Non-Profit Innovators – We Need You!

By: Jack Xu

By Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

— George E. P. Box

Over the past couple of years the Government of Canada has made some significant moves in terms of accelerating innovation in the social sector.

First, in 2017 they appointed the Co-Creation Steering Group, to guide the development of a Canadian Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy. After a year of consultations, the Group presented its recommendations for Government consideration. The same year the Senate also appointed a Special Committee on the Charitable Sector to “examine the impact of federal and provincial laws and policies governing charities, nonprofit organizations, and other similar groups” so as to improve efficiency,  transparency, innovation, and engagement. And then, in 2018 the Federal Government Fall Economic Statement announced a brand new Social Finance Fund ( a whopping $755 million with an additional $50 million put towards an Investment and Readiness stream) to be available to “charitable, non-profit and social purpose organizations … to implement their innovative ideas, and will connect them with non-government investors seeking to support projects that will drive positive social change.” Finally, the most recent 2019 Innovation, Science and Economic Development of Canada (ISED) Report, titled “Building a Nation of Innovators,” addressed “a partnership-driven approach… with industry, post-secondary institutions, not-for-profits, and provinces and territories,” confirming the government’s commitment to finance “R&D collaborations between academia, not-for-profits, and the private sector—collaborations that are larger in scale, scope, and longevity than was often the case in the past” (p. 55).

While all these prospects sound quite positive, both profits and non-profits (NPOs) alike are struggling to understand what exactly makes them innovative. Yet, as MCIS received our official invitation to speak to the Senate Special Committee on the Charitable Sector about non-profit innovation, we had to put our best efforts forward to frame the issue.

In all fairness, we do have some expertise on the topic. We have been monitoring and participating in ongoing consultations since the early days. And we have been practicing what we preach, stretching and strengthening our innovation muscle. That’s what has got us from being a small non-profit providing interpretation services with one source of government funding to the mid-sized self-sustaining multi-service pan Canadian language solutions company that we are today.  Our incremental, organic growth has been the result of innovation, to build internal capacity, every step of the way. Recently, we have been more intentional about raising awareness using emergent social innovation processes that engage communities in co-designing and co-creating social policy.

For example, in November 2017 MCIS  led a community hackathon, MigrahackTO, to mobilize non-profits and members of academia around issues of data sharing and evidence-based storytelling (report can be found here). The following year we partnered with the Policy Innovation Initiative on the Language Policy Hackathon, a day of experiential learning involving close to 60 participants (watch the highlights here). We have been trying to capture and share our best practices, through reports and blogs, and nurture partnerships with a network of social organizations and individuals we consider to be the true heroes of grassroots sector innovation, among others: Craig Carter-Edwards and WelcomeHomeTO, Howard Tam, Marco Campana, iSchool’s Nadia Caidi, and upbeat civic tech folks, Bianca Wylie and Saadia Muzafar. From them, we have learned to adopt the idea that “all knowledge is incomplete” and “so you need to create a holistic frame‐of‐reference” that will have a better chance to inspire engagement and collective action.

Therefore, instead of describing what we think or believe non-profit  innovation is, we applied a three-step crowdsourcing approach consisting of:

  1. 1) An online consultation form sent to over 100 participants in past events exploring 4 non-profit innovation categories:

Culture of Innovation: NPO innovation should be embedded within the organization and NPOs should be given resources to develop and nurture their own culture of innovation;

Resources Innovation: NPO sector generates abundant amounts of valuable social data that should be open by default to facilitate transparency and innovation and to inform the sector if service design is responsive to the end users’ needs;

Products/Services Innovation: NPOs have the dual role of providing service as advocacy and promoting diversity, because the capacity to innovate is directly proportional to diversity. Alternatively, service as advocacy positions NPOs to be deliberate agents of a democratic society actively promoting the principles of inclusion, tolerance and human rights;

Process Innovation or Enabling the Idea Pathway: NPOs must be incentivized to remove barriers to innovation and idea implementation and to transform into project or matrix based organizational structures. Internal incentives also need to be in place to award individuals within the NGOs who actively embrace learning, flexibility and proactive collaboration with the private and public sector (complete document here).

2) Extensive research of best practices and already established measuring tools world wide (e.g. what is included and excluded from non-profit innovation, Oslo Manual)

3) In person consultations with community advocates organized in partnership with WelcomeHomeTo at the Centre for Social Innovation (blog post) to generate genuine boots-on-the-ground insights about what our collective role is in this process.

And what we came to hear we included, in addition to an examination of legislative barriers that often prevent us from investing back into our organization.

Scheduled exactly 4 weeks after our last hackathon, our witness statement and recommendations were well received. MCIS Executive Director, Latha Sukumar, spoke eloquently and passionately, and raised a number of good questions.  I, on the other hand, retreated into the background, happy to observe the dynamics of the exchange.

Our recommendations included a number of solutions: from the more simple task of shifting thinking surrounding innovation in non-profits as incremental as much as disruptive change, to more permanent and costly solutions, such as funding for dedicated non-profit R&D jobs and projects. Finally, there was the call to change charity laws, and provide NPOs more freedom to advocate for causes.

The senators asked us to provide suggestions about what will enable government to foster non-profit innovation, and why more funding is needed. At the end, not captured in the video, many senators approached us to shake hands demonstrating not only that it was done well but, even more importantly, that the government is genuinely  committed to nonpartisan exploration and decisions making regarding this issue. This was a very hopeful moment.

So, what’s next for us?

First, we hope to create additional experiential learning opportunities for innovation and design, such as hackathons, and engage further with a creative rethinking of public policies and services;

Second, we want to bring more people on board, especially from minority communities, and significantly improve our research and data collection design. To demonstrate transparency and inclusiveness, we might need to enlist the help of academia more intensively;

Third, we want to participate in, if not facilitate, collaboration with the for-profit sector. As one of our participants said, without NPOs our social life would not be the same; health, education, sports, justice and arts, that are in domain of NPOs, create the quality of life people seek. However, efficiencies, capital and the perspective of for-profit businesses might help the social sector to manage shared social and financial capital better;

  • Finally, we hope that decisions around the Social Finance Fund will be made more promptly, and that we, along with our partners and supporters, will continue to be invited to share our findings.

These conversations are much larger than the scope and mission of one single organization, and we all, as citizens and as a sector, need to make a conscious effort to collaborate better and more often.

Finally, thank you, dear non-profit innovators, for being a part of this journey, and here are some action items for you because, frankly, the work has just begun:

Contact us if you have a project in mind you want to collaborate on (email)
– And if you want to shape the future of the Social Finance Fund, respond to the CCEDNet ‘s Social Finance Fund survey (open until March 8th)
– Our article in the International Journal of Information, Diversity & Inclusion, University of Toronto: