12 Lessons Learned

A visual reflection on a year of learning about philanthropy and social innovation by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.


The performance of a system is not evaluated by its parts but by the nature of their interactions.

While it may be possible to take the best components from every automobile available - the radiator of a Mercedes, the carburetor of a Lamborghini, and so on - and assemble them, you will fail to create an automobile, let alone the best one, because the parts will not fit together. It’s not so much the quality of the parts, but the way they integrate that matters. To maximize impact, a foundation must consider not just the individual components - grantees, projects, and initiatives - but the way the components interact with one another, and with the outside world.

In August 2015, the Foundation convened its staff and Board to study the organization and define a new Theory of Philanthropy that would underpin the Foundation’s work. Equipped with the theories outlined in Patton, Foote, and Radner’s book - A Foundation's Theory of Philanthropy: What It Is, What It Provides, How to Do It - the team found that the process was rich with learnings about the relationship between the whole and the sum of its parts.


Go for walks with your colleagues.

Engage with colleagues outside of office routines, as it creates space to connect as people, take pleasure in the natural world, and address thorny issues. This becomes especially powerful when the walks’ participants cut across hierarchies as it builds trust and understanding throughout the organization.

June 2015 brought warmer weather, and with it, more participants in “John’s Walks”: the semi-regular treks up Montreal's Mount Royal where colleagues stretch their minds, express their personalities, and develop another dimension to their relationships.


Social Innovation has a broad definition, and that’s a good thing.

The only commonly understood characteristics of “Social Innovation” are that it is unconventional and that it creates impact. While this broad definition might fail to conjure a clear image of what social innovation is, it does free the social innovator to focus on intended impact and pursue solutions in whatever form suits the context.

In September 2015, Innoweave marked its third anniversary by reflecting on what has been learned after helping over 300 organizations define their impact. The diverse cohort represents a multitude of approaches and intended impacts, and, taken together, has revealed that trying to rigidly define “Social Innovation” is not only difficult, it is counterproductive, as it confines our imagination to existing solutions.


Measuring impact is hard, and that is exactly why it is valuable.

Be rigorous in reporting and measuring impact, as the process will reveal its value twice. First, in the conversations, relationships, and insights that emerge from asking hard questions, and again with the metrics themselves.

In October, RECODE launched the “Impact Reporting Platform” and encouraged RECODE grantees to share real-time data about their success in providing social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for post-secondary students. It was a rigorous effort that leveraged best practices and engaged top experts in the field. Ultimately, the effort gave the RECODE team an appreciation both for how difficult it is to measure impact in complex systems, and how valuable measurement is as a tool to encourage grantees to communicate with the foundation, connect with adjacent projects, and think critically about their activities.


“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to [a] new situation.”

- Justice Murray Sinclair

In November 2015, the first Indigenous Innovation Summit in Winnipeg, MB convened a country-wide selection of social innovators: public and private sector leaders, youth and elders, Indigenous and settlers. The unusual assortment of innovators and unique conversations upended many assumptions about the nature of innovation: notably, the assumption that innovations are necessarily ‘new’.


GEPO: good enough, push on.

Perfectionism is the antithesis of innovation. The process of innovation, or doing something that has not yet been done, requires comfort with stepping into the unknown. This means that theorists must also be practitioners who prototype their theories to test how they stand up in the real world. Imagining and trying form the two components of innovation, and GEPO is their bridge.

In November, 2015, SiG honoured Brenda Zimmerman - a great friend and systems change scholar who passed in 2014 - by publishing Gedenkschrift. The writing process gave those who knew and loved Brenda an opportunity to reflect on a life replete with wisdom about living well and changing systems. One of these lessons was GEPO.


Local roots deepen the value of international networks.

Develop philanthropic models that are deeply rooted in your local community, then exchange your insights with experts from around the world. This approach will give you a wealth of experience and perspective to situate your new learnings and reveal surprising connections that transcend borders.

After months of experimentation in their backyard of Montreal, the Foundation gathered the Amplifier Montreal team and visited London, England and Bilbao, Spain, to share experiences in civic innovation and building resilient cities. Prior to this trip, Amplifier Montreal gave the Foundation an opportunity to deepen its philanthropic roots in Montreal, enabling them to gain from an exchange of ideas with international partners.


