Catalyzing a Social R&D Ecosystem:

Phase 4 — Holding Ground

Author’s Note

This is part one of a three-part blog series that captures some final reflections from the Social R&D Fellowship’s multi-year effort to seed an ecosystem for social mission research and development (R&D) in Canada.

Originally hosted by Social Innovation Generation (2015–2018), and then McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada (2018–fall 2019), the Fellowship’s work began with the Social R&D Declaration to Action and ended with the launch of Employment and Social Development Canada’s Social R&D Ecosystem Mobilization Initiative.

Having joined the Fellowship in mid-2017, taken the helm in 2018, and wound down the work in the fall of 2019, this series is meant to candidly share the journey as well as some lessons.

Why should the social sector care about R&D?

Canada’s social impact sector is a mix of nonprofits, foundations, public sector and for-profit entities. Collectively, the sector spends over $420 billion per year to deliver social and environmental outcomes and increase wellbeing¹.

Despite this investment, there are too many social and environmental challenges where we’re not making gains:

The suicide rate among Canadian girls has increased by 38% over the past decade.

The number of food bank visits in Toronto has doubled (+100%) compared to 1995.

There’s been a 30% decline in the number of birds across North America compared to 1970.

It is in these kinds of scenarios where R&D work is highly relevant, i.e. traditional approaches are no longer working, or the problem is evolving faster than our ability to respond.

Despite R&D’s utility, fewer than 5% of charities and non-profits do it², and historically there have been few publicly funded supports.

In a way, the sector has been locked into delivering incremental improvements to familiar approaches, often at the expense of the next generation of high-impact programs, services, and products that our society needs.

But there are signs of progress.

From Here to There

Rewind to the summer of 2015. A group of frontline innovators, activists, academics, nonprofit and foundation leaders, and public policy professionals came together to compare notes on research and experimentation activities happening across Canada’s social purpose organizations³.

I was thrilled to be invited, having just taken a role at Natural Resources Canada to increase the department’s capacity for policy and program experimentation⁴.

We left that gathering energized. There were gutsy R&D practices across the sector, and there was a profound sense of potential if R&D practices, tools and supports could be accessed by organizations on the frontlines of social and environmental challenges. There was also much goodwill between practitioners and sector leaders to explore this space together.

Fast forward four years. We now have:

This shift didn’t just happen. It was kick-started and stewarded by a rag-tag network of practitioners, funders and policymakers who were backstopped by the Social R&D Fellowship.

Here’s a recap of those early years:

Phase 1: Following Curiosity and Testing the Waters

This early phase of the journey was about exploring, question-finding, learning about the state of R&D in the social sector, and mobilizing a commitment to action.

Phase 2: Conducting a positive deviance inquiry and fostering practitioner peer coaching and learning

This phase was about empowering a collective ecosystem-development process, identifying positive deviants in the social sector and understanding their R&D practices and needs, facilitating practitioner peer-to-peer exchange, and beginning to inform public policy.

Phase 3: Seeding value of R&D in public policy community, grantmaking community, and deepening the practitioner peer community

This phase was about deepening the engagement with the public policy community, and raising awareness within the grantmaking and funding community. This is also when I joined the Fellowship.

Phase 4: Holding Ground

“…the competencies that generate innovation are part of a collective activity occurring through a network of actors and their links or relationships.”

Marianna Mazzucato

In the fall of 2017 we were reaching the end of Phase 3, and getting some strong signals that the ambition of mainstreaming R&D across the social sector was gaining traction: Social R&D made the Government of Canada’s Social Innovation/Social Finance Strategy consultation guide, social mission R&D was noted in Nesta’s top trends for the next 10-years of impact, we were consistently receiving 2x the number of applicants than spaces for the annual Social R&D Practice Gathering, and major institutions were reaching out to the Fellowship to have their leadership teams briefed on the work.

We also knew that momentum could evaporate quickly, especially given the imminent sunset of SiG (the Fellowship’s first host). So for the next phase of the work, Phase 4, our focus was clear: reinforce this movement’s base.

Practically, this meant strengthening the connections across the existing practitioner network, and deepening the R&D fluency of key champions.

The Social R&D Community

Mental Image: Leading practitioners are the North Star. When trying to find your way, look to where they’re going to get your bearings.

Up until this point the Fellowship had been regularly engaging a roster of practitioners who had participated in the Declaration to Action gathering, Getting to Moonshot research, Practice Gatherings, Social R&D teleconferences, and/or Social R&D roundtables.

