Social Innovation

Preventative and integrated solutions to better address complex social challenges
Francis Nolan-Poupart

What the heck is Social Innovation? (video)

There are many definitions for “social innovation”, which all broadly refer to new solutions that better address complex social challenges, such as youth homelessness, long-term unemployment, or the social isolation of seniors. These solutions can include programming, processes, types of organizations, products, financing methods, or even principles. Social innovation definitions also emphasize characteristics including: (1) collaboration across the public, not-for-profit and private sectors; (2) the potential for replication at a larger scale; (3) a focus on preventative and integrated solutions addressing the root causes of social issues; and (4) a higher tolerance for risk, which tolerates and learns from failure.

For Government of Canada uses, this definition could be narrowed to mean new methods for governments to work with and fund community organizations in ways promoting the creation and scaling of programming which effectively addresses complex social challenges. These methods, largely used to improve on the current, ‘traditional’ call for proposals processes of direct program spending, include: pay-for-performance, leveraging, collective impact, single window funding, co-creation of project proposals, and “investing in evidence”. These methods differ in terms of mechanics, but broadly involve (1) more open and collaborative processes for developing projects, (2) increased focus on the use of evidence and impact measurement, (3) more user-centric processes for applicants, and (4) incentives to promote collaboration.   


  • Achieve measurable, population-level change on complex, persistent social issues facing a particular community or target group
  • Generate a strong body of evidence on which programs work
  • Attract new kinds of partners, such as charitable foundations, entrepreneurial not-for-profit organizations and private investors, to collaborate in addressing social challenges


  • ‘Solve’ intractable social problems in your portfolio at a national level
  • Guarantee success for all projects – risk is an integral component of social innovation

Policy Opportunity

  • Increase the impact of spending – social innovation approaches allow you to direct funding to methods that are proven to work
  • Shift from the reporting of input and outputs towards the measurement of outcomes
  • Transition from the delivery of siloed services towards integrated social programs
  • Support experimentation by community organizations


  • Social innovation approaches such as pay-for-performance and collective impact present different benefits and risks – factors for choosing the best approach include: whether the social problem interfaces with other policy issues, whether there is evidence on the effectiveness of current approaches, the availability of data and impact metrics, and stakeholders’ level of readiness.
  • Specific technical knowledge is required for many social innovation approaches. The initial use of these methods may require investment in capacity-building or partnerships with a knowledgeable party. In particular, outcomes measurement is highly complex and costly for charitable and non-profit organizations to undertake.
  • The interpretation of Treasury Board policies governing transfer payments and procurement and legacy, restrictive program terms and conditions can present challenges for the implementation of initiatives making use of partnership or funding methods promoting social innovation.
  • Some stakeholders may react negatively to the use of social innovation approaches because these can cause uncertainty in terms of funding levels and reporting requirements.
  • If increasing impact measurement requirements on recipients, reporting on inputs and activities should be correspondingly decreased. 

Government of Canada

  • The Northern Pilot Single Window Initiative (Employment and Social Development Canada), launched in 2013-14, creates a single process for communities in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut to apply for funding from five ESDC programs in order to address multiple local priorities.
  • The New Horizons for Seniors Program Pan-Canadian Call for Proposals (ESDC) implemented a collective impact model which based funding eligibility on the capacity of community partners to work together to achieve a measurable, population-level reduction in the social isolation of seniors.
  • The 2015 national Call for Proposals of the Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities (ESDC) included a funding stream for social innovation, which encouraged participants to incorporate social partnerships, pay-for-performance funding, or social enterprise as part of their proposal.
  • The Social Finance Accelerator Initiative (ESDC) aims to help individuals or organizations advance a social objective by helping them attract private capital investors for their projects and ideas through brokerage and advisory services, mentorship, networking opportunities, and investor introductions.
  • Multi-Sectoral Partnerships to Promote Healthy Living and Prevent Chronic Disease (Public Health Agency of Canada) provides the co-investment needed to test and/or scale-up promising primary prevention interventions. 

Best in Class

  • The US Corporation for National and Community Service administers the US Social Innovation Fund, which provides grants to intermediaries that will host competitions to provide grants to not-for-profit organizations to fund projects based on innovations with a proven social impact.
  • Social Innovation Generation brings together many of the country’s leading organizations, including the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the MaRS Discovery Institute, and the PLAN Institute.
  • Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program seeks to reduce poverty and inequality by providing a minimum level of income for extremely poor families, and by conditioning these transfers on beneficiary compliance with human capital requirements such as school attendance, vaccines, and pre-natal visits. Success has sparked adaptations in almost 20 countries, and more recently in New York City.
  • The Centre for Social Innovation is a social enterprise with a mission to catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world. It used a Community Bond to support the purchase of a new property that could house its growing number of member organizations. It also launched the Catalyst crowdfunding platform for projects with a positive social or environmental impact.
  • The Procter and Gamble (P&G) Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program is a non-profit program working with implementation partners to distribute P&G Purifier of Water packets in over 75 developing countries. It was awarded, among other prizes, the 2012 Economist Social Innovation Award.
  • Mosaic successfully applies crowdfunding to clean energy by allowing small, non-accredited investors to earn interest financing clean energy projects through its platform.
  • LIFT Philanthropy Partners are also important actors in this area.