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Skoll World Forum 2019 | Unlocking Systems-Level Change

Filed in General Fundraising — April 24, 2019

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by Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy, LLC, B Corp

One of the ways I anchor in subject matter that I’m not fully familiar with is to write about it.  This is a discipline that has enabled me to unlock complex subjects in the sector, particularly as it relates to our clients.  My more focused journey to do with Systems Change began on a TPW (The Philanthropy Workshop) retreat in South Beach in February of last year that inspired my following a Systems Change track at Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England in 2018.  The journey was further augmented at the New England International Donors (NEID) Innovations in International Philanthropy in Boston last Fall, at Opportunity Collaboration in Cancun, and then again at Skoll World Forum 2019 where organizations who are accomplishing deep and lasting change ruled the Skoll Awards.

While several organizations profiled have been studied by academic institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and others, many of the organizations and its leaders profiled here were curated by TPW in both South Beach last year and at Skoll this year with the express intention of illuminating systems change done right.  It is an honor to have been included in the program and learn with a cohort of funders who take a highly strategic approach to their philanthropic investments, and been afforded the opportunity to meet with and interview those leading systems change from deep in the trenches around the globe.


 Skoll World Forum 2019 | Unlocking Systems-Level Change

One of the long-standing issues in the philanthropic community is the ever-widening gap between the good intentions and the actual results that organizations hope to achieve. With so many like-minded groups working toward a solution to the same problem, why is it so difficult to actually reach the desired outcome?

In 2011, FSG managing directors John Kania and Mark Kramer collaborated on an article titled “Collective Impact” that addressed this very question (Kramer and Kania, 2011). While the focus of the article was on the continuing education issues that America is constantly battling, it set the tone for the philanthropic sector as a whole. They found that one organization that had actually made progress with a vastly different approach. The Cincinnati-based organization, Strive, was comprised of community leaders who threw aside any personal and individual agendas to collectively tackle the problem of creating resolutions for their city’s education problems. By ignoring any personal or political achievement they might have gained from the situation, Strive members were able to focus their full attention on the issue with open and willing minds, therefore bringing about the results they had hoped to achieve. This type of collaboration, free from the strictures of  charitable organizational leadership, exemplifies the very definition of “systems change.”

Through their Scaling Solutions initiative, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors learned that large-scale change happens when funders collaborate. Defining this effort as “systems change,” they believed that this “can be a highly effective framework to help philanthropy make a very significant difference in the world” (We Need To Talk About Systems Change, 2018).

Defining Systems Change

Systems change addresses the root causes of social issues as opposed to tackling the issue itself—finding a cure for the disease instead of just treating the symptoms. For example, if a philanthropic group is focused on ending slavery in their country, instead of setting out to save the victims of slavery, instead, they would first look for ways to change the mindset of those who see women or ethnic groups as subhuman; to amend the laws in their country to outlaw slavery as a whole; or to fight against corrupt and unfair business practices. The goal is to change the system itself. If the system can be changed, the problem can be eliminated at the source.

Focusing upon changing the system from the ground up has brought about the realization that like-minded organizations need to work together as a whole community to brainstorm the issues and propose solutions. The perpetual creation of new charities or institutions that focus their attention on the same problem that several other organizations have already pinpointed is unnecessary. It’s been shown that working together produces more and better results than working as separate entities.

Joining forces in this manner has its own challenges, not the least of which is directly related to motivation to do with egos or the desire for political gain, illustrated in the chronic issues Cincinnati faced before the allied efforts behind Strive. The act of coming together to combine hope, ideas, and innovations requires that personal gains be curtailed in exchange for collaborating in a mutual fight for social justice.

In his article, “The Evolving Operating Systems of Philanthropy” (Ricigliano, 2018), Rob Ricigliano of The Omidyar Group used Otto Scharmer’s four-stage historical progression of operating systems and applied it to philanthropies. He believes that philanthropies are following a similar movement toward an “Eco-system-centric 4.0 world approach,” one in which they examine the underlying multiple causes for global issues in order to better create sustainable positive change.

Ricigliano questions philanthropies on how well they are understanding the requirements of the 4.0 world—one where they set the right goals, not just be “solution focused.” This includes listening to the system; working toward a collective intelligence; acting “local first;” using “generative, adaptive, and non-linear” approaches; and taking “a more nuanced and rigorous approach to understanding our impacts over time” (Ricigliano, 2018).

