Tending a Social Innovation Garden: Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo and Creating the Space for Change

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

SUMMARY: Katharine McGowan discusses the achievements of Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo based on 30 open-ended interviews conducted with participants. Among her findings: virtually all participants valued the networking opportunities provided by the initiative; the majority valued the education they received; and most considered trust to be a critical element of the process. Interviewees also addressed the perception created by inviting ”outsider” participation (by the University of Waterloo) and the importance of evaluation.

RÉSUMÉ: Katharine McGowan expose les réalisations de Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo en se fondant sur 30 entrevues où des questions ouvertes étaient posées aux participants. Parmi ses conclusions: presque tous les participants appréciaient les possibilités de réseautage fournies par l’initiative; la majorité des participants appréciaient la formation qu’ils avaient reçue; et la plupart considéraient que la confiance était un élément essentiel du processus. Les personnes interrogées ont aussi commenté la perception créée en invitant un participant « externe » (l’Université de Waterloo), ainsi que l’importance de l’évaluation.

Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) was a community-driven social innovation-based process that brought together local government, funders (the Suncor Energy Foundation and the United Way of Fort McMurray), social profit[1] agencies from Wood Buffalo, Alberta, and the University of Waterloo. Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo was a coming together of different organizations, of different interests, and of different kinds of abilities, who together sought to work towards a common goal: improving the quality of life in Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo.

To address this grandiose goal, participants focused on building the capacity of the social profit sector in the community at individual, organizational, and sector-wide levels. What this work would actually look like was not set in stone at the project’s inception but constantly evolved as partners and participants worked together, found new opportunities, and encountered new challenges. Throughout, however, SPWB used a social innovation-informed perspective (Westley et al., 2006) to both build the capacity of Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector and to explore how that sector could work differently to build social prosperity and improve quality of life in Wood Buffalo.

Over its five years (2010-2015), the initiative mixed education, convening, and supportive activities (workshops, conferences, meetings, surveys, research, and data collection/distribution). SPWB was not committed to a pre-determined outcome for Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector, but rather supported the sector as its members explored where they wanted to go, what they wanted to do, and what they needed to cultivate a long-lasting culture of social innovation.

There were many obstacles that SPWB had to overcome: the difficulty of introducing new, complex ideas about social innovation; getting social-profit workers to make time in their busy schedules to discuss news ways of doing things; building an effective cross-sector (and cross-community) partnership; and dealing with local uncertainty and fears of a hidden agenda.[2] Somehow, despite these challenges, SPWB seems to have created a safe space for change in Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector. A safe space and a creative social-profit sector required a strong backbone that can support journeys through the boom and bust of life in an oil town. This also required the trust of social-profit agencies and individuals working in the social-profit sector, which SPWB constantly worked to earn.

 1.               Social innovation and SPWB

SPWB began when the Suncor Energy Foundation, a registered charity Suncor created in 1998, reconsidered its funding strategy. The Foundation’s tenth anniversary and Suncor’s merger with PetroCanada triggered both questioning and exploration, particularly about how to turn the Foundation’s focus on sustainable communities into a funding strategy. This led the foundation to the book Getting to Maybe (2006) by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton. The book is a discussion of social innovation that developed out of and as a response to funders and philanthropists interested in new and different ways of addressing large, messy social problems – not just giving money but changing the system itself (Westley et al. 2006).

Getting to Maybe discusses a certain type of social innovation, as a product, process, design, policy, or program that seeks to fundamentally alter resource or authority flows that will eventually tip the system in which they act into greater sustainability and resilience (Westley et al., 2006; Antadze & Westley, 2010). This particular view of social innovation hinges on a belief that the world mixes the simple, complicated, and complex – and that the failure to appreciate each and respond accordingly leads to disaster (Westley et al, 2006). Complexity is the most problematic of the three, as it cannot be reduced to consistent parts, whether we talk about complex problems or complex systems. Complicated problems by contrast can be approached with technical solutions, even very elaborate ones, that have many layers or moving pieces. This is not complexity: complex systems are unpredictable, characterized by multiple feedback loops, and they cannot be simplified into the behavior of their constituent pieces.

If we want to discover the root of pernicious complex problems, we need to address the system as a whole; tinkering at the edges will not end discrimination, stop climate change, or resolve poverty. Hence, those interested in creating or supporting social innovations – aimed at those complex problems and shifting our systems towards greater resilience – need to employ tools. First and foremost, they need to try to understand the behavior of the system they wish to address and be prepared to ask wicked questions.

