Editorial: Philanthropy and Social Innovation

Par Jonathan Folco Durand , Assistant professor at École d’innovation sociale Élisabeth-Bruyère de l’Université Saint-Paul
28 September 2020

This editorial introduces our special edition on Philanthropy and Social Innovation. Consult the full edition here.

Philanthropie et Innovation Sociale


Jonathan Durand Folco is an assistant professor at École d’innovation sociale Élisabeth-Bruyère de l’Université Saint-Paul. Author of the book À nous la ville! Traité de municipalisme (Écosociété, 2017), his research interests focus on participatory democracy, municipal politics, the commons, the environmental transition and social innovation


We tend to forget it, but social innovation has a history. In the last decade, the concept has been omnipresent in the philanthropic field, in the “third sector” and in public policy. Social innovation first appeared in the 1980s, in the context of social entrepreneurship (which was invented by Bill Drayton with his Ashoka foundation), and in university research, with the creation of the Centre de recherche sur les innovations sociales (CRISES).

The rise of neoliberalism in several nations led to businesses being considered as legitimate actors in solving social problems … problems which were often caused by these same neoliberal policies. At the same time, the deregulation of the financial sector and the retreat of the welfare state enabled the creation of massive fortunes in media, finance, and information technology. In the late 1990s, businessmen like Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Pierre Omidyar reinvested some of their wealth in new foundations. These foundations promoted the use of social entrepreneurship, venture capital practices, microfinancing and impact investment in the fight against poverty.

As Matthew Bishop and Michael Green point out in their book Philanthrocapitalism: How the rich can save the world and why we should let them (2008), the idea was to use the tools of venture capitalism to revitalize the philanthropic sector. This was the context in which social innovation emerged as a key element of philanthropy in the 2000s.

While Quebec rapidly institutionalized the social economy, in English Canada social innovation was gradually taking shape via the creation of organizations like the MaRS Discovery District (2000) and the Centre for Social Innovation (2004) in Toronto, and the Social innovation Generation program at the University of Waterloo (2007). Tides Canada Foundation (which later became MakeWay) and the McConnell Foundation were cornerstones in the development of these organizations and in the building up of the ecosystem. The foundations were funders, but also initiators of training, research and support for social entrepreneurs.

If the field of social innovation came into being thanks to foundations’ active involvement, the philanthropic sector was also able to use social innovation’s widespread popularity to reinforce its legitimacy vis-à-vis its partners: the state, the third sector and the business sector.

The discourse around social innovation benefits these funders in a few ways. Firstly, the word “innovation” has a strongly positive connotation in an era characterized by its “creative economy”,

technological prowess, and knowledge-based society. Another selling point is that innovation can be “produced” by design thinking methods, by ” incubators” and “accelerators” that have been developed for the purpose of jump-starting anything novel. The ethos of Silicon Valley start-ups transfers easily to the world of social entrepreneurship, with its values of creativity, risk, experimentation, “social mission” and the desire to have a positive impact on society. On top of everything, the “social ” element of these projects allows investors to diversify their portfolios through impact investment, which improves their image, and its ” impact measurement” tools, designed to align social organizations with the requirements of social finance.

We can see at this point that this approach to social innovation doesn’t really change the world, but rather tends to perpetuate the status quo. The production of “the innovative”, although often accompanied by a discourse reflecting progressive values, notions of inclusion and reconciliation, or the jargon of “disruptive” innovation and “systemic change”, may only, in the end, serve to placate us into following the prevailing order.

Still, we should temper this analysis a bit; the philanthropic sector is not as homogeneous as it seems. Not all foundations follow the dictates of “philanthrocapitalism”. Some, like Resource Movement, have, in Canadian terms, an openly anticapitalist agenda! Some of the large and well-established philanthropic institutions, like the McConnell Foundation and the Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon, have slowly altered their practices, responding to criticisms from civil society, which challenged certain constraints hampering socially-oriented organizations.

If social innovation is now inseparable from the philanthropic sector, the two worlds influence each other in a way that is constantly evolving. New voices in research, education and in activist groups are crafting a vision of social innovation that is more attuned to demands for social and environmental justice and decolonizing practices. Some critics have pointed out that “newness” is too often funded to the detriment of existing organizations, or while neglecting the reinforcement of existing gains made through social innovation.

In this context, the co-evolution of social innovation, philanthropy, academia, and the social economy remains an open question. If we want to go beyond measures that seek to quantify results, what ethical and political principles should we be using to assess the relevance and usefulness of social innovation initiatives? For foundations to support social change, rather than reinforcing the status quo, how can we think together, and take a critical look at the way they manage their endowments, and their funding of social and environmental causes? Ultimately, the question remains: innovation, certainly, but in order to do what, and for whom?

Translated by Daniel Chonchol