American president Harry S. Truman once said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” For social innovators, modesty is an essential quality, but only if it is combined with a relentless commitment to make the change you seek really happen no matter what or how long it takes.

This quality is also described in the book Agents of Change: Strategies and Tactics for Social Innovation (Brookings Institution Press, 2012) by Sanderijn Cels, Jorrit de Jong and Frans Nauta, who visited MaRS last week. The book studies eight successful cases of social innovation from all around the world and it looks at the qualities that the people behind the social innovation applied to make it happen. The authors arrive at three qualities and describe each one of them as an art.

The three qualities behind successful social innovation

The first quality is the art of making a start. This quality involves crafting a case—that is, convincing stakeholders to leave current approaches behind to go with a new idea, gathering evidence, building a coalition and cautiously constructing credibility around this new idea.

The second quality is the art of prompting progress. This involves moving things forward, especially when you seem to be stuck or the road ahead looks incredibly difficult. Social innovators need to manage faith in order to keep everyone going, to improvise to find various solutions to different problems and, above all, to make progress irreversible. Try to create what the authors call “positive path dependence,” taking things step by step and sometimes changing course or finding opportunities in critical events along the way.

The third quality is the art of making sense. In order to do this effectively, social innovators must understand the position of their stakeholders, be able to frame both the problem and the solution to these stakeholders in the right way and bring together everyone who is needed to make the change happen. Sometimes it involves framing solutions in different ways or creating authority by aligning with the right partners. The authors of the book found that most successful innovators were modest, but committed.

A successful social innovator, Adam the Modest

SVXOne such successful social innovator is Adam Spence, who works in the MaRS Centre for Impacting Investing. Now, many describe Adam as friendly and perhaps even as somewhat shy. He is a modest guy, but he is also steadfast. For six years Adam has been working on his idea to create an online platform to make it easier to invest in social ventures. This platform is called Social Venture Connexion or SVX.

Adam has crafted the case and involved stakeholders such as the Toronto Stock Exchange and government regulators, and has also organized support from banks, legal firms and foundations to realize his dream. They all agreed to work with him and together they went through a long and complicated journey with all kinds of regulations, varying interests and different priorities to overcome.

Adam and his partners succeeded and SVX was launched last Thursday. It was a global breakthrough for social entrepreneurs who want to raise capital, lowering the barrier for social innovation. All of SVX’s partners and many leaders gathered at the launch, where Adam was praised and thanked.

But what did he do? He honoured everyone else and diminished his role in the process. “I just shove papers around my desk and try to look busy,” he said.

Yeah right, Adam. But that characteristic is exactly the one being described as a quality of the successful social innovator in Agents of Change.

So, although I will not make it a habit to self-promote what we do here at MaRS, I wanted to share this observation and congratulate Adam on his enormous achievement. We can all learn from him.

Feature photo credit: The Five Cogs of Innovation (cropped) by Jurgen Appelo CC BY 2.0

Joeri van den Steenhoven

Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…