Spend time in the spaces where the system lives.

Systems are complex, making those trying to change them prone to feeling alienated and disoriented by the abstract version that lives in spreadsheets and inboxes. Spend time in the physical spaces of the system you are trying to change because it will ground the abstract, ward off isolation, and provide a wellspring of motivation when the work feels daunting.

In January 2016, the McConnell Foundation’s Sustainable Food Systems initiative invited the Institutional Food Program grantees to Guelph to meet other grantees and visit demonstration sites where food systems work is evident. The mood was energetic as the grantees and Foundation staff interacted with real-world versions of their often all-too complex and abstract work.


Pay attention to politics: different governments require different strategies.

Understand politics from a non-partisan perspective. Politics influences social systems, and innovative foundations will enhance their capacity for change by understanding the challenges and opportunities presented by new political contexts.

In February 2016, Foundation staff travelled to Ottawa with “CEGN Low Carbon Funders on the Hill”, to host a series of meetings between low-carbon funders and political staff in order to better understand their priorities and discuss collaboration. With the recently elected Liberal majority, the group discovered a very new political landscape, and were reminded of the all-encompassing influence politics has on strategic philanthropy. This experience drew into sharp focus the importance of aligning a foundation’s strategy with the political context in order to seize new opportunities and mitigate new challenges.


Collaboration ≠ everyone being an author.

There is a cruel paradox in decentralized organizing: the more diverse a collaboration is, the more it requires a clear vision, yet the more difficult it becomes to define and articulate one. An author in this paradox must approach diverse perspectives with curiosity, empathy, and a learning spirit but always remember that their primary duty is to serve the collective vision that exists between and around the group’s many perspectives.

March 2015 marked the culmination of 18 months of discovery and experimentation in the Cities for People project and the launch of its Experimental Phase Report that explores new ideas and promising approaches to creating sustainable, innovative and resilient cities. Cities for People was an experiment in decentralization, rich in lessons about how to create and express a collaborative vision.


Take time to do things well.

Philanthropy that bridges settler and indigenous institutions under the shadow of Canada’s colonial history is fundamentally different than any other kind. Colonial histories, power differences, and diverse cultural paradigms require that all partners bring attention, respect, empathy, and patience. In this difficult and important work, it is worth leaving behind expectations of timelines and proper process, and take the time to do things in a good way; a way that not only allows the project to succeed, but contributes to respectful relationships and new partnerships.

It had been several months since the WellAhead education initiative had been implemented in several pilot jurisdictions and there appeared to be a discrepancy between the early success of most jurisdictions, and the experience of the Nisga’a nation in British Columbia where progress appeared stalled. In April 2016, a McConnell leadership team traveled to Nisga'a to offer respect and friendship, learn about their Nation, and understand their experience with WellAhead. The delegation left behind their assumptions about proper process, and learned a great lesson about timelines, time, and doing things in a good way.


Equip your imagination with every tool at your disposal.

A foundation has many tools available to it, including “traditional tools” like granting, and “new tools” like impact investing. While each tool is appropriate for achieving different outcomes, there is untold potential awaiting those who experiment, remix, and re-combine the familiar with the new.

In May 2016, the Foundation culminated seven years of learning, research and experimentation to announce its new approach to impact investing: Solutions Finance. Impact investing comes with a lot of fanfare, and McConnell approached this new tool not only with enthusiasm but also restraint, learning that the true promise of new tools lies in how they work with and enhance familiar ones.



12 Lessons is a summary of lessons learned, old practices and beliefs to be unlearned, or things to learn in the future — typically expressed by staff of the McConnell Foundation, but also sometimes by others in our networks. Each year the theme and look of 12 Lessons varies. The project has been conducted annually from 2016 to 2020. The goal is to be transparent about the work of philanthropy, and to share what we’re learning about what is going well and what needs to be improved.

Why is it 12 Lessons? Initially we wanted to collect a lesson for each month. We retained the number 12, even though the lessons are no longer associated with any particular month of the year. 12 is manageable. We can hold ourselves accountable to 12 lessons annually!

For more questions, please contact info@mcconnellfoundation.ca.