. The biggest news is probably that the federal government announced an $805M investment in social innovation, the importance of which can not be overstated. But that funding exists because Canada has already become a global leader in social innovation, thanks to work being done from coast to coast by social innovators and organizations everywhere.

As we begin this new year, we’re looking back on some of the important moments and learnings from 2018 that will help shape the year ahead.


The Social Innovation and Social Finance Committee Releases Their Policy Report

A 17-person committee appointed by ESDC from government and the impact community engaged stakeholders from across sectors and regions to provide recommendations for a pan-Canadian social innovation and social finance strategy. The result: Inclusive Innovation identified six key gaps governments can fill to support social innovation ecosystems, and 12 recommendations that can help “unlock the innovative spirit of Canadians”.

“When acted upon together, the recommendations will result in real progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals — the set of 17 targets which our country has committed to under the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” says the report.

The report’s recommendations:

  1. Anchor commitment and long-term policy action toward social innovation and social finance in Canada through legislation
  2. Establish and fund a permanent multi-sectoral Social Innovation Council to advise the federal government
  3. Create a permanent Office for Social Innovation
  4. Improve social purpose organizations’ access to federal innovation, business development and skills training programs
  5. Establish a multi-departmental Social Innovation Ecosystem Program
  6. Create a Social Finance Fund to capitalise local, regional, sectoral and national intermediaries
  7. Ensure federal funding practices support and enable social innovation
  8. Incorporate social procurement guidelines, tools and training opportunities into the Government’s focus on a cohesive sustainable procurement plan
  9. Address the legal and regulatory issues impeding charities and non-profits from engaging in social innovation, social finance, and social enterprise
  10. Initiate a series of controlled regulatory experiments, or “sandboxes,” to explore and experiment with new regulatory models
  11. Establish a Social Innovation Evidence Development and Knowledge Sharing Initiative
  12. Coordinate a national social innovation and social finance awareness campaign

The recommendations for the proposed Strategy are designed to support an ecosystems approach, where each component complements the others. Find out more at the SISF portal here.


Indigenous Social Innovation Sets Benchmark for Scale and Impact 

The success of Winnipeg Boldness Project and the early Indigenous Doula projects that emerged from their lab is well documented. Earlier this year we connected again to see how things were progressing; the growth is incredible.

There are now two Indigenous Doula groups that continue to build capacity and promote Indigenous birthing practices and support families. One is primarily focused on delivering training in Manitoba and Ontario: Zaagi’Idiwin, the other is currently involved in a five year research project looking at supporting Indigenous women who travel for birth, in partnership with the University of Winnipeg and the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba: Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag.

Melissa Brown with Zaagi’Idiwin reports some staggering growth:

“Since March 2018, we have trained:

2 Cohorts in Fort Frances (24 total)

2 In Kenora (24 total)

1 Train the trainer course in Bemidji, Minnesota (12)

1 in Winnipeg (14 MCH Workers)

1 in Brandon, Manitoba (18)

A total of: 92 Trained Full Spectrum Indigenous Doulas in 7 months. Next year we will going to Rosebud, South Dakota Window rock, Arizona and New Brunswick.”

This success anchored a report we produced on on labs last year and sets a high benchmark for social innovation success across Canada.


Social R&D Identified as a Key Skill Required to Drive Social Innovation  

Included in the SISF recommendations, the co-creation group explicitly identified Social R&D as one of the key skills required to drive social innovation and social finance and recommended that funding for Social R&D be included in the Capacity Building stream of the Social Innovation Ecosystem Program. This marks an important stage in the emergence of social R&D as a powerful tool for social innovation.

“Unlike the private sector, the social sector has no Research & Development infrastructure. Quite the opposite: most social organizations were designed to consistently deliver contracted services. Project monies don’t address this infrastructure gap. If anything, the pressure is to reduce administrative spends and direct maximum dollars to programs.” says Sarah Schulman, Founder and Social Impact Lead at InWithForward, a “social design organization that makes human services more human.”

“Without a permanent R&D function, social organizations simply don’t have the resources to attract and retain the kind of talent required for sustained experimentation.”


RADIUS SFU Convenes Social Labs at CONVERGE

In June 2018, RADIUS hosted CONVERGE, a gathering of over 130 active social innovation lab practitioners and key ecosystem enablers in Vancouver, BC.

