Applications for Impact

This piece was originally published on the Studio [Y] blog. It was posted in August 2014, following an experiment in designing an application process that created impact for both applicants to the program and their surrounding communities. 

   Taylor Holden delivers a presentation on mental health and wellness in front of her high school for her Studio Y Innovative Assignment.

Taylor Holden delivers a presentation on mental health and wellness in front of her high school for her Studio Y Innovative Assignment.

Each year, around the world, students submit millions of applications to undergraduate institutions, pouring hours into a metaphorical black box—honing resumes, crafting cover letters and providing any necessary supplemental information—that are only ever read by a couple of admissions officers. But what if we could do it differently? What if we could create community impact with our applications?

This year, Studio Y decided to do just that.

In the application for Cohort II to the Studio Y Fellowship, we asked candidates to not only tell us their story and share their purpose (questions designed to create personal reflection and impact), but also to create a valuable experience for others in their community that demonstrated their passion through an “Innovative Assignment”—a prompt designed to create tangible community impact.

“In choosing to implement the innovative assignment we wanted to accomplish two things,” explained RJ Kelford, Studio Y Manager. “First, we wanted to better understand the way candidates think, how they create, and how they engage with others; and second, we wanted the application to serve as an opportunity to create impact and encourage people to take action all across Ontario.”

For the Innovative Assignment, we included a few key rules to keep applicants on track: the experience had to demonstrate their passion, it had to have a beginning, middle and end, and it had to involve the applicant and at least two other individuals. With that, applicants were given the freedom to create and explore—with the ask that they provide some documentation of their experience as well as a reflection on their intentions, process and learnings.

How did it go?

In short, it went pretty darn well.

When all was said and done, we had received 159 completed applications with 159 acts of service to communities across this province.

Furthermore, we were thrilled to see the diversity of assignments, demonstrative of the diversity of this province. We saw in-person and online discussions about race, spirituality, identity and history; we saw experiential service trips in nature; and we saw multiple instances of arts-based activism.

For her Innovative Assignment, Willow Johnson, an Ottawa native, worked with three children, ages 4, 6 and 7 years old, to co-create a dance class that she helped facilitate for a dozen adults out of a community centre in our nation’s capital.

“I created this class to attempt both to give adults the space to move freely and express themselves, but also to give the children an opportunity to be seen as leaders,” Willow explained in her report about the experience. “I wanted to flip roles, expand people’s horizons, and do it in a fun and beautiful way.”

Watching the video of the creation of the workshop gave me shivers as I saw Willow work with these three young people, effortlessly bringing out their natural curiosity, creativity and wisdom—an opportunity she might not have seized, had it not been for Studio Y’s Innovative Assignment.

For her Innovative Assignment, Taylor Holden hosted two assemblies at her London-based high school, raising awareness about mental wellness and resiliency with hundreds of her peers.

Taken out of context, such an act might seem unremarkable. After all, we all know that students present to their classmates quite regularly. But as the lens zooms out, we saw an inspiring 18-year-old woman raising awareness for a cause amongst those for whom this might be a regular topic. Moreover, this experience was facilitated by a simple prompt in the Studio Y application, “Create an experience for two or more people that demonstrates your passion.”

The good and the less good: Reflections from the Studio Y Staff

The Innovative Assignment was a gamble. While our team had one precedent to follow (our friends at Kaos Pilot, a design and business school out of Denmark, had used a similar structure and mentored us through the process), we had no idea how it would go over with Ontario’s young people. Would they think this made the application too long, discouraging some from applying at all? Would this format disadvantage introverts? And what if the experiences created actually had a detrimental impact on communities?

While some of these questions linger, overall, we’re pleased with the results of the experiment.


  • Sometimes all that’s needed to evoke action is a simple prompt: It’s astounding to recognize that all of these acts of service were triggered by a simple prompt. Kelford explains, “Through the Innovative Assignment we got a small window into how powerful these applicants are in their communities when you find a way to activate them.”
  • People got off Twitter to engage their communities: The majority of the Innovative Assignments were not conducted online, but rather were in-person conversations with friends, classmates or colleagues.