This approach worked to get early signals from practitioners on what was limiting their ability to do R&D well. It also helped to grow a shared commitment amongst practitioners towards mainstreaming R&D across the sector. But it felt too episodic, and too scattered for the kind of field building that would be needed to achieve our shared ambition.

So in this phase, we began to facilitate regular contact opportunities for the Social R&D practitioners in our network. The intent here was to strengthen the peer-to-peer relationships and increase the peer-to-peer mentoring that would be the scaffolding of a community of practice (CoP).

Curating this CoP was my main role when I joined the Fellowship, and it would turn out that a strong CoP was critical to give the practitioner community, and the Fellowship, a shot of legitimacy post-SiG.

To seed the Social R&D Community (i.e. the CoP), we drew from alumni of the annual Practice Gathering (N=70). Why?

  • Alumni had already demonstrated that they were doing something that looked like R&D (i.e. we could look under the hood and see dedicated activities to uncover new knowledge, as well as see the use of that knowledge to develop better programs, services, or products);
  • Practice Gathering attendees were already curated to ensure a multi-method mix (from social labs and data science, to art and reflective practice), and range of social change contexts(from developmental disabilities and urban sustainability, to youth homelessness and education);
  • Existing relationships had already been formed between alumni, as well as with the Social R&D Fellows; and
  • Alumni had already demonstrated a drive to improve their R&D craft AND advocate for effective R&D supports for the broader sector.

By no means did this approach yield a representative practitioner community, but it was a good place to start.

To guide our early curation activities, we tested a spectrum of in-person and digital engagements.

In-person engagements included: Practice Gatherings, 5 à 7s, thematic roundtables and dinners, and site visits.

Digital engagements included: CoP calls, 1 on 1 calls, texts, slack consults, twitter lists, email updates, outreach for secondary research and thematic roundtable prep, and consults for the Fellowship’s R&D support services.

In general, the in-person engagements filled the Community’s peer-learning and relational capital cup, while the digital engagements helped to maintain a minimum level of information flow and slowed the loss of relational capital between in-person engagements. Past experiences and network science were super useful here.

Curating this CoP also meant accounting for different practitioner profiles, i.e. different R&D methods, context, organizational set-up, discretionary time for CoP activities, region, etc.

Though we could segment the Social R&D Community in a variety of ways, working around the following three profiles maximized the effectiveness of our curation activities:

Did we come up with the perfect mix of activities to keep the Community strong? Doubtful.

Did these early curation activities work? Well, over the last 2 years a significant amount of in-kind support from Community members has been invested into growing the field of Social R&D in Canada and supporting peer-learning across the network⁶. I’m not convinced that this would have been possible had we failed to hold the community together during this time of transition.

Moving forward, via the Social R&D Ecosystem Mobilization Initiative co-funded by ESDC and McConnell, much can be accomplished to grow a sustainable and vibrant Social R&D CoP.

A strong practitioner-anchor has been an essential ingredient for maximizing the impact of Canada’s Social R&D ecosystem building efforts. It has kept everyone focused on what is relevant for existing as well as future practitioners, and for the Fellowship, we had a community behind us when engaging decision-makers on what needed to be done next.

Want to learn more about the Social R&D Community? Visit

Social R&D Champions

Mental Image: Major institutions (i.e. foundations, public sector, think tanks, associations, capacity intermediaries, etc.) and their decision-makers influence the natural environment and terrain. Depending on the conditions, one’s R&D journey could be smooth and pleasant, rough and rocky, or damn near impossible.

Alongside the community of practitioners, there has been a group of sector leaders, and their institutions, who have offered critical support for this work⁷.

Their interest and enthusiasm for Social R&D remained immediately post-SiG, but we were concerned that they would move on if there wasn’t a deeper understanding of where R&D is relevant, and its role in the creation of an innovation.

Here, instead of launching a formal Champion’s Network, we opted to focus on a handful of institutions whose actions have demonstrated ripple effects across Canada’s social sector.

(With Vinod and Tim transitioning to new adventures post-SiG, this approach was one part strategic and one part pragmatic given our bandwidth.)

What did this look like?

