I recently took part in a RECODE adjudication panel for a major Canadian university. Our task was to assess faculty submissions and award $10,000 grants for projects that meet RECODE’s goal of creating an ecosystem that fosters social innovation. The experience provided lots of food for thought on just how we get from here to there in change-making in Canadian higher education.
I had many years of grant-making under my belt at the Ontario Trillium Foundation before I joined the university. Most of the $4M per year portfolio I managed was spent supporting innovation in the social service sector, so perhaps naturally, I approached my tasks on the adjudication panel as a funder. Assessing opportunity to invest in innovation is harder than you might think. Almost everything that happens in a post-secondary institution has the potential to support new and everyone can think their work is innovative – and perhaps they are right. The proof is in the pudding. Only after the work is delivered and the finished product sets in the bowl, can we know if we have bet on the right ingredients to meet granting goals.
This panel had great projects to choose from, but no prior agreement on what we would rank as innovative or on what activities build an ecosystem. Not at all unusual, the call for submissions was lightning fast, the panel assembled late in the process, and the applications were many. As with most panels of this nature, we had each read and ranked some of the submissions, but no one had read all of them, and the range of proposed activities was very wide.
There were the extremely well written applications – so well written that it wasn’t hard to see that they were recycled SSHRC applications. Funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is, of course, the bread and butter of academic career development, but not necessarily key to the goal of RECODE. There were the exciting environmental ideas, and adjudicators quickly formed a shared opinion that environmental work could be linked to innovation. There were the intriguing, but not entirely well thought out great ideas — clearly conceptual works in progress that might be going somewhere interesting— but no one was certain of the capacity to implement. And there was a fabulous project or two where the budget lines for travel to remote conferences didn’t quite reconcile with the intent of the project. So, how to sort for the best potential—projects that meet both the university’s emerging picture of social innovation, and RECODE’s objectives?