Disseminating Innovation: Sustaining Social Innovation Initiative

Resource Type: Audio Seminar | Speaker: Katharine Pearson
Katherine Pearson

This podcast explores the concept of applied dissemination through several case studies and an examination of the sustaining social innovation initiative led by the McConnell Foundation in 2006.

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The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is one of Canada's leading supporters of movements for change.

The Foundation seeks to work strategically at a national level by helping to link people, places and ideas, and create an enhanced sense of community by building bridges between people, communities and sectors. They explore ways to address pressing social problems by helping organizations achieve long-term systemic change.

Foundation staff coined the term “Applied Dissemination” to refer to the documentation and dissemination of a concept, a program, a skill set, or a process, and the subsequent application of one or more of these in a new setting. The Foundation believed that the simple dissemination of knowledge was not enough to ensure that it would be picked up and used by communities or organizations.

On this page, Katharine Pearson, who leads the Foundation's Sustaining Social Innovation initiative, shares with us the Foundation's evolving understanding of dissemination and sustaining social innovation.

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The JW McConnell Family Foundation 

Established in 1937 by John Wilson McConnell (1877-1963) and nurtured and managed by him until his death, The J. W. McConnell Foundation grew out of Mr. McConnell's deep commitment to the public good and his life-long involvement with non-profit and charitable work in Canada. It was renamed The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation upon his death to reflect the family's enduring support for his ideals.

The Foundation historically focused on Quebec, but began to fund local initiatives outside of Quebec and then became a national funder.

The Foundation's focus is on helping local communities to become more resilient, and supporting the efforts of citizens, especially those who are marginalized, to engage with the issues that matter to them. This often means working to solve problems that are Pan-Canadian in scope.

Though the Foundation initially funded local initiatives on one-off basis, staff began to see something interesting – many of these projects, while supported and rooted locally, could have national impact. 

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Applied Dissemination 

Applied DisseminationMany funders ask grantees to disseminate their learning and many often focus on traditional dissemination methods (e.g. through guidebooks, reports, speaking at conferences, and so on). 

The Foundation likewise hoped its grantees would disseminate results, but also hoped they would help others to apply it – take what they know and share it with others in such a way that it can be used elsewhere. This requires framing knowledge in a different way. 

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation coined the term “Applied Dissemination” to refer to the documentation and dissemination of a concept, a program, a skill set, or a process, and the subsequent application of one or more of these in a new setting. The Foundation believed that the simple dissemination of knowledge was not enough to ensure that it would be picked up and used by communities or organizations. 

In 2001, the Foundation published a set of guidelines called “Should you Sow What You Know?” with the intention of helping prospective grantees and their funders to think through the process of Applied Dissemination. (Related terms include ‘replication’ and ‘scaling up’). 

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Sustaining Social Innovation 

Over time the Foundation realized that bringing organizations together that are involved in applied dissemination projects is a valuable way to share learning, draw inspiration, and build collective capacity, and they have launched an ongoing learning community for that purpose. 

The Sustaining Social Innovation (SSI) initiative was a two-year (2005-2006) collaboration to improve the practice of social problem solving in Canada. Drawing on the experience of leading innovators in the private, voluntary and academic sectors, the initiative was concerned with how to develop, apply and evaluate ‘breakthrough’ initiatives that address intractable, deep-rooted social problems. 

Whereas the Applied Dissemination program is primarily concerned with questions of program growth, or ‘scaling up’, SSI was also focused on the design and evaluation of such initiatives – and on how they are sustained over time. It is also explored how to foster a climate of continual innovation in organizations and institutions concerned with social change. The lead partners in SSI are the McConnell Foundation, PLAN Institute for Caring Citizenship and DuPont Canada

When the group met they took time to share learning and news about their work, but also problem solve with each other by posing specific questions to the group about the work or about our organizational capacity and growth.

Themes covered include scaling up, tracking progress, the life-cycles of social change initiatives, social marketing, and complexity theory, as well as issues of a more personal nature, including the impact of the loneliness one feels when leading a change effort.

An important learning that's emerged is the importance of the dissemination function and separating that from the work of the project. Dissemination is critical; applied dissemination cannot be resourced off the side of one's desk. Funders and practitioners need to recognize this and resource dissemination functions accordingly. 

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An Example: Santropol Roulant 

Santropol Roulant LOgoA wonderful example of an organization using applied dissemination is Santropol Roulant. Founded in 1995, Santropol Roulant is a volunteer organization based in Montreal and run by motivated and dynamic young people in the community. It brings people and groups together across cultures and generations through an innovative meals-on-wheels service and intergenerational programs. Santropol Roulant uses food as a vehicle to break social and economic isolation between generations and to strengthen and nourish the local community. 

It's proven a popular organization. Staff have been fielding questions and visits from representatives of other organizations across Canada who wanted to learn more about Santropol Roulant. 

Staff then began a deliberate process to distil and discover what they were doing that was so attractive to people. They focused on distilling what they know, what they do and considered how to share it in a communicable and helpful way to others. They experimented with a pilot project called the "Living Lab" and have since come to understand that their organizational culture, the way in which they work, is what draws in and excites people.

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Movements for Change 

Movements for Change are not easy to define, but can be understood as a diverse set of actors with a common purpose employing different strategies toward the same end.

Typically, they are part of a larger move to change something, some societal challenge (e.g. disability movement, women’s movement). Movements are often informal but can be animated and facilitated.

While organizations do not often define themselves as a movement for change, movements often emerge when they "scale up" their work - when they reach a barrier that requires the adaptation and re-alignment of their strategies and thinking. 

