When the “S” Word Defines You: How We Realized We’re Systems Thinkers

It was several hours into discussing some of the most complex problems of the twenty-first century with a group of peers at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government that my mind went back to the book I had written recently.

Doing Good Great had captured eight key lessons of good practice in development and philanthropy based on my 35 years of experience. It discusses the need for an investment mindset, clarity of measurement, failing quickly and transparently, strategic design, building in multipliers, and active collaboration. But never once did I use the “S” word.

The convening was focused on systems change, and the group used the term “systems entrepreneurs” to describe the individuals and organizations that curated this transformation on social systems. And suddenly I had my “aha” moment. Everything I had written in the book described the elements of effective systems change, but now I had a label, a nomenclature, and identifier that I could own and explain.

Our Identity Emerges

After more than a decade helping people make as much impact as possible through their philanthropic giving, we are now leveraging that experience further with a clearer, sharper sense of what we are often engaged in: systems change.

Previously I would have said we were strategic or big-picture thinkers, whether that was seeking to reduce the prevalence of diseases or improve children’s education. We knew that only by bringing multiple stakeholders together in a comprehensive endeavor could we hope to help make a significant, lasting difference.

But after participating in the Harvard forum convened around the pressing need to embrace a new, better paradigm for social action—a systems change approach—something became clear to me. At Geneva Global, we have been active in changing systems for a considerable time, simply without having the language to best define who we are: systems entrepreneurs.

It’s not uncommon for there to be a lag in the words we use to describe things. Websites were using sensational, teasing headlines to lure browsers long before “clickbait” was added to the official list of words in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. The practice already existed; there just wasn’t a universal way of talking about it.

It’s just one example of how language runs behind life: we are constantly having to find fresh words and phrases to define and explain new trends, new methods, new developments, new ideas. Having a common terminology allows us to share, shape, and advance an idea.

Such was the case in the world of philanthropy, until people began to talk about “systems change.” Systems thinking isn’t new, but it has gathered new momentum in the social sector.

That was the focus of the Harvard event co-hosted by Jeff Walker, chairman of New Profit, and Jim Bildner, Managing Partner and CEO of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, who also co-authored “Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking” for the Harvard Business Review.

What both the article and the forum made clear was that for true systems change to occur, there needs to be a systems entrepreneur—a person or an organization independent of the various stakeholders who can bring them all together effectively. Much like a conductor and an orchestra.

The Good and the Great

I was struck by how Geneva Global’s work or influence was cited in several of the forum case studies that were presented at the Harvard event as an example of a systems entrepreneur. A briefing paper in advance of the gathering talked about how we had “grabbed a front seat at the revolution” occurring in the way nonprofits think about change. I came away encouraged.

A key client often uses the phrase “the good and the great” to describe the impact they are looking for in their philanthropy. And as their philanthropic advisor, so much of our work for them and for others has been leading and orchestrating top-down meets bottom-up systems change for years. It’s in our DNA.

We have developed what it takes to be an effective systems entrepreneur, bringing together everyone from donors and social entrepreneurs to advocates and government representatives, international NGOs and community organizations, faith groups and businesses. It requires being a combination of champion, coach, coordinator, and conductor.

It has been gratifying to look back and see how the programs we have facilitated have increased in scope and impact over the years as we have developed our understanding of the need for collaboration—whether that has been hiring academic partners to independently assess projects, working with a wide range of international NGOs, or clustering local community-based organizations in on-the-ground activities.

While I would love to say that we knew what we were doing all along, the truth is we’ve accumulated our knowledge of how to change systems the hard way—by making mistakes, reflecting on what can be done better, and experimenting and iterating.

Passing on What We’ve Learned

Increasingly, we have been drawing on the lessons we have learned to consult with other organizations to help them work toward collaboration and systems change in their areas of concern. Indeed, Geneva Global has been described as “leading the conversation” when it comes to systems entrepreneurship. In a recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review that referenced the gathering he helped organize, Jeff Walker called us “a leading incubator of systems change campaigns.”

We have been able to offer strategic thinking help to an organization wanting to improve educational opportunities for girls in parts of the world where they are limited, and have helped an organization map their particular ecosystem to understand who the relevant actors are and where the best practice in the US is in leadership development.

Systems change. This is what we are about. Systems entrepreneur. This is who we are.

You can read more about how this sense of mission and identity has guided our work in the free eBook edition of Doing Good Great: An Insider’s Guide to Getting the Most out of Your Philanthropic Journey.

We would be happy to talk with you more about how Geneva Global might help you make a lasting difference in the world through pursuing systems change. Contact us today.