  • Continued facilitation of frank discussions between practitioners and decision-makers on what was amplifying and slowing down practitioners’ R&D work via Social R&D Roundtables and Masterclasses;
  • Engaging R&D technical experts to explore commonalities and differences between R&D work in social purpose organizations versus R&D in other spaces (e.g. Life Sciences, Education, Finance, etc.);
  • Pouring through R&D and Innovation Systems program design literature;
  • Writing technical briefs for executive teams and program managers, and then spending time with them to work through the nuances e.g. how Social R&D relates to other practice frames like Experimentation, Social Labs, Community-led Research, etc.; and
  • Using formal and informal channels to feed evidence and Social R&D Roundtable findings into institutional strategy and new initiative design;

To support these institutions, we really had to beef up our own fluency in R&D and Innovation Systems theory and practice. We also had to carve out the time to engage with executive teams, program managers, and policy officials.

Did we target the right institutions AND come up with the perfect set of experiences, storytelling, and supports to strengthen their R&D and Innovation System fluency? Probably not.

Did deeper engagement with just a handful of institutions strengthen their resolve? Well, being in constant conversation seemed to keep Social R&D on their radar, and in a few cases, they’ve made big bets on new R&D investments and supports for the sector.

Will these new investments and supports incorporate the latest knowledge on what boosts and blocks strong social mission R&D work? It’s early days, but there are reasons to hopeful.

Moving forward, any major institution that wants to contribute to mainstreaming R&D across the sector will need to remember the following: an enabling environment is heavily influenced by funder and policymaker rules, resource allocations, ambition, information sharing, and decision making practices.

Look inward, and make the necessary changes so that the sector’s R&D activity can grow and thrive.

Now Where?

“If our societies are to thrive in the 21st century, we’ll need to make R&D mainstream in the social sector.”

Geoff Mulgan

This phase of the work really focused on holding ground and building a solid foundation to continue the ambition post-SiG.

Tactically, as ecosystems are a function of actors and their environment, we had to find ways to tighten the bonds across practitioners AND keep the curiosity of funders, policymakers and influencers alight.

Having largely held momentum, the next phase of the Fellowship’s work focused on priming the Social R&D ecosystem for growth.

Thank you to the McConnell Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, and Community Foundations of Canada. This phase of the work would not have been possible without their support.

And a special thank you to Vinod Rajasekaran, Tim Draimin and the Social R&D Community. You entrusted your vision to someone from outside of the sector. It was an honour and a privilege to take the baton.

Preview of part-two⁸:

  • Embedding Social R&D into Canada’s Social Innovation ecosystem
  • Building an evidence base on how to build R&D capacity, on the ground
  • Crafting the next set of questions (the future of the Social R&D Fellowship)


  1. Social Expenditure — Aggregated data : Public and Private Social Expenditure by country, 2016 OECD StatExtracts
  2. There’s currently no sectoral tracking in Canada, but in a study by the TCC Group, only 5% of a sample of ~2,500 social purpose organizations engaged in R&D.
  3. This meeting stemmed from a thought piece by Tim Draimin and Vinod Rajasekaran, Doing Good Better: Upping Canada’s Game with an R&D Engine.
  4. I was a member of the ADAPT team at Natural Resources Canada’s Innovation Hub. ADAPT had a two-year mandate to raise awareness of novel policy tools (e.g. Prizes, Open Policy Making, AI, Experimentation, etc.) across the department, and support their use. Here’s a Q&A with Nesta that captures some reflections on what the ADAPT team learn w.r.t. growing an experimental culture within government.
  5. You’ll note that these key ingredients are consistent with the Strong Field Framework, an assessment and planning tool developed by The Bridgespan Group to help funders attend to the essential ingredients needed to grow the impact of a network of organizations attempting to address a targeted challenge. It has five components: shared identity, standards of practice, knowledge base, leadership and grassroots support, and funding and supporting policy. While usually used to align and increase the impact of actors that have a shared social mission, this framework is also useful to build and grow practice networks.
  6. Here are some of the field building products that the Fellowship has curated with Social R&D Community members: Practices for Strong Social R&D version 1.0, Social R&D Supports Inventory, Social R&D Storytelling Masterclass, and Data Utilization module.
  7. Over the last four years the Fellowship’s Social R&D ecosystem efforts have been funded by McConnell Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada, Ontario Trillium Foundation, ESDC, Mirella and Lino Saputo Foundation, Wasan Partnership, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Toronto Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, Ottawa Community Foundation, and United Way Centraide Canada.
  8. The following blog posts recap the five phases of the Fellowship’s efforts:

Exploring how social mission R&D and public administration collide.

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