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The Big Systems Change Question You Need to Ask

Being part of a systems change program will demand more—and less—from you. Have you counted the cost?

Given my passionate conviction that systems change thinking is needed to really move the needle on some of the big social challenges in our world today, you might be surprised by the question I believe must be asked by anyone contemplating a move in that direction.

It’s simply this:

Is systems change right for you?

Because while investing in systems change efforts does offer the potential for making a significant impact, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. If you are considering systems change involvement as a foundation or a social entrepreneur or a service organization, you really need to count the cost.

That’s because to affect systems change you are likely going to have to change, too—and that’s never easy. Systems change will demand both more and less from you. Here are some of the ways in which that happens.

Systems change takes more time

It’s one thing to alleviate a situation, it’s another to alter it. Making permanent, lasting major change—whether that’s tackling homelessness in San Francisco or human trafficking in the Middle East—doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it can be a years-long process, while many donors prefer shorter-term, often one-year projects from which they can see results fairly soon. Are your funders in it for the long haul?  Funders, are you willing and able to take a long-term view?

Systems change takes more money

The longer it takes to bring about comprehensive change, the more it takes to achieve those results, naturally. This is especially true if you are solely funding the whole ecosystem of change—from bringing in academic partners to funding advocacy work to integrating the bottom-up and top-down initiatives. Are you prepared to invest more, to possibly see a greater return?

Systems change takes more focus

Investing more in longer-term efforts means that there is less money available to go to other endeavors—which can be a challenge especially to smaller or family foundations that embrace a range of different concerns. Concentrating on fewer, bigger targets may require some hard choices of what to let go. Are you ready to possibly reevaluate your current emphases and interests to attempt less to achieve more?

Systems change takes more effort

Working with others is unquestionably harder than going it alone. You will need to understand their part in the process, and that will require more time and thought. Developing collaborative programs likely means more interaction, negotiation, meetings, and discussion. It will almost certainly mean more frustration. Are you ready for the additional work you will need to do?

Systems change means less control

Embracing a bigger picture requires letting go of some of the smaller details. When you are part of a team, you have to play to its collective strengths. You become a part of a coalition of the willing, rather than the sole director or leader. Collaboration is one of the big levers of systems change, but it comes at the price of ceding control of personal goals and metrics for shared ones. This can be a challenge, especially for organizations whose funding depends on being able to show donors where their money is going and what it is achieving. Are you comfortable with giving up some measure of being in charge? Are you willing to compromise?

Systems change means less clarity

Becoming part of a broader response to an issue may require giving priority to shared goals over your specific ones. And those bigger-picture aims may be harder to quantify and to measure than those you might have individually in mind. Agreeing the shared metrics for success in a systems change endeavor can be one of the biggest challenges for all those involved.

Systems change means less certainty

At the end of the day, with a larger, more demanding target there is always the greater possibility of failure. When you have a focused project—let’s say running an early childhood development program—it is possible to a fairly high degree of confidence that you can be part of delivering help. But seeking to address the mix of social, economic, cultural, and environmental factors that leave children disadvantaged is less assured of success. How do you feel about assuming a higher level of risk?

Systems change means less contentment

At least, in the short-term. People get a sense of satisfaction and well-being out of helping make a difference in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The more focused the initiative, the clearer and often the sooner that “pay back” of results happens. When you become part of a systems change approach, your contribution may be less apparent, and a longer time in coming.

It’s okay to say no

As systems entrepreneurs helping lead all the various stakeholders in systems change initiatives, we at Geneva Global have experienced firsthand how challenging the process can be. And perhaps you can understand now why I say that systems change is not for the faint-hearted! Answering these questions could help you decide whether it is something you want or need to be part of.

It could be that your ultimate answer is that systems change is not for you—yet. Perhaps it is something you want to consider working towards, having spent some time thinking through some of these issues more carefully.

For some, systems change thinking develops over time as they become dissatisfied—in a good way—with what they are able to achieve. That was the case for Dr. Jordan Kassalow, a social entrepreneur who founded VisionSpring to make inexpensive eyeglasses widely available.

For all that he and his colleagues managed to do, he realized that their efforts alone were not going to make the kind of big impact he was looking for. As a result, he and a colleague, Liz Smith, founded EYElliance to link with others in a global initiative, in which VisionSpring continues to play an important role.

Much as I believe in the importance of systems change, I recognize that it is not for everyone, for any of a number of reasons. This type of approach may not be suited for every type of funder or even every type of social problem. And if everyone set out to be a systems entrepreneur, there’d be fewer nonprofits providing direct services to beneficiaries, which are ultimately a necessary component in any effort.

Wherever you are in your philanthropic thinking—whether you are a funder, a social entrepreneur, an impact investor, or a potential collaborator—I encourage you to ask yourself whether systems change is for you. At Geneva Global, we’d welcome the opportunity to help you think through this important question further. To schedule a conversation, contact us.