Fall Institute 2012: Social Finance and Innovation for Adult Basic Learning: Opportunities and Challenges – October 14-16, 2012 – Saint John, NB

The Institute explored a range of social finance and other innovative funding models including those currently being proposed by many governments in Canada and around the world, focusing on how these models might apply to literacy and essential skills programs in the community and workplace. Participants included representatives from organizations that have actually implemented some of these models, researchers who have investigated them, policy-makers who are pondering how these models can make government investments more efficient and produce better outcomes, and potential private investors interested in generating social benefits and revenues. Most participants came from literacy and essential skills’ organizations that are anticipating major changes in the way they are funded and are trying to understand what those changes are likely to be, how they will affect the way they function and serve learners, and how various models of social finance or alternative funding might replace existing financial arrangements.




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The air is filled with talk of social innovation and social finance, of social impact bonds, social entrepreneurship and pay-for-performance schemes, some very new, others much older. Few adult literacy and essential skills providers, however, can define the various concepts or models or explain their relevance or appropriateness for their own work. As traditional funding sources shrink through funding cuts by governments and declines in charitable giving, the time is right to deepen our understanding of these models and consider what kinds of new supports or adaptations of older ones might be developed collaboratively between governments, philanthropists and communities.

A 2011 report from the Bureau of European Policy Advisers examined social innovation as a response to growing social problems and limited budget. They defined social innovation as “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations.” The report noted that the obstacles include risk-averse organizational cultures and finance systems that are not designed to support social innovation. It recommended a “European Social Innovation” Initiative with 40 measures to improve governance, funding,implementation and research related to social innovation. (Empowering people, driving change: Social innovation in the European Union. (http://ec.europa.eu/bepa/pdf/publications_pdf/social_innovation.pdf)

2012 is coincidentally the International Year of Cooperatives, business enterprises owned and controlled by the members they serve. Cooperatives mesh economic viability and social responsibility by balancing the pursuit of profit with the interests of members and their communities. With deep roots in Canada, coops have a long history of embedding adult learning, from foundational to higher education, and of addressing social issues.

Social finance is an approach to investment or managing money that aims to deliver social and/or environmental benefits. Social finance models are being widely explored as potential new sources of funding to address social/environmental issues. Since these investments must produce both a social and a financial return, proponents assume that social finance approaches are more likely to generate innovative practices and better performance by funding recipients. Recipients are generally assessed first on their capacity to deliver meaningful benefit to either the people or the community they serve and then on their ability to achieve socially beneficial outcomes. Investors are paid returns based on the delivery of outcomes.

The Government of Canada, through a series of task forces and reports, has stated an intention to implement social finance models to deliver some services currently provided through more traditional means. The Government has recently supported pilot projects in selected sectors across the country as a way to gauge the feasibility of various approaches. They have expressed interest to address adult literacy and essential skills needs through a specific model called social impact bonds, developed in England to address recidivism in prisons.

Pay-for-performance, by contrast, has been in place for years in many sectors, including adult basic education. One example is the System for Adult Basic Education Support in Massachusetts, a well-established state adult basic education system linking institutional, community and workplace provision of language, literacy, numeracy and work skills. The professional development branch of SABES, run on a pay-for-performance basis for many years, exemplifies the model’s promises and challenges.

The Fall Institute will explore a range of social finance and other innovative funding models including those currently being proposed by governments near and far, focusing on how these models might apply to literacy and essential skills programs in the community and workplace. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) will share findings from recent pilot projects. We will look at models of cooperatives with a learning agenda and ask how the larger cooperative movement might inform approaches to LES, and examine some current experiments in social entrepreneurship as a way to embed essential skills learning..


Topics for discussion

  • What opportunities and challenges do various models offer?
  • Do particular models work more effectively in specific contexts?
  • Is social innovation a new name for something we already know?
  • What do cooperatives and social entrepreneurship have in common?
  • What research has been done worldwide on various forms of social innovation?
  • What types of research are needed?
  • How do “pay-for-performance” models connect to federal and state/provincial/territorial adult learning and accountability "systems"?
  • What changes need to happen in funding and governance to support widespread adoption of social innovation?
  • What changes have to happen in our political and organizational cultures?
  • What lessons can we take from experience and more recent initiatives to guide our directions in workplace LES?

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