Living in a Philanthropic World

Jon. (2012, May 16). Muscle Confusion Got Ya Confused? Warrior fitness. Retrieved from

Jon. (2012, May 16). Muscle Confusion Got Ya Confused? Warrior fitness. Retrieved from

What is philanthropy?

That was the first question I remember asking myself as I walked into the River Building bright and early on Monday morning.

The answer was plain and simple: I had no idea!

The second question I asked myself, what is social innovation, earned the same response.

Sure…I knew that social innovation was “novel” and that it focused on “big” change. I knew that it valued local knowledge, collaborations, and partnerships. But what did all of this really mean? I had done the readings, taken notes, and completed the pre-assignment. Yet, somehow, I still had no idea what was going on. There I was, a public administration student, heading into my first ever philanthropy course on social innovation. And I had no idea what any of those words meant!

Feeling extremely nervous and unsure about myself, I walked into Room 3220 that was to be our home for the next five days. I was immediately greeted at the door by the professor, Omar. I thought I would feel some relief….finally, I would meet the mysterious person sending me emails and course outlines, who had been hiding somewhere in our online class forum for several weeks. But, instead, I felt more confusion: The only Omar I had ever known was my favourite character from The Wire. But here Omar was, standing right in front of me, with no do-rag and no Baltimore accent.

I suddenly became acutely aware that I had left the real world as I knew it, and entered the Philanthropic World!


Everything was different here. The desks were arranged in a weird way and everyone kept referring to the classroom as a “learning space”. What was a learning space? Again, I had no idea. Just another thing I had to add to my list of things I didn’t know, which seemed to be getting longer and longer with every minute I spent is this new world.

Even the faces were unknown to me. They were new, and much older than mine. As I navigated this new environment, I very quickly felt really small and terribly aware of my age.

Where was my world? And, how could I get back?

I desperately wanted to escape the Philanthropic World!


What is Social Innovation?

In small groups, we brainstormed ideas and key words about social innovation. What did it mean to us? There were no right or wrong answers. It was an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to learn from ourselves, to learn from our group members, and to learn from the class.

By the end of the exercise, twelve words had been proposed:


The first word we discussed was value, and more importantly, the ideas of perceived value and added value. We also discussed the role of value systems and diversity. I thought this was extremely interesting, because in a weird way, I thought the very group work we had done to reach this discussion demonstrated different value systems and diversity, and differences in perceived value.

I recall distinctly the conversation that took place surrounding my suggestion of the word new. It was clear that nobody else saw value in that word, and quite to my surprise, the discussion became heated very quickly. Upon reflection, however, I realized that it didn’t really matter whether I convinced my group members that new was of value. What mattered was that I valued that word, that I saw its importance to social innovation, and that we as a group shared a common passion for understanding and working within the space of social innovation. It didn’t really matter if my new was someone else’s reinvented or recreated; beneath the labels there was a common understanding that work needed to be done, change needed to take place, and improvement needed to take place.

This reminder me a lot of the readings I had done in preparation for the course. It seemed like every time I opened a new article, it always said the same thing as the last article I had read: that there is no universal definition of social innovation. Social innovation remained unclear, and sometimes contentious, just like our discussion.

The other major takeaway from the discussion was about risk. Ironically, it didn’t make the cut of key words, but it was something that the class almost unanimously agreed was integral to social innovation. You have to be willing to take the risk to make change. You have to be willing to work outside of your comfort zone.

But, wait a second…..what about risk averse people like myself? Am I capable of social innovation?

Just as I was screaming “No, no, no” to myself, we moved on to discuss another word: collaboration. All of a sudden my mind seemed to explode with all sorts of thoughts: cooperation; strengths; weaknesses; teamwork; helping each other; mutual goals; etc.

As someone who loves to work independently and detests group work, this is a scary concept. More than scary, it almost feels like I am being forced into it. But maybe this was the key to success!? That my weakness, my risk averse-ness, could be matched by someone else’s strength, their risk seeking-ness!?

For the first time, I felt like I had managed to find one piece of this enormous puzzle known as social innovation.

Thomason, P. (2009, September 22). The final piece of the puzzle. Elliot Wave Analytics. Retrieved from

Thomason, P. (2009, September 22). The final piece of the puzzle. Elliot Wave Analytics. Retrieved from

Finding Your Culture for Success

It was clear from the beginning of our face-to-face sessions that this was going to be a very unorthodox class. There was very little lecturing, no rote memorization, and no tests. Instead, there was a lot of movement, a lot of talking, and a lot of guest speakers.

The first guest speaker was Dr. Jack Muskat, Leadership Professor at Schulich School of Business. I did not know at the time, but Jack’s speech would end up being the most enlightening part of my week, and the most helpful for a very important decision I would soon have to make.

