Field Notes is a
visual reflection of
learnings from the
RECODE network.


What our partners learned about recoding higher education.

Established institutions care about credibility. Leverage trusted relationships to build yours.

In an institutional environment that can be hesitant to adopt bold new ideas, credibility is an essential ingredient to initiate change. It is the quality of being trusted and believed in, and a rare currency for initiatives without a track record. When you might not have the credibility yourself, relationships with established partners can be the critical lever to address the apprehension of decision makers and get your new ideas heard.

In 2015, NouLAB received funding from the New Brunswick government. It was a first of its kind – an investment in a university social lab designed to explore solutions to systemic challenges facing the province, and a big reach for NouLAB. Among other factors, co-founder Karina LeBlanc attributes their success to partnerships with the MaRS Solutions Lab and GovLab. Karina believes that these respected organizations, along with the catalytic funding from RECODE, helped NouLAB build the social capital they needed to punch above their weight, and gain traction with a new initiative in a large institution.

Reconciliation has shown us that if a university wants to teach, it must also listen and learn.

Meaningful participation in reconciliation by higher education institutions requires they recognize their role in Canada’s colonial history, and understand how the legacy of residential schools continues to influence perception of the Canadian education system. Institutions must move beyond privileging one way of knowing over another and encourage their thought leaders to embrace humility in community partnerships to cultivate a new identity for institutions as both learners and teachers.

The day prior to the 2016 Indigenous Innovation Summit, RECODE and Junxion, with support from In-Synch Consulting, co-facilitated a dialogue on reconciliation, exploring how post-secondary institutions can support Indigenous entrepreneurship. One key topic was the tension between the language used in entrepreneurship and Indigenous ways of knowing. For example, entrepreneurship often focuses on “disruption,” a sole “pioneering leader”, and wealth accumulation, while Indigenous partners noted they would prioritize natural systems, community collaboration, and wealth distribution.

To learn more about the reconciliation dialogue on entrepreneurship and education, read our Insights & Observations report.

In a 13-week semester, not all weeks are created equal...

It is important to understand the context in which you’re working— extra-curriculars are important on campus, but academics (and paying bills) take priority for students. This means that work on campus must take into account the ebb and flow of the semester. Every step of an initiative is time sensitive and must fit within a small chronological niche. It is usually too late to run projects when students are finishing up papers – but it is also often too early when they are still selecting their courses. Ensure new demands on students match the narrow windows of opportunity that are available.

Campuses have unforgiving timelines and Ryan Murphy from hackED learned this the hard way last year. They missed the deadline of one key task while waiting for more students to register, and this delay had residual effects on the work necessary for the success of their programs. The delay snowballed, and suddenly the hackED team found themselves trying to host events in the midst of exam season. By the time they realized the error it was too late and a routine setback in September ended up limiting student participation in programs at the end of the semester.

"Nothing about us without us" — say students and every other stakeholder not invited to the table.

On-campus design challenges are excellent experiential learning opportunities for students to apply their new knowledge and skills towards the betterment of their institution. However, when a challenge is defined without the perspective of the institution’s operations team, energetic students can miss the mark with their new ideas. To design an effective on-campus challenge, involve the operations team early on. Their perspective will help identify more relevant problems, and their knowledge will help students implement the practical solutions they generate.

James Stauch intuitively invited a member of the university operations team to judge a Mount Royal University campus improvement challenge. The next year he asked if they wanted to mentor students along the way. Eventually, he realized that if he focused on the relationship with the operations team and invited them to take part in the design of the challenge itself, they would effectively drive student energy to a relevant challenge area, and be better positioned to implement their solutions. This unique arrangement was demonstrated in a recent project where students worked with the operations team to paint a mural depicting the Blackfoot Nation’s connection to the land occupied by the institution. The collaboration was so successful the operations team and students have since worked together on other campus projects.

Social innovation isn’t terribly difficult to understand, so don’t make it sound like it is.

