Catalyzing a Social R&D Ecosystem:

Jason Pearman
7 min readJan 21, 2021

Some new evidence on growing social mission R&D beyond the early adopters

A strong research and development (R&D) function has the potential to dramatically boost the outcomes of social impact efforts.

This pattern is increasingly documented across the social impact sector¹, and has been well studied across other sectors (e.g. health, education, communication technology, etc.).

What is R&D? R&D refers to the early stages of an innovation cycle, from the discovery of research questions to the development and testing of prototypes and the eventual diffusion of learnings². Regardless of the sector or context, R&D has been found to be a reliable way for organizations to close the gap between current results and bigger aspirations, as well as a proven approach to navigate uncharted territory.

The report Forging the Missing Link was written to offer some sector specific evidence and pragmatic next steps for funders, policymakers, and capacity building intermediaries in order to increase the impact of their social R&D and social innovation supports. Investing well in social mission R&D was important pre-COVID, but now it’s essential.

Forging the Missing Link synthesizes the findings from a year-long research study on ways to grow R&D capabilities within social purpose organizations, and was one of the most exciting things that emerged out of the final phase of the Social R&D Fellowship (the other highlight being inclusion of R&D as an eligible activity under Canada’s social finance Investment Readiness Program)³.

The study had five research streams, including: a literature review; an environmental scan of existing sectoral capacity building supports for research, development, and R&D; a sectoral R&D capacity needs survey; semi-structured interviews with social R&D capacity building intermediaries; and field visits.

Image: A summary of the primary inputs into this social R&D capacity building study.

Not only did this study help us stumble across previous attempts in North America to mobilize R&D towards achieving breakthroughs in social missions, but it also helped to make visible a continuum of social purpose organizations seeking to grow their R&D craft and the kinds of remedies needed.

We’d been sharing early cuts of the data and drafts of the report for much of 2020 with collaborators in funding, policy and capacity building institutions, and finally published the report in September.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, and aren’t into long reads, I thought I’d share some of my favourite sections in this blog post.

Highlights from Forging the Missing Link:

  • Definitions

From R&D to Field Building, and Data Infrastructure to Intermediary, the report tries to offer greater precision for the terminology that the sector is using for more exploratory work. The hope is that this enables a more thoughtful conversation about research and development activities and how they can complement existing efforts to respond to social and environmental challenges.

Image: A page from the Terms and Definitions section. In total, the section covers the following: Capacity Builders, Data Infrastructure, Experimentation, Field Building, Innovation Cycle, Innovation and Invention, Intermediary, Mitacs, Practitioners, R&D (Research and Development), Social Innovation, Social Impact Sector, Social Mission Nonprofit, Social Purpose Organizations (SPO), Social R&D, and Social R&D Community.
  • A typology of social R&D practices

There are many different ways that social purpose organizations are using research, development, and R&D practices to go after social transformations. While each orientation is valid given the range of pressures and objectives across the social impact sector, offering all these organization the same capacity building options is slowing progress. This typology of social R&D practice may help develop a more refined menu of capacity building services.

Image: Social R&D Practices captured in our data largerly fit into one of these high-level portraits: Portrait One — inspired by entrepreneurship and innovation practices; Portrait Two — focused on enabling organizational and community development; Portrait Three — influenced by social and health sciences research and knowledge mobilization approaches; and Portrait Four — an outlier in our data set that rejects the “Social R&D” frame in favour of grassroots community organizing, centring community-led research, governance and collective decision-making.
  • Self described needs, and needs observed by experienced capacity intermediaries

Semi-structured interviews and field visits gave us even more clarity on what is frustrating the R&D aspirations of the sector… For example, it wasn’t a surprise that change management capabilities were important, but the extent to which they are needed calls for additional attention.

Image: A qoute from one of the R&D capacity building intermediaries interviewed as part of our research.
  • Cautionary Tales: the previous waves of Social R&D

It turns out that there have been multiple efforts to support more explicit use of R&D practices in the social impact sector across North America; these have most often started and ended with a motivated network of early adopters. While these efforts have yielded tangible results (e.g. policy and funding measures by the US government in the 60s that lead to some significant advancements in educational outcomes), they have fallen short of meeting the potential that R&D can unlock for a sector.