He feels many philanthropic organizations are headed in this positive direction, however, the transition between the 3.0 and 4.0 world approach is difficult. The success of 3.0 “scalable solutions” makes it difficult for those innovators to move away from the more traditional approaches to social change that “fall short of 4.0.”In the evolution of the operating systems, Scharmer feels strongly that the 4.0 practice “needs to be co-created across donors, their partners, and stakeholders” (Ricigliano, 2018). This is echoed in the call for systems change heard at Skoll World Forum and other convenings.

In his “Solving the World’s Biggest Problems: Better Philanthropy Through Systems Change,” Jeffrey C. Walker also drew attention to the gap between nonprofits’ intentions and outcomes. “For too long, nonprofit boards and donors have emphasized the creation and growth of long-life organizations with ever-growing staffs and budgets. Perhaps what we need instead…, is an emphasis on what is called ‘systems change’—on identifying the organizations and individuals already working on a problem, and helping them join forces to achieve their common goals” (Walker, 2017).

Walker found five keys to successful systems change with corresponding examples. First, to think in terms of systems, by identifying collaborators who can help you establish solutions. Second is to find out what’s really needed and what works. Third, to maintain transparent and compelling communication internally with collaborative partners and externally with public audiences. Fourth, to realize you will often need to change laws, administrative rules, and official practices governing a system. And finally, fifth to constantly measure and evaluate with consistent and ongoing data assessments and to rely upon the results to guide strategy and ensure accountability (Walker, 2017).

Olivia Leland, founder and CEO of Co-Impact, discussed another issue with this cooperative mentality in “A New Model of Collaborative Philanthropy” (Leland, 2017). With more wealthy individuals and families and an increasing number of philanthropists in the world today, the money is there to drive systems change. However, there isn’t a good match between philanthropists’ visions, their assets, and organization needs. Social change leaders are hampered by restrictive grants and non-financial supports like networking or expertise in specific areas. “Relatively few philanthropists today offer this kind of holistic support—and few change leaders have the resources to secure it on their own” (Leland, 2017).

Real systems change efforts have been successful but there are only a handful of examples. There are leaders with plans and partnerships for systems change, but they don’t have the targeted support and realistic funding to get their large-scale strategies operational. There is also not an efficient means for philanthropists to find and support high-potential investments, and to connect and collaborate with each other in a meaningful way, particularly internationally (Leland, 2017).

Leland believes that collaboration is the key to not only solving social issues but to create a better mechanism for leaders and philanthropists to overcome these obstacles. For these reasons and inspired by the efforts of Blue Meridian Partners and Dasra, Leland launched Co-Impact to join funders for large-scale results across the developing world.

By combining these outlooks on defining systems change and how to best apply it toward philanthropic endeavors, donors, organizations, and social change leaders can more effectively work together in solving large-scale world problems. 

Where is a Systems Change Approach Working?

There are now organizations of note that have adopted the systems change approach in their missions; all understand the need for a collaborative approach. As an example of this first key, Walker highlights CEO Nick Grono’s Freedom Fund, a joint strategy for pooling donor funds and expertise in strategy, research, and policy issues relevant to the global anti-slavery movement. The Freedom Fund directs funds to 112 NGOs, 100 of which are grassroots groups in India, Nepal, and other countries where forced labor is significant. Six of the largest anti-slavery funders are involved, which means they are ceding credit and control with local partners to achieve progress (Walker, 2017).

In Jaipur, Freedom Fund is “tackling two systems” in the communities they reach, first the impact of poverty and second the factory workshops that exploit their workers because of their power. Although slavery is illegal everywhere, laws are not always enforced. Freedom Fund’s program in Jaipur has a high level of political commitment both locally through police and courts, but also by working with businesses and government to get the certification so they can expand to high-end markets overseas. And by compensating liberated children for remaining in the community, it encourages them to not return to the warehouses where they are locked up and forced to work punishing hours.

From 2014 to 2018, Freedom Fund’s directly impacted 515,000 individuals, liberated 21,000 victims, helped 46,000 at-risk children become engaged in school, supported 7,000 community freedom groups, and 160,000 community freedom group members. All at the cost of $56 a person (Freedom Fund Systems Change, 2019).

