Want to Drive Inclusive Growth in Canada? Strengthen the Social Sector’s R&D Prowess

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

Let me begin with a story that recently moved me. It’s the story of Emily. She lives in Edmonton. She is curious and creative but also a tad shy. Emily lives with a developmental disability and has found it challenging to engage with the community. We often don’t create the intentional conditions in our neighbourhoods to build relationships with people like Emily.

Backed by ongoing frontline research at Skills Society, the CommuniTEA Infusion experiment is changing that.

Skills Society describes CommuniTEA as “a mobile tea house” that travels to neighbourhoods around Edmonton every year — creating a “pop-up” town square “where people come together, get to know each other, and strengthen connections.” [1] People with disabilities, like Emily, are leading this experiment and taking the role of community-builders in Edmonton communities. Close to 30 neighbourhoods hosted CommuniTEA events last year.

The urge to make things better has driven human progress. From continuous innovations in automobile safety and global positioning satellites to life-saving drugs and personal telecommunications, gains from organizations with the capacity to make things better are all around us.

But you know this. You’ve participated in runs and other events that raise money for research and development (R&D) to generate innovations in cancer detection and treatment. We understand that in addition to delivering cancer screening services, there is value in organizations developing innovations in screening: organizations pursuing both delivery and development is a good thing.

Imagine if alongside delivering services to adults with developmental disabilities, agencies like Skills Society were also developing innovations in services and supports? Imagine if alongside delivering humanitarian aid, the Canadian Red Cross set up an entire mobile field platform for developing innovations in humanitarian relief processes with beneficiaries? Imagine if alongside delivering settlement support to newcomers, YMCA Canada was continuously developing innovations to newcomer settlement experience?

As Hunsley (2017), senior fellow at the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy, noted in a recent blog post, “the social side – income security, human rights, immigration, heritage and culture, labour market programs, social services – is dealing with massive societal problems, and the R&D investment is minuscule.”

Given the importance of the social sector, how does it fit into Canada’s innovation agenda?

Let’s take a look at Canada’s innovation ecosystem. From the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to Export Development Canada (EDC), from centres of excellence to Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credits, the focus has been on GDP growth. Investment has mostly been directed at companies that are both commercially- and STEM-oriented (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

On the other hand, Canada spends close to $300 billion on social outcomes and Canadians’ wellbeing (OECD, 2017). While our social sector, consisting of approximately 180,000 organizations, represents 8.1% of the GDP – larger than the automotive or manufacturing industries[2] – it remains one of the least supported sectors in terms of access to R&D infrastructure, talent, and capital.

Simply put, despite its ongoing demonstrated value to Canadians, the social sector remains locked out of Canada’s R&D system, making continuous development of innovative frontline solutions challenging – and inclusive growth near impossible.

Program designers have assumed that innovation-triggered productivity gains and the impact of technology on economic growth would ultimately generate shared well-being for you, for me, and for people like Emily.

Modern experience in the G7 countries has shown this is no longer true. As a result, thinking about the characteristics of innovation is changing. As Canada faces increasingly complex social, ecological, and economic challenges, many parts of the innovation ecosystem must support innovators and innovations that advance environmental, social, and economic wellbeing. In other words, our innovation ecosystem must become more inclusive.

Inclusive innovation pursues both the process and social impact of innovation. It is a culture of innovation that values all of Canada’s innovators and orients towards impacts that directly align with an inclusive growth vision. This means that Canada’s goals for economic and social impact are not mutually exclusive. This agenda could fuel innovation that enables Canadians, particularly underserved populations, to participate and create the products and the services needed to enhance the quality of life for future generations. Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, and Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children and social development, have expressed commitments to an inclusive growth future in which everyone can participate to their full potential. Indeed, the federal government recently announced it will co-create a Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy.

An integral component of an inclusive innovation ecosystem is an approach to R&D that is inclusive of the social sector.

The use of R&D in Canada’s social sector

While STEM-oriented and commercially-oriented R&D remain important to GDP growth, addressing modern challenges —from lack of affordable housing to Indigenous communities’ access to quality education and mental health — to advance social wellbeing and bridge inequality is a prerequisite to achieving inclusive growth.

“Social R&D” can be thought of as the art and science of applying research and experimental processes on the frontline to generate new insights and innovations that transform products, services, and, ultimately, lives.