To capture the feedback from systems and appreciate their emergent behaviors, social innovators and those supporting social innovation can use developmental evaluation and adaptive learning – perpetually asking if our assumptions about the system and our interventions are appropriate, and managing new information and changing course accordingly (Gamble, 2008; Darisi, 2013). We must act, reflect, and react constantly. Unfortunately, social innovations cannot be muscled into existence and have no clear timeframes, so we must be prepared to support the process of learning, experimenting, and listening to the system rather than adopting a laser-like focus on specific goals.

SPWB partners and participants perceived and valued many of these elements of social innovation in the project’s work. Of 30 open-ended interviews conducted with SPWB participants and partners,[3] 22 (73%) discussed the importance of grasping the whole system in their work, and 21 (70%) believed this value was advanced through SPWB’s work in Wood Buffalo (one did not think this capacity had been wholly achieved). More than half of interviewees (17 of 30, or 57%) felt SPWB supported inquiry or encouraged them to ask tough, sometimes even wicked questions of their work itself and of the systems in which they work.[4]

While broad, 23 of 30 (77%) interviewees discussed the importance of evaluation to SPWB and to their work in the community. If we break interviewees into their respective roles, however, another picture emerges. Funders’ demand for proof of effectiveness can be a barrier to experimentation, where traditional metrics may be inappropriate (Westley et al., 2006; Gamble, 2008). Funders should therefore support inquiry and developmental evaluation if they want to support a culture of social innovation. It is extremely promising that nearly all interviewees representing funding organizations valued evaluation, and discussed their role in supporting evaluation. Additionally, many discussed how they used developmental evaluation in projects beyond SPWB’s scope and intended to continue to do so.

In a self-described action-focused community, there is a risk that supporting process could be seen as antagonistic to the community’s character. However, 23 of 30 interviewees described and upheld the project’s value as a process rather than a specific outcome or set of outcomes. Yet, only 4 (13%) discussed ideas or values related to “standing still” (such as pausing, taking a beat, or refraining from action) positively, but all of those interviewees placed conditions on their view – they needed permission or the rare free time to stand still. It was not something that they could do regularly.[5]

Participants in SPWB seem to have a generally positive view of the project and its work in the community, and reflect back many elements of social innovation thinking in their conversations. Yet it is important to ask whether SPWB changed more than discourse among Wood Buffalo’s social profit agencies. Does this different language reflect a deeper shift in how agencies and individuals saw their place in Wood Buffalo, and how they worked (together and independently)? To explore these questions, let us consider a common feature of many interviewees’ discussion, that SPWB created a safe space for change.

2. “Creates great potential”:[6] A space for change

When the Suncor Energy Foundation sought out new thinking on community investment and philanthropy, they explored how they could change their impact as a funder. Yet there was an assumption that changing how you fund may not only change your impact in the system, but may also change how others behave, including your fundees. This can be a scary conversation, and there is always a risk that it feels forced by those in power (funders) on grant recipients. It also risks losing the community-driven focus (for and of the community) that SPWB sought to embody. Given these real risks, it is very reassuring that 20 of the 30 interviewees felt SPWB created a safe space for change that included convening, learning, and collaborating. Each of these elements is considered separately below.

2.1. Convening

Social innovation is not the work of one superhuman but is accomplished by many working in tandem who collectively can combine key skills to tip a system (Aldrich, 2011; Murray et al., 2010). Networks, like circuit boards, are conduits: they spread information and knowledge, and different skills therein can be leveraged. SPWB brought people together and tracked the social profit networks that grew out of SPWB events. Twenty-nine out of 30 interviewees spoke about SPWB’s networking and convening (5 discussed networking without convening). This is consistent with the importance of robust networks in the theories around social innovation and systems change.

Opportunities to gather across a sector or sectors is valuable; participants met, talked, built relationships outside of their existing circles, and even occasionally engaged in new partnerships and projects. However, there is a risk that if the emphasis is only on convening, over time participants will no longer prioritize attending SPWB (or other projects) events. It is therefore important to consider the following question: Convening for what? Sections 2.2 and 2.3 will discuss two of the reasons (and outcomes) of convening under the SPWB umbrella.

2.2. “Elevating the conversation, elevating the professionals in the sector”: Education and professional development

SPWB supported constant learning for social profit practitioners, the individual, organizations, and the sector as a whole. Many associated with SPWB received Suncor support. SPWB provided workshops on a wide range of subjects, including academically focused social innovation (in conjunction with SiG@Waterloo), board governance (run by Capacity Canada’s Cathy Brothers), and Imagine Canada’s accreditation process. Individual workshop evaluations showed a distinct preference for those topics and events at the practical end of this spectrum. This is not surprising in a self-described action-oriented community (including the social profit sector), especially given the interest in capacity building identified in community events.

