Learning to Fail Forward: the critical ingredient for innovation


On July 9 a couple hundred people gathered to explore a topic that carries a pretty hefty cultural stigma. It’s a subject we think about daily. We obsess, analyze and agonize over it. We are quick to blame politicians and public business leaders for it. We fear it. We deny it. We avoid it.

Ashley Good decided to confront it. Several years ago Ashley founded Fail Forward with the vision to talk, celebrate and learn from failure. She perceived a gap in organizational learning, particularly in the international development sector. This spurred her to promote the practice of “intelligent failure,” which Ashley defines as:

1. Learning, maximized and accelerated through the act of trial, error and communicating stories

2. Innovation, made possible by accepting a certain risk of failure inherent in new ideas and approaches

The inaugural Fail Forward conference held in July 2014 opened the dialogue for how professionals can learn to fail intelligently. Participants were diverse, involving large auditing firms, niche consultancies, growing businesses and community organizations. As a volunteer, I observed a day full of play, laughter, and storytelling. Stories from attendees revealed people’s sensitivity to failure, and how failure is strongly shaped by our own perceptions. There was also widespread recognition that innovation and failure are closely linked.


Throughout the workshops, speeches and serendipitous conversations, I learned new methodologies and met some of the leading thinkers in intelligent failure:

Fail Forward Toolkit

Your one-stop shop on how to fail fast and fail smart. Tools and frameworks include IDEO Design Thinking, Purpose Capital on when to quit, pivot or persist, an Innovation and Risk Appetite Assessment, the list goes on…

Emergent Learning Tables
An awesome tool for learning is the Emergent Learning Table (ELT). ELTs are best used to tackle a situation that has no easy or obvious solution and requires more than one team to take action independently.

Applying collective learning to a large organization can be difficult. ELTs provide the structure and space to promote dialogue, advocacy and build feedback loops into implementation to improve outcomes. Read more here. I found this tool particularly exciting as it connects well to Michael Quinn Patton’s work on developmental evaluation. During the conference Jillaine Smith of 4Q Partners commented, “people are working towards the same goal from different angles – either from a learning perspective like 4Q or evaluative perspective like developmental evaluation.”


There’s no learning without fun.  Ashley Good and Fail Forward participant get silly. c/o Billy Lee, Belight

Business Schools and Failure

Mike Shaner, a business professor at St. Louis University, asked participants to complete a Performance Failure Appraisal (found on page 15 in the Fail Forward toolkit). He also shared an awesome compendium of readings on leadership and failure (click the course readings button)

Thought Leaders Galore

Dr. Brian Goldman was the opening keynote and set the stage for failure in the context of hospitals. It was both a sobering and awe-inspiring speech. Dr. Goldman helped participants see that no one feels failure stronger than those responsible for human life. Another Doctor, Dr. Mandy Wintink spoke about neuroscience and our physiological reaction to failure. More here!

A conference partner, Open Road Alliance is filling an unmet need in the world of philanthropy. Many projects that secure funding face unforeseen exogenous threats which jeopardize the project’s ability to continue operating. Enter Open Road Alliance, who provides catalytic capital to cash-strapped high impact projects. Their work was recently featured in SSIR as Funding the Unforeseen. These thought leaders are just a sample of the many in attendance.

What’s Next?

I hope this post has illuminated some of the rich learning opportunities available in intelligent failure. Most of these tools and methods are more fun to explore in a group. That’s why the Fail Forward team is starting a Toronto Meetup to kickstart a community of “failers.” Don’t live in Toronto? Be a part of a Fail Forward organizing team in cities across Ontario. Keep up to speed on Fail Forward news and sign up for their newsletter.

c/o Belighted

Fail Forward Team. c/o Billy Lee, Belighted

Special thanks to Ashley Good, Anna Smith and the other members of the organizing team for Fail Forward 2014. Congratulations to the partners who were willing to sponsor a conference with the word failure in it!


Where the Magic Happens: Highlights from Social Innovation Summit

Key learnings from places of vulnerability, emergence & gratitude


c/o KoMedia

During the close of the seventh annual SIX Summer School, 150 bright-eyed participants chatted excitedly in a room overlooking Vancouver’s False Creek, a scenic inlet separating downtown Vancouver from the shores of Vanier Park and Fairview. The organizers shared their final words. Six ambassadors — participants chosen to witness key themes — offered concluding insights on empathy, empowerment, courage, beauty, power and love, and generations. The room’s energy was almost palpable. Things were coming to a close.

