Social Innovation Generation

Fostering a Canadian Ecosystem for Systems Change


Social Innovation Generation (SiG) was a coming together of unusual allies — a private family foundation, an innovation hub, a non-profit social enterprise and a public university — around a common cause. Originally conceived in 2007 by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, it developed with the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR), the MaRS Discovery District, and the Plan Institute.

The ultimate goal of the partnership was to nurture the conditions for transformative change in Canada. In Social Innovation Generation, we lay bare what our mission meant to us, why it matters, what we learned, where we stumbled and our insights into how social innovation happens. In addition to the book, this site contains video testimonials and tribute messages to the partners. Feel free to share your own with us.


The book

Social innovation is in Canada’s nature. From the advent of medicare to peacekeeping, Blue Box recycling to Greenpeace, Canada is a country with a long history of social innovation beginning with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

From coast to coast to coast, passionate people driven by necessity, human ingenuity, and care innovate to collaboratively transform the very way society works and make it more inclusive, sustainable, just and well. Social Innovation Generation (SiG) came together to serve these people and communities. For us, this meant understanding and nurturing the conditions across sectors and across the country for social innovations to scale, endure, and have impact.

Sharing our decade-long journey is our final step. We hope you find this story useful in your work towards positive systems change.

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Questions to SiGsapiens about ten years of SiG

We know that social innovation isn’t easy to achieve and those that practice social innovation approaches can be hard-pressed to explain what they do and why it matters. In this video series, we asked a range of Canadian innovators why social innovation matters to them, how SiG helped their journey and how on earth they explain their job to their parents.

What object represents your journey with SiG?

What quote has inspired your work in social innovation?

What is a social innovator?

What can we learn from SiG?

How do you describe your work to your mother?

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

What do social innovators need to stop saying?

How do you describe SiG (without using the term 'social innovation')?


About the creative team

Geraldine Cahill joined Social Innovation Generation (SiG) in 2009 as communications coordinator, leading communications efforts across the partnership and later managing programs and partnerships for the SiG National office. She is a film-maker, writer and passionate communicator on the global social innovation ecosystem and believes in our collective potential to transform our world for social and environmental sustainability and positive impact.

Kelsey Spitz joined the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National team in 2014. In her time with SiG, she co-created, administered and facilitated the Alberta Social Innovation (ABSI) Connect Fellows initiative, a pan-provincial experiment to put social innovation to work for Alberta. Kelsey is a facilitator who enjoys pulling from her diverse life experiences with theatre, cultural theory, sociology, karate and youth activism to support diverse multi-stakeholder collaborations and gatherings. She believes social innovation is successful when systemic solutions enrich and improve everyday life. 

Studio Jaywall is a design team dedicated to social change, supporting the communications efforts of progressive organizations through creative strategy and graphic design. Since the beginnings of Studio Jaywall at the Centre for Social Innovation in 2011, they have worked with many organizations mentioned in this book, including the McConnell Foundation, MaRS Solutions Lab, Reos Partners, Community Foundations of Canada, Jane’s Walk, Evergreen, and The Atmospheric Fund.


Nancy Truman was entrepreneur editor at the Financial Post where for a decade she helped social innovators and entrepreneurs tell their stories.

Adjacent Possibilities is a storytelling and creative media agency that helps forward-thinking organizations communicate their impact by telling captivating human stories. By producing media that bridges systemic change with personal narrative, they move people to think, imagine and act. Adjacent Possibilities has worked with leading organizations in the cultural, technology, public and civil society sectors, including the International Development Research Centre, MaRS Discovery District, City of Toronto, and the McConnell Foundation.


Reflections (in the book)

Tim Brodhead
former president & chief
executive officer, the McConnell Foundation, 
co-founder, SiG

Tim Draimin
executive director,
SiG National

Melissa Herman
northern fellow, ABSI Connect

Allyson Hewitt
McConnell Foundation senior fellow, social innovation, MaRS

Stephen Huddart
president & chief executive officer, the McConnell Foundation

Paul Lacerte
co-founder, Moose Hide Campaign

Raven Lacerte
co-founder, Moose Hide Campaign

Louise Pulford
director, Social Innovation Exchange

Cheryl Rose
director, programs & partnerships, SiG@Waterloo

Frances Westley
The J.W. McConnell chair in social innovation, University of Waterloo, co-founder, SiG



Anita Abraham
executive director,
Meal Exchange

Jess Bolduc
executive director,
4Rs Youth Movement

Nicolina Farella
program director, McConnell Foundation

Karim Harji
program director, Oxford Impact Measurement Programme, Saïd Business School

Sean Moore
principal, Advocacy School

Mary Pickering
vice-president, programs
& partnerships, The Atmospheric Fund

Vinod Rajasekaran
SiG National Fellow

Tony Redpath
senior fellow, MaRS (retired)


Before SiG

1998 & 1999
  • The McConnell Foundation launches the Applied Dissemination granting program

  • McGill-McConnell Program for National Voluntary Sector Leaders launches

2002 & 2005
  • McGill-McConnell Program for National Voluntary Sector Leaders closes
  • McGill-DuPont Social Innovation Think Tank opens
  • Applied Dissemination Peer Learning Group launches and runs until 2007.