The recent Social Innovation Generation (SiG) report Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector (Rajasekaran, 2016) presents close to 50 inspiring R&D practices from across Canada. It is an initial collection that offers insight into diverse R&D methods; how capacities are built; how organizations structure their R&D functions; and how to find resources for R&D and foster the organizational culture needed to sustain it.

For example, the social enterprise organization InWithForward conducted R&D into how adults with cognitive disabilities learn, leading to the implementation of an innovative start-up in Vancouver called Kudoz, an online adult learning exchange hosting hundreds of learning experiences. This has helped to create a more inclusive, stronger community.

Youth Fusion in Montreal is seeing success in lowering high school dropout rates across Quebec by involving more than 20,000 youth-at-risk in meaningful school projects that foster learning and social integration — a practice supported by continuous experimentation.

On the streets, in First Nations communities, in shelters, in prisons, and schools across four provinces, Exeko works to better understand exclusion dynamics, to research and develop new practices that build a positive cycle of social, cultural, and intellectual inclusion and create new practice of systemic change.

Skills Society’s Citizen Action Lab in Edmonton researches and develops new ways to connect people with disabilities to meaningful citizenship roles and employment opportunities where they live. This has led to people with disabilities experiencing participatory citizenship, improved quality of life, and enhanced community involvement. In addition, over the past four years, 55 people with disabilities in Edmonton found new jobs or meaningful engaged citizenship opportunities, and some have developed small businesses.

These compelling frontline experimental practices demonstrate how R&D is accelerating the closing of gaps in youth employment, lifelong learning, citizenship, and volunteerism. Although not yet mainstream, these four organizations show that investment in R&D practices, capability, and culture yields advancement in wellbeing outcomes that ultimately drive greater social impact.

Federal support for social R&D

Social R&D is smarter, cheaper, and more effective in the long term to inform the development of government programs and policies. Last fall, The Economist Intelligence Unit released a global index survey of how 45 countries take up social innovation. It identified Canada as a global leader – ranking our country third overall.[3]

Yet the Getting to Moonshot report found that public R&D funding remains inaccessible for charities and non-profit organizations. Such organizations have largely had to self-fund or use a patchwork combination of philanthropic donors. This has yielded insufficient capacity, inadequate R&D infrastructure, and ultimately, slower progress in driving inclusive growth. And until there is a change, it will continue to do so.

Some government funded programs have begun to sense the demand for social R&D and are working to optimize entry for social mission organizations. One such example is Mitacs. In February 2015, Mitacs, a national organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years, opened its R&D funding to non-profits, including social welfare and charitable organizations. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs’s mission is to build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada. Since it broadened eligibility, approximately 15% of Mitacs-supported R&D projects are in the social sciences and humanities fields. There is more work to be done to expand the program in a way that empowers non-profits to set agendas, share ambition, and shape research.

How might Canada’s R&D system be inclusive of the social sector?

While there are sparks like Mitacs, weak and intermittent R&D spending by the Canadian social sector continues to yield weak results for Canada’s inclusive growth agenda.

If Canada is serious about pursuing inclusive growth, its challenge is to make R&D for the social sector more accessible, visible, mainstream, systematic, and attractive across the country. This means government moving beyond simply funding innovation projects to strategically investing in social R&D infrastructure: a suite of supports in advisory services, capital, talent, connectivity, and infrastructure – similar to its investment in commercial R&D infrastructure. The following three bottlenecks and recommendations were developed based on engaging with close to 150 social R&D practitioners across Canada, and evidence from SiG’s Getting to Moonshot report. They’re a good place to start.

1. Ineligible to apply and cumbersome navigation


Non-profit and charitable organizations are ineligible to apply for most federal government R&D funding and advisory services – both programs that support R&D through direct expenditure as well as programs matched or funded through the federal granting councils and agencies. As such, Canada’s approximately 180,000 social mission organizations are unable to proactively develop new innovations, conduct research and experiments, and transform interventions – ultimately resulting in slower progress toward inclusive growth across the country.

Ways forward:

  • Commission an in-depth review of all R&D programs and supports across federal entities, and assess how they align with the needs of the non-profit and charitable sector.
  • Broaden eligibility for funding, infrastructure, and advisory services offered through direct expenditure and as matched funding, or funded through granting councils and agencies, to include non-profits and charities.
  • Generate an online directory of all federal R&D funding available with an easy-to-access navigation portal that would help with initial self-assessments and direct social mission organizations to appropriate assistance and programs.