As an example of Walker’s second point in his keys to successful systems, change is  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) examination of the source of the exploration of farm workers. CIW also integrates systems change in their philanthropic approach. CIW is a human rights organization that fights against injustices such as human trafficking and gender-based violence through the Fair Food Program, which partners with farmers and retailers to make certain that wages and working conditions for farm workers are humane. Their work has freed over 1,200 workers that were being held captive and forced to work on various farms throughout Florida. Along with human compensation and conditions, the Fair Food Program focuses its efforts towards eliminating modern-day slavery. CIW played a key role in bringing down seven operations whose workers were there against their will and forcibly made to work gathering produce.

These victories led CIW to the systems change approach in 2001 when they began investigating the farming industry to understand the best route to make systemic changes. They realized that the major retail companies were intricate in exploiting farm workers, using their power to keep wages low and their own profits high. This led to the first-ever boycott of a national fast-food company, Taco Bell, in an effort to get the corporate giant to take responsibility for the abuse of human rights of the workers who grew and cultivated their produce products. Taco Bell folded under the pressure and agreed to reform the wages and conditions of these workers and stop the exploitation. This action to change the system from the inside led to other victories and other changes in major corporations, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, and Subway. CIW understands that it’s the system that needs changing — by focusing on systems change they can better the lives of the people they fight to protect.

Walker’s third point—maintaining internal and external transparent and compelling communication—can be seen in Leslie Udwin’s THINK EQUAL movement and program. Udwin is determined to create a system change in education, believing our education system’s purpose is outdated, even judged by its own objectives, because the skills taught are for jobs that we will be taken over by artificial intelligence. Think Equal holds that the core purpose of education should be to nurture and prepare children and youth for life–to provide the foundation for healthy, respectful and dignified later life outcomes.

Think Equal’s mission is to teach children to love, to educate their hearts, not merely their heads, and to mandate such education from the age of three when neuroscientists are clear that we have a brief window (two years) during which neuroplasticity allows us optimally to change attitudes and behavior.

Udwin gathered together powerful patrons, global experts and organizational partnerships in the field of Social and Emotional Learning, and with their input, designed the Think Equal Program. In just two years, Think Equal created four levels of Early Years SEL (with 120 narrative books, 480 lesson plans; 400 Resources); piloted in 140 schools across 7 countries, with a further 7 countries starting this year; and has commitments in varying stages from four countries to roll out the program nationally. The Sri Lankan government has been persuaded to mandate Think Equal as a policy from the age of three. The system change has begun and is already poised for large scale impact and effectiveness.

These organizations all realize the importance of Walker’s fourth point, that existing laws and official practices will need to be changed in order for the systems change to be successful. RefugePoint is an organization whose goal is to find long-term solutions for the most at-risk refugees in the world. Their focus is mainly upon women and children in dangerous situations who have lost their homes or are unsafe in their home country. Their solutions include relocating the refugees to safer countries and helping them to create new lives. Part of the systems changes approach is highlighted in this step as they strive to work with various governments to change or enhance resettlement policies. They attempt to be a catalyst for creating partnerships between organizations such as UNHCR, NGOs, and various governments to further their cause to create the revisions in policies or systems that will have a positive impact on the refugees they care for.

Since their founding in 2005, RefugePoint has assisted over 73,756 refugees in 35 countries to relocate and better their situations. Another avenue they pursue to help refugees better their lives is teaching self-reliance. This involves helping the displaced refugees learn the social and financial rules of their new location so they are able to provide for themselves, living a life of independence and confidence.

In addition to providing the necessary tools to better themselves and their situations, RefugePoint focuses on influencing and improving refugee resettlement and protection systems. They work around the world to strengthen and improve global policies and practices. This includes accountability and equity in refugee situations, financial resources, and allowing a more non-government organization to collaborate on solutions, expanding the capacity of the system.

A final example using all of Walker’s keys to success is shown in the West African based international nonprofit Tostan. Tostan’s mission is to empower communities to develop and achieve their own vision of wellbeing. Tostan’s vision for large-scale movements, leading to dignity for all, are specifically applied toward empowering communities with formal and non-formal education. Their hope is to create an environment that will prepare individuals and communities to realize their own vision for sustainable community wellbeing, particularly in areas that struggle with poverty and “deeply entrenched harmful social norms” (Tostan Scaling Systems Change, 2019).

