It’s one of the perennial questions facing the nonprofit world: Why, despite the sector’s collective resources and best efforts, do so many social problems remain so persistent?

This stubborn gap between intentions and outcomes is drawing increased attention from across the philanthropic community. Many within the sector are coming to a shared conclusion: 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, according to the emerging line of thinking, 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.

Several of the most significant philanthropic achievements of this century—such as the extraordinary reduction of annual malaria deaths—have used systems change strategies. Yet despite these and other well-documented successes, the nonprofit sector still has a long way to go. While we have created many great social enterprises that generate innovative approaches to everything from frontline health care to early childhood interventions, we have not spent enough time and resources on doing what it takes to turn innovative ideas into lasting, system-level change. Examples of this mismatch problem can be seen all over the world. Good ideas and innovations in schools, such as Teach for America and KIPP, haven’t translated into large-scale, systemic solutions. Even during the Ebola outbreak, a systems approach to understanding the problem and its potential solutions might have led to more effective and sustainable strategies for improving community health in the hardest-hit nations.

The message is clear: Our focus should be more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on the establishment and perpetuation of new institutions. In addition, we need to develop and employ system entrepreneurs who are skilled in coordinating systematic approaches to addressing the complex, large-scale problems of our time.

The Rise of Systems Change

In 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article by two FSG managing directors, John Kania and Mark Kramer. The piece was titled “Collective Impact,” a phrase that is still often used as a shorthand for systems-based approaches to philanthropy.

The article began with a no-nonsense provocation, invoking one of the subject areas that had consumed so much of American philanthropy’s money and energy over the years: education.

“The scale and complexity of the U.S. public education system has thwarted attempted reforms for decades,” wrote Kania and Kramer. “The heroic efforts of countless teachers, administrators, and nonprofits, together with billions of dollars in charitable contributions, may have led to important improvements in individual schools and classrooms, yet system-wide progress has seemed virtually unobtainable.”

But there was at least one “remarkable exception” to this dismal record of philanthropic underachievement: a Cincinnati initiative called Strive. Kania and Kramer observed that despite economic downturns and budget cuts, this school-reform campaign had generated improvements in high-school graduation rates, fourth-grade reading and math scores, and the number of preschoolers prepared for kindergarten.

“Why has Strive made progress when so many other efforts have failed?” Kania and Kramer asked. “It is because a core group of community leaders decided to abandon their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to improving student achievement.”

The article had an immediate and lasting impact, spawning a legion of follow-up pieces. Strive was hardly the only early example of a system entrepreneur seeking to address social needs by drawing upon the strengths and assets of diverse actors in a system. In fact, there are more and more people these days whom I would describe as system entrepreneurs. They help like-minded organizations and individuals focus on a problem of shared concern—and act as honest brokers among the members of the coalition to help marshal each one’s unique capabilities and resources. They are catalysts for action.

Ray Chambers’s extraordinarily successful anti-malaria campaign, which brought together a motley alliance (ranging from the Peace Corps to ExxonMobil) to radically advance progress against the disease after decades of stasis, was another example of effective systems change. So was EducationSuperHighway (ESH), a venture that has helped bring broadband Internet access to schools across the United States.

In short, systems change campaigns have begun emerging in a way we had never seen previously. Which begs the question: Why now? One answer is that such strategies are, as system entrepreneur Jean Horstman of Interise put it, “part of the zeitgeist.” At a moment when our most pressing social and environmental challenges are so complex—and the resources available to any single institution to deal with those problems seem so limited—it makes sense to use the systems that are already available.

And let’s not kid ourselves: Money is not the only resource in limited supply. In fact, cash is positively abundant compared to other, more abstract necessities like hope, imagination, and social cohesion. Systems change is gaining traction because the old ways of doing things seem so spent.

At a systems change conference that I co-hosted at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government last June, political commentator and former presidential advisor David Gergen said such approaches represent a constructive response to policy paralysis and political gridlock: “It’s been hard to move the needle, and it’s hard to know where one goes from here.”

The potential path forward is nicely illustrated by John Cawley of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. “We realized after spending millions over the years that we were not having the systems impact we needed and wanted due to the complexity and size of the issues,” Cawley said. “So we redefined our role; we are curators or stewards of the ecosystem around an issue. … [W]e can be the connective tissue between parts of the ecosystem.”

