A story of funder collaboration for social innovation

Photo by Michael Levenston

Photo by Michael Levenston

Interviews with Dave Doig, Vancouver Foundation, Laura Tate, Community Action Initiative, and Annie Burkes, City of Vancouver

One funder put it this way; “We say we’re supporting social innovation, but I don’t think we are. In fact, our own processes may be getting in the way of real innovation!” A group of funding partners in BC, interested in the problem of social exclusion of vulnerable populations, came together to figure out a process that could help themselves, their organizations, and their grantees to develop the capacity to learn and use a systems lens for more impact. This unique funder-driven initiative identified teams of potential grantees and then provided them with the opportunity for learning and coaching to develop strong proposals for social innovation. The eight-month long process created an experimental environment over a series of four workshops on social innovation and complexity, through which the groups developed their own innovative ideas. This collaborative process (5 funders in total, 12 community groups) “was breathed into life”; with the funders living the experience along with their grantees, participating in the workshops, applying learning to innovate within their own organizations and processes in order to support innovation in the field. The end results were some organizational restructuring for some of the funders, significantly higher quality proposals from the community, with the majority of these funded in summer 2015. 

How are they achieving this kind of impact?

Being the change you want to see: “We needed to put our money where our mouth was, and lead by example.”  Not only did the funders explicitly state that the initiative was an experiment, but they participated in all the workshops to support their own partnerships’ ongoing development. They also used what they were learning as an opportunity to explore their own and each other’s internal processes, and explore how to leverage all these for the benefit of the collaboration. They discovered shared processes meant more clarity for applicants in terms of a shared definition and expectations for social innovation goals, as well as less time and resources extracted from community throughout the application process.

Finding common ground: For both the collection of funders and the groups of community organizations, there was tremendous value gained in learning about social innovation, allowing all to speak the same language for relevant idea development and assessment. Importantly, education about social innovation was also tailored to and shared with decision makers at the funding organizations to include them in the goals of common language and vision.  In addition, all quickly saw that they could leverage other commonalities related to their goals and objectives in various ways. This reduced the sense of isolation and everyone became more conscious of being part of a bigger field; not as easily side-tracked by counter-productive thinking of their work as disconnected and unique from other initiatives.

Managing risk: Learning more about each other’s contexts and realities, the funding partnership made space to openly discuss various risk factors, some shared and some quite unique, and to work together to manage those. This required a great deal of flexibility and a willingness to be explicit about limits that each had to doing ‘very new things’.  Exit points were intentionally planned, should any one organization go beyond their own limits to challenge or reshape rules and processes of their home organizations. It was helpful to have more than one way identified to keep the initiative moving forward.

What are the key challenges to this type of work?

In short, these funders say that we need an evolution of grant making. They see a need for more willingness of funders to be open to what they don’t yet know about being a good grant maker and to step outside of specific mandates for the greater good. “There’s a need to examine not only what we do but how we do it;” an external eye can be very helpful for this kind of exploration.

Says one of the funding leaders, “People need to develop muscles for this; they need to fight the fear of the unknown, break siloes. Find small steps to learn and encourage more to move into these kinds of spaces. Tell stories – small stories as well as big stories of thinking and acting in new ways. People need to know what’s possible and how to do this kind of new work.”

What does this tell us about system change?

Believing change is possible: This initiative started from a place of not knowing what we didn’t know. “We were naïve and that helped us! It just made such good sense to all of us!  It seemed completely doable! It required a low financial investment so it was a small enough scale to gain everyone’s commitment and to risk some experimenting.”  Strongly believing that your idea is “possible” helps to simply begin, instead of talking yourself out of it before you even try. Begin and be ready to learn as you go.

Impact across system scales: The initiative focused on building the capacity to change systems related to one broad issue area by focusing on education and training for key individuals. However, there was an intentional strategy to catalyze change at the individual level that would translate into change at a network and organizational level (for both community and funder organizations and networks). System change is possible when change is catalyzed across multiple scales.

Leveraging windows of opportunity: “We were openly opportunistic; we used the fact that there was growing disappointed in the quality of proposals combined with shared experiences of pressure to demonstrate more impact from our investments; this gave us a kind of permission to try something new. We chose to work with those that were at about the same place, those with whom we already held familiarity, trust and shared values, and those who were ready to go forward now, while the opening existed.”