About this Report
The objective of this research report is to help practitioners understand what systems change means in the context of social entrepreneurship, how it is distinct from direct service or “business-in-a-box” models and, most importantly, what it looks like in practice – not as lofty exhortations and abstract concepts, but as a set of concrete activities, processes, and leadership lessons. Our intent is to move beyond systems theories – which, while useful, can be difficult to apply in a practical context – and instead tell the stories of how these theories can be applied across a range of circumstances.
What is Systems Change?
Systems change means fundamentally, and on a large scale, changing the way a majority of relevant players solve a big social challenge, such that a critical mass of people affected by that problem substantially benefit.
Five Lessons for Systems Change
While the sector has long been obsessed with aspiring to achieve scale, systems entrepreneurs seem to take a different approach altogether. They use their operations to influence the linkages and interconnections of the system rather than reaching all intended beneficiaries with a predefined solution.
Strategic Questions for Social Entrepreneurs
For those in the field of social entrepreneurship who believe that systems change is a strategy that they want to consider, we want to offer a starting point with some important strategic questions.
A Message to Funders
Donors have enormous power to vastly accelerate systems entrepreneurship as a collaborative approach to solving some of the most intractable social problems on the scale of entire populations. We offer a set of questions for philanthropic funders to engage their grantees, investees, or implementing partners in a conversation about systems change.
Embrace Complexity and Adaptability
Organizations engaging in systems change challenge the idea that scaling operationally is always the best way to create extensive change. Instead, it may be a question of influencing the actors who have the power to change the rules, or having flexible programme models.
Build the Evidence Base
Data and evidence are critical to creating feedback mechanisms in systems. Entrepreneurs looking to contribute to systems change would benefit from taking a step back and recalling the purpose of evidence, and the role it can play in approaches to social problems.
Create, Convene and Coordinate Coalitions
In complex systems, information and decision-making are often distributed among many actors, making it exceedingly difficult to map a way forward. Systems entrepreneurs often use their convening power to bring multiple groups and actors together across disciplines and traditional boundaries to build common understanding and collective action.
Government engagement offers an opportunity to reform public services for entire populations, often with a sustainable funding source and constituting a shift in the way systems work for everyone. The question for many social entrepreneurs is not whether to work with government, but how.
Shift Systems with Humility
Rather than seeing control as their main function, systems entrepreneurs are continuously evolving, fostering an environment that inspires people to learn and empowers them to act.