CONVERGE aimed to:

  • Deepen relationships and trust among lab practitioners, laying the foundation for an active pan-Canadian Community of Practice;
  • Create a space for lab practitioners to add value to each other’s work through Peer Input Processes;
  • Make visible the diversity and impact of social innovation labs in Canada through system mapping;
  • Begin to build a shared set of tools, practices, language, knowledge, and expertise across the lifecycle of a lab; and
  • Identify key problem/opportunity areas where Canadian labs can better align for increased coordination and impact

The CONVERGE Report details tensions and questions that emerged from their collective discussions, and opportunities on the horizon to advance this field of practice. These include increased coordination in the sector, getting to scale and implementation, increasing fluidity and opportunities for public sector innovation, and using labs to host important conversations about 21st century ethical dilemmas.

A thread that emerged during the event was the question of inclusion. Associate Director and CONVERGE Organizer Kiri Bird says “We recognize that while we have a commitment to including diverse peoples in our work, that was not hugely reflected by practitioners who lead labs. We realize that we are largely white, educated, middle-class people. Further discussion about how we, as a sector, can address issues of racial equity and representivity included in the report, as well as the Canadian Labs Handbook”


ABSI Connect Identifies Patterns and Progress in Albertan Social Innovation

Two years ago, after an in-depth exploration of social innovation and change-making in our province, the ABSI Connect Fellows released a report titled “The Future of Social Innovation in Alberta.” They summarized six “patterns and pathways” describing how Albertans were innovating to create social and environmental impact, and what we can do to strengthen our “innovation ecosystem”. This work was recently revisited an updated by Naomi Mahaffy at ABSI Connect.

“Many people mentioned finding the six pathways valuable–both in 2016 and today–for framing how we can get better at addressing the complex challenges our communities face. In this post, I use the ABSI pathways to summarize what I’ve heard from you about what’s working well today and what’s still needed to help us build healthier and more resilient communities. I then give a brief preview of what’s next for ABSI Connect and how you can get involved as we collectively respond to these patterns and pathways.” says Mahaffy. You can read that full report here and a blog summary of ABSI Connect’s year here.

2018 was also a year in which Albertan change-makers gained access to impressive new spaces for collaboration and connection. The Trico Changemakers Studio at Mount Royal University (Calgary), the Roundhouse at Grant MacEwan University (Edmonton), and the beautiful new Central Library (Calgary) all opened their doors this year. It’s been exciting to see how these and other community spaces are breaking down silos, bringing together academic, business, nonprofit, and government agencies and voices, and sparking new connections and ideas.


The Beginnings of a Transformative Leadership Something

Gandhi famously said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – as in being able to remake ourselves. You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Many of us are very familiar with this quote – but how much truth does it hold? And what does it mean to make this thinking real in the world? It turns out that there are a number of individuals in Canada’s social innovation field who are convinced that, on this topic, Gandhi was right – and they’re already working at helping others to remake themselves.

In early December 2018, Cheryl Rose, Associate Director at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and Saralyn Hodgkin of Social Innovation Canada hosted an initial call with a collection of people whose experience in supporting capacity building for social change leaders has led them to believe that the transformative transitions urgently required in our world need to be realized internally, on a deeply personal level, in order for that change to become real in our organizations, communities, countries and on our planet. These are experienced educators, coaches and/or mentors who are very interested in sharing their experiences and knowledge about the critical connection between inner change work and work for change out in community systems.

“Our first call was a rare and exciting opportunity to connect this unique group of people, often working quietly but in very profound ways. Our conversation stressed that, far from being only philosophical, this goal of “being” different has very practical purposes related to social innovation; leaders for significant change need to push themselves to evolve, mature, to BE different in order to be effective right at the edge of new ways of thinking and doing – and, ultimately, all of us will need to become different people to be able to accept and live in the changed world that we say we want.” says Rose.

Two more calls are now scheduled for the new year, where this group will continue to share what they are learning about this work, their big questions in this realm, and how to best ensure that inner work is supported more broadly for leaders in the social innovation field. They’ll also collectively consider whether and how a national “Transformative Leadership Node” (or some other relevant name) could be something useful and encouraging in Canada.

If you are experienced in inner work for system transformation and are interested in joining the next calls, please contact Cheryl at


Centre for Social Innovation Publishes a Social Innovation Landscape Paper, Relaunches Six Degrees and Impact Fest 

Drawing on decades of experience on the front-lines of social innovation, “Unlocking Canadian Social Innovation” was produced for Innovation, Science and Economic Development and submitted to Employment & Social Development Canada: Social Innovation and Social Finance Co-creation Committee Consultation Process. The paper takes an inclusive approach to social innovation that spans systems change, social entrepreneurship and culture.