  • The McConnell Foundation asks Al Etmanski & Vickie Cammack to explore social innovation program options through the Sustaining Social Innovation initiative (SSI)

  • Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton publish Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed
  • Tides Canada hosts early social finance field-building work, with a branded project, Causeway
  • Causeway becomes the precursor for the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance convened by SiG in 2010
  • The McConnell Foundation approves SiG, with five years of funding and a sunset clause
  • McConnell puts out a RFP to create a social innovation centre; the University of Waterloo, under the leadership of President David Johnston, is selected

SiG is born

  • McConnell publishes Accelerating Our Impact: Philanthropy, Innovation and Social Change
  • The Government of Ontario confirms $10 million in funding for SiG@MaRS
  • PLAN Institute hosts SiG@PLAN
  • SiG@Waterloo starts up with Frances Westley and Cheryl Rose
  • Causeway and MaRS organize Canada’s first Social Finance Forum, welcoming Sir Ronald Cohen of the UK Social Investment Task Force as a featured speaker
  • MaRS hosts the Social Entrepreneurship Summit initiated by David Pecaut of Boston Consulting Group and the Schwab Foundation

2008 & 2009
  • BC Premier Gordon Campbell meets with Al Etmanski about social innovation
  • The SiG National office forms to support partnership activities and integrates the social finance work
  • MaRS hosts an expanded Social Finance Forum
  • SiG@MaRS hosts Social Tech for Social Change training leading to Net Change 2009–2012

  • SiG National partners with Volans in London, U.K. to organize a social innovation and social finance study tour to London, inviting all the SiG nodes, plus additional potential partners
  • SiG meets with federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty to seek his sponsorship of a Social Finance Task Force; he responds he cannot sponsor, but if SiG proceeds, he will receive the findings. SiG proceeds knowing he would receive it.

  • SiG convenes the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance (CTFSF), which presents its report to federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty in December
  • MaRS announces its intention to create the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the McConnell Foundation and the Young family

  • The BC government announces an Advisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship (later changed to Social Innovation) with Al Etmanski as one of three co-chairs
  • SiG launches Inspiring Action for Social Impact, multi-year cross-Canada thought-leaders speaking program
  • Tim Brodhead steps down as president of the McConnell Foundation and becomes a Senior Fellow with SiG
  • McConnell Foundation appoints Stephen Huddart as new President & CEO
  • Federal Minister of Employment and Skills Development Diane Finley appoints Al Etmanski and Tim Brodhead to an advisory council on social innovation
  • Federal budget mentions the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance and assigns follow-up to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

2011 (continued)
  • McConnell Foundation decides to renew SiG for 3 years
  • The University of Waterloo launches the first Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation cohort
  • MaRS organizes the Ontario Social Innovation Summit hosted by three provincial ministers

  • McConnell Foundation creates Innoweave
  • McConnell deepens integration of social innovation into thematic programs

  • The BC Advisory Council on Social Innovation makes 11 recommendations to the provincial government, including the creation of the free-standing Partners for Social Impact
  • The University of Waterloo launches the second Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation cohort
  • The University of Waterloo and MaRS publish seminal papers on change labs and social innovation labs
  • MaRS announces the creation of the MaRS Solutions Lab with support from the Evans family and other funders
  • Rockefeller Foundation partners with University of Waterloo to develop a global fellowship in social innovation
  • With support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, SiG@MaRS conducts feasibility study, leading to the launch of the School for Social Entrepreneurs Ontario
  • McConnell Foundation and SiG National participate in a study tour to Spain, opening relationships with UpSocial in Barcelona, and ESADE Social Innovation Institute
  • McConnell develops a Social Innovation Fund as a new funding window
  • The Government of Ontario renews MaRS social innovation funding for 3 years

  • The University of Waterloo launches the third and final Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation cohort
  • The Government of Ontario funds MaRS Studio [Y], a youth social impact and systems leadership program
  • The federal government funds Innoweave
  • SiG nodes partner to support the Trico Charitable Foundation’s hosting of the Social Enterprise World Forum
  • Tamarack Institute partners with several SiG nodes to host the Third Inflection Point
  • Frances Westley keynotes 1st social innovation research conference, Social Frontiers, London, U.K.
  • SiG, MaRS and multiple partners co-host Volans’ Breakthrough Capitalism event in Toronto
  • McConnell launches the Social Innovation Learning Program (SILP)

