Leading a social innovation process

This article is the second in a five-part series on Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo.

SUMMARY: Nancy Mattes served as Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo’s director for nearly five years. In this article, she shares her experience about working in a complex change environment to build the “backbone organization” that would support the initiative. It challenged her assumptions about leadership and control. How do you proceed when there is no clear path forward? Would it be better to do nothing than risk going in the wrong direction? How do you take the necessary time for reflection when the community is pushing for action? The experience also taught her how to negotiate uncertainty and dissent, and create a neutral environment that encourages stakeholders to speak frankly.

RÉSUMÉ : Nancy Mattes a été pendant près de cinq ans directrice de Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo. Dans cet article, elle traite de l’expérience qu’elle a acquise en travaillant dans un environnement complexe et en mutation, en vue de bâtir une « organisation centrale » qui soutiendrait l’initiative. Elle a dû remettre en question ce qu’elle pensait du leadership et du contrôle. Comment procéder quand aucune voie n’est clairement tracée? Serait-il préférable de ne rien faire pour ne pas risquer de prendre la mauvaise direction? Comment prendre le temps nécessaire afin de réfléchir lorsque la communauté fait pression pour qu’on passe à l’action? L’expérience lui a aussi appris à naviguer à travers l’incertitude et la dissension, et à créer un environnement neutre qui encourage les intervenants à s’exprimer en toute franchise.


Between the fall of 2010 and the spring of 2015, I was the director of a social innovation process known as Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB). Wood Buffalo is a special community, but it’s also a complex system. Shocks like rapid population growth, floods and declining oil prices can undermine efforts to maintain quality services and to anticipate future needs. Before SPWB came to be, the social profit sector in Wood Buffalo was embroiled in rigidity and poverty traps like high staff turnover, burnout of leadership at the executive and board levels, and not fully understanding their contribution to society. Around its 10th year anniversary, the Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF) began to question the true impact of its community investments on quality of life and wellbeing in its key communities, including Fort McMurray. They decided to try a new community investment strategy. Using the book “Getting to Maybe” (Westley, Zimmerman, & Quinn Patton, 2006) as its playbook, the Foundation engaged the University of Waterloo to support a process that would strengthen the nonprofit sector, improve community resilience and build a culture of social innovation in the community. Rather than play the role of a detached observer, the Foundation was a full partner in this work, collaborating with the project team and stakeholders in Wood Buffalo.

The social prosperity process is a new approach to systems change that focuses on the process itself and requires a different approach than traditional philanthropy, one that draws on the resources of many actors to identify leverage points and interventions. It also required me to become a different kind of leader, a steward of social innovation and collaboration. In those early days, there were few resources and little language to describe this work. We pioneered our process, learning how to work together in a new way.

In what follows, I describe the most important elements of my unique experience stewarding SPWB for the past five years. By sharing my story of what it means to lead within a complex, emergent, and community-driven process, I hope to build greater understanding of social innovation leadership in Canada.

Cultivating a non-hierarchical backbone team

My job title, director, was assigned to me by the University of Waterloo to reflect my job grade and responsibilities. Within the university’s hierarchical system, the director oversees units or teams and is generally considered to be the one in charge. I hired staff who reported to me and followed the university’s human resource procedures and practices. As I began to understand social innovation processes, however, I soon realized that a different structure and leadership model was required. I needed to be a different kind of leader, one who embraced uncertain space, cultivated a non-hierarchical structure for the backbone team, and was responsive to community direction.

The SPWB backbone team began with me as the director, and for a short time I straddled this assignment with my regular job in Arts Advancement until I was officially seconded to the work in March 2011. I worked with project partners and stakeholders on project oversight, convening conversations, implementing strategies, engaging experts, and managing communications. Katharine Zywert joined the team in May 2011. She conducted research, wrote reports, managed the office and travel arrangements, supported the process, and later engaged in co-designing and co-facilitating workshops and participated in scenario planning. She oversaw website resources and developed several major resources for the community including the Accreditation Preparation Work Books. Kim Nordbye joined the team in November 2011 as a secondment from Suncor, based in Fort McMurray. Kim was the community animator, engaging stakeholders, building relationships, and becoming the local face of the project. She worked on the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards, ConvergenceYMM, and supported the merger between three nonprofit organizations. Tanya Darisi joined the team in January 2012. She was the developmental evaluator for the process and designed our Theory of Change as well as the project evaluation plan. She and her team conducted the annual capacity assessment of nonprofit organizations and presented the findings annually. She also facilitated workshops to increase knowledge around strategic learning. Dr. Katharine McGowan joined the team in the spring of 2013 as the post-doctoral fellow in social prosperity. Supervised by Frances Westley, Katharine brought a fresh perspective with her knowledge of social innovation theories which benefitted both the project team and the community. Hired primarily as a researcher of the social innovation process, she became a favourite facilitator for her work around collective impact and other learning events in Fort McMurray. Ifeatu Efu joined the team in March 2014 upon the successful completion of Kim’s two-year secondment. Building on her project management expertise, Ifeatu worked on the “Look into Wood Buffalo” Community Wellbeing Survey and ConvergenceYMM 2015.

