Giving Compass’ Take:
• On Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Freedom Fund’s Dan Vexler helps us learn the different definitions of “systems” in the context of philanthropy work.
• It always helps to cut through the buzzwords in this field so that we can communicate better. This article presents “systems entrepreneur” as the hot new thing: But that just means an organization that is really good at rallying many different groups around a common cause. Are you one of them?
• Here’s how evaluation supports systems change (in other words, “addressing the root causes of a problem”).
Everyone is talking about systems. Or at least, that’s how it seems in my wonkish corner of the philanthropic world. You can’t attend a conference or even have a meeting without hearing about systems, whether it’s people trying to disrupt them, map them, learn from them, or catalyze them.
We’re not above it at the Freedom Fund, a global philanthropic initiative to end modern slavery. Far from it. We talk every day about trying to “dismantle” the systems that allow slavery to persist. We’ve made evidence of systems change one of our organizational key performance indicators. And indeed, we are often cited as a rare example of systems change in action, in that three of the world’s leading funders of anti-slavery work came together in 2013 to create the Freedom Fund as a way of coordinating their efforts and driving change at scale.
But what exactly are these systems we’re all talking about? And do we risk talking past each other if we’re using different definitions?
I see three fairly distinct ways the term is being used, not just in the anti-slavery sector, but across the social change space.
1. Systems change = addressing root causes
2. Systems thinking = adapting to complexity
3. Systems entrepreneurship = catalyzing large-scale change
The systems-related term that seems most on the upswing at the moment is “systems entrepreneur” — usually an organization that can herd many different types of groups around a common, ambitious cause. At the 2017 Skoll World Forum, a panel on systems entrepreneurship described the topic as follows: “The problems we seek to solve — from failed school systems to infectious disease—are too big and tangled for any single organization to address, no matter how innovative or well-funded. We need ‘systems entrepreneurs’ who see large-scale problems require close collaborations across sectors—including governments, nonprofits, and businesses.” One of the panelists was Jeff Walker, a leading thinker on systems entrepreneurship, who has argued that it is time to focus “more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on [creating] new institutions.”
But what exactly is a systems entrepreneur? According to Doug Balfour, CEO of the philanthropy advisory firm Geneva Global, the systems entrepreneur is “a central gear … the catalytic force that creates momentum among all the other actors” working on a particular social issue.
This is similar to the “backbone organization” of a collective impact initiative, in which organizations across sectors make a commitment to solving a specific social problem.
Read the source article defining what we mean by “systems” by Dan Vexler of the Freedom Fund at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
If you are looking for more articles and resources for Impact Philanthropy, take a look at these Giving Compass selections related to impact giving and Impact Philanthropy.
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