Jack’s speech was all about leadership: how does one define leadership; what makes a good leader; and why do some leaders fail. But, for me personally, the most impressive part of his speech was the knowledge and expertise that he shared about culture. According to Jack, culture “encompasses the values, beliefs, customs, rules, and family patterns”, and he encouraged us to visit any company webpage to see how the language of culture structures the reality of the workplace environment.

Soon after our one-week course finished, I had a series of interviews for various government departments and one private sector firm as part of my coop search process for fall 2014. Without expecting it, I was engulfed by a different type of culture each time I prepared for an interview by looking at the department or company webpage, and each time I actually sat down for the interview.

Some cultures were welcoming and enticing, and others were off-putting. And, there was even one culture that “spoke to me”. One company emphasized in its job descriptions and in the interview that it was not interested in burning out its employees. It was a fast-paced work environment that demanded dedicated and hardworking individuals, but it rewarded its employees with extensive vacation time to recuperate after excessive work. This little piece of information screamed “great culture”, and was a really big learning moment for me personally.

As I prepared myself to create this reflective artifact, I went through my class notes. And I found something truly amazing. As Jack was speaking, I had actually written down a question that I thought summarized exactly what he was trying to say: What is the right culture for an organization to be successful?

As I went through the coop process, however, I realized that an equally important question for me is: What is the right culture for you to be successful?


I strongly believe that this question can guide you not only through your personal path (such as a job search, choosing which university to attend, etc.), but also through the greater social innovation space as you try to figure out what leadership, culture, and success mean to you.

Question Your Assumptions

It was clear to me from the beginning that I was going to struggle with some of the learning activities throughout the week. I consider myself to be a traditional learner, and have come to find pleasure in the expected lecture-note-test routine of the conventional classroom.

But now I was being asked to talk. And while talking, I was to avoid simple regurgitation of readings and definitions. I was supposed to share and to discuss. And this sharing and discussion often came in the form of group work, which just happens to be one of my least favorite activities in life. Yes, in life!

Why should I share? And more importantly, why do I have to listen to others share? We are not the experts! I am not paying to listen to people other people share.

In addition to this sharing component, Medin spoke to us about the internal dialogue Ontario Trillium Foundation is currently going through, and the importance of questioning their own assumptions and practices about how they do funding. OTF was asking itself these so-called “wicked questions”, trying to figure out what exactly it is striving for.

But, why should I question my assumptions? I wanted other people to question their assumptions, because theirs were wrong and mine were right!

Martin, K. (2013, October 12). Being Human Part 3 – I’m Right You’re Wrong! – We All Do It. Kelly Martin Speaks. Retrieved from

Martin, K. (2013, October 12). Being Human Part 3 – I’m Right You’re Wrong! – We All Do It. Kelly Martin Speaks. Retrieved from

There were times throughout the week, especially when it came to discussions around monitoring and evaluation, were I truly felt like I was in the minority. Someone said that impact evaluation was like “handcuffs” for the third sector, and I remember thinking to myself that person was so jaded and so wrong. How could they make such a judgement? How could they hold such assumptions? How could they think that way?

I think my internal frustration surrounding sharing and questioning assumptions impeded my ability to even try and question my own assumptions. It was a continuous struggle for me throughout the course. Sometimes, I even felt like I was being punished by “majority rule”.

How was I supposed to question my own assumptions if other people didn’t?

Question My Assumptions

On Wednesday, Fiona Wright from HUB Ottawa led our in-class discussions and activities. It was at this point that I finally started to question my own assumptions and get a handle on this mammoth topic known as social innovation.

The critical turning point was learning about systems thinking.

For me, systems thinking is this idea about the “whole being more than the sum of its parts”. It’s about understanding how all the parts fit together, and how they are interconnected. A system therefore has elements, interconnections, and a purpose or function.

More importantly, however, a system is not linear.

This was the most poignant lesson of the day for me personally. A system is not linear.

The learning environment that Omar created for the week was a system. Each student in that classroom and each guest speaker were part of that system. Each reading I had done, all the notes I had taken, and all the new terminology I had learnt impacted me and how I contributed to that system. Each new topic we explored as a class was part of that system. Our assumptions, our questions, and our passions were part of that system.

Each part was distinctly unique and independent, yet somehow intimately connected to the whole. Each part had an integral role to play in making that classroom work.

This knowledge helped me uncover my own assumptions about social innovation, and more surprisingly, my own assumptions about how learning should be conducted and how I learn best. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I suddenly became a huge fan of group work or sharing. It does mean, however, that I came to see value in how each part of the system, our learning environment, helped me understand my own predilections better.