What is surprising is that more interviewees identified education generally (70%) over professional development specifically (60%) as SPWB activities they valued. Two-thirds of those who valued education generally also identified professional development opportunities specifically (only 4 or 13% of all interviewees mentioned professional development exclusively). Therefore, participants appreciated practical or actionable discussions when attending individual events, and there was a greater acknowledgement of the benefit of learning and that “practical people were seeing the value of ideas.”

Being a part of SPWB put people through “a mini university.” Despite the oft-repeated emphasis on action among SPWB participants, a number of interviewees also described themselves as life-long learners whose passion for education and new ideas was otherwise stifled because of their busy work and lives. The need to get permission to stop, to stand still, or to focus on learning was discussed by several interviewees and speaks to the down-side of being action-focused, namely that getting off that track can be difficult (the track has become a rut), regardless of an individual’s personal preference. That the freedom to change tracks is linked with getting permission speaks to the service ethos within the social profit sector, even at potential personal expense.

2.3. “Dream together”: Collaborating through SPWB

SPWB events were a petrie dish for new partnerships and projects. In some cases, involvement with SPWB empowered individuals to take a risk and try something new, such as Erika Ford’s Timeraiser campaign for Volunteer Wood Buffalo (Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Steering Committee Meetings Notes, 19 April 2012). Participants in Action Learning Teams (ALT) – a ten-month initiative that arose out of SPWB’s first public engagement event – created Wood Buffalo’s Arts Council. ALT teams also laid the foundations for ConvergenceYMM, an annual gathering for the social profit sector started in 2013, and began the conversation about a shared measurement system, which eventually led to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing’s Community Wellbeing Survey in 2014, for which SPWB acted as a backbone to support the survey process. During the Collective Impact for Youth workshop series in 2013, a partnership between Some Other Solutions (SOS) and a local church to create a space for youth to make friends “came out of just sitting around the table with you guys.”

While these examples speak to the enthusiasm and creativity of Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector, why was SPWB the catalyst for these changes? What shifts a gathering space to a safe space for change? What triggers a paradigm shift from a sector defined by isolation, undervaluation, and struggle to one more robust, more connected, and more poised, and ready to act? To answer these questions, it is important to consider the work SPWB put into trust building and supporting the community (Sections 3 and 3.1 and 4 below).

3. Trust building

Building trust between SPWB’s partners, and between SPWB and the Wood Buffalo community, was a major goal and required a major time investment. The importance of trust building was clear in the interviews with SPWB participants and partners. Fourteen of the 30 interviewees specifically mentioned the importance of building trust in some capacity in their descriptions of the project. Of these, three discussed trust only in the negative, saying that trust was lacking or that building it took time away from getting things done.

The other 11 interviewees generally agreed it took time to build trust but saw the work as a necessary step in the project’s success. Among the 16 who did not explicitly address trust building, 6 spoke of adjacent concerns over the role of the university, or of different partners in SPWB. A general lack of clarity about the project itself was cited as a reason not to engage with SPWB. These two concerns underline the importance of trust building – where a lack of clarity fosters a lack of trust or engagement in the project or the process. Trust is the foundation for many of the other elements of SPWB’s work; without trust, why share, why work together, why take a risk? We need to think about trust in two ways: trust in the process (especially for those involved in decision-making) and trust in the project (rticularly for those participants in workshops).

For those on SPWB’s Steering Committee, conversations about goals, direction, and decision-making structures could be frustrating. This is not unique to SPWB but is common to cross-sector partnerships generally. Being open to emergence meant being able to let go of certain pathways, specific goals, and plans. Individual relationships were important to maintaining the interest in and commitment to the project. Early wins were absolutely crucial to building those relationships and trust among key partners involved in SPWB; the Redpoll Centre and the Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards proved the possibility and potential of collaboration. Experience is a valuable teacher, and these early wins taught the value of working together.

While building trust in the project with the wider social profit sector, we often faced a basic hurdle surrounding clarity of message, intent, and, ultimately, value. This link is clear when we consider that 2 of the 3 interviewees who discussed trust-building only in the negative, and 5 of 11 who spoke about trust-building in the positive discussed the absence of open communication and expectations as significant barriers for the project achieving its goals. SPWB representatives often faced a basic question – what is social prosperity? If the language was unclear, the message was “foggy” (Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Steering Committee Meeting Notes, 29 November 2012.) As late as July 2013, there was still confusion over whether SPWB was a University of Waterloo project, a Suncor project, or a community initiative (Social Prosperity at a Glance, July 2013). As a model for corporate social responsibility or community investment, it poses a bit of a conundrum. SPWB’s new terms and ideas about social innovation presented a barrier to feeling welcome and comfortable in the project’s space.