I worked hard to create a culture for the backbone team in which everyone was on equal footing, opposing views were encouraged, and everyone contributed their unique abilities to the work at hand. As a backbone, I found that we performed best when there was mutual trust, respect, alignment of purpose, and shared goals. For example, when Katharine Zywert, Katharine McGowan, and I co-designed the collective impact workshops, we each contributed to the design process by sharing our knowledge of the system, collective impact best practices, social innovation tools, and community context. Together, we tested the workshop exercises over a series of weeks to explore whether we thought they would lead to the intended outcomes, giving us time for reflection and further refinement. We found our workshops to be more successful when we collaborated in this fashion.

Creating a non-hierarchical structure for the backbone team meant putting aside our reporting relationships, our personal agendas, and our egos. The biggest hurdle for me was overcoming my own misunderstandings about my role, including my assumptions about leadership and control. I was very fortunate to be able to work with brilliant colleagues who understood this process and had so much to offer. They excelled in this environment and community stakeholders responded well to our team.

Working in uncertain space

SPWB had ambitious goals and outcomes that included:

  • Not-for-profit management teams will be strengthened and better equipped to respond to and anticipate changing community needs.
  • The community will develop a collective sense of responsibility for addressing opportunities and challenges.
  • Community members will be empowered and actively engaged in helping to make Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo a great place to live, work, and play.

Translating these big visionary plans into action was challenging. Sometimes stakeholder input was unclear, vague, or even contradictory. How do you proceed when there is no clear path forward? Would it be better to do nothing than risk going in the wrong direction? How do you take the necessary time for reflection when the community is pushing for action? Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and standing still in an action-oriented community caused ongoing tension for SPWB, but our developmental evaluation helped stakeholders understand the value of reflection and dialogue as action. Over time, the community became more comfortable with standing still and I became more comfortable with the uncertainty of not always knowing which step to take next.

For SPWB, decision-making was also a point of contention for project partners, particularly in the early years when we were still developing trust and fine-tuning roles and responsibilities. When we first started this work, there was no memorandum of understanding to establish who, how and what we were going to do together. Suncor Energy Foundation wanted the project to be unfettered by agreements because they believed that authentic systems change must be emergent, community-driven, and unstructured. But that caused some confusion about assumptions, objectives, roles, and responsibilities. In order to facilitate community ownership and local buy-in, it was decided that the SPWB steering committee would prioritize strategic direction and the backbone team would design and implement interventions. The steering committee and the backbone team continued to collaborate closely, and the developmental evaluation confirmed that our best work occurred when we worked together.

As a neutral third party with no political or hidden agendas, SPWB’s decisions were based on community direction and actions that we believed would result in the desired outcomes. As the work progressed, I gained confidence in my ability to make good decisions in uncertain space. This became easier as my understanding of the system and the process improved. Gradually, stakeholders became more comfortable with uncertainty too, but this required open communication, transparency, and trust.

Being neutral in a complex system

When I first began visiting Fort McMurray in 2010, I started to understand the complexities of the nonprofit sector in Wood Buffalo. There were leaders in the sector who commanded a great deal of power and political influence. At the same time, there were executive directors who had no experience or training. There were exceptionally well-managed organizations, with effective operational infrastructure, organizational resilience, and mission achievement. Others had no policies, procedures, or practices, and had executive directors and boards who did not understand their roles and responsibilities. Work spaces were also inequitable, with some individuals working from kitchen tables, others working in sub-standard office space, and still others with professional offices. Some nonprofit boards attracted the cream of the crop and powerful industry leaders, while other boards recruited executive directors from other agencies because they were unable to find enough volunteers. Competition for funding was fierce and there was no apparent coordination of professional development opportunities. There seemed to be a clear divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

It took some time for us to understand this system, and then it was very tempting to side with the well-organized and powerful leaders. But if we were to truly disrupt the system and improve the capacity of the social profit sector as a whole, we needed to remain neutral so that those on the outer fringes would also engage. Engaging these “unusual suspects” increased the diversity of perspectives participating in SPWB, improving its potential to generate innovative solutions (Westley, Zimmerman, & Quinn Patton, 2006, p. 22).

