Moving Fast in Canada's Social Services Sector

"We must disrupt the delivery of social services."

MAX Policy is a collection of provocative ideas and policy solutions generated by the minds at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Canada’s social services sector is entrenched within a framework of moral and ethical responsibility, providing essential interventions to reduce harm and keep people safe, housed, and fed. This is an enormous missed opportunity. The social services sector needs to move toward a model that embraces the disruption and innovation that has taken place in transportation (e.g. Uber and Lyft), retail (e.g. Amazon, dropshipping, etc.) and entertainment (e.g. streaming platforms) by incorporating research and innovation models into their entire organizational structure.

The social services sector has become its own industrial complex. Like any other industrial complex, it has pursued its own financial interests regardless of, and sadly often at the expense of, the best interests of society and individuals. Despite its original, noble goals, the social services sector now profits more when those goals are not reached. As a result, too much of the sector is at risk of becoming the next old-school, cash-only taxi service, brick-and-mortar shop, or Blockbuster. They are so focused on delivering their historic products in the historic way (Taxi medallions! Storefronts! DVDs!) that they are failing to take actions to disrupt this model and deliver better, more effective interventions at much lower cost.

We propose a disruption model to the non-governmental social services delivery sector – charities, non-profits and for-profits. We use domestic violence as an example, but the implications extend well beyond that sector. The social services sector needs to take speed, minimum viable products, and moving fast much more seriously. These approaches seen in disruptive businesses are too rare in social service delivery.

A History of Canada’s Social Services Sector

The charitable sector has a long history in Canada. The Americas first imported the Elizabethan Poor Laws in 1601, laying out the foundation for the social services sector as we see it today. The models imposed by Colonialists were often rooted in a value system that viewed charities as a vehicle to spread or enforce morality, faith/religiosity, and volunteerism to the poor within the communities and areas they served. Structures for funding and operating non-profits and charities in the late 1800s were similar to today, with small, sporadic government support, high demand for oversight and outcomes for low-dollar investment, and intense competition between charities for minimal amounts of private and public funding. Charities often formed along religious lines, popping up to address specific issues of relevance that were outside of the purview of churches and community or governmental organizations.

The Economics of the Social Services Sector

The social services sector, pulling from its roots in church charities and the growth of social work, is focused on intervention and dealing with the problems in front of it. This has been to the detriment of creating systems for change, growth and eventually elimination of the sector itself. The social services sector was responsible for 8.5% or $169 billion of Canada's gross domestic product in 2017, more than the retail trade industry and close to the value of the mining, oil, and gas extraction industry. Non-profits employ over two million people across Canada and an additional 13 million volunteer for charities or non-profits.

Given its economic footprint, the social services sector has a significant responsibility to itself, its clients, and to all Canadians. There should be a stronger push for accountability to show results for the investments and the outcomes of the work.

But what kinds of results? While not within the scope of this paper, we note that there are a number of socioeconomic and policy lenses through which we can and often do evaluate results. However, these arbitrary divisions have led us to believe that our social services are not impacted by broader societal objectives. It is better to think of these lenses as Venn diagrams, overlapping each other, influencing each other, moving and causing shifts and impacts constantly. This approach helps us to better understand the economic importance and impact of social services.

Delivery Models in Social Service  

When it comes to the services that charities and non-profits provide, demand has always exceeded supply. This has led to deeply entrenched values and models of practice, both with respect to the necessity for social services to address specific challenges and the tendency to apply band-aids to those challenges. Canada’s social services sector started as a form of emergency response. This model has become the status-quo of operations and program delivery for the majority of non-profits and charities, regardless of its financial or social costs. The social services sector has been programmed to believe that its value and capacity lives in program delivery and intervention. That value is so deeply ingrained that when pushed, there is a collective resistance that could halt a tsunami in its tracks.