As the coordinator of the Summer School and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had the opportunity to offer my own final words. The thoughts I shared were those of boundless gratitude. I admitted that the largest event I could recall organizing was my twenty-fourth birthday party. The jump from local social planner to lead coordinator of an international conference was not part of the career plan. And yet the faith my supervisors placed in me opened up the opportunity for me to dive into something completely unknown. As I stood overlooking the crowd, knowing that my team had co-piloted this event to success, I felt deeply humbled.

Two months following, my sentiment of thankfulness is the same. In this post, I offer four of my personal highlights from the global conference and the week’s flurry of concurrent social innovation events.

Creating the Conditions for Social Innovation


c/o KoMedia

Our visionary maestro, Al Etmanski, guided the SIX organizing team on a journey to “get social innovation into Canada’s water supply.” Al, along with Tim Draimin and Cheryl Rose, perceived the global SIX Summer School as a unique opportunity for Canada – our nation’s time had come.

The SIX Summer School created the conditions for an international group of radical doers and thinkers to convene with local and regional changemakers. From government and activist organizations through to businesses and foundations, Canadians of all stripes participated in SIX, gaining new connections and insights. It was through intentionally linking local Canadians with global practitioners that some of the greatest value of SIX and Social Innovation Week was realized.

Vulnerability is the secret sauce

In the early days of developing the conference program, the Canadian team was bent on creating something different. Our team had the privilege of attending numerous conferences and we knew we didn’t want to simply create a container for the same conversations. We wanted to shake things up! We wanted people to feel a little uncomfortable. That is where the magic happens…

Where the magic happens

Although the conference program had three themes – society, sector and self – “the self was our secret sauce,” as BCPSI partner Ken Gauthier identified.

During the first full day of SIX, participants were welcomed with the local traditions of the Musqueam People, involving a purifying cedar brushing ceremony and evocative song and dance. The opening plenary was a deep exploration into vulnerability, led by two of Canada’s leading social innovation thinkers, Frances Westley and Vickie Cammack. The visceral cultural experience and thought-provoking morning dialogue were designed to open participants’ hearts and minds to vulnerability. Empathy, humility, and honesty with oneself lay the groundwork for understanding how to make change.

“If we are afraid of our desert places then we become more afraid of the vulnerability outside ourselves — of the other” – Frances Westley 

Putting Faith in Emergence

In order to execute on Al’s grand vision for SIX Summer School Vancouver and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had to put great faith in my team, our 22 partner organizations, my own abilities, and the elusive magic that is emergence. I believe emergence is about letting go of control and expectations and allowing ideas and actions to happen organically. When you make room for people to animate a space, you empower them to create something awesome – truly awe-inspiring. It was our team’s responsibility to highlight the opportunities of SIX for innovative organizations, embrace ambiguity, and allow the cultural norms of our partners to inform the week’s direction.

Boundless Gratitude

Most importantly, what stays with me is the gratefulness I feel for working with so many incredible people. Our partner organizations could not have been more creative, thoughtful, positive and driven to make Social Innovation Week the success that it was.


c/o KoMedia

As I move on from my role, I will reflect fondly on the time when hundreds of Canadian and international leaders came together to celebrate social change. Now, more than ever, I believe that we can learn more together by learning from one another. Together we can start to understand where to leap next.

Who organizes SIX Summer Schools?

Since 2007, each Summer School has been co-organized by the global partner, Social Innovation Exchange, and a local in-country partner. This year, there were two local partners – BC Partners for Social Impact (#BCPSI) and Social Innovation Generation (SiG), representing British Columbia and Canada respectively.

Watch the Best of SIX video on Vimeo

This post was originally published on the SiG blog.

Resilient Capital Program

It’s that time of year again when the trees shed their ochre leaves and Christmas songs warm Toronto storefronts. It’s also a time when socialfinance.ca recognizes Canadian leaders in the social finance space through their annual Social Finance Awards. This year’s theme is Most Promising Collaboration and I had the pleasure of profiling the Resilient Capital program, a unique partnership between Vancity and Vancouver Foundation. Go ahead and vote here! or read on to learn more about the partnership.

The Resilient Capital program is a pioneering example of social finance in British Columbia. Developed through a partnership between Vancity Credit Union and Vancouver Foundation, the investment program helps accelerate growth in organizations that address social and environmental challenges.


By connecting social enterprises with investment capital, the initiative enables social enterprises to deepen and extend their impact in their communities while offering a low-risk financial return to investors.

