At Geneva Global, we’ve always been drawn to helping our clients get big impact for their philanthropic dollars.
What we’ve discovered from our 15-year track record is that the biggest results happen when you take a systems-change approach.
When clients hire us to help direct their money to good causes, we go looking for opportunities where we can tackle an issue—such as eliminating human trafficking in an area—at the systems level. It requires working with organizations addressing the issue at the community, as well as policy, level. It can also mean changing social norms. For even greater impact, we often bring together various funders to gain leverage at the donor level through collaborative philanthropic funds.
Additionally, we’ve worked with other clients and funders who are trying to create systems change on their own, and advise and coach them on the best ways to go about it.
Having been in the international development space for over 25 years—and working as a systems engineer early in my career—I know systems thinking isn’t a radically new concept. Over the years, there’s even been a lot of terms generated to describe systems thinking in the social sector, such as collective impact or transformative impact.
But I have observed a growing awareness and interest among philanthropists who want to approach their work in this manner. And along with that momentum, a new term has emerged that seems to better describe the role of an individual or organization that can help you execute on wide-scale social change.
That term is systems entrepreneur.
What is a systems entrepreneur?
To understand what a systems entrepreneur is, let’s start with another term you’ve likely heard already: social entrepreneur.
A social entrepreneur is an individual or organization that’s come up with a new or innovative approach around a social challenge. They’re doing great work and having a positive impact in one or a few places.
In our work developing client programs, we often fund social entrepreneurs. But trying to scale the work of a single organization to achieve bigger impact often doesn’t work. People and organizations that are good at innovation aren’t necessarily good at massive scale up; it’s a different skill set.
Plus, a social entrepreneur only focuses on one aspect of a problem. They create a single solution that fits within the framework of a complex problem.
And so, many years ago, we found ourselves asking, how can we harness the great results of all these individual organizations to solve this particular problem in a more comprehensive and widespread manner?
That’s where systems change thinking and systems entrepreneurs come in.
A systems entrepreneur is a person or organization that facilitates a change to an entire ecosystem by addressing and incorporating all the components and actors required to move the needle on a particular social issue.
The attributes of a systems entrepreneur
Act as a neutral facilitator
A systems entrepreneur must bring together all the relevant stakeholders (such as community organizations, businesses, governments, international nonprofits, religious organizations, and others) to share their resources, knowledge, understanding, and capabilities with each other in pursuit of a common goal.
To do so, a systems entrepreneur wears many hats: they are an independent facilitator, a networker, and a diplomat. They must be flexible, empowering, and supportive. Like a central gear, they are the catalytic force that creates momentum among all the other actors.
A systems entrepreneur’s motivation must be to promote social change, not their own brand or agenda, in order to build trust and buy-in from other stakeholders. They navigate the delicate balance of working with and through others to achieve something rare and remarkable.
Create a climate of shared understanding and results
A systems entrepreneur must ensure all parties have a joint understanding of the social outcome goals. Everyone must feel valued for their individual unique strengths, and not just treated as a contractor given a “cookie cutter” task. Other actors need to be able to buy into this common vision and see their own successes in the initiative. Thus, an understanding and aligning of individual motivations and objectives is essential to achieving mutual agreement.
As the facilitator, the systems entrepreneur’s role is to determine a common set of metrics that can be used to evaluate success, and share progress along the way to identify areas of fine-tuning to keep all partners motivated and working cooperatively.
Integrate bottom-up and top-down strategies
Systems entrepreneurs want to change the entire ecosystem. To do systems-level change effectively, you need to address an issue from the bottom-up (typically change at the community level) as well as from the top-down (such as policy changes).
From my experience, I often see people failing to connect these two components together within a program.
You can have a big government intervention, but if it’s not embraced and adopted by the people it’s intended to help, it won’t be effective. Similarly, your progress is stalled if a compelling community program can’t get picked up by other actors to scale it up. The bottom-up and top-down strategies need to mutually reinforce each other.
Putting it in practice: tackling human trafficking as a systems entrepreneur
Our work in reducing the incidence of human trafficking across the India-Nepal border on behalf of a client provides an example of how we work as a systems entrepreneur.
As the independent facilitator, our role was to research, vet, and select the implementing partners. We also designed a comprehensive program strategy, coordinated advocacy efforts and capacity building, and monitored and reported on the initiative to our client.
We began by bringing potential implementing partners together for an in-country conference to get their collective wisdom regarding our working hypothesis at the time.
We were surprised to learn that despite these organizations sharing a similar goal of reducing modern slavery, many of them had never met, even though some were separated by only twenty miles or so. So we brought them together to establish a community of practice as part of a strategic and comprehensive anti-slavery program, and made sure they understood each other’s missions, initiatives, and areas of expertise.
All told, we facilitated 28 different organizations working together in a coordinated, comprehensive approach that tackled the issue on various fronts.
Some were focused on preventing Nepalese and Indian men, women, and children from getting snared into trafficking. Others conducted rescue and rehabilitation interventions, while other organizations worked with transport police, magistrates, and the legal systems in both countries to provide more protection for vulnerable people exploited by organized criminal networks.
Some of the organizations involved in the anti-trafficking program focused on educating community members so they were less vulnerable to traffickers
By helping each of the organizations realize how they fit into a larger system, we saw increased cooperation and better coordination from those involved.
In fact, this community of practice became so tightly aligned that they created their own formal network and started a joint advocacy initiative against human trafficking, aimed at getting policy change from the Bihar and Utter Pradesh state governments. This created the top-down influence that reinforced the work being done at the community level.
As for results, the program achieved or overachieved its original benchmarks in nearly every category. Over 9,500 people were rescued and/or rehabilitation and over 600,000 people in vulnerable communities benefited from awareness raising and economic empowerment, making them less susceptible to traffickers.
In short, by facilitating and coordinating the relevant stakeholders to apply bottom-up and top-down influence, we were able to do exactly what only systems entrepreneurs can: effectively improve a social issue at a systems level.
The exciting potential ahead
In the same way that the social entrepreneur label started to open our minds to new and wider possibilities (that it’s okay for a nonprofit to have a revenue model, for example), I’m excited for what lies ahead if more people think about systems change and the role of a systems entrepreneur.
As we think of scaling up innovative ideas to the regional and national levels and taking on the ambitious challenges of improving health care, creating jobs, and educating our youth, think about what we can accomplish if we free our imagination.
We’ve only yet begun to figure that out with some of our past work. While we’ve helped our clients make an enormous difference in the world, there’s much left to do. And as a systems entrepreneur, I can’t wait to get started on the next big problem.