We Need to Talk about Systems Change

June 7, 2018 - Naamah Paley Rose, Philanthropic Advisor

What does systems change mean to you?  Like so many other terms, you may think this phrase is straightforward until you actually begin talking about it – at which point you slowly begin to realize that what it means to you is not necessarily what it means to someone else.

A few weeks back, I was sitting in an exposed brick conference room in New Orleans, debating systems change with a room of enthusiastic funders and movement partners. I was co-hosting a session with Steve Waddell, an expert on the topic who recently authored an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Four Strategies for Large Systems Change.” In his article, and in our session, he highlighted two examples of what he considers to be large-scale social change: the 2016 German transition to renewable energy, and the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that marriage between same-sex couples was a constitutionally-protected right.

These examples, Steve argued, constitute “systems change.” Some in the conference room disagreed. “Marriage equality is not systems change! The system, marriage, is still in place – it’s just more inclusive now,” called out a young woman who works for a community foundation in the northeast. “German renewable energy isn’t quite systems change, given how much work the German government still has to do,” expressed a German man from an international fund. Debate erupted. What is systems change, why do we hear that phrase everywhere – and why is it important that we define it?

Scaling Solutions and the Systems Change Conundrum

At RPA, I contribute to an initiative called Scaling Solutions toward Shifting Systems, a multi-year project that encourages funders to place longer-term, adaptive resources to fund scalable solutions that target systemic changes focused on pressing global issues. During year one, we focused on how funders can enable nonprofits and social enterprises to grow their initiatives at significant scale. During year two, one of the deeper dives is toward unpacking systems change: how we define it, how funders can more effectively fund it, and why it is important. This project is what brought me to New Orleans to present at the EDGE Funders Alliance conference, a convening of funders and partners to discuss the role of philanthropy towards transformational change.

The session in New Orleans gave us further clarity that the philanthropic sector does not have a consensus around the term “systems change.” For example, EDGE uses a model called “the just transition,” created by Movement Generation in 2016 but with roots in concepts created decades ago to deal with systemic economic shifts. According to the model, systems change (or “transition”) requires “moving from a globalized capitalist industrial economy to linked local living participatory economies that provide well-being for all.” Anything less is not true systems change: it’s just a piece of the puzzle.

At this conference, as well as at Skoll World Forum, we repeatedly heard funders throw around the term “systems change;” it has become a very popular talking point in panels, conversations and grant applications. Despite its frequent use, however, it is rarely defined or has the assumptions on which it is based explained in those contexts.  Moreover, many foundation staffers openly say that they avoid using this phrase at board meetings, noting that, “’Systems change’ is a sure fire way to make Board members’ eyes glaze over–especially in an after-lunch session.”

The First Step Towards Achieving Systems Change: Agreeing on a Common Definition

To address this gap, one of our partners at the Skoll Foundation has tasked us with creating that definition. Specifically, we are seeking to clarify the difference between changing a system (e.g., education or climate change) and The System (the entirety of the system we live within, for example the patriarchy or capitalism).

As we learned from the first year of our Scaling Solutions initiative, large-scale change happens when funders collaborate. This begs the question: how can funders collaborate to fund systems change if we can’t even agree on a definition? Without agreement on what we are trying to change, we can’t possibly define success, and without defining success, it is hard to drive consensus on who or what to collectively fund.

With these issues in mind, the research behind Scaling Solutions takes on a new meaning and mission to demystify the notion of systems change and ensure we are all operating under the same definitions and expectations.  We want to make “systems change” a more transparent term since we, together with our project partners, believe that this can be a highly effective framework to help philanthropy make a very significant difference in the world. Our first step towards this goal was to review the literature and compile existing definitions of systems change. Up next, we are testing these out with different groups (funders and implementers) in a number of context and countries.

Fulfilling a request we heard from many funders in our first year, we hope to bring a little more clarity to the field – building on the great work that’s been done, and broadening the tent to ultimately make our sector more effective. To stay abreast of our findings, sign up for RPA’s bi-monthly newsletter below.