Their paper aimed to do three things:

  1. Offer frameworks to understand social innovation
  2. Explore the importance of social innovation ecosystems to the success of any individual initiative
  3. Offer specific ways to unleash social innovation’s potential to help Canada meet its challenges head-on and continue to thrive

“This work is the product of our combined decades of experience as social entrepreneurs, who together have created conditions for other social entrepreneurs to succeed. To make the best use of that field experience, we have included stories from all over, but also from our work at the Centre for Social Innovation when it is useful to explore a larger point”. says Tonya Surman, CEO of Centre for Social Innovation.

CSI also relaunched its long-standing convening and networking event, Six Degrees of Social Innovation. According to Jo Reynolds, CSI’s Director of Social Enterprise: Six Degrees of Social Innovation is all about fostering a culture of gratitude for social innovation trailblazers and our community. We share perspectives and ways of approaching social innovation and the Global Goals (SDGs). Over three meet-ups in September, October, and November we brought together 360+ people to learn and engage on social innovation topics about the Circular and Sharing Economy, Civic Innovation, and FinTech for Good. As we seek to change the systems so the social innovations can flourish.”

“We are inspired by the entrepreneurs and organizations that are shaping markets and culture. Last November, Impact Fest brought together over 300 people to engage an learn about social innovators that are placing people and planet first. Impact Fest was a high-energy event that inspired and promoted the choices we all can make to contribute to meet the Global Goals.”

You can keep track of CSI’s upcoming events like Six Degrees and Impact Fest on their events page here, and sign up from their newsletter here.


Maison de l’innovation Sociale Launches TANGRAM Beta to Connect Innovators to Resources

MIS is currently developing a digital platform that connects social innovators, change agents and other social entrepreneurs with the resources they need to carry out their positive social impact project. TANGRAM accomplishes this mission by providing prompt and free accurate, up-to-date and relevant information on support programs and services specific to social innovators and social entrepreneurs.

TANGRAM is currently in phase Beta 1.0. Ultimately, the platform aims to be a significant action aimed at facilitating the emergence of the Quebec ecosystem supporting social innovation, by:

  • Highlighting the support actors present in the field
  • Contributing the integration on a single platform of the large amount of information available on these actors and their support offers
  • Facilitating the search for support by social innovators and social entrepreneurs
  • Promoting the emergence of new services and opportunities, throughout Quebec

You can check out the beta version live here.

TANGRAM impressed a lot pf people, so much so that Social Innovation Canada is working with MIS to develop a version for social innovators across Canada. Look for that this spring.


Inspiring Communities Uncovers and Begins to Map A World of Social Innovation in Atlantic Canada

In October, on the edge of the CCEDNet national Conference, EconoUs2018, 40+ community development organizations, innovators, entrepreneurs and academics gathered to learn more about the Social Innovation Canada project and its impact in Atlantic Canada. They came with questions about timelines, resources and governance and all those in the room reinforced the importance for work in this region to be led with intentional collaboration. To that end, our team has had the privilege of travelling across the region this fall to connect, deepen relationships, and better understand the supports that would be useful for contributors to this field. You can read more details about their journey and who they found here.

Armed with a greater depth of understanding and many stories about successful innovations in our region, the Weavers team for SI Canada in the Atlantic Region are now working on an ecosystem mapping project to map the collected stories and to formalize the connections between people, projects and organizations in our region. Working with a multi-sectoral, provincial team of advisors, this map will be an online resource, available in 2019, to be used as a tool to foster even greater collaborative efforts across all provinces in their region.


The Announcement of The Social Finance Fund

The elephant on the list. Building on the recommendations from the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Steering Committee. the Fall Economic Statement made a big investment in the future of Canada. Or as Yung Wu  and Stephen Huddart put it: “Ottawa just quietly launched a new kind of capitalism.”

“Bill Morneau announced the Social Finance Fund, a $755-million investment to kickstart Canada’s social-finance market. In a few dozen words, he catapulted Canada to the top of a list of countries including Britain, Portugal and Japan that are already investing in this new kind of capitalism.”