To remain neutral, SPWB employed a number of different strategies. We found neutral spaces to convene our activities, often hosting events at hotels or at Keyano College, which was recognized as a good place for learning and professional development activities. We also consistently reported back to participants, sharing both positive and negative feedback, and this transparency built trust.

The backbone team tried not to align ourselves with any one organization. However, the project manager’s decision to serve on the Nonprofit Sector Link board in 2012 was risky. How might this alignment be perceived by other organizations? Would it affect our neutral status in the community? The project manager countered that many people wore different hats and that she was able to successfully straddle her role as a board member, SPWB staff member, and seconded Foundation employee. In fact, her involvement with Sector Link deepened her relationship with key stakeholders and enhanced our understanding of issues in the sector and the community.

SPWB became known as a neutral third-party when stakeholders saw that we were available to help anyone who asked for it. Our work with the Wood Buffalo Community Village, for example, demonstrated our commitment to assisting smaller organizations that were struggling. However, we could not exclude the influential and powerful stakeholders in favour of those on the fringes. These leaders were critical to our success as they activated their networks, advocated our cause, and eventually took ownership of our work.

Stakeholder engagement

Throughout the five-year period, we often struggled to engage industry and government in activities, particularly those that related to the nonprofit sector. However, community wellbeing was an effective catalyst that brought together stakeholders from all sectors.

When the steering committee identified the development of a shared measurement system as a priority strategy in the fall of 2012, I began convening conversations with stakeholders from industry, local government, and the nonprofit sector. I was also able to leverage SPWB’s reputation as a neutral third-party to bring in thought-leaders from Ontario and Alberta to help inform our discussions. We chose to work with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing because it offers a well-researched and comprehensive approach to improving wellbeing.

As the steward of this process, I convened conversations, established project timelines and meeting schedules and kept the work on track. I also developed supporting documents like a project charter, sponsorship materials, engagement, and terms of reference for the working group. The cost was shared amongst the various partners with some contributing in-kind resources and others paying for expenses. This flexible approach ensured that all partners had “skin in the game” and were able to contribute in a meaningful way. The working group was involved in decision-making and engagement strategies. Our liveliest discussions occurred when there was disagreement about whether or not to include individual comments in the reports. Stakeholders shared their different perspectives and activated their networks to gather additional input. When facilitating these conversations, I did my best to ensure that all viewpoints were shared, and I acted on the working group’s decision to exclude the comments. This meant that the backbone team had to remove all the comments from the reports by hand, but it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. Working together on the community wellbeing survey was an example of a successful multi-stakeholder collaboration.

We found that stakeholder engagement was most successful when steps were taken to create a neutral space for meaningful dialogue. As a disruptive intervention, you don’t want everyone to agree with everything that is being said. Social innovation happens when diverse perspectives are explored and new ideas are generated. As the convener of conversations, SPWB focused on structuring the discussion so that difficult conversations were possible and people felt comfortable in that space. Building trust was a critical step in the process. Rules of engagement and terms of reference helped to establish how we were going to interact with each other, and powerful questions sparked dialogue.

Creating space for dissent and possibility

In a social change process, it’s important to not only have people with diverse perspectives at the table, but also to create an environment in which their different opinions are valued and encouraged. Creating this space for the steering committee was challenging due to complex group dynamics. Some steering committee members had a funder/fundee relationship, while others had a staff/board reporting relationship. Some were external to the community, while others represented key community organizations like the United Way of Fort McMurray, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and the Oil Sands Community Alliance.

Power dynamics, political dynamics, and unknown agendas influenced the steering committee’s work, and it took time to build trust so that everyone felt comfortable sharing openly in that space. When concerns or doubts began to appear in our conversations, I initially took it personally, believing that dissenting views could derail our plans. I have since learned that these moments often represented turning points for the process, as it takes a lot of trust to voice concerns. The steering committee needed to explore doubts, reservations, and objections before they could explore possibilities.

