First Among Equals: The Evaluation of the McConnell Foundation Social Innovation Generation Initiative

Published: July 2014

Type: Teaching Case

This teaching case explores both the real and potential evaluation of a foundation strategy focused on social innovation in Canada. 


Teaching cases are factual stories of one foundation’s in-depth experiences related to evaluation and learning. Stories highlight important challenges that confront foundations in their evaluation work, and put readers in the role of decision makers who are confronted with problems and options for solutions as the story unfolds. This teaching case was produced for the Evaluation Roundtable, a network of evaluation and learning leaders in foundations.


The McConnell Foundation in Canada embarked on an initiative that would challenge its role as a funder, its nerve, and its relationships with longstanding grantees, many of whom were close friends of foundation staff. The initiative sought nothing less than to foster a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada. In doing so, the foundation experimented with a new role as an involved and equal partner, rather than simply as a check writer, advisor to, or orchestrator of the initiative. The foundation was also seeking change in a complex system in which it was just one of many players.

Social Innovation Generation (SiG), an initiative funded by $15 million from the McConnell Foundation and eventually another $9 million from the Province of Ontario, brought together four partners that each had complementary and, it was hoped, synergistic skills.

A developmental evaluation was commissioned at the initiative’s beginning but abandoned after less than a year in the face of contentious and acrimonious personal relationships that threatened to derail the initiative. For the next four years, the initiative continued, but without a formal evaluation.

Much of this teaching case is about what took place during the difficult early months of SiG while both the initiative and the evaluation were struggling to take hold.

The case then continues the story of the initiative long after the evaluation had ended. This unique teaching case also raises questions of how an evaluation could have looked had it continued beyond the initiative’s initial months.