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Advancing Movements for Change 

In its work of funding and supporting social change efforts, the Foundation has begun to observe some key lessons to help advance movements for change. They include:

  • Focus on policy and systems change – Increasingly the Foundation sees more people using these methods to achieve their objectives (e.g. Roots of Empathy). Not everyone has the skills or knowledge to do this work, so supporting this work is critical to a movement's success. 
  • Consider Leadership – Invest in leadership at all levels of the organization or movement. Overcome the loneliness of leading a social change effort by bringing leaders together to learn together. Assist with leadership transition. 
  • Embrace Complexity – In a highly turbulent, ever-changing environment, the work of social change is challenging but not impossible. Learn to work with, instead of opposed to, complexity. Complexity fosters creativity and innovation and should be embraced. 
  • Be Patient - It takes years for significant change to occur, and it often takes months or even a year or two for a leader to determine effective strategies in consultation with his or her organization as well as with fellow travelers. Participants, supporters and funders need to be flexible and patient (which is not always easy!). Funders and supporters need to recognize that one or two year funding streams may not be appropriate for funding change efforts.
  • Find Different Ways to Address Accountability - Be more creative in definition of accountability - look beyond traditional approaches. Ensure that enough resources are invested in training, evaluation, and learning. (e.g. PLAN's Social Audit)
  • Communication Is Key – Be clear on who you are and what you’re doing. Communicate your values and communicate from the heart.

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Remaining Questions and Challenges 

  • Tipping Point - How do you recognize those moments that Frances Westley calls the tipping point for change? – cascading change – move from incremental to sudden change (e.g. Anti-smoking legislation, pesticide bans) 
  • Leadership Development – How do you share leadership in such a way so that classic social innovators don’t become burned out; carry out ideas through the network?
  • Funding Diversification - How do you build independent and sustainable sources of revenue to support complex, long term work?

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Additional Resources & Links 

Anderson, Malcolm, Ph.D. Towards a Holistic Approach to Sustaining Innovative Projects. The Change Foundation March 2004. 

This paper examines the long-term sustainability of grant-funded projects beyond their initial funding period and identifies approaches that can be used to enhance sustainability. Fundamentally, the paper suggests that sustainability can best be achieved through an integrated holistic approach that is applied systematically throughout all aspects of a project’s life cycle.

“A report summarizing the findings of workshops and presentations undertaken through a two-year project, including common themes and innovative community practice. It also includes an analysis of the different proposals for funding reform raised over the course of the project.” 

  • The Finance Project. Sustainability planning workbook (2002) - helps users clarify their vision, identify key issues in sustaining their work, and develop strategies to achieve their long-term goals. 
  • Ford Foundation, Asset Building for Social Change: Pathways to Large Scale Impact, 2004 

An overview of the Ford Foundation’s experience in supporting the scaling up of initiatives in the US and overseas, with recommendations for funders.  

A thoughtful examination of how to "spread and sustain what works" in programs that promote social change. Though the context is the U.S., the lessons are universal and the numerous in-depth examples effectively illustrate her conclusions and recommendations. 

 This brochure, aimed at grantees, addresses the ways policies shape, hamper, or encourage social progress. 

Simon Zadek, chief executive of AccountAbility, introduces a new debate on openDemocracy that explores a new generation of accountability mechanisms focussed on the horizontal, not the hierarchical.

Changemakers - is an Ashoka initiative that connects the insights of Ashoka's social entrepreneurs with the best work in the citizen sector to spark action on a global scale.

Pioneers of Change - Pioneers of Change is a global learning network of young people, in their 20's and 30's, who have committed to be themselves, do what matters, start now, engage with others, and never stop asking questions. 

Society for Organizational Learning - SoL was formed in April of 1997 to continue the work of MIT's Center for Organizational Learning (1991-1997). Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization is the founding Chairman. It connects corporations and organizations, researchers and consultants to generate knowledge about and capacity for fundamental innovation and change by engaging in collaborative action inquiry projects.” 

Stanford Social Innovation Review - A quarterly journal of case studies and resources for people interested in social innovation, e.g., “Scaling Social Impact: Strategies for spreading social innovations” by Gregory Dees, Beth Battle Anderson and Jane Wei-skillern, Spring 2004 

Theory of Change - “A joint venture between ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, it is an interactive online suite of tools for creating, sharing and using Theories of Change (which are) an innovative tool to design and evaluate social change initiatives. By creating a blueprint of the building blocks required to achieve a social change initiative’s long-term goal, such as improving a neighbourhood’s literacy levels or academic achievement, a Theory of Change offers a clear roadmap to achieve your results identifying the preconditions, pathways and interventions necessary for an initiative’s success.”

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Meet Katharine Pearson 

Katharine PearsonKatharine Pearson - The late Katherine Pearson worked with the McConnell Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in Canada with a national mandate, beginning in January 1997. She started as a senior program officer and subsequently became Program Director before moving to the “Sustaining Social Innovation” project. With a colleague, she produced the Foundation’s “Primer on Applied Dissemination: Should you sow what you know?” to help prospective grantees think through the process of disseminating and applying their programs in different contexts. 

Katharine came to the Foundation after 16 years of working in the field of international development with Canadian non-governmental organizations, including OXFAM-Canada, where she was the Central America Program Officer, CUSO, and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, where she spent 5 years as the Policy Team Coordinator. 

As a volunteer, Katharine is currently a board member of Oxfam Québec and was a co-founder and board member of the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) in Vancouver. She also sits on the program advisory committee of the Foundation of Greater Montreal. 

Katharine grew up overseas, in France, Mexico and India, and was educated at the University of British Columbia. 

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