As of October 2013, Resilient Capital has invested over $4 million in 11 social enterprises. The financed ventures have since generated 250 new jobs, $3.5 million in earned revenue and $3.3 million in new investment capital.

The success of the program has captured the attention of social enterprises, financial institutions and foundations across Canada since its inception in 2011. I had the opportunity to speak with several partners, including Ida Goodreau, board member, Vancouver Foundation; Bill Hallett, VP Finance, Vancouver Foundation; Andrea Di Lucca, Community Investment Associate, Vancity; and Fraser Wilson, a term deposit holder and advisor, about the vision behind Resilient Capital.



The Motivation Behind A Unique Collaboration

Vancity and the Vancouver Foundation are well-known leaders in British Columbia for supporting the development of healthy, vibrant communities. With 65 years of experience, Vancity is an expert in conventional lending and providing startup support to social enterprises. However, there was an opportunity to further direct the credit union’s assets and resources towards the financial needs of certain mission-based businesses, says Andrea Di Lucca, an associate at Vancity.

“There was a gap in the middle where we didn’t necessarily have all the tools or approaches to support the growth of social enterprises. This funding gap between start-up support and conventional lending was a missing link that we wanted to address in order to move social enterprises from startup phase to growth. We wanted to support social enterprises in becoming strong, viable businesses that would eventually be eligible for conventional financing.”

Meanwhile, Vancouver Foundation was looking to enter the social finance space. Ida Goodreau, a board member at the foundation, says the previous CEO, Faye Wightman, was a strong advocate for the development of Resilient and, more broadly, the need for new financial tools for social enterprises.

“While it was quite different than anything the Board had been doing in the past, Faye convinced us that this concept could fill a serious need [in the market] and this was a chance for the foundation to take a leadership role,” Goodreau said. “We knew we couldn’t do this on our own so the opportunity to partner with Vancity was a wonderful way to move forward into the social finance field.”

The partnership was a natural fit for the two organizations, which also share similar values like a strong belief in the power of innovation. Their leadership, coupled with Vancouver’s tight-knit group of community organizations, allowed Resilient Capital to quickly leap from idea to implementation. Goodreau describes it as “a real living laboratory bringing together a network of organizations meeting social needs.”

Building a Team to Leverage Private Capital for Public Good

Each organization contributed $1.75 million to the program up front but depended heavily on the broader community to commit the remaining investment capital necessary to launch Resilient Capital. The community’s strong desire to invest locally led to over $10 million in contributions from more than 20 term deposit holders. Depositors range from other community foundations to labour unions, post-secondary institutions, and individuals

This unique collaboration enabled each party to advance into unchartered social finance territory. Bill Hallett, Vice President of Finance at Vancouver Foundation, adds that joining forces helped create momentum to launch the program.

“There’s significant risk in going alone, especially in a space that requires patient capital, where the longer the horizon, the greater the risk. The fact that three parties are invested in the program helps mitigate that risk and allows us to achieve more together than we could apart,”

The Resilient Capital term deposit is 100 per cent guaranteed under CUDIC deposit insurance. Fraser Wilson, a term deposit holder, says the Resilient Capital product offered him a way to make a relatively low-risk investment, while supporting a social benefit, something lacking in the current impact investing space.

“I had sold my business and placed some of the money in capital markets in traditional, shallow and somewhat meaningless investments. It was a one-sided equation contingent on return-on-investment, not necessarily about what good is being done with your money,” Wilson said.

“As soon as I heard about Resilient, it piqued my interest. They fulfill a role of intermediary in that they both source and vet prospective social enterprises, and they provide security of capital. A very rare combination. I could now make an investment with a reasonable return, all the while know that my money was being used to solve some of society’s greater challenges and empower communities.”

Depositors have access to quarterly reports, which highlight both financial and social returns, so they can follow the progress of the financed social enterprises. Depositors are treated as collaborators and partners in the program, and have been engaged in the growth of Resilient Capital from the beginning.

Early-Stage Community Impact

The Galiano Conservancy Association is one of the social enterprises that has benefitted from the initiative. This additional financing has enabled the non-profit to build a restorative learning center, helping to further their mission to educate the public on environmental preservation. Other financed social enterprises are generating impact far beyond their original business plan. Through Resilient Capital’s investment, Climate Smart, an environmental enterprise working with businesses to measure and reduce their carbon footprint, has grown its client base to include social enterprises. Similarly, urban farming enterprise SOLEfood Farm works with social enterprise suppliers and community partners. The Resilient Capital partners were surprised to see this unexpected positive outcome of collaboration. “It’s becoming a much more integrated network, where social enterprises are engaging and supporting other social enterprises” Hallett comments.