In her much awaited first ever book released this week, “The Moment of Lift, ” Melinda Gates identifies Tostan founder, Molly Melching, as a quiet hero and one of her teachers. She credits her with imparting the lesson, “Outrage can save one girl, or two. Only empathy can change the system.”

For decades, Tostan has been working with over 3,000 communities in eight African countries, collaborating with local leaders and larger organizations like UNICEF. Since their beginning in 1991, 8,830 African communities have made public declarations to end female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage, positively impacting approximately 5.5 million people. More than 30,000 woman leaders have emerged in civic and elected roles. More than 2,000 community-led conflicts have been mediated by women and youth. And more than 3,000 communities have designed their own vision and action plans for sustainable development.

In relation to Walker’s second key point for successful systems change—finding out what is really needed and what really works—Tostan’s long history of community-led development has been measured and evaluated to best understand what works best in each locality. Their Community Empowerment Program (CEP) and post-CEP programs are monitored and evaluated with a system based on a Theory of Change, “that considers changes in social dynamics and social norms as well as changes in standard elements of wellbeing” (Tostan Scaling Systems Change, 2019).

This holistic lens is further measured in terms of governance, education, health, economic empowerment, and the environment (Tostan Scaling Systems Change, 2019). A Global Mobilization Team (GMT) coordinates and manages all of Tostan’s external relationships and secures the financial and in-kind resources necessary for mission fulfillment. “The GMT is in charge of maintaining a broad base of flexible, sustainable partnerships with engaged supporters and donors” (Global Message Mobilizer, 2019).

Using the CEP in 150 communities in four countries from 2013 to 2016, Tostan has recorded significant positive shifts and achievements in specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including building peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG 16); inclusive and quality equitable education (SDG 4); sustained, inclusive economic growth (SDG 8); good health and well-being for people (SDG 3); clean water and sanitation (SDG 2); and zero hunger (SDG 6) (Tostan Scaling Systems Change, 2019).

As well as continual expansion of their CEP and post-CEP modules, Tostan has honed their criteria for selecting new communities. A research institution will also develop a longitudinal study to gather more evidence on the sustainability of the results of the CEP, again maintaining Walker’s fifth key to systems change success.

Because of their success, Tostan offers a 10-day training course in Thiès, Senegal, to share Tostan’s content, approach, methodology, and strategy with community leaders and practitioners around the world. To date, they’ve trained 496 people from 47 countries across four continents and plan to expand their post-training learning and evaluation systems. This is an example of Walker’s third key on how to maintain internal and external “transparent and compelling communication” (Walker, 2017).

Their plan through 2023 is to scale up their CEP and post-CEP programs in 2,045 West African communities, integrate their framework for sustainable development to magnify good governance in those regions, “leading to sustained impact and resource generation” (Tostan Scale Systems Change, 2019). They’ll be reaching 102,250 direct participants in two thousand communities of more than one million people, bringing them into the movement to abandon female genital cutting and child marriage. This will likely lead to departmental and national public declarations (Tostan Scaling Systems Change, 2019), as has been the case in previous communities, taking into account Walker’s fourth key, on systems change will often involve changing laws and “official practices governing a system” (Walker, 2017).

Focusing upon the root causes of the issues philanthropic capital wishes to solve has brought about a clearer and more effective pathway to a more just, inclusive, equitable and peaceful world. Though there is a long way to go, thought leaders like Rob Ricigliano, Jeffrey Walker, Olivia Leland, and organizations like Tostan, RefugePoint, Freedom Fund, and Think Equal are paving the way to a future we can all embrace.


Leland, O. (2017, November 15). A New Model of Collaborative Philanthropy. Retrieved from

Ricigliano, R. (2018). The Evolving Operating System of Philanthropy. Retrieved from

We Need to Talk About Systems Change. (2018, June 7) Retrieved from

Kramer, M. and Kania, J. (2011). Collective Impact. Retrieved from

Freedom Fund Systems Change. (2019). Keynote slides.

Tostan Scaling Systems Change. (2019). PDF file.

Global Message Mobilizer. (2019). Retrieved from