  • McConnell Foundation launches Cities for People
  • SiG, BC Partners for Social Impact and Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) partner to host the global SIX Summer School in Canada for the first time
  • SiG teams up with numerous local partners across the country under the banner of Social Innovation Week Canada, a time-bound national alliance of events and connections
  • SiG, KPMG, Volans, and MaRS launch Canada’s first report on Corporate Social Innovation
  • MaRS Solutions Lab hosts world-leading lab practitioners for Labs for Systems Change event

  • Al Etmanski publishes his book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation
  • SiG co-hosts a Wasan Island exploration of Social R&D that ignites a dedicated focus on the field
  • The ABSI Connect Fellowship launches with support from the Suncor Energy Foundation, Trico Charitable Foundation and Mount Royal University to answer the question: How can we do better at solving complex social and environmental problems in Alberta?
  • WISIR with design support from MaRS Solutions Lab publish the Social Innovation Lab Guide

  • SiG hosts The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) on a cross-country 7-city social innovation knowledge exchange and tour
  • Social R&D hosts a second annual national retreat
  • TACSI invites Allyson Hewitt to be South Australia’s next Thinker in Residence, sponsored by the Dunstan Foundation in partnership with the government of South Australia
  • ABSI expands its fellowship program and partners
  • McConnell announces the LabWise training initiative

  • ABSI Connect Fellowship iterates again to support the social innovation ecosystem in Alberta
  • SiG partners with SIX, Nesta, TACSI, UNDP and the McConnell Foundation on the SIX Wayfinder event
  • SiG hosts a Social R&D round-table for funders at SSHRC featuring Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta
  • McConnell and Simon Fraser University co-host 20 university presidents to discuss a new McConnell, Simon Fraser University and RECODE jointly commissioned paper on the emergence of social infrastructure at advanced education institutions
  • Social R&D hosts a practice gathering for over 40 practitioners from across Canada
  • SiG joins a collaborative to develop Spark! Canadian Social Innovation Exchange — a three-day national event

2017 (continued)
  • Frances Westley co-authors the watershed article, “The concept of the Anthropocene as a game-changer: a new context for social innovation and transformations to sustainability”
  • McConnell’s Cities for People collaborates with partners Evergreen and La maison de l’innovation sociale to host an exploration of a new national network, Future Cities Canada
  • Social Finance Forum celebrates its 10th anniversary
  • Ministry of Employment and Social Development Canada convenes a Social Innovation and Social Finance Co-Creation Steering Group, including SiG principles Stephen Huddart and Allyson Hewitt for specific policy measures to advance social innovation and social finance
  • SiG hosts a capstone event at MaRS to celebrate and close the SiG partnership and launch this legacy book

Share your stories

Share a favourite “a-ha” social innovation moment or a memorable interaction with SiG.
We will post some of the stories on the site.

Name *


Through participating in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, I gained a new level of confidence to self-identify as a changemaker. Each day in the classroom we were reminded of our roles as influencers – no matter whether we were working in an organization of a hundred of thousand employees, or a self-employed artist with a wild audacious idea. GradSI helped you believe in your unreasonable dreams and to apply rigour and technical analysis to understand how you can increase your odds of success.


Social innovation has allowed me to combine business, government and impact into a career and lifestyle that aligns with my values. From being an agent of change at CSI at the start of my journey in 2011 to being referred by SIG to the Social Innovation Residency and being accepted in 2017. My social innovation journey continues and deepens thanks to the great work of the network, organization and people who share a common desire to do good.

As an advocate focused on social innovation, I thought it would be easy doing the right thing. At first I was stunned on how hard it was to get others to just listen in the corporate world. But after getting more involved with this social innovation community, sharing stories, listening to ideas, solutions to challenges came easier and support was always given.


Before my interactions with SiG, I worked on changing my industry but it wasn't until after my interactions with SiG that I realized that I could become a more effective changemaker by building on the academic and practice knowledge that existed. Had it not been for this belief I am not sure I would have felt confident in applying social innovation principles at an institution as big and complex as my own.

I'll never forget the day I was sharing my thoughts on these tensions Darcy Riddell, an advisor to the Local Economic Development Lab, and Darcy casually told me “you're the systems entrepreneur in this work”. I had no idea what this meant at the time, but I went home to search the SiG Knowledge Hub for information. The resources I found gave me incredible insight and clarity into the work of the lab, and specifically my role within it. This knowledge helped me feel more confident, and increased my capacity to execute by legitimizing the work of connecting, bridging, cultivating collective leadership within the system.