We have experienced a relatively hot summer here on the East Coast in the United States, one of the hottest in recent memory. Air-conditioning and swimming pools are a welcomed sight. Yes, its really hot right now.
Besides the weather, as a topic systemic change is equally hot right now. The Vincentian Family has been championing this approach to addressing poverty over the past decade, identifying (and in some cases pioneering) the need to address systems alongside direct-service provision. This concept is now gaining steam in a broader context.
Although we are almost through the summer, I’ll give you some late summer reading/listening as a demonstration that systemic change is topping the summer charts.
- Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, spoke recently about their shift in focus from funding direct-service programs piecemeal, to funding efforts that can address inequality through systems change.
- Zia Khan, vice president for initiatives and strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation, had a recent conversation about the need for “systems entrepreneurs,” and which organizations can take credit for systems change efforts. Additionally, he discussed the need to identify the systems we are attempting to effect, and the benefits of identifying a target outcome from the onset.
- Even Collective Impact efforts are now realizing that they need to focus more on systems change. LiveWell Colorado, one of the shining examples of collective impact in their efforts to reduce childhood obesity in the state, is reorganizing their efforts through a systems-based approach.
- Software programs have been launched to map systems change efforts, and academic institutions are committing resources to study and promote systemic change. New seminars on systems change and design are being announced seemingly every week.
If people were able to buy stock in an idea or concept, The Vincentian Family would be early investors in a stock that is about to split. This is exciting news, but also a time for some reflection. We need to answer:
- What systems are we focused on changing? Do these systems address that of an individual person, a geographic place, or an intractable social issue? If we are focused on changing the system around an individual person in poverty, can the proposed solution scale to have an impact on many individuals?
- What systems are we building? Are these systems applicable to broader change outside of the Vincentian Family?
- Are we labeling some of our work as systemic change, when it really is a direct-service program?
These are questions we are asking in our work taking place in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Some of our initial answers to these questions:
- We are currently focused on changing a place-based system (the Germantown community).
- We are building a system to have a multi-faceted impact on this community, while also figuring out how best to build an ecoystem where those in poverty can flourish. Collective impact, systems mapping, and human-centered design (http://www.designkit.org/human-centered-design) all inform how we build these systems.
- It has been tempting for us to try to play a more direct-service role; it is much easier to explain that we are giving people food, a place to stay, or temporary employment. We have had to reaffirm and continuously reestablish our work as taking a systems-oriented approach, even if some don’t understand what it is that we “do” (see Firefighters and Engineers).
We in the social sector have become so comfortable investing time, energy, and resources in programs and direct-services, that it may create some discomfort to take a candid look at the systems we are actually building/disrupting/changing. But this summer seems like a good time to double-down on a systems-change approach.
Mike Clark is the Executive Director of the Impact Germantown, a collective impact venture championed by the Vincentian Family in Philadelphia. Mike has advised faith-based communities in the areas of performance management, impact measurement, and impact investing. He has also developed social-innovation finance legislation for the state of New Jersey. Prior to his current role, he worked in a variety of roles in K-12 urban education in Philadelphia including strategy, resource development, and teaching. Michael also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. He holds a Bachelors degree from the University of Scranton, and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.