Social Change Institute: Steve Williams

For the third consecutive year, Junxion is proudly sponsoring Social Change Institute at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, British Columbia. This is one in a series of articles about SCI.

Social Change Institute is a five-day experiential convening designed for high impact and emerging leaders from nonprofits, government and mission-based enterprises who are seeking practical skills and networking opportunities to take their work to the next level.

Junxion spoke with Steve Williams, Principal at Constructive Public Engagement, about his return to this year’s SCI.

Junxion: What’s your role going to be at this year’s SCI?

Steve Williams: I’m a participant, and I’m also leading a workshop called “How Do You Know If You’re Making a Difference?” One of the big challenges we have in this type of work is that we’re putting all this effort into it, working long hours and not seeing our families much, but we don’t always know if we are actually making a difference, if real change happening. So the workshop looks into two parts of that.

The first part is on an individual or organisational level—how do you know if you’re spending your time most effectively? How do you set goals for your organisation, track progress, and most importantly, share that with others? We’re going to use the Demonstrating Value framework to look at these questions. It’s proved to be a very effective tool to help social enterprises measure, manage and communicate their performance.

The second part is going to be looking at the bigger picture. Most of us [in the social change sector] don’t start these organisations to make a lot of money, but instead because we have a goal of changing the world in some way, whether it’s fundamentally disrupting Canada’s transportation system, for example, or redefining Canadians’ relationship to food. How do we know if we’re achieving those big goals?

To answer this, we’ll use part of Tanya Beer’s work at the Center for Evaluation Innovation. She’s proposed what she calls an “advocacy evaluation” framework that’s really effective in helping us look at who we’re really targeting (whether that’s the general public or policy makers), and what we want them to do (whether that’s raising awareness or taking action). What we see is that a lot of organisations, especially in the environmental movement, are very focused on raising public awareness, with the theory that if people just knew about their issue, then the world would magically become a better place. Unfortunately, that’s not how it really works.

Junxion: How does your work through Constructive Public Engagement create larger and systemic change?

Steve Williams: I’m really interested in making complex relationships visible and understandable. The challenges that we face are so big that no one person or organisation can solve them. At the same time, none of the problems are independent—you can’t look at homelessness without looking at addiction, which you can’t look at without looking at mental health, which you can’t look at without looking at early childhood education, which you can’t look at without looking at nutrition, and so on. With all of these complex problems, a lot of people naturally either give up, or focus on one slice of the problem.

I use data and information design to visually show people what those relationships are, and then let them play with that through simulations, seeing what the effect would be if we invested more into one of these areas than another, or shifted funding from this sector into that sector, or [considered if two] organisations were collaborating, and so on. It’s really helping people figure out the best way to invest their time and resources on complex social issues.

Junxion: What do you see as the top desired outcomes of SCI this year?

Steve Williams: The best outcome would be what I’ve seen at past SCIs, in the connections and projects that come out of the conversations that take place there. The people who come are passionate about their own work, but don’t always see before they arrive how complementary that work can be. It really is a case of two plus two equaling five, and being able to accelerate that impact.

For me personally, I’m looking forward to some time to slow down and really take a close look at where my own priorities and focus should be… just observing what’s happening and seeing how that fits in with my own direction over the next year.

Junxion: This is your third time attending Social Change Institute. What brings you back again this year?

Steve Williams: Two things—one is reconnecting with this group of people who feel like my “tribe,” who are doing great work, and who are really inspiring. The other is that I’m really interested in sharing some of the knowledge and ideas I’ve been involved with lately, particularly through the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation program at the University of Waterloo, and I see SCI is a great place to do that. People are hungry for the tools to make real change happen, which is pretty cool. It’s exciting to be a part of SCI.


For more information about Social Change Institute, taking place June 5-9, 2013 at Hollyhock , see

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