The Social R&D Fellowship was involved in the early scoping of the McConnell – Community Foundations of Canada – Community Fund for Canada’s 150th’s initiative to support social change experiments and early stage R&D, and Jason has been supporting CKX’s animation of the participating organizations and groups. Given Jason’s experience in this space, we asked him to share six tips, tools or resources that might be useful for someone undertaking social R&D.
The Social R&D Fellowship is an ongoing effort to seed an ecosystem of public good R&D in Canada. I was lucky to be exposed to this work, and welcomed into the peer community supporting it, early into my role at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).
Being part of the social R&D community exposed me to the latest thinking on shifting culture in established organizations, introduced me to non-profit professionals applying cutting-edge tools and techniques in complex issue areas, and demonstrated the many different ways organizations could test what’s possible in seemingly immovable environments – it really made a huge impact on how we pursued our mandate of increasing our department’s level of awareness and comfort with novel policy tools. On a personal note, having a community to lean on was of enormous personal value as it’s isolating working in a way that is radically different from the norm.
As our mandate was winding down at NRCan, I was invited to join the Fellowship to help build out additional peer-learning supports for social R&D practitioners.
So why is social R&D important, even urgent, in some domain areas? Well Canada spends close to $420 billion on social outcomes and wellbeing per year. Despite this, solutions are not keeping up with the pace at which social and environmental challenges are evolving. For example:
- The suicide rate among Canadian girls has increased by 38% over the past decade
- Food insecurity prevalence rose to 46% in Canada’s north – the highest rate since 2004
- Hospital admissions for opioid poisonings have jumped 53% in the last decade, with 40% of that increase occurring in the last three years
- Half (50%) of monitored wildlife species are in decline in Canada, from 1970 to 2014
It often feels like we have a problem with how we solve problems, which is why I find social R&D so intriguing – it helps us systematically explore and develop responses to complex social and environmental challenges.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of social mission organizations doing R&D well.
Organizations like Kudoz (an award winning learning platform for people with cognitive disabilities created by a partnership between service agencies and a social mission organization), The Winnipeg Boldness Project (a community driven social lab transforming early childhood development policy and services in Manitoba), MyCompass (a cloud-based platform with tools to help people with disabilities plan together with their supports), Exeko (a charity that developed Intellectual Mediation, a new model for increasing social inclusion inspired by practices in art, philosophy and social work), and Roots of Empathy (a celebrated program, now delivered around the world, proven to boost empathy and interrupt intergenerational cycles of conflict and poor parenting).
So what does Social R&D look like in practice? Establishing a hunch then testing it, conducting research and/or seeking out the latest evidence, prototyping and testing ways to improve or transform programs and/or services, testing the utility of new tools and/or approaches, creating an organizational environment where insights from research and testing influence strategy, etc. – if you are continuously mixing these kinds of habits and practices together, you’re likely practicing R&D.
SiG’s Getting to Moonshot report was the first effort to capture the R&D habits of social mission organizations in Canada. See this report for inspiration on how to pursue social R&D within your organization.
After a few years working in this space, here are my six thoughts, ideas and reflections on Social R&D:
Remember: You’re not alone.
Our working definition of Social R&D is the art and science of applying research and experimental processes on the frontline to generate new knowledge and new innovations that transform lives.
This is happening across different issue domains, tool or method preferences, and organizational size and structure. Though our contexts and focus areas may differ, social R&D practitioners are beginning to come together for community, to compare notes, and to be exposed to new tools, research and methods. Alone, the practice of social R&D was invisible, but together, we’re starting to legitimize this kind of work in the sector.
R&D is as much about organizational culture as it is about research, tools and methods.
If you’re organization is just getting into this space, starting small to show what’s possible is probably a good way to go, but eventually you’ll need to make time to help create an organizational environment that is capable of continuously generating AND integrating new knowledge, insights and experiences.
Not solving for culture – specifically, an organization that values and invests in R&D, and is able to absorb the insights from it – will mean that the impact of your R&D portfolio will be clipped.
This was what I spent most of my time at NRCan attempting to do.
Connect what you’re learning to your organization, but also find ways to connect to other players, including the public sector, to transform systems.
While R&D can help social mission organizations achieve incremental improvements (i.e. be more efficient and effective) or develop radically improved programs and services, it can also provide essential insights that point to options for transforming systems.
To create an R&D program that enhances programs and services AND works towards system change share what you’re learning broadly and often, and invest time to find and connect with curious government officials and those in other established institutions. Making insights from the field visible to these folks (e.g. what’s working/not working, what are the cutting edge tools and evidence) can help drive more thoughtful policy, program and service design.
There are common challenges that all social R&D practitioners are grappling with – let’s work on them together.
Did I mention that this work is hard? Regardless of the issue domain – be it legal services, social services, or environmental conservation – it’s clear that certain conditions and infrastructure would make it easier to do social R&D well. Whether it’s dedicated funding for early stage research, a place to share data, or supports for staffing specialized skills like data science, ethnography, agile and experimental design, there isn’t a whole lot currently available to support R&D in charities and non-profits. R&D is simply not something that the sector is supposed to do.
Despite all of that, we’ve seen movement over the last few years – this joint funding initiative between the McConnell Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada is a great example. This shift in expectation and supports is being driven by a few things: practitioners making their work visible, the community advocating for change as a unit, and practitioners supporting each other when there is no other help in sight.
Find time to reflect and imagine.
Heading into the SPARK! Social Innovation Exchange last November, I asked Ashley Good of Fail Forward to reflect on some blind-spots for the social R&D community – she’s been involved for a number of years. She made a convincing argument for us to look up from our laptops:
Huge ambitions mean our time and resources will never be enough. One risk I see for this group is we get so busy we end up implementing all the time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doing/operational mindset because there is always so much to get done.
Pausing to take care of one’s mental and physical well-being is important to maintain the stamina needed for this work, but it will also give you the mental space to discover non-obvious possibilities and opportunities.
Remember that R&D is not introducing a new program or service
and then doing a thorough evaluation.
R&D is a deliberate exercise to fill knowledge gaps and test new possibilities with appropriate levels of rigor. The outcomes from R&D will influence the design and delivery of new or modified products, programs, or services – essentially ironing out the kinks and maximizing effectiveness before bringing something new online.
If you’ve introduced a fully formed product, program or service and you expect it to work without doing the up-front R&D, you’ll probably miss the mark. If you’re updating a product, program, or service solely based on a previous evaluation – you’re likely at a higher risk of improving a solution to the wrong problem, or of spending precious capital on something that has become suboptimal due to changing conditions.
Summative evaluations are important, but they’re not a replacement for thoughtful R&D.
Jason is a SiG Fellow for Social R&D at the McConnell Foundation. Prior to taking a leave from government to pursue the Fellowship, Jason led ADAPT, a policy innovation & program experimentation team at Natural Resources Canada. Over its two year mandate, ADAPT developed a departmental framework for Policy & Program Experimentation, created the Policy Innovation Portal, scoped and co-organised the inaugural Policy Community Conference, and helped NRCan programs big and small explore how to leverage new policy tools like blockchain, hubs/labs, and open policymaking. Jason is also a co-founder of Impact HUB Ottawa and Future of Good.