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Nurturing social innovation to flourish across the third sector

Over the last year, TACSI social innovators Melanie Rayment and Lucy Fraser have hosted a learning network for leaders in innovation across the third sector. Here, Melanie reflects on the key themes that have emerged, what we’ve learned, and ideas for moving forward.

Melanie Rayment, Director of Social Innovation Consulting

Innovators and changemakers across the third sector often tread a lonely path, championing new ways forward in search of outcomes for the people we all serve. That’s why we decided to launch the Social Innovation Learning Network for the Third Sector for leaders in innovation across the third sector. 

Supported by the Fay Fuller Foundation, the network brings together people leading innovation from across major charities and not-for-profits including Uniting, Mission Australia, Barnardo’s and Anglicare

Below we have outlined the network experience and what we learnt along the way; however above all it was clear that it is time for us to rethink the way in which we organise around complex social challenges so as to leverage the benefits of our collective knowledge and grow our innovation ecosystem to support all Australians.

Throughout this experience, we’ve dynamically responded to the learning needs of our participants, providing a learning experience that incorporated:

  • Thematic learning modules: Developed in response to the needs identified by the network.
  • Online network interaction: Provided a supportive and facilitated peer-to-peer sharing space to unpack themes and ground the learning via participatory activities and build awareness of approaches; sharing and exchanging tactics, experiences and offering support to others.
  • Online space: Aimed to support sharing and reflections across the group and promote interactions beyond the bounds of our formal interactions.

The network brings together like-minded professionals across charities and not-for-profits to learn, share and innovate for the future

We covered modules including: co-designing with lived experience, systems thinking and collective outcomes, innovation on a shoestring, and leading for change. Our online interactions offered us an opportunity to explore the topic at hand, chat about common challenges, explore different approaches and glean inspiration from others. We also created moments for everyone to share individual experiences on these topics and seek help from others across the network, building nuanced learning around the unique experiences in the third sector.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to step away from the day job and connect with like-minded others. It stretched my comfort zone as I’m not a natural networker and I found the content and resources very relevant and applicable to my work.

Network participant

The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive

All respondents felt the network experience helped both grow their understanding of social innovation practice and enhanced their confidence in social innovation practices. Many felt that creating a space to deep dive into the complexity of individual, organisational and sector challenges stretched the way that they think about their roles and how they act, and that having a space to connect with peers created grounding and a validating experience for those who felt isolated. 

Across this hybrid interaction of learning and sharing, we learnt how we might better support those across the third sector, building upon our work thus far in nurturing long term systemic impact networks and providing tailored courses.

It changed the way I approach stakeholder engagement around innovation at an exec and board level.

Network participant

Five themes that emerged in our conversations

1. What if we help changemakers feel more connected and less isolated?

People creating change and rallying against hierarchical organisations are feeling isolated, and this is creating burnout and workforce issues. Too often it’s women who are carrying the majority of the load, and even more so for Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who are seeking to create intersectional change in a system that still holds many inequities for supporting people. 

We believe we need to invest more time and money into creating better infrastructure for cross-organisational connection, including safe spaces that bridge and bond practitioners across boundaries so that we can scale conditions and learning that are fit for the future.

2. What if we designed markets to enhance and promote cross-sector innovation?

We know that marketisation continues to be a barrier to mission-orientated approaches to social challenges, but these sessions really exposed how much at a day-to-day level it prevents learning and collaboration beyond organisational bounds. The competition created in order to produce a greater quality of support via customer-centric services comes at a clear cost. 

As organisations continue to pursue creating ‘unique’ services and wanting greater market share, we see a range of unhelpful behaviours and seemingly immovable ways in which organisations make decisions. 

The path dependencies to the market shackles organisations’ adaptivity, making it riskier and more challenging to reorient the way they imagine, support or respond to the changing dynamics of the complex challenges they interact with. 

We believe to address the challenges of now and the near future, we must invest in the design and creation of new incentives, and commissioning mechanisms that aid collaboration and experimentation; mechanisms that bridge the gaps created by marketisation support the very learning and outcomes we seek.

3. What if we cultivated the conditions for new forms of leadership and stewardship?

The evolution of leadership in the face of complexity weighed heavily on individuals, persisting ‘in spite’ of difficult conditions. As a sector, we must reflect on what future-fit sector stewardship might look like, and how we might experiment with new forms of leadership and stewardship to enhance conditions for ongoing transformation and guide efforts around key challenges. 

We need to better enable and equip organisations to convene around issues so that they can join-up efforts, build capabilities to share power and centre lived experience in their organisations; and so that they might act as platforms for community-led change, and empathetically challenge aspects of the sector that no longer serve outcomes. 

We need to create spaces that help us move beyond narratives of survival, austerity and evidence for risk-management, and lean into conversations about the futures we’re creating, the (new) roles we may need to play, and the capabilities we must build in our workforce.

4. What if we embedded social innovation in the DNA of our organisations?

To create legitimacy for social innovation practices across organisations, we must influence multiple layers concurrently. We noted many of our participants paid for the learning network themselves, having to advocate for new ways to create, act and fund the work differently – one person or team at a time. 

To move forward, we must create opportunities to collectively legitimise social innovation practices. Our organisations need strong and unwavering commitment to these practices, embedded in their DNA, so as to inform every decision, across every interaction and to build collective impact on our biggest social issues. We believe at a sector level a collective commitment (a compact, if you will) is needed so that we can build and create adaptive institutions with the ability and mandate to enable communities to lead their best lives.

5. What if we built greater systems for sharing knowledge and wisdom?

What we saw was that ‘wisdom’ appeared to remain undistributed, with research being repeated within organisational bounds. However, over-research or repetition continues to create ethical (and financial) challenges across the sector and for the people we aim to support. 

We need to continue to cultivate new ways for broadening our definitions of knowledge, across practice wisdom, diverse lived experiences including foregrounding Indigenous wisdom. We must also invest in greater learning architecture that surfaces this broader definition of ‘evidence’ and bridges data and research knowledge in order to create patterns and principles for learning ecosystems. These patterns must be shareable across organisations, and be accessible, actionable and enable us all to respond dynamically as needs change.

So where to next?

1. Building connections

We’re preparing for the next intake of the Social Innovation Learning Network for the Third Sector and providing new capability opportunities through our courses and networks at TACSI Academy.

2. Building ecosystems

We’re seeking to bring to the table new visions for the way we organise, and experiment for social outcomes. You can read more about this in our new social R&D white paper, which puts forward a plan to accelerate progress on tough social challenges.

3. Creating spaces for experimentation

We believe there are a number of experiments that would enable us to test and demonstrate new approaches to further the Third Sector for all.

We strongly believe in the future of the third sector and the deep value it provides to all Australians. If any of the above has sparked your interest, please get in touch – we’d love to collaborate with both individuals or organisations who are passionate about building the conditions for social innovation across the third sector.