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RECODE: 2016 in Review

by Chad Lubelsky The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

The end of the year is a busy time.

With wrap-up, looking ahead, looking back, and bewilderment that it’s already the holidays, it’s easy enough to feel somewhat disjointed. So taking a moment to pause, how did we do over the past 12 months?

Our goals in 2016 included:

  • Pilot and test activities (possibly labs) that are likely to contribute to greater institutional and systemic change in higher education.
  • Bring together groups and individuals based on the work they’re doing to learn from and with each other.
  • Provide support and opportunities (seeding) to increase the capacity for and receptiveness to social innovation in higher education.
  • Support on campus culture shifts that seek to enhance community well-being.

Assuming different roles, we’ve seen progress in a number of ways. As a
convener, we’ve hosted dialogues, like our Pre-Indigenous Innovation Summit Dialogue where we discussed Indigenous innovation in Canadian higher education. As an advisor, we’ve provided guidance to our student-led hackED team who ran roundtables at over 10 campuses. And as a partner, we worked with Cities for People to launch the Civic Innovation Awards, supporting community/campus collaborations.

In these roles and others, we supported a broad range of successful initiatives this year:

  • In collaboration with the Trico Charitable Foundation and Skoll Centre, we invited schools to participate in the first Canadian Edition of the Global Challenge.
  • In unison with higher education leaders, we responded to the Federal government’s call for an inclusive innovation agenda by sharing our policy, program and talent ideas.
  • Working with the Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience, the first cohort of the LabWISE program for social innovation labs launched.
  • With SoJo, we invited schools to apply for matching grants to incorporate the SoJo social entrepreneurship online training platform into their changemaking work.
  • We co-hosted a retreat with post-secondary schools working with both RECODE and Ashoka, and convened the Canadian Network Day at the Ashoka U Exchange in New Orleans.

But not all of our efforts were as successful, which provided ample opportunities for us to learn and re-examine our work. For example, well-intentioned working groups, like our social finance and communications groups, were abandoned, which has us thinking about the most meaningful ways to connect the RECODE network across our geographically-challenging country. We’re also working through the most effective ways to distill our learnings as a program and disseminate these findings to RECODE schools on our impact reporting platform in the most valuable way. And we’re still learning how be more transparent in the work we do on our evolving theory of change. We know we have to do better.

On campus

Beyond our work as a program, we’re continually inspired by the work of RECODE grantees who continue to
report momentum in their efforts to integrate a culture and practice of social innovation at their institutions. Positive indicators include schools increasing their financial and human commitments to RECODE-related activities and also seeing their efforts increasingly recognized by their institutions and beyond. For example, in the recent Maclean’s university rankings, 100% of the top 11 comprehensive universities are working with RECODE.
There is a sense of traction and momentum—and there is reason to be proud about the breadth, and even the depth of activity—BUT, if I was reviewing a grant application with these types of activities or projects listed, I can imagine myself thinking:
I get the what, but where is the so what? What difference have all of these activities made on the lives of students, on campus culture, on community well-being? How do we know this? Or, linking back to our objectives, Is this work seeding the capacity for social innovation in higher education?

…if our work isn’t making us uncomfortable, then it is incumbent upon us to try harder

I’m reminded constantly that these questions can’t be easily answered (if at all), but social innovation teaches us that asking the question is sometimes as important as the answer itself. I was at an event a few weeks ago where a speaker said that if our work isn’t making us uncomfortable, then it is incumbent upon us to try harder. His point was that creating real change requires an understanding of where and how we might be perpetuating unhelpful and unhealthy dynamics, patterns, or resource flows. As a funder, these questions cut particularly and sometimes painfully close to the bone.
We’ve had a good year. But was it good enough? Were we always helpful? If we’re honest, I don’t think we know; invariably, this lack of clarity or ambiguity feels uncomfortable. Fortunately, the RECODE network continues to remind us to take comfort in this discomfort and stay committed to asking ourselves and our colleagues difficult, but important, questions. As we sign off for the holidays then, we wish you health, happiness, and just the right amount of discomfort in 2017. See you in the new year!

Dec 19, 2016 | Tags: , ,