2. Insufficient risk capital and tailored advisory support


Non-profit and charitable organizations, like businesses, require right-sized risk capital for research and experimentation, yet the majority of the organizations are unable to access the funding needed to realize their potential. There is also a lack of advisory and technical assistance services tailored for the non-profit and charitable sector to support the pursuit of R&D. Such services would quickly connect social mission organizations to infrastructure, methodology expertise, and funding options, among other things.

Ways forward:

  • The federal government can fill an important gap by facilitating access to technical assistance, shared infrastructure, and advisory services by funding the start-up of social R&D clusters, similar to clusters for commercial R&D.
  • Contribute to setting up an arms-length multi-sector and multi-department social R&D fund that aggregates, reviews, and disburses philanthropic, private, and public capital for high-impact research and experimentation. The fund would structure deals in a way that minimizes risk to public capital, including building on the growing Canadian experience with prevention and pay-for-success finance, like social impact bonds, that fund innovation. A social finance fund would manage the R&D fund and it would be subject to appropriate governance structure.[4]

3. Insufficient social sector knowledge and outreach mechanisms


Federal government R&D program design, assessment and delivery staff need to improve their awareness and knowledge of Canada’s non-profit and charitable sector, and, in particular, of the social R&D taking place in, and social innovations produced by, it. SiG’s Getting to Moonshot report is a critical initial resource. Using it as a catalyst for cross-sector dialogue and action can help to yield greater connectivity, understanding, and more effective service implementation. The report could also help departments think about partnership opportunities to meet their own program experimentation imperatives.

Ways forward:

  • Work closely with sector organizations such as SiG, Imagine Canada, MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, Community Foundations of Canada, Impact Hub Ottawa, Centre for Social Innovation, The JW McConnell Family Foundation, Philanthropic Foundations of Canada, as well as social R&D practitioners to develop campaigns and strategies to better market and advertise federal and federally-supported R&D funding to non-profits and charities.
  • Strengthen the federal government’s knowledge and integration of social innovation and create arms-length capacity to develop Social R&D metrics, benchmarks, and data infrastructure, and assess the effectiveness of programs for conducting social R&D to enable performance evaluation and guide improvements and pivots.

Concluding thoughts

The social sector is an innovation sector. We can make measurable advancements in peoples’ lives within our generation if we strengthen support for research and development on the frontline.

Canadian social mission organizations are already delivering services and developing innovations that transform services. Skills Society, Kudoz, Exeko, and Youth Fusion are cases in point.

As Canada advances an inclusive growth agenda, and co-creates a Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy, now’s the time to strategically invest in R&D more intentionally across Canada’s social sector. This fast-emerging organizational practice allows us to accelerate the generation of new, and continuously improve existing, social innovations that enhance the lives of people like Emily.



Hunsley, T (2017) ‘We Need a Canadian Research Council for our Social, Cultural and Economic Health,’ Politudes: International Social Policy Monitor, available at: https://politudes.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/we-need-a-canadian-research-council-for-our-social-cultural-and-economic-health/ (Accessed: May 2, 2017).

OECD Social Expenditure (2016) Available at: https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=SOCX_AGG (Accessed: April 11, 2017).

Rajasekaran, V (2016) ‘Getting to Moonshot: Inspiring R&D Practices in Canada’s Social Impact Sector,’ Available at: http://www.sigeneration.ca/getting-moonshot/ (Accessed April 5, 2017).

Statistics Canada Research and Development expenditure (2015) Available at: http://www.statscan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/60815/dq160815a-eng.htm (Accessed: April 22, 2017).

World Economic Forum Inclusive Growth and Development Report (2017) Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Forum_IncGrwth_2017.pdf (Accessed: August 10, 2017).



[1] https://www.skillssociety.ca/projects/communitea-infusion/

[2] Key Facts about Canada’s Charities (2016) Available at: http://www.imaginecanada.ca/resources-and-tools/research-and-facts/key-facts-about-canada%E2%80%99s-charities (Accessed: April 11, 2017).

[3] Social Innovation Index 2016 (2016) Available at: https://www.eiuperspectives.economist.com/technology-innovation/old-problems-new-solutions-measuring-capacity-social-innovation-across-world-0 (Accessed: April 11, 2017).

[4] Brief to the Advisory Council on Economic Growth: Canada’s opportunity to advance inclusive growth with a P4 strategy. The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Social Innovation Generation, November 15, 2016


Illustration by Paul Dotey



Weekly news & analysis

Staying current on the Canadian non-profit sector has never been easier

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.