12 Lessons Unlearned

From a year of philanthropy


Working in Solutions Finance, one can be tempted to focus on solutions before anything else. This mindset impedes opportunities to learn from others, especially those who are most familiar with the problems that need solving.

When Sophie Méchin went to the Indigenous philanthropy gathering on Wasan Island, she brought with her all the chutzpah of a social innovator who had figured out a new solution. After all, the tools being developed by the Solutions Finance team were exciting. Sophie’s firm handshakes and fast-talking evangelism met the dubious ear of an Elder named Lee Brown, whose biting and humbling humour reminded Sophie that if she really wanted to help Indigenous communities leverage financial tools, she should start by listening to the experience, the knowledge and the solutions already present within the community.


Government budgets dwarf those of even the largest foundations, and so philanthropy typically avoids funding projects that should be the responsibility of government. But when governments are unaware of high-leverage opportunities within their mandate, or unable to take the necessary risk, impact-seeking foundations might need to re-consider this constraint.

While McConnell’s Energy and Economy program employs a number of tactics to influence change in Canada’s energy system, training government employees has not traditionally been considered, as this was the responsibility of the government’s HR department. However, when the Ecofiscal Commission, a think tank dedicated to finding viable strategies to transition to a low carbon economy, found that uptake by senior public servants lagged, the Energy and Economy team challenged assumptions about the limits of philanthropy and crafted a pilot funding stream to help train civil servants on this new opportunity.


In building the fire of reconciliation, the most important role for settlers is to be on hand, ready to gather wood.

Initially there seemed to be a lot of alignment between SiG, 4Rs, Apathy is Boring and other graduates of the GradSI program about a shared Reconciliation initiative. It eventually became clear, however, that the most important role for a settler organization like SiG was not to lead, but to be on hand and ready to support Indigenous leaders if they requested help.


As social creatures, it can be tempting to mitigate conflict whenever possible, but this tactic can make it difficult for parties with different perspectives to have candid and meaningful conversations. Respectful conflict is essential for ensuring that partners can trust in each others' candour and honesty.

McConnell has worked with HealthCareCAN to explore a partnership to advance the health-related recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. McConnell diverged from HealthCareCAN's approach and, at the risk of disappointing their prospective partner, turned down the opportunity as it was presented. Instead of shying away or acquiescing, both parties showed up for an awkward phone call where they stood by their own perspectives, while maintaining respect for each other. From this experience, their relationship evolved to be more open, candid, and constructive, and subsequently they were able to co-develop a new project that reflected the needs of both organizations.


Without the right tool, even the most important task is impossible. Without the right task, the most well-crafted tool is a no more than a novel gadget. A combination of both, however, is a force with transformative potential.

Over their five-year history, Innoweave has developed a sophisticated suite of tools for creating and measuring impact. The limit of their impact now lies not in the quality of the tools at their disposal, but in their clients’ ability to identify which problem to work on. By shifting their focus from tool to task, Innoweave has increased their potential for impact.


It takes a lot of work and emotional energy to make a plan, build support around it and put that plan into action. But when evidence mounts that your initiative has poor timing or takes the wrong approach, it’s important to find the humility to deviate from your plan and open yourself to emergence.

After the first few phases of Cities for People, Jorge could see that the initial plan was no longer appropriate for the dynamic context of cities. With advice and support from others in the Foundation, he revisited his approach to the project and let go of the initial plan in favour of a more flexible and emergent strategy. This flexibility allowed him to design interventions that actually supported the needs of stakeholders such as the Boston Study Tour and the Kids and Place Lab. This new strategy strengthened their coalition and helped them create a more resilient and inclusive program.


Journalists asking hard questions like "so what?", "who cares?" and "how can you prove it?" may seem threatening to an organization experimenting with untested ideas. But these questions can strengthen a foundation’s rigour and prepare its communications for a discerning public audience.

In an effort to better understand the burgeoning field of Solutions Journalism, McConnell contracted several journalists to tackle issues important to the foundation's initiatives and grantees, and also to report on the work McConnell was doing. This process, which required McConnell to loosen control over its message, taught the communications team that hard questions from outsiders actually strengthen the foundation's understanding of its programs and grants, and help form more compelling and credible stories to share with the public.


Changemakers have a natural tendency to offer novel and concrete solutions to problems they encounter. However, some people may not want their problems solved for them—they would rather be heard, understood and supported as they find their own way.

After a year of implementing the WellAhead initiative in British Columbia, the team realized that despite their best intentions to support school districts in creating their own path to integrating wellbeing, they had become yet another organization pushing a particular solution or approach. The unintended negative consequences became clear when two of the six participating districts opted not to continue for a second year. Through this experience, WellAhead learned how to resist the urge to intervene with a solution, and instead focus on building capacity for others to address their own issues.


The negative ramifications of French and British colonization of Turtle Island were experienced almost entirely by Indigenous people. This, however, does not mean that reconciliation is a project only for Indigenous people. Colonialism is a sickness of our whole society, and reconciliation is medicine: for Indigenous people and settlers alike.

When Stephen visited the Winnipeg Boldness project for a ceremony to renew funding for its second year, he and the Foundation’s partners—the Government of Manitoba and United Way Winnipeg—were honoured with a medicine song by a member of the Buffalo Gals. The song, whose central message translates to “The River We Are Paddling is the River Within,” and a subsequent conversation with the musician, reminded Stephen that reconciliation is much more than a project to amend past injustices against Indigenous people: it is medicine to heal all members of a society that is ill from its history.


In a culture that expects institutions to “know things,” it can feel unprofessional for foundations to engage publicly in the messy business of prototyping and collaborative design. However, subverting these expectations by inviting others to engage and test hypotheses can generate valuable input, encourage constructive critique and strengthen community.

During the development of Nourish, a new McConnell project dedicated to elevating the role of food in patient care, the program team had many untested ideas. Rather than reverting to the conventional process of testing these ideas privately before announcing the plan, the Nourish team hosted a “Network Weaving Webinar” where they invited their stakeholders to share ideas and reactions. Not only did this process yield meaningful insight, it also built trust and buy-in before the program launch.


There are examples of small innovations being brought to scale, but new approaches are often limited by the structural forces that maintain the status quo. Transformational change often requires the dismantling of structures that maintain the current system, no matter how daunting that process may be.

During its first year, RECODE supported experimentation by a number of universities and colleges. This strategy, which was designed to generate insights about the innovation capacity of the post-secondary education system, carried an implicit assumption that higher-order structural transformation—including elements such as the tenure-based incentive structure—would be out of reach. However, after witnessing several successful RECODE initiatives struggle to scale or maintain momentum in the face of systemic barriers, Chad and the RECODE team began to challenge their assumption that these systemic barriers were too formidable to challenge. Instead, they started asking: “are they too formidable not to challenge? ”


Devolving decision-making power is a necessary component of building trust and shared ownership across diverse coalitions, but it is not enough. A well-defined and clearly communicated vision is also essential.

Thanks to its familiar name and active granting program in Montreal, McConnell often holds considerable influence in its partnerships and coalitions. Recognizing this dynamic, and acknowledging the importance of distributed ownership in building a movement, McConnell helped establish a decentralized secretariat to steward and implement the Amplifier Montreal vision. This approach, however, fell short of its promise to build partners’ trust and shared ownership because the incubation phase within McConnell was too short to develop a refined vision that others could understand and get behind.



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.