Allyson Hewitt leads the social innovation programs at MaRS and served on the SISF Committee, she says: “I think the government, along with many others, are frustrated with our progress on tackling social issues. We all know the necessity of feeding the hungry and housing those without shelter but we all also want to do better. To stop the next hungry person from needing a food bank or someone having to use an emergency hostel because they have permanent housing. These are complex issues and they require working across sectors to better understand and tackle these issues, especially by working with those who have lived experience of the issue. We can do better and this fund opens up new forms of capital for us to tackle them. Grants are critical, necessary but not sufficient to unlock access to the capital we need to address the tough issues of times.”

This investment will help unlock the potential of the millions of people working in social purpose organizations across the country. Canadian social innovation has grown from the bottom-up, and this federal investment jumps Canada into a position of global leadership.


Future of Good Brings Impact Stories to the Mainstream

Future of Good is a digital media startup  dedicated to illuminating stories, innovations, & trends shaping social impact in Canada.

“Our digital content is organized around core obsessions, and focused on illuminating the innovations, perspectives, and emerging trends shaping our work. Our team combines storytelling and content curation with editorial craft. We engage a Canada-wide audience with smart insights, stories, guides, and commentary.” says CEO and Founder Vinod Rajasekaran.

“Good exists in every sector and in every industry. Good isn’t owned by any one. Impact-focused people are everywhere. There are small acts and big acts. There are professionals and there are passionate amateurs. There are people who are loud about it and there are people innovating underground because they have no other choice. All of these people make up our beautiful universe of doing good.”

Make sure to follow them on Twitter @futureofgood and sign up for their newsletter at their website here.


CRA Loses Rule That Limits Charities Political Activities to 10% of Resources

In July, an Ontario judge invalidated a longstanding rule limiting to 10 per cent the resources any Canadian charity is permitted to devote to political activities saying it infringes on the constitutional right to free expression.

The decision by Justice Edward Morgan of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice was a huge win for Canada Without Poverty, the small Ottawa group that launched the challenge and that had been under formal notice of losing its charitable status since 2016.

“Simply put, there is no way to pursue the Applicant’s charitable purpose — using methodology that is recognized by Parliament itself — while restricting its politically expressive activity to 10% of its resources,” the judge wrote.

This was a historic win for social innovators working with charitable status, opening up the possibility for new potential interventions in the political system.


Systemic Design Toolkit Helps Co-Create Interventions in Complexity

A few years ago, the need of tackling increasingly complex projects pushed Namahn and shiftN to collaborate on a Systemic Design toolkit. At the RSD5 symposium in Toronto (2016), the two partners presented the first version of the toolkit and assessed its fit for purpose during the conference workshop.

Since then, the original authors have collaborated with Peter Jones of Systemic Design Association and Alex Ryan at MaRS Discovery District for continued development of the toolkit towards a mature version, ready for use. The downloadable set of templates guide seekers through a seven steps methodology to tackle complex issues.

  1. Framing the system Setting the boundaries of your system in space and time and identifying the hypothetical parts and relationships.
  2. Listening to the system Listening to the experiences of people and discovering how the interactions lead to the system’s behaviour. Verifying the initial hypotheses.
  3. Understanding the system Seeing how the variables and interactions influence the dynamics and emergent behaviour. Identifying the leverage points to work with.
  4. Defining the desired future Helping the stakeholders articulate the common desired future and the intended value creation.
  5. Exploring the possibility space Exploring possible ideas for intervening on the leverage points. Empowering the ideas by working with the paradoxes in the system.
  6. Designing the intervention model Defining the engine for change and its variations. Iterating by envisioning its implementation in different contexts.
  7. Fostering the transition Defining how the interventions will mature, grow and finally be adopted in the system.

“Whether you are working on global climate change or organizational culture change, if you have noticed the limits of your smooth-water tool-kit, systemic design can help.” says Dr. Alex Ryan. You can read more about systemic design in his blog post here.

Download the free guide and templates from their website here.