Galiano Conservancy Association

Collaboration is Critical to Social Finance in Canada

While the success of Resilient Capital holds new promise for impact investing in BC, all the partners agree that there is no model that will fit every social finance space in Canada. Goodreau emphasizes, “we have to continue to assess and use what we have learned in creating new initiatives. We need to deepen our understanding of how social enterprise can address the social needs within the community and how we can measure social impact.”

The Resilient Capital collaboration represents how diverse parties can come together under a unified vision—creating healthy, resilient communities—and still create a financial return for investors. Through incredible foresight and prudent risk taking, the partners have carved out a new reality in social finance. Most importantly, Wilson adds, “working with dedicated social enterprises has enabled Resilient Capital to marry money with meaning.”

Getting to maybe: a practical guide for the social innovator

As part of my exploration deeper into Social Innovation, I read Getting to Maybe

Getting to MaybeFor the social entrepreneurs, the skeptics or the merely curious, Getting to Maybe offers an inviting introduction to social innovation. Practical, poetic, interspersed with grounded case studies and humble advice, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton illuminate the path to getting to maybe.

Let’s cut the jargon – or at least define it – What is Social Innovation?

My personal definition:

“Social innovation is a new product or process that improves human welfare by generating a more effective, efficient, sustainable or fair outcome to an unmet social need.”

Click here for a more complete definition.

Why the title Getting to Maybe?

If you make a conscious effort to follow steps to social innovation, you might just get there; however, there are no promises and outcomes are never guaranteed. Making change, particularly at the systems level, is dependent on a variety of factors, most of which are out of any one individual’s control. And yet the book presents real stories of successful social innovations.

Below are some of my favourite takeaways

Social innovation can be initiated by someone feeling like they have no choice but to act in a way that rejects the status quo. They experience a kind of call to action that is a compelling juxtaposition of opportunity and conviction.

Social innovators are flawed people – not destined individuals, saints or do-gooders.

Social innovators are able to combine reflection and action; they couple analysis and contemplation with vision and commitment.

“Unless we release the resources of time, energy, money and skill locked up in our routines and our institutions on a regular basis, it is hard to create anything new or look at things from a different perspective”
-C.S. Holling: Resilience & the Adaptive Cycle


C.S. Holling’s Adaptive Cycle

To know and be known by the Powerful Stranger. Al Etmanski’s recent speech at the Social Enterprise World Forum unpacks this idea.

When we behave in way that is only good or only bad, we are repressing a part of ourselves, which drains our ability to empathize.

My initial take on it all

There is something satisfying in reading these texts, a kind of deep resonation to emotions I struggle with, like:

  • My conflicting desires to be free and autonomous, while desiring to belong and be directed and approved of. Similar to complexity theory’s paradox of independence and interdependence
  • The comfort of failure. Somehow, when we experience repeated success over time, we lose the very essence of what made us capable of success. We are much more likely to become rigid, egotistical, elitist and lose our capacity to empathize with the less fortunate. We feel urged to protect what we have ‘earned’, and can be consumed by the fear of losing. Success builds fortresses of perceived safety and security that can end up destroying us.
  • When we play in a space of uncomfortable, we are awkward. This is where real opportunity is created
  • I frequently return to the concept of Balance. What does it mean to live a balanced life? How can we keep our Earth in balance? How can we best try to offer equal opportunity for all? Leading a life of balance is both a daily and a lifetime challenge
  • The ability to let go while holding on

Impact Investing: a human perspective

Ever since I heard the term impact investing at the 2011 Social Finance Forum in Toronto, I felt a connection to the phrase. Impact investing resonated with my notion of what finance should be – growing wealth while generating social and environmental value.

I have done a haphazard inquiry into the Canadian impact investing space, speaking with Sarona Asset Management, Purpose Capital and Pique Ventures.

Enduring Relationships
Last month I spoke with Bonnie Foley-Wong, president of Pique Ventures. Based out of beautiful Vancouver, Bonnie connects angel investors to social ventures with the intention of creating long lasting relationships. A motto of hers is:

“We believe in meeting people before you need to meet them”

This statement can be applied to all aspects of interacting with people. So often, particularly in business, we are taught to go into a conversation with an intended outcome – perhaps it’s a business card or an opportunity to self-promote. Whatever the motive may be, it doesn’t come from a place of organic listening and genuine curiousity. Pique Ventures facilitates these more people-centered relationships through hand picking a select number of investors and entrepreneurs to meet in an intimate setting.