However, SPWB’s constant production of reports, which were made available free online, allowed participants to understand the project’s actions and assess the project against its Theory of Change. This transparency, admitting failure, and projecting success onto the community helped build trust and direct the project towards greater success; 10 interviewees discussed the value of the resources and information SPWB created in engaging participants over time. Newcomers to SPWB could follow every event, survey, and meeting, individually, and year-by-year, quickly getting up to speed. This reflective practice helped build trust in the project and its process – communicating value.

3.1. “No threat to anyone”: Why Waterloo vs. neutral third party

SPWB’s backbone team balanced a local representative and face with University of Waterloo-based representatives. Strangely, a source of possible weakness in the project became a considerable strength. A major question that emerged constantly over the project’s lifecycle was “why Waterloo?” Of the 30 interviewees, 9 specifically questioned why the University of Waterloo was a partner in SPWB, and an additional interviewee expressed concerns over the academic nature that characterized much of the talk surrounding SPWB without singling out the University of Waterloo specifically. Of those 9, three were primarily concerned with the distance between University of Waterloo and Wood Buffalo as a potential obstacle for meaningful interaction and knowledge building – could the University of Waterloo team members really see what was happening in a community several provinces away?

These concerns are not surprising, and they should not be dismissed quickly. Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo has been described as hostile to outside observers (Guidotti & Ford, 2000), and there was always a significant risk of the University of Waterloo portion of SPWB being seen as another in a long line of outsiders telling the community what it was doing wrong. Yet interviewees present an important contrary image, which challenges this fear and some of its underlying assumption. Nine of the 30 interviewees viewed SPWB, especially its University of Waterloo team, as being a neutral third party in the community, acting as a supportive, unbiased outsider. Importantly, four of those represent uniquely social profits (they were never on the SPWB Steering Committee), nearly half of the nine social profit representatives interviewed. Interestingly, four interviewees, significantly more than those who saw academic voice as a challenge actually embraced the academic quality of SPWB as validating its work and “bringing the bigger picture to Fort McMurray”.

SPWB earned trust among social profits because “they did what they said they would do”. Hence, it was a process in which being seen to act and all actions having measurable (and measured) consequences “started to turn the tide of cynicism.” Being seen as outsider required this constant commitment to trust-building in the community to convince partners that there was no agenda hidden in another province and an unknown institution. Trust-building and transparency over time helped turn a potential risk into an asset.

4. “It’s not a bad thing that SP[WB] doesn’t own it”: A backbone for the sector

In addition to workshops and events, SPWB often acted as a backbone to members of the social profit sector, especially in performing surveys and sponsoring conversations. SPWB’s data collection and evaluation were valued among interviewees: 23 of 30 (77%) interviewees discussed the importance of SPWB’s evaluation to the project’s success and to their work in the community. While SPWB sought to work with the entire social profit sector (anyone who wanted to work with them), some agencies felt that SPWB’s backbone work was of greater value for smaller social profits, and SPWB was seen to support smaller or less powerful groups.

In the 2013 mayoral election, social profit organizations ran their first social profit-focused forum for mayoral candidates. This was partially informed by a survey community leaders asked SPWB to perform prior to approaching the mayor. This greater political voice, demanding a place in the debate over who will run Wood Buffalo, is associated with an increased confidence in the sector (20 of 30 or 67% of SPWB interviewees felt the sector was more confident now than it had been five years ago) as well as an increase in the perception that the government is aware of the social profit sector (10 of 30 interviewees or 33%).

One of the most significant changes to the social profit sector during that time, for which SPWB played a supportive role, was the creation of FuseSocial, a merger that brought together previously competing Volunteer Wood Buffalo, Nonprofit Sector Link Wood Buffalo and Leadership Wood Buffalo to create a united backbone for the sector, to scale impact and reduce unnecessary duplication.

The merger was not without critics, and relied on the work of committed (sometimes stubborn) salespeople, but in the end it was achieved. The second ConvergenceYMM in 2014 introduced the social profit sector to FuseSocial. Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector is currently negotiating what this new landscape they are creating will look like, and how they can best respond to the needs and interests of their community.

SPWB’s work as a backbone allowed its work to be of rather than to the community – community ownership. When we consider this support for local social profits in tandem with the view interviewees expressed that SPWB was a neutral player in Wood Buffalo. SPWB could only act as a backbone to the entire social profit sector if it was seen as treating everyone equally, leveling the access to resources and not playing favourites.