Being stubborn about the right things

People call me stubborn and I admit I’ve always been a bit of a rebel, disrupting the system at the fringes and trying to make a difference in the middle. Although I eventually became comfortable with my role, there were pinch points in SPWB’s history where roles and responsibilities were not so clearly understood. In the summer of 2012, some members of the steering committee wanted to make a change. They wanted more ownership of the process and sought to change my role. Perhaps they felt they no longer needed a backbone team or that I had too much control over the wrong things. I stubbornly hung on, but my approach shifted after that point.

Instead of trying to direct the process, I began to steward it. This subtle yet critical change in approach was accomplished by remaining neutral and responsive to community direction. As the steward of the process, I kept a watchful eye on the project timeline, constantly looking ahead to calculate timing of activities and then backtracking to the present, asking myself, “What steps do we need to take to move the process forward?” I focused on creating space for conversations and tried not to get too personally invested in preparing plans so that I could be more flexible when the community wanted to go in a different direction. I kept reminding myself, “It’s not about me.”

When the steering committee identified a new strategic priority in the fall of 2012, I switched gears and began working on the development of a shared measurement system. Building on our success as a multi-stakeholder collaboration, it was easier to engage stakeholders from different sectors because we had already established trust and a level of comfort with the process. Eventually, what had once been viewed as unnecessary became a valued commodity, but it required a shift in my approach.

An unlikely advocate of developmental evaluation

When Suncor Energy Foundation reminded me in the fall of 2011 that the project needed a developmental evaluation, I reacted with feelings of panic and doom. I was convinced that my failings as the leader of this messy process would be revealed for all to see. I was not a fan of evaluation in general as I believed it to be a tool that judged instead of enlightened. There were not many developmental evaluators in the field, but luckily Cathy Brothers of Capacity Canada connected me to Tanya Darisi, director of the O’Halloran Group. Tanya became our developmental evaluator in the winter of 2012, and her first visit to Fort McMurray was to design our Theory of Change.

Instead of being an obstructive tool, the developmental evaluation enabled stakeholders to monitor and learn from our progress. It also provided new language to describe our work. The developmental evaluation became a hugely beneficial tool to me as a constant reminder of interventions and outcomes we were hoping to achieve. This learning tool never made me feel inadequate. Instead, it helped me to better understand the complex system in which we were working, including how our disruptive interventions were causing the system to shift. This new perspective was enormously useful, bringing me out of the weeds to a place where I could intelligently connect with others at a higher level. The developmental evaluation gave me a new confidence in my work and validated my role in the process. It also helped the steering committee and other partners to feel more comfortable with uncertainty, because even if we didn’t know exactly how we were going to get there, we could now visualize the project’s intended outcomes.

Levelling power dynamics

Staff members from the Suncor Energy Foundation served on the multi-sectoral steering committee table with stakeholders from Wood Buffalo and the University of Waterloo. Their engaged participation provided an incredible opportunity for shared learning and relationship building, but it was not without its challenges. The funder–fundee power dynamic was very real for me as University of Waterloo was the recipient of the Foundation’s donation and I was responsible for the stewardship of these funds. Initially I was intimidated by these powerful funders and fearful that my performance could negatively impact the Foundation’s relationship with the university. In multi-sectoral collaborations, however, you need to find ways to build trusting relationships despite power imbalances.

Coming from a fundraising background, I was accustomed to working with donors at a more superficial level where my role bridged the relationship between donor and institution. I had never worked with funders who wanted to be engaged more deeply and was unprepared for their comfort with risk, uncertainty, and emergence. I attempted to gloss over initial roadblocks in favour of presenting everything through rose-coloured glasses, but the Foundation did not want that kind of relationship. They took steps to build trust and to break down barriers, such as investing an enormous amount of time in the process, attending events, and committing to monthly partnership meetings. On several occasions, the Foundation’s Director, Community Investment, Cathy Glover went out of her way to support me and get to know me on a personal level. She was careful to take off her funding hat during steering committee meetings in order to diffuse the power dynamic and often withheld her opinions to avoid influencing others. Kim Nordbye also firmly but gently found her way into my heart, demonstrating her enormous talent for organizing, managing and moving virtual mountains to make things happen.

As I became more comfortable with our relationship as well as my role in the process, it became easier to be open about challenges and failure. Gradually, we built trust and mutual respect. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in time my initial reservations melted away and we found ourselves on the same team, diligently working together towards our common goals.