System Change Educators Gather in Vancouver to Align

On November 28 and 29, 24 individuals, representing 20 distinct system change education programs gathered in Vancouver. It was an important engagement opportunity for curriculum designers, educators, trainers and coaches from universities, government units, consultancies and community organizations. The overarching goals were for participants to deepen a sense of common purpose, to further seed a culture of sharing and support, and to take some meaningful first steps towards cross organizational and peer connection to:

  • Situate themselves as educators in a specific field characterized by urgency, possibility,
    and life-long learning needs
  • Connect individuals and initiatives providing education for practitioners engaged in system
    change action and help to pollinate the field
  • Surface what is working and also where gaps exist around program design and structure,
    specific curriculum, delivery methods, coaching strategies and evaluation activities
  • Consider critical questions around how our offerings are or are not including issues of
    diversity, multiple world-views, indigenous ways of knowing, power, privilege, systems of
    oppression, and accessibility, and identifying ways to advance education for these
  • Explore opportunities to help shape an open source Social Innovation/systems change
    101 curricula, connected to the Social Innovation Canada platform

Coming soon: a repository for program information will be housed on the Social Innovation Canada website and will serve as a place for ongoing submissions from other programs, helping to raise awareness of offerings for both educators and for practitioners looking for these kinds of learning supports.


Canadian Social Innovation is Increasingly Global in Scope and Scale

Canada has a long and strong history of social innovation at home, and because of that history our SI practitioners, academics and and institutions are all important pieces in global impact movements.

“One invisible piece of our ecosystem is the well developed international partnerships many different components sustain. Those partnerships mean Canada is continuously scanning the world for the best ideas and proven models we can learn from or adapt and adopt.” says Tim Draimin, Senior Advisor at McConnell Foundation.  “SI Canada has a strong relationship with Social Innovation Exchange, the social enterprise community participated annually with Social Enterprise World Forum. Vancity is a member of Banking on Values, a global network of progressive financial institutions, and is hosting their global summit in February. There’s the systems affinity groups like the Relating Systems Thinking and Design symposiums. Ashoka Canada and its network…” the list goes on.

And with exciting federal commitments of funding and ecosystem development rolling out over the next decade, Canadian social innovation will continue to be world-class.


The Founding of Social Innovation Canada

“Toot toot” goes our own horn. Through the end of 2017 –  2018, a coalition of partners came together to consult and collaborate with thousands of innovators across the country. Together, they co-created Social Innovation Canada – a new pan-Canadian initiative to weave the social innovation ecosystem together. We wanted to to work together to build the capacity of new and existing practitioners, to build our field and to elevate our work and our impact in communities across Canada. The scope of our efforts over the past year has been to explore how we want to work together to be able to unlock the potential of social innovation in Canada. We invite you to read the full findings report here.

So much has emerged since June from the work being done by practitioners, regions, funders and governments that every time we write something down it seems out of date by the next week. For a snapshot of where we are today, where we think we’re going, and how we plan to get there check out Introducing Social Innovation Canada: Aligning for Action.

Si Canada is developing a regional presence across Canada in partnership with local organizations. You can see a full list of our expanding regions and partners here. Additionally, we’re developing thematic nodes like:

  1. Labs Community of Practice – Building on the work of the Solutions Lab and RADIUS SFU and the Converge Conference in BC in 2018, over 150 Labs Practitioners are gathering regularly to share best practices.
  2. Developmental Evaluation – A sub-constellation of Labs is focused on Developmental Evaluation, where practitioners are co-evolving some DE best practices for Labs.
  3. Corporate Social Innovation Community of Practice – Being developed in partnership with MaRS with a focus on socializing the field of social innovation within this sector.
  4. Social R&D – Weaving the existing Social R&D community of practice into SI Canada is underway as this constellation seeks to build the capacity of nonprofits and charities to build more intentional social research and development capacity within their own organizations.
  5. Indigenous Social Innovation – Recognizing that there are many efforts across Canada to unlock the knowledge and learning that connects indigenous issues and social innovation, this is as yet an unformed constellation and we will be inviting others to begin to explore this vital work.
  6. Transformative Leadership – Supporting emerging thought leaders and capacity builders, creating opportunities for their continued growth, learning, connections and partnerships building, while removing barriers that might otherwise limit their opportunity to participate.
So what does all of this mean for the future of social innovation in Canada?
“Canada is beginning to shift towards mission-oriented innovation. We are very well positioned to make a major leap forward in terms of the integration of social innovation into the mainstream innovation system. This will advance the re-tooling so many of Canada’s end-of-lifespan systems that were developed for an early, much less complex time of our history.” says Tim Draimin.
“But a great deal depends on our ability to strengthen social capital and practical working relationships enabling our more integrated innovation ecosystem to unlock cross-sector synergies and partnerships. That’s where Social Innovation Canada comes in.”


Looking forward to 2019!

For the latest from Social Innovation Canada, make sure you follow us Twitter @SICanadaTeam and sign up for our newsletter here.

Article By Kyle Shantz, January 2019


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