Resistance to Innovation in the Social Sector, from 1992 to 2017

This is the third article in our series about social innovation. The series is published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and McConnell Foundation.

In June 2013, Alastair Wilson of the UK’s School for Social Entrepreneurs visited Toronto and convinced an audience of nearly 50 people to squeeze into a somewhat airless room at 7am to attend his provocatively titled talk, Down With Meritocracy! It described the disillusionment with an idea that had been let down by its champions.

Has innovation for social change also been let down by those who have championed it?

A silver jubilee ago the late Robert Couchman of the Donner Canadian Foundation gave a remarkably prescient speech about innovation in the social sector. His speech, subsequently published in The Philanthropist as The Politics of Resistance to Change in Innovative Programming, explored the nature of resistance to innovation and systemic change within the education, health, and social services sectors, despite billions of dollars invested by Canadian foundations and other philanthropists. “The various systems eagerly absorbed the money, often launched stunningly effective projects and, in the end, failed to integrate the results into the core services of the system or agency,” noted Couchman.

At the time, Couchman described a sector facing significant challenges. He saw philanthropic funding as critical in experimenting in original approaches which would lead to some failures but also significant systems change. We can, he said at the time, “depart from our current course,” and encourage systemic change or continue to “tinker.” Alas, he quoted Terry Sullivan, a member of the Premier’s Council on Health, Wellbeing and Social Justice, Ontario is “littered with the remains of innovative social programs.”

With input from 11 leaders in the sector who took the time to review and reflect on Couchman’s 1992 article, this piece and a subsequent one will explore how the sector has evolved in the past 25 years.[1] Some, like Patrick Johnston of Borealis Advisors, had the benefit of working in the sector back in 1992 and have watched the patterns since then, while others were still in grade school at the time. Spread out across the country, they are working on themes as diverse as K-12 math literacy, Indigenous and immigrant unemployment, open data and digital transformation, and the shift to a low-carbon economy. Kofi Hope, for example, founded the Careers Education Empowerment (CEE) Centre for Young Black Professionals in Toronto; Shaun Loney launched the skills training, retrofitting social enterprise Building Urban Industries for Local Development (BUILD) in Winnipeg; and Katherine van Kooy (President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations) and Sara Lyons (Vice President at Community Foundations of Canada) support local and national collaboration amongst non-profits in Calgary and Ottawa, respectively.

Though times are quite different than they were, much remains the same and we are once again at an important juncture. This time, the sector is not so much facing crisis as it is emerging from hiding. Taking risks, innovating, and affecting systems change, are as elusive as ever.

Many of the leaders we spoke with reflected that things had not changed that much, after all; Aaron Good of Innoweave called it a “scarily relevant assessment” and Hope remarked that “you could change the date and publish it again.” However, sector leaders also expressed a much more optimistic view of the way forward. If anything, several said that the appetite for innovation has only grown over the years. We broke the responses we received into two themes: 1) the persistent challenges of introducing and scaling innovative approaches, and 2) emerging levers for systemic change that have succeeded or show promise.

This article focuses on the first theme by discussing the challenges of funding and disseminating new creative and impactful approaches that leaders identified. In Part II, we will share the key shifts that leaders point to as necessary for the way forward, such as smaller, nimbler organizations, increased access to data and networks, and a greater focus on leveraging technology to achieve positive social outcomes.

Context is important to help us understand the dynamics described in The Politics of Resistance to Change. Couchman and others were part of the transformation of the social sector through the middle of the 20th century as it grew from faith-based charity work, volunteer efforts, and social movements to big professionalized systems and public welfare institutions like universal healthcare, Children’s Aid Societies, Family Services, and YMCAs.

By the early 1990s, however, cracks were emerging. As the economy changed and government debt increased, the public money that had supported this growth was no longer readily available and philanthropic foundations seemed reluctant to take the risks involved in funding innovation (Scott, 2003). In addition, large institutions had begun to exhibit bureaucratic inertia and frequent failures; for those on the front lines, the need for rethinking was clear (Broadbent, 1999). Couchman identified and decried a deep systemic resistance to the necessary transformations, identifying both “medieval bureaucrats . . . with frugal vision and constipated creativity” as well as challenges faced by young professionals questioning orthodoxy. Ultimately, his article called for a paradigm shift with more funding to protect creative programs, which in some respects has indeed taken place.

