System work seeks to address social problems by making substantive and lasting changes to the system in which the problems are embedded. Doing such work requires thinking about causal architecture. To reform a system necessitates understanding and then transforming the causal processes that constitute those systems.

This is hard work. There is no magic to changing systems, no waving of the wand. But investing in a system perspective can pay off greatly. Deeper reflection on a system’s architecture reduces our tendency to prematurely specify and enact solutions that are not effective or likely make situations worse. We thus employ resources more productively. We become more realistic about how much time is necessary to address problems and more humble and willing to explore and to learn, rather than to base decisions on the assumed superiority of our existing knowledge, technologies, and strategies.

System work gives organizations the opportunity to rethink their approaches and refresh their attitudes. Leaders may have better arguments to nurture long-term commitment to places and communities, instead of the exhausting fly-in, fly-out practices of Western philanthropic and development organizations. System work is not about solutions; it’s about discovering and steering local pathways for change at a pace appropriate for our ability to learn and for what local communities can enact and absorb. In what follows, I sketch some practical routes for adopting system perspectives for organizations that want to make their philanthropic work more effective.

The field of philanthropy may enthuse over systems thinking, but it betrays confusion about systems, system perspectives, and their claim to objectivity. First, defining the boundaries of social systems is generally impossible. When we think of systems as relevant wholes, as is usually the case, we end up easily with the universe: Everything is somehow connected. Any problem context is influenced and relates to other problems, situations, and systems, and thus our inquiry expands the ecology of issues and problem definitions, in the words of social scientist Werner Ulrich, “to the point where it might encompass God and the World.”  Needless to say, this is not a very practical approach. The practice of systems thinking, then, requires setting boundaries determined not only by the context of the problem discussed but also by our interests and needs.