Which in turn begs another question: How can such curators and stewards succeed in their task? How can they best serve as connective tissue for partners who may not even think of themselves as having anything in common? Who can help coordinate these strategies?

What, in other words, are the fundamental elements of successful Systems change?

Five Keys to Successful Systems Change

As Vanessa Kirsch, Jim Bildner, and I wrote in a July Harvard Business Review article, five priorities distinguish successful systems change collaborations:

1. Think in systems. Having a great idea for solving a social problem is just the beginning. You also need to identify the collaborators who can help you translate your innovation into real solutions for the real world.

One international issue that seemed especially ripe for the systems change approach was the modern slavery crisis. An estimated 45 million people worldwide live in slavery or slavery-like conditions today. The annual profits derived from forced labor are estimated at $150 billion.  Slavery is a complicated problem. The global trade in forced labor reaches into every populated continent, and its opponents are an unwieldy amalgam of government agencies, multinational bodies, businesses, religious groups, and NGOs.

Geneva Global, a Paoli, Penn.-based consultancy that has emerged as a leading incubator of systems change campaigns, had developed some experience and credibility in the sector. It was already managing an India-Nepal anti-slavery program funded by the Legatum Foundation.

Geneva Global and Legatum had come to realize that in order to tackle the slavery problem at the necessary scale, a systems-based approach was needed. In 2013, Geneva Global CEO Doug Balfour initiated discussions with Legatum and one of the other major funders of the movement, Humanity United. They then contacted a third major donor, the Walk Free Foundation.

The three funders came to some shared conclusions. The sector was too fragmented. Its successes were too scattered and too limited to achieve global gains. It wasn’t learning from its own triumphs and failures in any systematic way. And it wasn’t attracting enough new private money. More specifically, the anti-slavery campaign was not yet taking advantage of emerging pooled-funding strategies that were opening up huge new possibilities in other social-service realms, such as disease prevention and vaccine development.

To fill this gap, the funders agreed on a joint strategy for a new pooled-fund organization—an entity that became known as the Freedom Fund. From the start, this was to be much more than “just a fund.” In addition to pooling donors, it would take an active role in the strategy, research, and policy issues pertinent to the global anti-slavery movement.

For Freedom Fund CEO Nick Grono, that means developing more effective strategies—everything from litigation to the use of anti-corruption statutes. “It’s about being smart and strategic, and thinking what more could be done in this space,” he says.

Six of the largest anti-slavery funders are now involved in the Freedom Fund, and the organization has begun to play a significant donor-convening role worldwide. It now directly funds 112 NGOs, 100 of which are grassroots groups in India, Nepal, and other countries where forced labor remains widespread.

This means the Freedom Fund and its benefactors are effectively ceding credit and control, and persuading local partners to give up a bit of theirs in return—all in the name of achieving the kind of progress that will actually last. That is the essence of systems change. “Getting people to collaborate and work together is probably the hardest thing to do in the international development space,” says Geneva Global’s Balfour. “Persuading people to essentially give up their own autonomy in the promise of seeking greater impact is a delicate and diplomatic process.”

Jenna Mulhall-Brereton, a Geneva Global managing director who has assisted other systems change efforts at the firm, points out that such allowances are essential to effective collaboration. “When you’re looking at systems-level change, the chances are you’re going to need to work with partners,” she says. “We want to give people a realistic sense of what that means, taking ego out of it and making it all about achieving the goal.”

The number of systems incubators who help start large-scale interventions, like Geneva Global, is growing. They help find systems entrepreneurs; set up backbone support for coalitions; and assist fundraising. New Profit, Tides Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts have all set up such systems change incubators.

2. Engage in research and analysis to hone your strategy. Figure out what’s really needed—and what works.

Systems change leaders need to research and analyze the strategies that others have tried in the past. This guards against reinventing the wheel and other redundancies of effort. Such research will ideally draw upon a wide range of outside sources. It should seek to harness the best thinking from incubators, nonprofits, universities, and think tanks.

One systems change endeavor that has used thoughtful research and analysis to hone its approach is the Compassionate Schools Project, a partnership of the University of Virginia (UVA), the Jefferson County, Ky. public schools, Louisville Metro Government, and an impressively diverse array of philanthropic donors. In this case, UVA and the Brown family of Louisville, Ky., were the systems entrepreneurs guiding the project.