Considering Perception in Stonetown, Zanzibar

Holistic Decisions
I found an element of Foley-Wong’s philosophy particularly intriguing: people’s investment decisions are determined through analysis, intuition, emotion, and body. This holistic approach draws from the way we make every day decisions like grocery shopping. We don’t purchase just by analysis but also through how we feel, our own bodies and that indescribable gut feeling. As much as we try to draw clean lines between finance and the real world, just as we’ve done with much of business, government and non-profit sectors, the reality is much messier. Humans and our decision-making are far more complex. I think Foley-Wong’s investment philosophy boldly incorporates this.

Certainly the pioneers of Canadian impact investing like Bonnie are carving out imaginative new ways of thinking about finance. As a business graduate and global citizen, I believe it’s important to follow, engage and provoke these leaders if we sincerely want to see true financial transformation in the way our world invests its wealth.

walking the talk in impact investing

My first visit to the Centre for Social Innovation at Regent Park was uplifting. Upon entering, I took in the wide stretch of white space, colourfully accented decor, and hipster inspired furniture. Up a glossy elevator equipped with sleek security gadgets, and I’d arrived at the first community Impact Investing Fair, a room brimming with smiling faces and glowing with slight perspiration, thanks to Toronto’s infamous humidity.


courtesy of Centre for Social Innovation, Regent Park

The evening began with a presentation from the charismatic “Sustainable Economist,” Tim Nash, who dispelled the mysteries behind impact investing. Swiftly cutting through clunky terms like portfolio, market risk and liquidity, Nash boiled down the essence of impact investing. Afterwards, a number of entrepreneurial investment funds pitched their cause and expected returns to the crowd (the end of this post lists some of the exciting investments).

There were many conversations that night that I would have loved to continue for lengthy coffee breaks. Though from different backgrounds, the people present spoke a common language, one that understood the value of putting their money into something worth investing for. Sure, your own financial security is important – but at what economic benefit are you willing to allocate your funds to blue chips or off to mutual funds? I feel that it is much like the clothes we buy, never once contemplating the supply chains of our jeans and jackets. Where is our money going?
Ignorance is bliss, but meaningful investment is better.


Reading resource: “Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money While Making a Difference” by Antony Bugg-Levine and Jed Emerson

Impact Investing Resources
The term impact investing started to gain traction in 2009, with the establishment of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). Since then, leading publications and groups have jumped in:

Dipping my toes in the water
With all this discourse on the glorious frontier of Impact Investing, I craved a reduction in talk and uptake in action. And this started with myself. Several months ago I finally stumbled upon an impact investment opportunity that met my investment needs. It happened serendipitously through a conversation with the CFO of MEDA (my previous employer) that they had a Risk Capital Fund. With a low minimum investment of $1000, returns of 2 – 4%, and high social-environmental investment standards, I had found my match.


Agro Capital Management (ACM), one of MEDA’s investments. ACM sells and finances agricultural equipment to small farmers to help create more profitable operations in the Ukraine.

My relationship with impact investing has mostly been rocky, a lot of talk and little action. I’ve learned that I need to be thorough and patient in my search. Impact investments do exist, and there is no shortage of places where money is needed. Investing safely and wisely means due diligence plays a serious role at this stage. Until impact investing becomes a staple in mutual funds, us investors will have to take a more active stance, and spend more time and resources understanding, supporting and promoting the industry. As difficult as my impact investment pursuits are, I’m in it for the long haul. Are you?

Impact Investments at the Toronto fair
Renewable energy

Microfinance and International Development

Partners in II

Youth Services

A New (& Innovative) Beginning

Although my departure from Ethiopia was filled with bittersweet farewells, I have new opportunities emerging on the Canadian horizon. I recently signed a nine-month contract with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based out of Toronto. SiG is a nimble nonprofit collaborating between four partners to actively cultivate social innovation in Canada.


courtesy of brandeewine

My journey with SiG started in May. A month passed and I still can’t shake the jittery excitable rush I feel every morning. It’s a complete privilege to be able to work directly in social innovation. In essence, social innovation enables change to our current systems with the purpose of improving human welfare. Social innovators oppose, test and attempt to solve society’s intractable problems like homelessness, addiction, and vulnerable populations. It’s quite the daunting task but what better way to challenge yourself?

New to social innovation? Watch this video
Want to read my first blog for SiG? Read it here