That is not to say that social services are not creating new programs, updating research, and staying up to date on new initiatives. However, most modern non-profits have a narrow definition of what they are selling and the issues they are trying to solve. Within this status-quo model, charities and non-profits in the social services sector plan and execute their work within a narrow idea of what is required and what their roles and responsibilities should/will be.

Take the domestic violence sector as an example. The cost to deal with a single case of domestic violence in Alberta is over $13,000 per individual. Roughly 6,000-7,000 people work in Alberta’s domestic violence sector and an additional 10,000 volunteers donate their time. Organizations in this sector should be working towards reducing the cost of addressing cases, and ultimately the elimination of domestic violence for individuals, communities, and societies.

Despite our rapidly changing understanding of the root causes of domestic violence, the domestic violence sector largely looks the same as it did 30 years ago. Societal acceptance of spousal abuse continues to drop; legal frameworks are changing to give victims of abuse greater rights and protections under the law; and only 6% of women who disclose experiences of violence saying they want to access a domestic violence shelter. Yet within the domestic violence sector there is still a binary focus on women as victims, men as perpetrators, and shelter as the primary intervention for abuse victims. Only in the past five years has the sector begun to acknowledge the impacts of violence on a more diverse set victims and perpetrators and established more informal supports to meet different needs. The sector is not keeping up.

Innovation does happen, but disruption is rare. Disruption within the domestic violence sector would include recognition that creating long-term, sustainable change might require the sector to consider whether it is targeting the wrong client base. For example, recent research has shown that most survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence do not actually talk to social service providers or police about those experiences. Instead, they turn to informal supporters, friends, family, faith leaders, coworkers, etc. Organizations looking to disrupt the domestic violence sector could shift their client base, working more with these informal supporters, building their capacity to recognize domestic violence, providing support to someone experiencing or using violence, and then helping them to find additional support if they want that. A domestic violence sector that treats the victims of violence in shelters requires an infrastructure, investment and programs to maintain those shelters. If the sector did more to address the cycle of violence, it could strive for a disrupted future without the need for shelters.

Innovation means doing all of this not with the intention of getting more domestic violence victims or perpetrators into a particular agency. Instead, agencies should focus more on connecting people to the supports they need and realize that they may not, in fact, be the right sources for those supports. Disruption means considering that the focus of the entire sector on a group of people who do not want to talk to them might actually be wrong, and should be reconsidered.

Disrupting the Status Quo

The alternative to the status-quo model outlined above is an innovation and research design approach, similar to the business disruption approaches in transportation, retail and entertainment. What would disruption look like in the social sector?

In recent years there has been lots of discussion about the mechanisms for social change. Who needs to be invited? What voices have traditionally been left behind? How do you build equity? But discussions around the possibility that technological, program, or institutional disruption can shift our understanding of what is working and where the sector is going have been largely neglected. Shifting to a disruption mindset that normalizes the testing of new models and accepts failures as learning experiences will require work, but it will create opportunities for great reward.


Investment in innovation could drive a shift away from scaling and reproduction of existing structures and create opportunities for new knowledge systems better suited to long-term solutions. The domestic violence sector, so used to operating within tolerable levels of pain, has been in the business of scaling and reproducing supports and services for female victims of violence for decades. Shelters for women fleeing abusive relationships have been copied and replicated the world over, built off a system from when women had no property rights and therefore no option but to flee to secretive protected locations.

Replication of the women’s shelter model creates ease of engagement and operation, but does nothing to address the structural nature of domestic violence or its impacts on children and families. Investing in innovation within a shelter space has allowed for the creation and recognition that children, whether presenting as harmed or not, are impacted by experiences of domestic violence and require wraparound services alongside their parents. This movement into new knowledge and values systems provides tremendous opportunity to create societal change that could impact the long-term need for shelter supports in communities.

In order to innovate and develop knowledge, the social services sector has to get more comfortable with a few basic principles of innovative business practice: research and design, moving fast, and minimum viable product.

