April 24, 2019
Guest Blog

How can philanthropy better support social R&D?

Violaine Des Rosiers - Co-Executive director, Social Innovation House (MIS)

A community parking lot near your home creating more green spaces and smarter urban design; a tower of containers transformed into a basin to raise fish and to cultivate an aquaponic garden in a densely populated food scarce area; a local currency that allows neighbourhood residents to exchange goods and services; citizen-led data gathering through sensors that generates air quality info and supports the development of effective measures to fight climate change; a public heating geothermal system to reduce electricity bills and increase positive environmental footprint; a municipal participatory budget exercise encouraged and supported by your mayor; access to work spaces in vacant buildings to kick-start social impact projects, enabling property owners to reduce maintenance costs while increasing their property’s social and market value… just a few of the innovative approaches that can strengthen communities’ social capital and resilience, improve daily living conditions, and give everyone the chance to reclaim their power to make a difference.

However, these projects would not be possible without substantial investment in Research & Development (R&D), allowing ideas to emerge, be challenged and tested in real conditions by users.

We all have the ability to create, develop and innovate. However, to do so requires access to knowledge and the conditions for each of us to contribute to the development of solutions that have the potential to change the world. The best ideas often come from those who deal with these issues on a daily basis. Their perspective as users or beneficiaries puts them in an ideal position to assess the usefulness, usability, desirability, accessibility and relevance of a product, a service, a program or a policy.

Just as a company needs to innovate to remain relevant, competitive and responsive to consumer needs, our society needs many promising ideas to meet the social, economic and ecological challenges of the 21st century, solutions that public, private and philanthropic actors alone cannot provide.

Are traditional models of philanthropy and social development adapted to cope not only with the scale and complexity of the changes required, but also with the urgency to act?

The way we think about the development of new services, programs or strategies has evolved considerably over the past decade. Most companies producing goods or services nowadays have departments that devote time and money exclusively to R&D, in other words, to innovation.

It is essential that intentional processes are developed. These processes enable us to take calculated risks, test and refine new approaches, and optimize the design of interventions before investing in replication and scale-up. In addition, we live in an increasingly turbulent and profoundly changing world, both socially, environmentally and economically. What is “suitable” today may no longer be in ten years’ time. Innovation is then a necessary step to enable our societies to adapt, achieve and sustain the social impacts we seek to create, just as it is to maintain a competitive advantage in the private sector.

Most philanthropic donations and grants are made based on predetermined performance measures inherent in the programs that support them. Funding models based on approaches that emphasize continuous improvement and short iteration are unfortunately uncommon. So, why is risk tolerance often lower in social investments than in traditional ones?

Yet, in recent years, the field of social innovation has progressed considerably with the adoption of a range of tools inspired by different disciplines. These include human-centred design, anthropological observation, user experience approaches, prototyping, open innovation laboratories, co-creation, developmental evaluation and outcome harvesting. However, when used in a fragmented or unconnected way, the impact of these methodologies is rarely optimized.

Generating ideas that have the potential to be adopted and applied requires effective processes that guide reflection and lead to concrete action. For a promising idea to become a social innovation, it must follow design steps, and be accompanied from conception to implementation, through experimentation on a smaller scale.

Still today, the majority of public and private funding practices are rooted in the culture of “results-based management” which requires intensive up-front planning pre-determining performance indicators and expected outputs. The projects’ results are then assessed on their ability to meet these predetermined indicators, rather than adopting a short project cycle and continuous learning-based approach. This project management approach is unsuited to the development and implementation of effective social innovations, stifling initiatives and reducing the flexibility that is so critical to adaptation and evolution of impactful projects.

But are funders willing to change their practices to support the social innovation process of Non-profit organizations?

More and more, social development sector actors intervene when public actors have reached the limits to their effectiveness, targeting systemic barriers and experimenting with new approaches and levers to unlock them. It is therefore imperative that the philanthropic sector is able to adapt its planning, monitoring and performance evaluation models so as to put all the conditions for success in place in its approach to support social innovation.

If a change in donor approach is needed, one that encourages organizations to adopt an agile, process-oriented approach based on developmental evaluation and evolutionary improvement, the conditions attached to donor funding are also crucial. Making funds available that support an organization as a whole rather than a specific project enables social sector leaders to make choices that are consistent with identified needs, to make decisions in an agile manner, and thus to innovate.

A unique program that supports social R&D, funded by canadian philanthropy.

Aiming at generating projects with high potential for social and environmental impact, the MIS Civic Incubator program guides participants through a journey of innovation processes. These include working methods, design and co-creation tools that are necessary to develop new products, programs, services, and policies, in order to meet well-defined needs, but for which there are no satisfactory solutions to date. This support enables change agents to better anticipate the risks inherent in their projects and to act immediately to correct project trajectory when required. The program engages not only with projects, but also with the teams that bring about change, helping them to become stronger and more resilient. To influence the transformation of our society, we must nurture and take care of both.

For more information on the Civic Incubator: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKFW7BSP4uI

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