Giving Compass' Take:

• Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors discusses the common use of the term "systems change" and how it can mean many things to different people in the nonprofit world. 

• It may take time, but those involved in social innovation should have an open discussion about getting consensus on the definition of "systems." This will open up many more opportunities.

• If you're looking for a deeper dive on the topic, check out Stanford Social Innovation Review's analysis of different systems and how they apply to philanthropy.

At a recent conference in New Orleans, as well as at Skoll World Forum, we repeatedly heard funders throw around the term “systems change;” it has become a very popular talking point in panels, conversations and grant applications. Despite its frequent use, however, it is rarely defined or has the assumptions on which it is based explained in those contexts.  Moreover, many foundation staffers openly say that they avoid using this phrase at board meetings, noting that, “’Systems change’ is a sure fire way to make Board members’ eyes glaze over — especially in an after-lunch session.”

To address this gap, one of our partners at the Skoll Foundation has tasked us with creating that definition. Specifically, we are seeking to clarify the difference between changing a system (e.g., education or climate change) and The System (the entirety of the system we live within, for example the patriarchy or capitalism).

As we learned from the first year of our Scaling Solutions initiative, large-scale change happens when funders collaborate. This begs the question: how can funders collaborate to fund systems change if we can’t even agree on a definition? Without agreement on what we are trying to change, we can’t possibly define success, and without defining success, it is hard to drive consensus on who or what to collectively fund.

With these issues in mind, the research behind Scaling Solutions takes on a new meaning and mission to demystify the notion of systems change and ensure we are all operating under the same definitions and expectations. We want to make “systems change” a more transparent term since we, together with our project partners, believe that this can be a highly effective framework to help philanthropy make a very significant difference in the world.

Read the full article about trying to define systems change by Dustin Sposato at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.