SPWB provided support for individuals and organizations to explore new ideas, new partnerships and even novel perspectives. One interview put SPWB’s impact quite poetically: “I think those seeds were already there. I think we nurtured it [and] supported it.” LikKte a diligent gardener, SPWB created better conditions for the nascent plants within Wood Buffalo’s social profit sector to emerge, grow and flourish.

This involved bringing people together in a safe space to explore new ideas, new ways of doing, and new partners. The boundaries that made this space safe were a strong and constant focus on trust building through early wins (experience), transparency, and neutrality. Although much of SPWB’’s story is unique to its context and moment in time (the excellent work of specific individuals especially), it also offers valuable insights for any funder or social profit, including the importance of trust and experience to build up to a space for change, and convening.


Aldrich, H. (2011). Heroes, villains & fools: Institutional entrepreneurship NOT institutional entrepreneurs. Entrepreneur Research Journal 1(2), Article 2.

Antadze, N., & Westley, F. (2010). Funding social innovation: How do we know what to grow? The Philanthropist 23(3), 343-356.

Darisi, T. (2013). Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo: 2012 Evaluation Report.

Darisi, T. (2014). Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo: 2013 Evaluation Report.

Gamble, J. (2008). A Developmental Evaluation Primer. The J.W. McConnell Foundation, 13-15

Guidotti, T., & Ford, L. (2000). The Fort McMurray demonstration project in social marketing: Theory, design, and evaluation. American Journal of Preventative Medicine 18(2), 163-169.

Murray, R., Caulier-Gricem J., & Mulgan, G. (2010). The open book of social innovation. Social Innovation Series: Ways to design, Develop, and Grow Social Innovation. The Young Foundation, UK.

Social Prosperity at a Glance, July 2013, socialprosperity.ca [5 July 2014].

Social Prosperity Woof Buffalo Project Briefing Document, September 2012

Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Steering Committee Meeting Notes, 29 November 2012.

Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Steering Committee Meetings Notes, 19 April 2012.

Westley, F., Zimmerman, B., & Quinn Patton, M. (2006). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto, ON: Random House.

Zywert, K. (2013). ConvergenceYMM 2013 Report, socialprosperity.ca [5 July 2014].


[1] This report uses the descriptor ‘social profit’ rather than not-for-profit. Although legally the social profit organizations in Wood Buffalo are not-for-profits, the term ‘social profit’ reflects a sector-wide shift in language and valuation. Members of the sector in Wood Buffalo created this new brand for themselves at a collaborative conference (ConvergenceYMM) in the winter of 2013. Participants believed that the not-for-profit or nonprofit label “was seen as describing the sector by a negative,” whereas social profit (and community benefit, also discussed at ConvergenceYMM) more “aptly describe the sector’s vital role in the community.” (ConvergenceYMM 2013 Report, socialprosperity.ca, 6-7.)

[2] Change Lab Workshop Evaluation, 25 January 2012; similar sentiments were captured in the Wood Buffalo Community Building Project Strategic Planning Workshop Evaluation; T. Darisi (The O’Halloran Group) Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo: 2012 Evaluation Report, Spring 2013, iv.; Wood Buffalo Community Building Project Branding Workshop Evaluation

[3] Interviewees were selected from SPWB’s contact list: all agencies were contacted and those that responded were interviewed. A special attempt was made to recruit former and current Steering Committee members. In all, interviews included Steering Committee’s current and previous members (15) and social profit organizations (16), and all four current and previous backbone team members. Eight interviewees represented private or social profit funders of some time (corporate, etc.), and five represented municipal government (elected and bureaucratic) at some point during their interactions with SPWB. Five interviewees were from Waterloo, either the University or surrounding area. Some interviewees occupied multiple roles either over SPWB’s lifetime, or had overlapping roles. Interviews were open-ended, based on a set of 11 questions.

[4] The 2013 evaluation report underlined: “community partners noted that SPWB has contributed to a learning culture in the sector by bringing together the right people and asking the right questions.” T. Darisi (The O’Halloran Group), Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo: 2013 Evaluation Report, 2014, 28.

[5] This concern is not a new one; in a 2012 survey, concern about SPWB delivering “real results” surfaced, although the specific nature of what that constituted was unclear, and balanced against an ongoing interest in the bigger picture, such as happiness and quality of life. Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Project Briefing Document, September 2012, 22.

[6] All the quotations in section-headings are taken directly from the interviews preformed with SPWB participants.


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