  • Longer applications = Less applications: This year, we received 30 fewer applications, likely due to the length of the applications and our ask to applicants to create a community experience, a project that requires more time and commitment than a standard application. That said, we did see the quality of applications increase, with a greater number of applicants receiving higher scores according to our ranking system than last year’s group of applicants.
  • Creativity needs constraints: While we were excited to see the Google Hangouts and discussions on a wide variety of topics, these types of discussion-based activities outnumbered any other. Moving forward, we might seek to add further constraints to the prompt, encouraging a greater variety of community acts, encouraging folks to move beyond discussion.

What can you do?

If you work for an institution, consider whether applications for impact might make sense for your application. While not every application process has the same goals of the Studio Y application, there are countless ways to be creative in designing a prompt that aligns with your organization’s mission, encouraging action even at the application stage. If you’re a student, or applying to an institution, you might consider performing an impromptu “application for impact,” demonstrating your deep interest in the institution of which you hope to be a part.

If you’d like any further information about the Applications for Impact model, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at

Building the Future of Work and Learning at CKX

This post was originally published on the Studio [Y] blog. It was written in November 2014, following a gathering of 15 alternative education practitioners at the Community Knowledge Exchange Gathering. 


When I began my role with Studio Y a year and a half ago, my boss, Director of Studio Y Hamoon Ekhtiari seemed to be a mastermind when it came to coming up with new slogans for Studio Y. There was “moonshotting” — an aspiration that encouraged Fellows to reach for the stars when building initiatives with and for community. Then there was “#MakeItBetter” — a call to action, encouraging us all to maintain agency in the world around us (if we see something that isn’t up to our standards, we have the capacity to #MakeItBetter!). While a couple of these slogans came and went, one in particular stuck with me.

“Who With?”

Every time we started a new project, developed a new initiative, or delivered run-of-the-mill programming, we’d check ourselves: “who with?” we’d ask.

In the world of systems thinking, “who with?” encourages us to think about the multiplicity of other actors engaged in our systems. In the world of entrepreneurial thinking, “who with?” encourages us to consider our team, our customers, and our partners. And in the world of community development, “who with?” asks us to consider who might be left out of a system, who we might seek to include in the future. Put simply, the spirit of “who with”, encourages us to ask “who’s with us? who’s beside us, in front of us, and behind us?”

Working Together

Just one week ago today, Studio Y convened a gathering of of twenty — a Community Knowledge Exchange Pre-Gathering (CKX) — which brought together staff from organizations across this country that work with young leaders and innovators every day. It was our attempt to answer the question of “who with?” in the work we do at Studio Y of creating broader systems change in the systems of work and learning.

The guest list included folks from Next Up and City Studio from the West coast, the Pond-Deshpande Centre and 21 Inc. from the East, and a host of others from the centre of the nation (as well as those that span across it): Loran ScholarsMeal ExchangeJeanne Sauvé Public Leadership ProgramSocial Innovation GenerationLaidlaw FoundationMcConnell Foundation, and Engineers Without Borders.

The goals of the meeting:

  • Connect as practitioners
  • Learn from one another
  • Share with one another
  • Collaborate together

Participants from the gathering from Engineers Without Borders, Loran Scholars, Meal Exchange, McConnell Foundation, Pond-Deshpande Centre, and Social Innovation Generation.

By day’s end we had introduced our programs to one another, gone deep on topics of universal importance (definitions of leadership, impact measurement frameworks, alumni engagement strategies, and plans for scale and expansion), and had brainstormed potential avenues for further engagement together.

While the path forward remains to be charted, some of the most popular avenues for collaboration amongst the group were as follows:

  • Sharing with one another
    • Sharing our intellectual assets with one another (curriculum, selection practices, outreach practices, impact frameworks)
    • Sharing our physical assets with one another (sharing space with one another, sharing airmiles, sharing tickets to each other’s events)
    • Sharing our human assets with one another (staff swaps, participant swaps, advisory board swaps!)
  • Collaborating together to build new common structures
    • Shared curriculum or shared programming
    • Shared evaluation framework / collective impact strategy
    • Shared project fund for program participants
    • Shared summit (bringing together the program participants, alumni, and staff from a variety of programs)
  • Having fun together
    • Dance parties
    • Water balloon fights
    • Some kind of friendly competition!

