Whether it’s finance and administration, physical infrastructure, or strategic and capital plans, universities are unlocking all their assets to play a more ambitious role on the global stage — and other organizations can learn from this innovation.
Society is facing challenges and uncertainties that threaten social cohesion and community well-being. Universities are uniquely positioned to invent and scale the solutions needed to enable a better quality of life for all of society within planetary thresholds. Many of these solutions can be found in their existing assets and capacities, which — when directed at building social infrastructure — can reveal the pathway for citizens and their institutions to thrive.
In 2017, those words launched a journey to understand and mobilize the capacities Canadian universities, colleges and polytechnic institutes could unlock to individually and collectively build social infrastructure for communities. That year, the report, Maximizing the Capacities of Advanced Education Institutions to Build Social Infrastructure for Canadian Communities was published. The foundational paper constituted a call to action for post-secondary institutions to accelerate and scale their beneficial social impact.
Since then, a group of 30 Canadian university presidents have been meeting to define a social impact pathway for themselves and their institutions as captured in this capstone report, Ten Actions to Accelerate University Social Impact.
The role of universities in society
Convened by the McConnell Foundation over five years, the university leaders developed several tools and resources to put their institutions on a path to greater good. They developed a manifesto on The Role of Universities in Society, which sets out a bold and visionary role for the post-secondary sector to accelerate progress towards a sustainable future. The declaration lists 14 change-agent roles universities are playing to build a better world.
Climate emergency call to action
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The manifesto commissions signatories to join forces to move the needle on a societal issue and to put their commitment into action. The university presidents prioritized the climate emergency — they developed a call to action, a framework that “brings together Canadian universities around the shared urgency of the climate emergency.” The call to action commits the presidents to “engage in transformative action to address this existential threat. The aim is to integrate climate in the core of our educational mandate; and to mobilize collective, coordinated efforts to accelerate climate action across all of society.” They said, “Global action is needed. Within the Canadian network of university climate leaders, we will work to build momentum at all levels.” Since then, the sector’s association, Universities Canada, has picked up the baton and is defining a broader climate ambition for Canada’s universities.
Post-secondary instruments for social good
The foundational 2017 paper identified a range of assets, tools or instruments that institutions have at their disposal to direct at social change, as revealed in the flower visual below. This is a holistic framework that can be applied when tackling local or global social issues as it highlights the role institutions play in society beyond teaching and research.
Social Infrastructure Framework
How can these assets be deployed for greater impact?
Strategic planning for good
Some leading universities are going beyond traditional research and education roles to use their influence, reach and scale for greater impact. They are using this tool, Social Infrastructure Strategic Planning Guidelines for Post-Secondary Institutions. The guidelines provide ideas and options for how to deeply embed social impact into university strategic plans. These three case studies from the University of Regina, HEC Montreal and the University of St. Michael’s College provide examples of how the guidelines can be used in strategic planning.
Infrastructure for good
Now that the social impact genie is out of the bottle, it can be applied to any undertaking. Take infrastructure projects, for example. Why not apply a social impact lens to the capital expenditure from the outset, by defining the social purpose of the infrastructure from design through commissioning? This toolkit, “Unlocking the Potential of Campus Infrastructure Projects to Build Social Infrastructure for Communities” provides a framework to do just that.
Administrators for good
The project also sparked an initiative to engage university finance and administration professionals to embed a social purpose into their work. “Social Purpose Finance and Administration” is defined as:
Integrating social and environmental objectives into administration and finance functions, roles, decisions and behaviours to benefit the institution, students and communities
Harnessing administration and finance tools, assets, resources and relationships to innovate, accelerate and scale social impact
Aligning job purpose with social purpose, where all administrative jobs have more purpose and contribute to social impact
To enable these outcomes and to infuse social purpose into performance objectives and job descriptions, an Employee Social Purpose Lifecycle was developed. It’s a practical checklist that administrators can use to better contribute to their institution’s social impact objectives.
Whether it’s finance and administration, physical infrastructure, or strategic and capital plans, universities are unlocking all their assets to play a more ambitious role on the global stage — and other organizations can learn from this innovation. These tools and resources are easily adaptable to other sectors, projects and professions. Post-secondary institutions can lead the way to a better future.