But has the introduction of innovative programs really led to systemic change in large institutions over the past 25 years? Within the nature of large institutions is a DNA that is resistant to change. Today, the system still stands frayed, often ineffective after a quarter century of “tinkering.” As Hope said, “Most people who work in the system know the system isn’t built for real transformation.”

Ironically, several leaders suggested that the obsession with innovation itself is a culprit. Their dissatisfaction is not merely with buzzwords (a topic for another day), but a feeling that action has not followed all the talk about innovation.

Lyons echoed Couchman, noting that people can talk about innovation but not provide the necessary support systems and space for it. Anil Patel of Grantbook gave an example of this, noting that the concept of agile development, which is predicated on rapid prototyping and iteration, is largely alien to a risk-averse sector. Johnston further identified the tendency for innovation expertise to be seen as something vested with other individuals and in other organizations, not something “in house.”

The more damaging tendency, however, is making innovation an end in itself: being infatuated by the search for the latest shiny new thing while neglecting programs that work. Furthermore, says Good, we often only realize the real value of an innovation once it has been scaled. He pointed out that, in the short term, innovation can be costly and destructive. However, few funders make the necessary long-term investments to scale and sustain.

An example is the case of mentoring programs. In 2012, researchers conducted a study of former youth in care who had completed high school and carried on to post-secondary studies (Couchman & Thomas, 2014). At the time, approximately 5% of youth transitioning from care in Canada continued to college, university, or apprenticeship programs compared to the national average of 55%. When asked what had led them to continue with their educations, among several factors, all the youth identified a caring adult who supported them at a critical juncture in their lives. A mentor. The impact of mentoring has been proven in numerous studies (Thompson & Kelly-Vance, 2001; Crisp, 2010). Yet it is not a particularly innovative approach – the concept can be traced back to Homer’s Odyssey. However, in recent years, organizations that deliver mentoring programs have been under ongoing pressure to demonstrate innovation, according to sector leaders. Why?

At the same time, innovative ideas and projects often find it difficult to scale their impact, even if they initially showed success. Playwright and mathematician John Mighton experienced this when he came up with a “guided discovery” approach to numeracy in the late 1990s. The JUMP Math curriculum, piloted in several Ontario primary schools, resulted in students gaining multiple grade levels over short periods of time. It also reduced the traditional wide bell curve in test scores to an extremely tight distribution. Despite early successes it was difficult at first for JUMP to gain traction in the broader Canadian education system. However, with support from organizations such as Ashoka and the McConnell Foundation, jurisdictions in the US and elsewhere internationally have adopted the curriculum and the program has grown to reach more than 150,000 students in Canada.

Good notes that the drive to fund innovation, although well intended, has left many organizations “spinning on experimentation” – stuck either coming up with “innovative” projects or struggling to raise funds for existing work. However, funders should by no means abandon experimentation. Government, which provides most funding for social programs, remains risk adverse. Philanthropic organizations should continue to offer the risk capital and, if anything, increase efforts in this area. Patel observed that a mere fraction of Canadian foundations act like the venture capitalists Couchman had hoped for. As Thomas Hughes pointed out, it wasn’t just the invention of electricity that revolutionized the world, but also the development of large-scale power grids by “system builders.” (Ventresca, 2011)

One of the best current examples of commitment to scale in Canada is the philanthropic investment in Community Food Centres Canada. Though the Community Food Centre model had proved its value at The Stop in Toronto, it took the leadership of then-Executive Director Nick Saul, coupled with significant philanthropic investment led by the Sprott Foundation, and –most importantly – the willing participation of a network of small existing community organizations, to expand the movement nationally. A successful pilot project launched two more Community Food Centres in Ontario in 2012. That same year, the team founded Community Food Centres Canada to drive dissemination. There are now eight Community Food Centres in Canada and 100 affiliates, all of which have committed to working from CFCC’s shared good food principles. If this were 1992, the approach might have been to expand one organization with central control. In 2016, the same system-changing outcomes are being achieved through collaboration on the part of numerous nimble partners which benefit from shared evaluation, communication, and program resources while ensuring that local programs are tailored and responsive.

