Last week, the Foundation co-hosted [1] the Evaluation Roundtable in Montreal. This Washington DC-based network of some 30 US and Canadian foundations meets every 18 months to study a case in philanthropic strategy and evaluation, and this time the subject was Social Innovation Generation (SiG), the Foundation’s seven-year partnership with the University of Waterloo, MaRS Discovery District and Plan Institute. Its purpose is to foster a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

By many measures, SiG is a success.  Through a happy convergence of intent and circumstance the term social innovation is in wider use, and the partners, along with SiG’s national office, have contributed individually and collectively to Canada’s ability to address complex and persistent systemic challenges. Examples include SiG’s role in introducing impact investing and social labs; the first Ministry of Social Innovation, in BC; teaching and research into the nature of systemic change; the introduction of new philanthropic platforms such as Innoweave; and many more.

To the surprise of some, the teaching case placed considerable emphasis on the first two years of the initiative, when it was not certain that success was possible, or that the initiative itself would continue. It was a period of confusion, doubt and conflict. So why dwell on it? As in science or business, innovation in philanthropy entails risk and occasional failure. Intelligent failure, as Ashley Good of Fail Forward referred to it at a workshop following the roundtable, requires honesty and humility – as well as patience and generosity towards ourselves and others as we learn failure’s lessons.

If learning from failure is one attribute of a culture of social innovation, another is perseverance. The partners felt that while walking away might have been the easiest thing to do, the prospect of success warranted continued effort – an instance of making the means justify the end. Frances Westley of SiG@Waterloo made a link between the level of emotional tension and difficulty during those early years and the partners’ subsequent ability to work on ambitious goals. The shift from a tightly focused group to one that was loosely coupled but with a national office raises questions about the structure and energies of innovation teams. In this case at least,  diverse partners seemed to function better when supported by a ‘designated driver’ with skills in brokering, mediating and networking.

A question at the centre of the case is how SiG was evaluated. The practice of developmental evaluation (DE) emerged and evolved over the period that SiG did. It was used for a few months at the beginning of the initiative and abandoned when it was evident that SiG was not gaining momentum, and not resumed. In a manner that recalls Voltaire’s observation that if God did not exist we would have to invent him, the skills and sensibilities of the developmental evaluator were nonetheless instrumental in SiG’s progress from dysfunctional to transformational. The national office acted as a servant leader: sensing where there was energy for collaboration; nudging the partners towards commitment; creating safe spaces for conversations; and introducing reflection into practice.

The effect was to shift the ‘culture’ of SiG – its norms and assumptions about how things were to be done. In other words, before SiG could effectively foster a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada, it had to learn to do so for itself.

By revealing this at times painful but ultimately successful process to our peers in philanthropy and evaluation, we hope to encourage further open exploration, experimentation and learning around our most pressing challenges.

~ Stephen Huddart, President and CEO


[1] We would like to thank our Canadian and US partners, la Fondation André et Lucie Chagnon, Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, the Colorado Trust, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation for their support in convening the Roundtable and related workshops.