Research and Design

Nothing should stop the social services sector from adopting a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and disruption within their business models. In order to do this, the social services sector has to start by shifting its foundation, moving away from an emergency services model and start to see themselves as a sector that can and will invest in true innovation and economic growth.

For this shift to be effective, investment in innovation, research and design (R&D) is a requirement. Non-profits that invest 4-8% of their global budget into R&D practices are almost two and a half times more likely to grow at or above the annual rate of inflation. Now, you might be thinking that growth sounds a lot like recreating the industrial complex outlined above, but here is the catch. Growth that comes from research and design is assumed to be growth not based on investment in keeping the status-quo, but growth based on new learnings, awareness and ideas that come from the results and process of R&D. That growth leads to completely different results and opportunities for the social services sector and society alike.

Perhaps it is time for leading social service providers to consider devoting something like 10 percent of their time and funding to R&D around innovative or disruptive opportunities. Perhaps philanthropic foundations can independently direct funding towards this kind of research. This would be easier for larger, established entities that deliver social services. However, smaller and nimbler organizations with greater funding constraints can also innovate, even if it’s out of necessity. Finally, small emerging players within a sector would be a good place to look for innovation, much like new entrants within any market. Social service organizations of all sizes could harness these opportunities by seeking partners in the corporate sector to reimagine their operations.

This kind of innovation is unlikely to come from above. As much as governments are committed, and should be committed, to innovation in service delivery, it is the service providers on the front lines that are best positioned to do this. Building innovative models of service delivery do not come about because of government mandate. They come about because leaders and brave boards are willing to invest in innovation.

Governments can also have a role in promoting and building space for innovation. Government-initiated pilot projects can be a source of innovation that can then be learned from, across the social services sector. In addition, exogenous events – expanding deficits, pandemics or other economic or social shocks – can prompt governments to be innovative.

Government-driven innovation is not our focus here. Our focus is on endogenously driven innovation.

Moving Fast

The social services sector moves at a snail’s pace in comparison to the business and social world that surrounds it. The sector hides its slowness and trepidation around change and growth in our need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ so that there are no opportunities for ethical or professional liability. Fear, vulnerability, a lack of ability to cope with the messiness of the work (and it is messy regardless of the speed), and an earnest desire to not leave anyone behind keep the sector from moving fast. All of these are understandable and relatable considerations in any workplace. When piled together within a sector run by people with a social services background, it can lead to meeting after meeting where everyone feels included and onside but nothing gets decided.

In order to move out of the social services industrial complex, the sector needs to figure out how to move fast. Moving fast requires healthy organizations and individuals who have a deep understanding of why they’re doing the work and the values behind how they do that work. Within that grounding, the sector also needs to adopt a growth mindset, recognizing that through challenges and setbacks we create opportunities for learning and growth.

Also imperative in our ability to move fast is our willingness to fail, including in the domestic violence sector. Suppress your collective gasp at the thought of the women and children being put in in harm’s way by that statement, but here is where the rubber hits the road. Without a willingness to fail, within reason, nothing can move fast. Imagine launching a new program for people impacted by domestic violence to access background information about current partners if they have concerns. Without a willingness to fail, to send the first social service referral and have it all fall apart, you would never actually know which particular components make the program work and which components that have been labeled as important over the years are actually just noise that do not make a difference for the intervention, clients or outcomes.

It is impossible to move fast without showing up every day willing to fail, willing to be wrong about some minor detail or idea, or the whole thing. If you don’t ever fail and learn what doesn’t work, it’s impossible to figure out what does, where the golden nuggets actually do lie. We could devote a whole other paper to redefining what failure is.

Minimum Viable Product

Key to moving fast in the social services sector is the ability to thin slice and test minimum viable products.