As we look to the future, interviewees identified two critical factors in successfully growing innovation for systemic change: planting the seeds and evaluating them carefully. Innovation has many points of failure, and the only way to protect it is to get agreement all the way through the line and stay the course.

Individuals are often heavily invested in the status quo, sometimes literally – as Mighton remarked (quoting Sinclair Lewis), it’s hard to convince someone when their livelihood depends on not believing. This investment is not merely self-serving, however – it’s built upon an intrinsic belief in the prevailing system. Who wants to be told that their life work may be causing harm to innocent people? Mighton reminded us that doctors didn’t appreciate being told that they were actually killing their patients by not washing their hands. Ignaz Semmelweis raged for years in a seemingly futile battle, ultimately being put into an asylum. His work symbolizes the backlash against new knowledge, immortalized as the Semmelweis Reflex (Ginnivan, 2014). His story also illustrates another challenge to innovation, that there is little reward for taking risks. In a fiercely competitive and increasingly precarious non-profit job market, no one wants to risk their job or organization.

Those who are sufficiently empowered run up against institutional barriers, often unable to effect change outside their silo. Organizations are restricted by funding requirements; funders are restricted by fiduciary duty. Johnston summed it up: “Risk aversion is the enemy of innovation [and] is baked into the way in which we currently define and regulate what is and can take place in the non-profit space.” Vested interests and performance measures are just as pressing for organizations as they are for individuals, except the stakes are even higher. Even if a pilot does well, many of the sector leaders interviewed noted that organizations can be reluctant to take innovation further at the risk of impacting core programs.

Maytree’s Elizabeth McIsaac spoke about the challenge of getting buy-in across the organization and building the culture of the long trajectory, as few have a deep understanding of change and the ability to look beyond three-year strategic plans. Patel made a striking comment on the culture of the social sector (emphasis original): “We have a cultural immunity to changing the way we think about doing work.” This is doubly true in government, which remains a core funder of social services and initiatives. With power centralized in the executive – which is often in permanent campaign mode – every decision must consider the optics. Modern democracies consistently yield to the quick win and ribbon-cutting photo op. Hope further linked this to “the unrelenting march of neoliberalism which constantly asks for the dollar value without understanding that value.”

Ultimately, innovation needs to fit in the system – in Mighton’s words, “the responsibility of the innovator is not just to innovate but also prepare the way for the innovation.” An innovation that disrupts the system can succeed, and people may be more supportive if we recognize that they may be invested in the system for historically good reasons and in good faith. An unfamiliar perspective or new information may change their view.

Andre Vallillee of the Metcalf Foundation, among others, guessed that the key is to develop self-interest across a range of stakeholders; to create the space for collaboration. Even if you can hit upon the holy grail of getting stakeholders to commit to a long-term partnership, it can be hard to keep them engaged. It is thus understandably difficult and rare to sustain a long-term campaign of change amidst shifting sands, political priorities, and turnover.

The prevailing evaluation paradigm also hampers innovation. Funders will often attempt to apply a predetermined model that tries to measure results before it is possible to understand what is happening, and which is unable to adapt to a changing environment. Leaders note that there is rarely recognition of the time and full cost of achieving outcomes. As a result, measurement is excessively skewed towards short-term outputs and evaluation fixated on quantitative measures and financial proxies, which results in an ocean of data but limited deep learning.

Which snowflake caused the avalanche? Though long-term causal relationships remain elusive, one of the improvements over the last 25 years is the availability of evaluation tools and technology, which allows for the cost-effective collection and analysis of information. Michael Lenczner of Powered by Data highlighted how it has become much easier to track outputs of programs – across the sector, we are beginning to see increased ability to track alumni, former program participants, and “scrape big data.” Though by no means a perfect science, evaluation is invaluable in ongoing refinement to programs and as a rationale for scaling. In the absence of reliable information, however, it is no surprise that few funders report any information on impact and effectiveness, let alone hold themselves accountable on measuring outcomes.

As Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist Reza Satchu[2] has said on many occasions, “Any idiot can make a decision based on perfect information” (White, 2011). If anything, the challenges in making effective decisions with limited and incomplete information are greater in the social sector than they are in business. The commitment to scaling and sustaining innovative programs requires boldness, vision, and a willingness to take risks based on short pilots.

Actual success is incredibly difficult to predict, however. Hope reminded us of the lasting impact of the Fresh Arts program, for example. In the wake of the May 1992 race riots on Yonge Street (which took place less than a week after Couchman’s speech, curiously enough), the NDP government of the time made new investments in youth employment. Fresh Arts paired young artists with professional mentors and dedicated resources, leading to artists like Kardinal Offishall and a new generation of hip-hop music in Toronto (NOW Magazine, 2011) that now brings in, at conservative estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues (Toronto Music Advisory Council, 2016). Today we might not consider this innovative enough, says Hope. The outputs are unlikely to grab funder attention. But there are few better examples of youth programs that worked, proving Johnston’s words that “an over-emphasis on demonstrable impact may serve to thwart innovation where real and sustainable change may take many years to demonstrate.”

There are, of course, many more examples of how highly effective innovations have failed to take hold or have required enormous time and resources to penetrate entrenched systems. The fundamentals of human behaviour and the nature of large institutions that Couchman described have not changed significantly in the last 25 years. Despite the rhetoric of “innovation,” many philanthropic organizations are as responsible for this as the institutions that they support. The need for sustained, risk-tolerant funding, the imperatives for “deliberate vision” and “relentless incrementalism,” and the constant negotiation of shifting evaluative paradigms remain as relevant today as in 1992.

Yet much also has changed. Charity, business, and government are no longer as distinct as they used to be; new technology-enabled organizations can often operate more nimbly and effectively than larger mainstays; new generations of sector professionals and philanthropists are bringing different attitudes around risk, and in particular, attitudes around funding outcomes are shifting. In Part II of this review we will look at how and why the sector is achieving systemic change through these dynamics, and the promise of the journey forward.


The authors would like to thank the following individuals for taking the time to review the original 1992 article and provide reflections and input toward the themes for this piece: Shaun Loney, Aaron Good, Katherine van Kooy, Sara Lyons, Elizabeth McIsaac, Andre Valillee, Anil Patel, Patrick Johnston, Michael Lenczner, Kofi Hope, John Mighton


Broadbent, E. (1999). Panel on Accountability and Governance in the Voluntary Sector. Building on strength: improving governance and accountability in Canada’s voluntary sector. Ottawa: Voluntary Sector Initiative. Accessed here:

Crisp, G. (2010). The Impact of Mentoring on the Success of Community College Students. The Review of Higher Education, 34(1), pp.39-60.

Ginnivan, L. (2014). The Dirty History of Doctors’ Hands. [online] Method. Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2017].

NOW Magazine. (2011). Kardinal Offishal on why the city shouldn’t cut the arts. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2017].

Scott, K. (2003). Funding Matters: The Impact of Canada’s New Funding Regime on Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations. 1st ed. Ottawa: Canadian Council on Social Development.

Thompson, L. and Kelly-Vance, L. (2001). The impact of mentoring on academic achievement of at-risk youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 23(3), pp.227-242.

Toronto Music Advisory Council (2016). Toronto Music Strategy: Supporting and Growing the City’s Music Sector. Toronto: City of Toronto, pp.2-3.

Ventresca, M. (2011). TEDxOxbridge – Marc Ventresca – Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems. Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2017].

White, S. (2011). Serial entrepreneurs: How to find the next great idea. The Globe and Mail. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb. 2017].

[1] Stephen Couchman, who has carried on the family tradition of philanthropy, suggested that we consult with other sector leaders and provided many of the connections. Nabeel Ahmed conducted most of the interviews and synthesized the feedback.

[2] Not one of our interviewees.


Illustration by Paul Dotey



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