When someone makes a comment, I have always understood that I can either agree or disagree, or sometimes be ambivalent. What I did not understand, however, was that my reaction to someone else’s comment was a clear indication of what my own assumptions were, and how my assumptions interacted with other people’s assumptions.

In addition, I came to value the classroom dynamic more. It was ok that we all had questions. It was ok that we all had more questions than we started the class with. It was also ok that we revisited some of those questions time and time again throughout the week. The system is dynamic; it is ever-changing, and ever-evolving. As the parts in the system change, so too does the system.

The system is not linear.

Part of the purpose of creating a reflective artifact is to uncover how social innovation and the face-to-face sessions have helped me personally and/or professionally. This is a really interesting question to ask myself, because I strongly believe that I am at this unique nexus in my life, where the personal and professional are becoming ever-more intertwined.

The more I think about systems thinking, the more I feel confused and intrigued by what it really means for my personal-professional conundrum. I chose to not only revisit the notes I had made on the readings, but I also started exploring alternative sources of information on the topic. And I finally came across something that really seemed to fit where I am currently in my life.

According to Goldenberg (2010), social innovation is “increasingly being seen as an important and legitimate public policy approach” (p. 208). And I think this video is the perfect illustration of how one part of socially innovation, systems thinking, can really become a powerful tool for public policy. And, more importantly, I can see a role for myself in making this happen. I like systems thinking exactly because it is difficult. It seems to fit well with my problem-solving, analytical head. Like Eli, I too am an “impatient optimist” and I look forward to potentially exploring many of the sub-themes that she has mentioned later on in my research project.


Goldenberg, M. (2010). Reflections on social innovation. The Philanthropist, 23(3), 207-220.

Stefanski, E. (2011, October 21). Making Systems Thinking Sexy. TEDx Talks. Podcast retrieved from

Experiential Learning for the Traditional Learner

I doubt there was a single student more incompatible with experiential learning than myself. For me, standing up, being active, walking around, and playing games is not learning, it’s painful agony. So Wednesday’s in-class session was hugely unsuitable for my personality.

And, yes, I get it. Each activity has its purpose.

For example, when Fiona split us into two teams to lower the tent pole, I realize I was supposed to have this “ah-ha” moment: Our team was like a system! We had to work together to realize our goal, and each person in the system was interconnected. When one person lowered the pole too quickly, the team failed; when one person lowered the pole to slowly, the team failed.

But I can understand this without playing games.

I don’t think Chantal or Sophia would be very impressed with me, but I’m not interested in play. Just like they feel they are being “forced” to be “traditional”, I feel like I’m being “forced” to be “creative”.

I like how I learn….it’s worked well so far.

Valuing the Intrapreneur

AJ Tibando, CEO of SoJo, was my favourite guest of the week simply because I felt like I related most to her. Each person in the learning environment had a different background, whether that be educational or professional or both, and brought with them a different set of questions and passions relating to social innovation.

AJ spoke to me.

She was young, educated, and had what I considered to be a dream job at Queen’s Park. She was valued, had a lot of responsibility, and even seemed to be making a difference. But she left it all.

How could she do that? And why did she do that?

I’ve already discussed culture at length in a different post, but it relates to AJ’s journey as well. The culture at Queen’s Park was not necessarily one of change; or, at least not one willing to change at the speed AJ needed. She needed a different culture to help her achieve the sort of success that she envisaged for herself.

The biggest takeaway for me was her candid discussion about taking risk, and about knowing yourself and what you want to do. Easier said than done, but it is through risk that you can often truly get to know yourself, what you are capable of, and what your passion is. It is by supporting yourself with a good team, shared values and perspectives, and a good sense of humour that you figure this out.

But I still struggle with this idea of risk. What if you’re just not a risk taker?

Towards the end of the week I finally found the answer to this nagging question. I am now confident that you can make change and you can make a difference even if you are risk averse.


According to Cahill (2010), intrapreneurship refers to “employee initiatives in organizations to undertake something new without being asked to do so” (p. 263). It is about making change from the inside. It is about realizing your personal motivation and your potential to innovate within a system that is already in place. It is about exploring different definitions of change, and discovering what change means to you.

Am I an Intrapreneur? I don’t know.

Am I an Entrepreneur? I don’t know.

Do I have to be either to pursue social innovation? Definitely not!

It’s ok for these questions to remain unanswered. The important thing is that I am asking the questions. And, it is equally important that these questions are new and ever-evolving as I learn more about social innovation and the multitude of paths that one can take to be socially innovative.


(2012, October 1). League of Intrapreneurs. Changemakers. Retrieved from;

Cahill, G. (2010). Primer on social innovation: A compendium of definitions developed by organizations around the world. The Philanthropist, 23(3), 252-279.

Stefanski, E. (2011, October 21). Making Systems Thinking Sexy. TEDx Talks. Podcast retrieved from