Thin slicing is “a skill that allows individuals to make decisions quickly that can be as good as those made cautiously and deliberately”. It will not always lead to the right answers, but like any other skill it will be something that improves over time. Thin slicing and moving fast within an R&D environment will lead to ideas, research, and innovations that may not be fully articulated or understood, but can ensure that the sector has enough data points on those items to work on solutions within a minimum viable product model (MVP).

The MVP model is used all the time in the business world as a means to both be the first out the gate, get something to market to understand it better and learn what you don’t know. In the social services sector, the notion of putting something out to market for clients that is not already perfect is currently completely unacceptable. However, within an innovation and R&D mindset, the social services sector would recognize the value that can be gained through releasing imperfect products and engaging with the program/issue from a different perspective or lens.

The Endgame

It is radical for social services sectors to think about not existing, to invest money, time, and R&D into how to make themselves obsolete. However, if you are in the business of suffering, trauma, and mental health, then shouldn’t that actually be the thing that these sectorsyou are working towards? Now, of course, the world is such that there will always be some level of need for supports and services, but what if that level was reduced? Shifting the way that the social services sector operates, sees itself and its role, could accelerate a societal shift to wellbeing and stop emerging social issues before they begin.

About the authors

Ken BoessenkoolKen Boessenkool is an instructor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

He is a Research Fellow at the CD Howe Institute, contributor to The Line and President and founder of Sidicus Consulting Ltd.

Colby Cosh once described him as a “policy chef who lurks around conservative parties everywhere in Canada” and Lawrence Martin as a “towering egghead.”

Until recently, Ken was a founding partner of Kool Topp & Guy Public Affairs with Don Guy and Brian Topp. In the course of his career, he has served as Senior Counsel at GCI Canada, was Senior Vice President and National Practice Director for Public Affairs at Hill & Knowlton Canada, where he was also General Manager for Alberta and Manager of Business Development. Ken was a senior regulatory economist with two electricity firms. He once worked at a bank.

Ken has played senior strategic and policy roles in four national election campaigns for the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He has been Chief of Staff to former Premier of British Columbia Christy Clark, a senior policy advisor to three national Conservative leaders, two Alberta Finance Ministers, and an Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader. He has played senior policy or campaign manager roles in three national leadership campaigns and three provincial leadership campaigns.

Ken is the Board Chair of Sonshine Community Foundation – a Calgary based women and children’s shelter. He has served on the following boards: The Canada-Israel Committee; The Cantos Music Foundation (now the National Music Centre); The Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, Civitas and the Forum of Federations.

Ken has published numerous policy and academic papers on a range of key national issues and is a frequent contributor to numerous online and print publications.

Ken has an undergraduate degree in business with majors in Finance and Philosophy from the University of Lethbridge and a graduate degree in economics from the University of Toronto. Ken and Tammy have a four daughters, three son-in-laws and a granddaughter. They live near Vulcan, Alberta.

Carrie McmanusCarrie McManus breaks down barriers and embraces change as the Director of Innovation and Programs at Sagesse. She has over 20 years experience in strategic and program development, small business management, facilitation and education. She started her social work career with Mount Royal University’s Stepping Up program, a peer led domestic violence program in Calgary, Carrie then transitioned into her role with Sagesse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Dalhousie University in Halifax and a Diploma of Social Work from Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Andrea Silverstone is the Executive Director of Sagesse, an organization committed to disrupting the structure of violence for individuals, organizations and communities, she works tirelessly to address domestic and sexual violence across Alberta. Andrea is a Registered Social Worker and Mediator with a background in Judaic/Talmudic Law. Beginning her career in Calgary at the Awo Taan Native Women’s Shelter, Andrea later transitioned into her role as the Executive Director of Sagesse. At Sagesse, she has dedicated herself to ensuring that vulnerable individuals live in a society where they can reach their full potential, and believes she has an obligation to leave the world in a better place than she found it.

MAX Policy

Max Policy is a collection of provocative ideas and policy solutions generated by the minds at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.


Back to top