An Alternate Universe

In an alternate universe, these organizations would see each as competitors in the race for Canada’s top talent. We would hoard our proprietary assets as we vied to create the nation’s best curriculum, evaluation framework, outreach strategy, alumni engagement plan and mental health response framework to best serve Canada’s top young leaders and innovators.

But this is a new era of collaboration. This is an era of collaboration in which Community Foundations of Canada and the Ontario Trillium Fund band together to host CKX, an event that brings over 400 people together — folks from the private, not-for-profit, and public sector (and everything in between!) to discuss how we might better share knowledge, collaborate together, and build a more equitable, thriving and sustainable future.

Because the scale of the challenges we all face are too great for any individual, organization, or province to do it alone.

As we continue on this journey of helping to shape the future of work and learning in our corner of the world, we will continue to ask ourselves “who with?”. If you believe that you might be able to support these efforts, or would like to get engaged, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, one of my teammates, or one of the other programs engaged in Wednesday’s gathering. We’d love to hear from you.

Official Studio [Y] Alternative Gift Giving Guide

This post was originally featured on the Studio [Y] website. It was written in December 2014 to highlight alternative forms of gifting over the holiday season. 

Gearing up for this holiday season, we put the Studio Y elves to work, gathering together Ontario’s young braintrust to create the Official 2014 Studio Y Alternative Gift Giving Guide.

After toiling away in the Studio, the Studio Y Fellows came up with the a substantial list of alternative gifts. Prior to jumping directly to solutions-oriented thinking however, they implored you to first take a few moments to look at your gift-giving design process. (These process-related tips just happened to correspond with the five central mindsets that Fellows build during their time at Studio Y, but rest assured, that had nothing to do with these recommendations.)

Tips For Revamping Your Gift-Giving Design Process


    While you could think of nothing more exciting than receiving a recycled, heavily-used yoga mat for your holiday gift (reduce, reuse, recycle!), your gift recipient might actually be one of the few folks that haven’t caught the yoga bug.
    Consider: What’s one thing that I might be able to do, create, or design for my gift recipient that could bring them greater joy?


    Gifts, like any other new element in a system, will interact with the ecosystem in which it is introduced. If you and your cousin both intervene in the system of your aunt’s life with the same gift, it’s likely to lead to disaster.
    Consider: What gap might my present fill in the void of my gift recipient’s life? How might I give the smallest possible gift that delivers the greatest possible joy / impact?


    You’ve been toiling away in your shop for days creating the perfect gift (prototype) for mom (you’re going to 3D-print her a statue of her favourite rock legend), but you don’t yet have a clue whether she’ll like the gift.
    Consider: How might you sneakily ask mom if she’s keen on 3D printing tech or thinks it’s all a bit dodgy? Perhaps, over dinner one night, slip it into casual conversation, ensuring that on launch day (gift exchange day), you’re sure to have a market winner.


    While a holiday sweater might seem the easiest gift giving option for uncle Ned, how might you offer up a gift that engages his heart, his head and his hands?
    Consider: How might you give a gift that requires less consumption? How might you give a gift that’s purchased or made by a community other than your own? What gift might prompt a conversation about the many different traditions associated with gift giving?


    Last holiday season, you gave your niece the latest edition of The Hunger Games. After all, you thought, how could I go wrong? It was ranked No. 1 on! Well-intentioned gift-giver, it is in these moments when the Studio Y elves implore you to choose your data carefully. While broad-based internet rankings may tell you one thing, a more selective data set will show a vastly different picture.
    Consider: What information might you be able to collect about the last few disposable income purchasing decisions your niece has made? What might you glean from asking your niece about her about favourite activities, hobbies or past experiences?