If you want to broaden your base and work with people from diverse academic and cultural audiences, learn to speak their language. While the social innovation lexicon is useful to communicate concepts in some contexts, it is unintelligible and alienating in others. When bringing new partners to the table, do the hard work of translating your concepts into their language and break down a barrier to their participation. You may be surprised to find that many groups have a useful vocabulary to describe social innovation after all.

For Impact Week at the University of British Columbia, Bruno Lam and his classmates wanted to recruit participants that were previously unaffiliated with social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Instead of using social innovation language when marketing their event, they promoted it with keywords relevant to their target business student audience. For example, one of their posters featured images of stock brokers and proclaimed “Finance can fight climate change. Green bonds issuance jumped from $9B to $72B in three years.” As a result, they saw attendance increase at Impact Week, including the participation of 200 students from the business school.

Chain reactions don’t start without the first collision.

Create the conditions for productive interactions between partners across silos. Decentralized multi-institutional teams don’t bump into each other everyday and need an opportunity to connect. Prioritizing time for team building at the beginning of a new cohort can enable work that is more thoughtful, collaborative and focused, and set off a chain reaction of new partnerships.

In their first year, CHNGR lead, Nicolas Nadeau, discovered they had missed a key step in supporting team and relationship development by not holding an in-person retreat for their entire team. Comfortable learning from their mistakes, CHNGR later identified and defined convening as a foundational activity for their initiative. They started year two with a mandatory co-designed retreat and stuck to their guns; if students couldn’t attend, they couldn’t participate in the program. This initial interaction set the cohort off on a completely different tone, resulting in inter-campus projects and self-generated groups meeting autonomously.

Create change that’s bigger than yourself by understanding the stories of others.

Making social innovation and changemaking the new norm in higher education requires immense courage to look challenges head on and create solid relationships built on trust. Inevitably there will be road bumps and we often need a network of allies that can recognize, encourage and support our journey. Fellow travelers who understand our vision help steer us away from burnout and show us the subtle yet significant changes that remain imperceptible on our own. The ability to see beyond our own narrative and empathize with the stories of others is critical to deepening any collective work aimed at tackling systemic change.

One of the key ways Ashoka builds trust and relationships is through understanding their campus partner’s changemaker story. Danica Straith, Ashoka U lead in Canada, begins by interviewing leaders with questions like “Where were you raised? Why do you do this work? Is there a challenge that could stop you?” This process culminates with a team meeting where everyone shares their changemaker story. As a result, their shared experience connecting with each other’s story becomes foundational to the group’s capacity to work successfully as a team.

As partners, Ashoka and RECODE have also taken time to understand each other’s organizational story and as a result, have designed complementary strategies to support changemaking and social innovation. For example, RECODE provides early risk capital and an anchor for institutions to experiment with new ways of working. Ashoka builds on RECODE’s foundation by providing institutions with a pathway for change once they are engaged, helping to codify changemaking into their operations. RECODE is a field for 1,000 flowers to bloom, Ashoka helps them become a bouquet.

Co-locating social and mainstream enterprises on campus creates greater social impact for both.

While academic institutions offer a unique testing ground for social enterprises, these enterprises are often supported in silos. Co-locating social ventures and campus entrepreneurship programs integrates them with the mainstream, and provides them with additional access to resources, space, knowledge, and collaborators. Co-location also improves the exposure of social ventures in the startup community and gives budding student entrepreneurs a taste of ventures that create social value.

By incubating social ventures in an independent accelerator, Jana Svedova of UBC’s Sauder School of Business realized she missed out on an opportunity to model their values for traditional profit-minded entrepreneurs. When UBC decided to co-locate the social venture incubator with the University’s incubator programs for “traditional ventures,” both groups saw several benefits in turn. Most significantly, student entrepreneurs learned about generating social value through real examples, such as “The Alinker,” an upright wheelchair for people with mobility challenges. Mainstream entrepreneurs at the accelerator were originally skeptical of The Alinker’s viability because of its small market base, but they quickly understood its critical social value upon seeing The Alinker’s CEO riding one to their shared incubator.

Without defining the real problem, students won’t find the right solution.