Thriving in cold heaven

I began this social innovation process in a very different space with a very different frame of reference than where I am today. Being seconded to this work from a fundraising role meant that I had some transferrable skills like relationship building, event planning, communication, and human resource management, but social innovation processes are based on theories and principles that were unfamiliar to me. As I entered into a partnership to collaborate in a new way with the Suncor Energy Foundation and stakeholders in Wood Buffalo, I found myself in a strange and overwhelming space.

Cold heaven is a wonderful description for the most difficult phases of a social innovation process (Westley, Zimmerman, & Quinn Patton, 2006). Social innovation is incredibly important and rewarding work, but it’s messy, the path forward is uncertain, the landscape is ever changing, and it feels like you’re always taking two steps forward and one step backward. In this space, you are seeking to understand a complex system with its many actors, activities, patterns of behaviour, structures, and mental models. Information about the system comes from a variety of sources that must be filtered through different lenses and analyzed. Some of the information will come from your developmental evaluation, stakeholder input, or social media. The system also constantly fluctuates as players come and go and circumstances change. You can plan out the best strategies, but if the community does not own it, you’re not going to get anywhere, so their participation is critical.

In the early stages of this work, it felt like information overload. Imagine being in the middle of a swirling cyclone, with bits of information, various actors, and meaningless clues flying all around you. You try to discern what is truth, fact and fiction, but nothing seems to makes any sense. Slowly, after sorting through the information, immersing yourself in the system and analyzing the data, you begin to see trends, patterns, and relationships, and start to understand how it all fits together.

Once you have a better grasp on the complex system you’re working in, you try to find leverage points and interventions that will shift the system in the right direction. There are many possible courses of action and the path forward is uncertain. You feel enormous pressure from community stakeholders to implement quick actionable solutions and they don’t understand why you’re standing still. You begin to sweat under the steady gaze of your employer, funder and partners.

This is cold heaven. At least, these are some of the pressures, feelings, and circumstances that I encountered early on in the SPWB process. If you’re going to survive in this space, what do you need to do? I focused on increasing my knowledge of social innovation processes and building my support system.

Becoming grounded in the learning was an important step to understanding what was happening and it helped me trust my own instincts. Experts in the field helped me process what was happening, provided a safe place to vent, and validated my feelings. I also came to value the pragmatic and sage advice of my colleague Katharine Zywert. She became a trusted confidant especially as our relationship deepened over time. My need for external support decreased as I developed a community of practice with colleagues like Tanya, Katharine McGowan and Kim. My husband was also a constant source of support and strength, particularly during challenging times. Having a loving and stable home life was incredibly important to my mental wellbeing. Stewarding a disruptive intervention can be lonely work, so having a supportive network of friends, colleagues, and family is very important.

Additional training accelerated my understanding of key concepts. The Partnership Brokers training helped me better understand multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaborations. Annual Tamarack conferences deepened my understanding of social change processes and collective impact, and the shared learning with stakeholders in Wood Buffalo strengthened our relationships. Having Katharine Zywert complete the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo was also helpful as she brought the learning into our practices.

Now that I am thriving in this space, I’ve learned that immersing yourself in the system can feel overwhelming. Being grounded in the learning, having external advisors and a strong support system can help you better understand what’s happening and help you cope. Although it takes time and effort to get there, the joy of working in concert with your partners towards a common goal is a truly worthwhile and remarkable experience.


In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, no one organization can effectively address complex social problems on its own. Instead, we need multi-sectoral approaches that will enable systems change. SPWB’s collaborative social innovation process effectively stewarded community initiatives and shifted the social profit sector towards greater resiliency and capacity for mission achievement.

Being part of SPWB taught me about the importance of cultivating a non-hierarchical backbone team, authentic partnership engagement, and creating neutral space for meaningful collaboration. As a leader, I became adept at stewarding the process and being comfortable with uncertainty, failure and dissent. I built a strong support system to help me thrive in cold heaven and deepened my understanding of social innovation and systems change approaches. I learned to be stubborn and flexible, trusting my instincts and acting on direction from others.

Communities wanting to build a more resilient future for Canadians should embrace collaborative social innovation processes as an effective mechanism for systems change. Leaders of these processes can be supported by investing in their training and believing in their capacity to successfully engage stakeholders in this important and rewarding work.


[1]Westley, F., Zimmerman, B., & Quinn Patton, M. (2006). Getting to Maybe. Toronto: Random House.


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