The Official 2014 Studio Y Alternative Gift Giving Guide

With those process tips in mind, onto the Official 2014 Studio Y Alternative Gift Giving Guide!

The Maker’s Digest features daily listings of the maker-related events happening around Toronto.

For the Experiential Learner:

For the Foodie Family:

  • Give them a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) / Farm Share:This is a take on an old holiday classic. Rather than giving your gift recipient a membership at the “Jello of the Month” club, consider giving them a farm share — a guarantee of a fresh, local farm-filled vegetable and fruit box each week. A map of Ontario-based CSAs can be found here.

For the Builder or Maker:

  • Workshops, Workshops, Workshops:Consider hands-on workshops such as Ladies Learning Code, a Toronto-based coding school for women and youth. Or consider a full-access pass to the Entrepreneur’s Winter Intensive Program in Hamilton or in Toronto at MaRS.
  • Membership to a Tool Library, Maker Space, or Kitchen Library: For spaces such as these, check out the Toronto Tool LibrarySite3 CoLaboratory, and the Kitchen Library.
  • Create a 3D printed object for a loved one: Sites like the Toronto Tool Library and Site3 provide access to 3D printers, but so too do a couple of Toronto’s Public Libraries.

For the Kid (or the child in all of us):

  • Comics: Buy your superhero a copy of “The SuperGreeners”, an environmentally themed Canadian comic book.
  • Make it and break it: If you have a little maker in the family, check out spaces like MakerKids, where they’ll have an opportunity for a little purposeful play.

For the Transit Geek:

  • A reason to ditch their car: Car and bikesharing sites have spread across this province like wildfire. If you have a driver in the family who’d be interested in the occasional use of a car, consider for them a membership to car-sharing services like Autoshare or Car2Go.

For the Family That Likes To Do Things Together:

  • Create a family history in real time: What’s a better time to ask your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents about the history of your family? Consider turning this into a storytelling exercise that puts your grandparents front and centre as chief storytellers! Bonus: Turn this into a children’s book that can be given to your younger cousins / kids / grandkids for their birthdays!

If all else fails, and your gift ends up being a flop, console yourself with being able to suggest that your sorrowful gift recipient throw a post-holiday gift swap party!

From all of us at Studio Y, happy gifting!

Setting the Example, an Interview with Former PM, Paul Martin

This post was originally featured on It details my interview with PM Paul Martin, a Keynote speaker at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum. 

While in government, Canada’s 21st prime minister fought for Aboriginal rights, working with indigenous leaders to improve rates of healthcare, education and housing. In 2005, near the end of his tenure in government, Paul Martin announced the  $5.085 billion Kelowna Accord, a landmark agreement that had been reached through an 18-month collaborative process with a variety of aboriginal leaders.

In 2006, the Liberal party was defeated and Martin announced that he would not lead the party into another election. With an entirely different set of priorities, the newly-elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper terminated the plan.

Reflecting upon his ambitions post-Office, Martin vowed to devote the rest of his career to working alongside aboriginal Canadians, government officials and business leaders alike to empower Canada’s First Nations peoples. Telephoning from Ottawa in late August, Martin explained this decision in the matter-of-fact tone, typical of the former finance minister.

“I think that the aboriginal situation in Canada is the single most important social issue—and one of the most important economic issues—that we face,” he said.

“—That we would allow the youngest and the fastest growing segment of our population to live in a state where government policy acts in overt discrimination against them—whether it’s in health care, in education, in welfare—I just think it is so contrary to everything that we as Canadians say we stand for. And it is certainly contrary everything that I believe.”

In 2008, in partnership with his son David Martin, a successful business professional in his own right, the duo launched the Cape Fund, a $50 million private-sector investment fund aimed at empowering aboriginal Canadians. Nearly five years after the launch of the fund, I had the chance to speak with Mr. Martin about the fund’s progress and about aboriginal entrepreneurship and education.

The launch of the Cape Fund

“I  recognized that many aboriginal Canadians had great entrepreneurial skills to get into business,” Martin explained, “[and] when I left government I had the idea to start [the Cape Fund].”