In a gold rush of start-ups, students are tempted to think that success lies in simply devising solutions. Yet, while entrepreneurship methodologies are helping students bring their ideas to life, a solution to the wrong problem isn’t a solution at all – it’s a waste of valuable energy, financial resources and human capital. Help students define the right problem before pushing them to invent “solutions.”

“If you have an idea for a solution, first ask yourself: who asked you to solve it?”- Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

Tired of watching students come up with well-intended, but superficial solutions, Dan Overall and his team at the Trico Charitable Foundation partnered with the Skoll Foundation and RECODE to create the Problem Definition competition. Rather than encouraging students to rush to solutions, the event challenges them to generate the most sophisticated problem definition. One of the tools they use is the Impact Gaps Canvas. Developed by Daniela Papi-Thornton, the tool is designed to help students learn about a problem before jumping into solving it. Learn more about the canvas here:

Go with the flow of the institution (but stay in your own boat).

Rather than creating another stray initiative for the university to manage, position social innovation as a way to achieve its existing priorities. Garner support by aligning your work with the institution’s strategy and understanding the challenges of the people trying to implement it. Get leadership on board to support experimentation early on, but don’t lose sight of your strategy as you institutionalize; always maintain your space to innovate.

While Shawn Smith & Donovan Woollard, Co-Directors of RADIUS SFU, knew that their early success depended on alignment with the core mandate of SFU to be Canada’s most community engaged university, they also knew RADIUS needed to maintain some independence to stay innovative. They set up RADIUS to operate at the edge of the institution in support of both student and community innovators, while helping lead key institutional initiatives. They also established a strong brand that was closely tied yet distinct from SFU. RADIUS benefited from various leaders that recognized this space was key to its ability to help achieve institutional goals, and this helped protect RADIUS’s space for innovation.

Two key components of RADIUS’s success were its application to the RECODE program and to the Ashoka U Changemaker Designation process, both on behalf of SFU more broadly. These were opportunities for institutional leadership to reflect on how social innovation supported their strategy, and third parties’ recognition of RADIUS further legitimized their support of the program.

When building a campus-to-community bridge, hire a skilled bridge-builder.

Colleges that offer experiential education opportunities can drive social innovation through their students’ community placements. Yet for organizations looking to partner with a college or university, or for students and professors looking to partner with an organization, finding one another can be a daunting task. Recognize this gap, and hire someone to bridge it.

It turns out that not everyone is an effective bridge builder of campus and community partnerships. Suzie Addison-Toor of Georgian College’s Centre for Social Entrepreneurship learned that a successful bridge-builder is someone with credibility inside and outside the institution, and someone who has prior faculty experience; this ensures that other educators trust them and their advice. Over time, Suzie’s bridge-builder gained recognition and community organizations now come to her knowing she can connect them with great professors and students. Going forward, Suzie and her team are developing profiles on campus-community partnerships and creating faculty awards to inspire other professors to try the approach too.

The seeds of social ventures grow best in a well-tended garden.

On its own, seed funding isn’t enough to ensure the success of student-led social ventures. To move beyond germination and help their projects grow, students need an ecosystem of supports – from connections to coaching to co-working environments. Focus resources on building the supports that students need to thrive, not just the seed funding that gets their attention.

One of several incubator “zones” at Ryerson University, the Social Ventures Zone (SVZ) stands out in its fostering of innovation in a safe, supportive environment. SVZ Co-founder, Monica Jako, attributes the success of the program and SVZ’s student ventures alike to to this comprehensive support system, rather than simply the seed funding the program offers. Monica prioritized this ecosystem of supports by investing in staff, mentors and coaches to advise participants, connect them to institutional and industry partners, and lead workshops on topics like social finance and design thinking. SVZ learned that comprehensive investment in the student entrepreneur, beyond just financial support, made the crucial difference and allowed them and their projects to flourish.


Thanks to all our contributors for sharing their valuable reflections, learnings and time.


What have you learned about recoding higher education? Share your #RECODEnotes with us on Twitter or email Chad at


RECODE is an initiative of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.


Created in collaboration with Adjacent Possibilities, featuring artwork by Leeay Akiawa.