Image: Maxime surprising us with his discovery of a book written by Jack Rothman in 1980 entitled “Social R&D”. Rothman, a social worker, scholar and community organizer saw R&D as a proven approach to close the “missing-link” between research and practice.
  • Capacity building remedies, i.e. the Now What?

This new evidence pointed to a universal desire to conduct research and to develop and test solutions that accelerate a social change process, regardless of the different perspectives and learning objectives that practitioners’ and social purpose organizations’ hold.

We also learned that R&D is a team sport: R&D’s value is maximized when there is a critical mass of organizations doing it well.

Keeping the two requirements of increasing R&D quality and R&D quantity in mind, we used this new data, existing evidence, and the research team’s practical experience to tease out some actionable remedies.

Image: The remedies in the report were conceived of to address the four critical needs that social purpose organizations with existing research or development have regarding growing a strong R&D practice.

What’s next?

It’s clear that Canada’s social impact sector is ready for the right-sized R&D infrastructure that one would expect for any high-performing sector; and as we dig our way out of this COVID-19 crisis, social mission R&D work is even more relevant.

To reach a tipping point of R&D activity across the sector, we see a lot of promise in focusing on those organizations that already have some R(research) or D(development) capabilities, hence the title of the report. The ‘missing link’ being intentional and systematic connections between research and develop work; and those activities being supported at both the organizational- and sectoral-level.

With the Investment Readiness Program, the Social R&D Ecosystem Mobilization Initiative, the Social R&D Community, and the many other assets now in play, this latest wave of interest in Social R&D really does have the potential to achieve what has eluded previous efforts: hitting that critical mass of R&D activity needed to deeply embed this practice across the social impact sector.

If you’re curious to learn more about this report, get in touch. If you’re keen to engage on where the Social R&D ecosystem journey is going next, connect with SI Canada and the Social R&D Community. If you’re looking for more stories of Social R&D in action, watch for this new Future of Good story series.

Stay safe.


Image: Key words used by study participants to describe their R&D work. Organizations with the most robust R&D functions drew from a number of the above and practices.


[1] The reports Getting to Moonshot and Social R&D Practices and Principles v1.0, the books Radical Help and Trampoline Effect, and the SSIR article Field Catalysts are some of the more recent efforts to offer a glimpse into how R&D can play a role in accelerating positive social and environmental change efforts.

[2] A strong R&D practice within organizations is essential, but the right conditions are also needed: both internal and sectoral conditions. Internal, referring to a high R&D readiness within an organization, e.g. allowing promising inventions — be they programs, policies, processes, mindsets, etc. — to grow and affect organizational behaviour. Sectoral, referring to a critical mass of R&D output across a network of peers: the “spill-over” in insights, know-how and inventions via formal and informal connections between practitioners with strong R&D practices is the magic sauce that increases the likelihood that disruptive inventions emerge.

[3] From documenting examples of social mission R&D in action and curating a network of champions and practitioners, to supporting public policy development and helping funders retool innovation programming, the Social R&D Fellowship stewarded this latest wave of Social R&D ecosystem development in Canada from 2015 until late 2019.

The following blog posts recap the five phases of the Fellowship’s efforts:

[4] Report Authors:

Maxime G. Langlois is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Faculty of Education at McGill University, building on seven years of professional experience as a practitioner and research manager for the Montreal-based nonprofit Exeko. At the cross-roads of popular education and professional skills development, his work focuses on the infrastructure of knowledge production, utilization and dissemination in the nonprofit sector.

Naomi Nichols is an Associate Professor. In July 2020, she became the Canada Research Chair in Community-Partnered Social Justice in the Department of Sociology at Trent University. At the time of this study, she was a Professor at McGill University.

Jason Pearman is the Head of R&D for a funding program in the Government of Canada. He was the McConnell Senior Fellow for Social R&D and led the Social R&D Fellowship over 2018 and 2019. Prior to joining the Fellowship, Jason was the Lead of Policy and Program Experimentation at Natural Resources Canada, and a Reverse Mentor for the Deputy Minister Committee on Policy Innovation. Jason also co-founded the Future of Good Summit and Impact HUB Ottawa.



Jason Pearman

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