In 2006/07 Martin and his son searched for investors for their prospective fund, a venture with a threefold purpose: to encourage aboriginal social entrepreneurship, to gradually increase aboriginal ownership and control over the businesses that the fund would invest in, and to help build management capacity among aboriginal people.

In 2008, the Cape fund was launched with the support of 21 major institutional players from a variety of different sources; among them: Scotiabank Group, Skoll, BMO Financial Group and Barrick.

Investing in aboriginal entrepreneurs

In January 2009, the Cape Fund completed its first investment—a $3 million investment in common shares of One Earth Farms Corp as part of a $15 million strategic financing.

At the time of the announcement, Martin expressed his excitement in the collaborative partnership model. “This transaction, CAPE Fund’s first investment, will support a unique model for Aboriginal business, allowing First Nations to participate actively and with a strong degree of influence in helping to build a successful, world-class enterprise,” he said.

Since its founding in 2007, One Earth Farms has become the largest corporate farming operation in Canada, relying heavily on the stable, long-term partnership with First Nations communities.

In conversation, Martin also expressed enthusiasm about the work of Manitobah Mukluks, another one of the ventures in which the Cape Fund has invested. The Winnipeg based, Métis owned venture manufactures native designed mukluks, moccasins and accessories.

Peter Forton, Managing Director of the Cape Fund, explained that the Cape Fund team had been motivated to invest in the venture in part because of the spirit and determination of Manitobah’s President and majority owner, Sean McCormick.

“We saw an aboriginal entrepreneur who was on fire, and who was truly setting an example for his community,” explained Forton.

Now, three years since the initial investment, according to Forton, sales have more than doubled in the manufactured aboriginally-designed mukluks and moccasins.

“We’ve been working very closely with Sean to help him build his business. It’s great for us to be successful, but really what motivates [the community] to succeed and to change is when they see their own people succeeding. Peer success is so important. If we can help him succeed, we can help a lot of other people succeed as well,” Forton stated.

The path forward

“I think Cape is doing reasonably well and I think that people are beginning to understand the potential for social enterprise and indigenous Canadians,” explained Martin, “but if you were to say to me, ‘have we reached the top of Mt. Everest?’ I would say that we’ve gotten to basecamp, but we still have a long climb.”

In order to reach the top of Everest, Martin explained, a few things need to happen.

“First off, I think that people like Cape have got to continue to succeed.”

“On the indigenous side,” Martin continued, “there needs to be the recognition that communities can play a substantial role in social enterprise, but that most social enterprise occurs as a result of an individual social entrepreneur who just has an obsession to succeed. What that means is that for social enterprise to really function, we’ve got to see a lot more individuals taking the leap.”

Seeking to encourage more aboriginal Canadians to embark on a journey of social entrepreneurship, Martin has also played a substantial role in the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI), a series of programs seeking to improve elementary and secondary school education outcomes for Aboriginal Canadians.

“The earlier that you can begin to take entrepreneurship and all aspects of business to young aboriginal Canadians, the better off you’re going to be. There’s no doubt that that that familiarity at an early age, as is the case with everything else, is best,” Martin stated.

With this philosophy in mind, MAEI brings together Aboriginal organizations, members of the business community, post-secondary institutions, First Nation schools and provincially and territorially-funded school boards to implement programs to support Aboriginal students.

One of the MAEI iniaitives, the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP), works with high school students, providing business and entrepreneurship training and encouraging the young leaders pursue postsecondary studies.

With great pride, Martin described one of the innovative approaches that the AYEP program has taken, seeking to provide examples of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in action.

“We had been doing [the AYEP program] in 2-3 schools and we basically asked two of our teachers to take a year off, to take our course, (which was based on provincial business courses that were based on a concept that developed the United States and was in some 14 countries) and our teachers essentially wrote up the workbooks for grade 11 and 12 completely in an aboriginal context.”

“They used aboriginal role models, medicine wheels, and other aboriginal examples and as a result of that—when young people were able to see entrepreneurship not in an American, a British, or even in the context of other Canadians—but in a context of their own lives—it just took off. It just took off.”

