Empathy: The Next Great Innovation?

By Geoff Braun, Director of Policy and Research, CCVO

News spread quickly through the non-profit sector when, last week, the Social Innovation Endowment Fund was cancelled. Many are disappointed.

But maybe this is an opportunity to take pause and to think about our collective obsession with all things innovative. Why has this become our holy grail? Why is the sector under so much pressure, from government, from donors and from within, to innovate? Are we really so lacking in innovation?

Or is this belief that we can “innovate” away poverty and homelessness and domestic violence and any number of other highly complex problems just a bit of a red herring?

Instead of trying to prescribe innovation, should we be taking a long hard look at what’s working and what isn’t? Do we have the resolve to stay the course on practices that show promise? Do we have the courage, both as funders and as service delivery agents, to cease and desist when what we’ve been trying just isn’t making the mark?

It’s not that we shouldn’t encourage innovation, but let’s not kid ourselves. People are not smart-phones and social programs aren’t the latest clever app. So while Alberta’s nonprofit sector can ill-afford to lose another source of funding, was this fund actually good policy? To the extent that an endowment can help stabilize funding in a resource based economy it probably was. But why this singular focus on innovation?

I recently had the opportunity to hear former BC Premier Mike Harcourt speak at a conference hosted by the Independent Sector. He described a time when social and environmental considerations factored just as prominently into our policy making as economic considerations. There might have been some hyperbole in his account, but no one challenged his next assertion: We need more empathy in our policy-making.

Now, how might that look? Well the conference took place in Seattle, where earlier this year the City Council voted unanimously to increase minimum wage to $15/hour. What if Alberta adopted a minimum wage that was a living wage?

The sky isn’t falling in Seattle and it won’t fall in Alberta. Besides, what gives Alberta its enormous (but lopsided) wealth is underfoot not overhead. This means it’s ours to manage as we see fit. It means we need to plan for volatility. That is a given. It also means that overall, we’ve got room to play with our provincial fiscal framework and with our public policy so that fewer people struggle, and so everyone gets a fair chance.

By the Province’s own calculations, were we to adopt the tax regime of the next lowest province, Alberta’s revenues would increase by $11 billion per year, or nearly one-quarter of the annual operating budget. We’ve won the tax-race to the bottom by a healthy margin. We have room to insert more empathy into our policy.

And of course we need innovation. It’s definitely part of the answer and there are lots of shining examples within Alberta’s nonprofit sector. But is our current focus on innovation a bit of a distraction? By putting all our faith in innovation are we avoiding tough choices that need to be made; choices about which social programs work and which we should scrap; choices about how we as a society distribute wealth; choices about what it means for people to be afforded dignity and security; and choices about the planet we leave to our children.

Maybe empathy is the next great innovation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in CCVO blogs are not necessarily those of CCVO and do not represent official CCVO positions. 

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