“I think it demonstrates that entrepreneurship is part and parcel of the makeup of the Aboriginal Canadians.”

Moving forward, both Martin and Forton remain optimistic about the potential of the continued development of the Cape Fund and the MAEI initiatives, and of the future for Aboriginal entrepreneurship.

“I’ve seen quite a change in the last five years,” Martin explained.

“I think that there is an opening today that there wasn’t five years ago and that hopefully will be there even stronger in five years.”

An Interview with SEWF Ketnote, Pamela Hartigan

This post originally appeared on Written in Sept 2013, it details my interview with Pamela Hartigan, the Keynote speaker of the Social Enterprise World Forum in 2013. 

In early September, I had the opportunity to speak with Pamela Hartigan, perhaps best known as one of the pioneers of the “social entrepreneurship” movement and the co-author of The Power of Unreasonable People, a book focussed on “how social entrepreneurs create markets that change the world”.

Throughout our discussion, Pamela’s honesty and frankness humbled me. After thirty minutes, it was painfully obvious: this is a woman who fights for what she believes in. Here are a few lessons from one of the leaders of the social entrepreneurship movement.

1. We need to eliminate the dichotomy between “good jobs” and “bad jobs”

Hartigan is Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School where she teaches an introductory class on social entrepreneurship. She explained that MBA candidates often approach her in a panic when graduation rolls around. “Should I take this consulting position? Should I turn it down?” This was her response:

“I think that one of the wonderful things that I’ve learned through my long life is that I’ve had a variety of great jobs. Young people today will have many different careers and they need to be able to take advantage of all of the different opportunities. I think that you can find purpose in anything that you do. It’s what you make of it. I am very much a proponent of seizing the opportunities, and not closing yourself off to opportunities—i just think that’s self-defeating.”

2. Perhaps the term “social entrepreneur” has outlived its usefulness

As one of the pioneers of the “social entrepreneurship” movement, Hartigan explained that her thinking has shifted somewhat over the past few years.

“My thinking is evolving. I’m not quite sure whether the term social entrepreneurship has outlived its usefulness and is not now creating an unhelpful dichotomy. I’m also getting sick of the term innovation. I think there are very few truly innovative things in the world. I think that’s it’s about making things work better, work smarter. Things that will drive the kinds of change that we know we need. Were slapping innovation onto everything.”

3. How to learn the skills needed to become a “social entrepreneur”? Try getting lost. 

In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Hartigan discussed her views on the incompatibility between the type of skills developed through our education system (obedience, diligence and rote productivity among others), and the types of skills and experiences needed in the innovation marketplace.

Citing Mark Twain, she she encouraged students to look beyond school for their development and to not let schooling interfere with their education. Hartigan suggested that one of the most useful experiences for young people was to travel. She reiterated similar sentiments in conversation.

“[Young people] need to get out into the world and challenge every single assumption that they’ve ever had. [And when they do], they come back with a completely different view of things. I’ve never found anybody who’s ever gone out and done one of these experiences and who hasn’t come back completely changed. Those kinds of experiences are just incredibly important. You don’t get those experiences in the classroom.

4. “Social Entrepreneurship” is not a community; it’s a movement—and an exclusive one at that. In order to truly drive the change that we need it needs to be an inclusive movement.

“We don’t want to generate a community,” Hartigan explained, “We want to generate a movement.”

“Communities have a way of being very closed. One of the fears that I have about social entrepreneurship is that it’s growing into these little communities. Change happens because of movements. Change doesn’t happen because of one organization. Movements have to be all-inclusive.”

5. The private sector is making significant strides

In addition to her role at Columbia and her post as the Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford, Hartigan is a co-founder of Volans, an organization that drives market-based solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. In recent years, Volans has worked with big name corporations such as HSBC, Nestlé and HP.

In response to my question, “how do we create a movement?” Hartigan was emphatic.

“It’s happening! Worldwide this is happening!” she said. “it’s happening in corporations…I can tell you, sometimes when I sit on those boards, I think I’m sitting on Greenpeace!”