The Compassionate Schools Project aims to have a major impact on children’s education nationwide, due to its extraordinary scale: 50 schools and 20,000 children over the project’s six years, beginning with the schools of metropolitan Louisville.

The project is the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of a health-and-wellness curriculum in an elementary or secondary school setting. Through mindfulness techniques, physical exercise, nutritional awareness, and training in emotional skills, it seeks to instill such essential qualities as focus, empathy, and resilience.

Organizers faced some hard initial questions about which methods to feature in the curriculum. There was no shortage of options—or opinions. So they dove into intensive research to assess the various potential approaches. Yoga training was found to be an especially good curricular addition for physically active kids. Nutrition training was important to ensure both academic readiness and healthy physical growth. Then, of course, there was the large and growing body of research on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness training for mental performance, physical well-being, and emotional balance.

The partners dug deeper into the potential offerings. They found that most mindfulness-centered programs didn’t offer yoga programs; yoga programs tended to lack a social and emotional learning component; and the social and emotional curriculum under consideration was missing both yoga and mindfulness training.

Through this research, the project partners came to a firm conclusion: A hybrid strategy combining all of these elements would produce better outcomes than an initiative focusing solely on, say, meditation or nutrition. To simply take one nonprofit’s programs and embed those into the Louisville school system would probably fail to meet the needs of the student body as a whole.

“These are all ideas that we know can help, but they’ve never been put into a package that could be implemented in schools as a regular part of education,” says Patrick Tolan, the project’s principal investigator. “These are things that are really valuable because they educate the whole child, with attention to both long-term and short-term implications.”

In this synergistic spirit, UVA helped Louisville assess a wide range of innovative approaches to create a customized blend that would be both effective and feasible for the district.

With the public elementary schools of the 28th largest district in the United States as its proving ground, organizers hope the project’s lessons will be noticed and applied across the nation. If that proves to be the case, the rigorous research and analysis carried out for the Louisville effort will bear fruit for many other school systems—and countless students—nationwide.

3. Understand that effective communication is the lifeblood of any systems change campaign. Maintain transparent and compelling communications both internally with collaborative partners, and externally with public audiences.

The systems change model demands a high level of interaction and transparency between previously unaffiliated individuals and groups. If these links break down, or are never quite formed in the first place, it is unlikely that an effort will succeed.

Jane Wei-Skillern, adjunct associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Hass School of Business, a leading scholar of collaborative philanthropy, says of systems change partners, “If they don’t have authentic relationships, even if they have everything else from a structural approach, it won’t work.”

One example of a systems change effort that has placed a high priority on the value of communication is the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy initiative. Established as the Global Ocean Legacy campaign in 2006, this effort has already helped secure commitments to lasting environmental protections for 2.4 million square miles of ocean, mainly in the Pacific Ocean.

Highly attuned to the need for collaboration with coastal populations that have long relied upon the sea for their livelihood, Ocean Legacy employs communications efforts that are tailored to the unique culture of each site. The campaign’s advocacy efforts first focus on building relationships with communities, and then on reinforcing those relationships through a broader communications strategy. Through the campaign, organizers identified innovations that far-flung communities could learn from and share. Informing participants about innovations they can use is a vital role for any systems change organization.

In each country, Ocean Legacy promotes collaboration among varied community groups, including fishermen, scientists, indigenous peoples, industry, and conservationists. In the Pacific Ocean, the initiative has established Island Voices—a diverse group of residents from across different islands. These individuals play a critical role in advocating for marine reserve proposals in their communities.

In addition to these highly personalized efforts, Global Ocean has also used social media to build local support for conservation. For example, in Palau, Facebook is an important community resource, and a coalition of supporters built a page to promote the proposal for a reserve. Ocean Legacy helped fund a 40-minute documentary film narrated by the US marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and commissioned artists in New Zealand to develop ocean-inspired works that eventually resulted in an exhibition that traveled the globe and raised awareness of the importance of marine reserves.

The field of communications and awareness-building is an especially dynamic one in the age of social media, global Internet penetration, and the 24/7 news cycle. Yet the participants in any systems change effort must remember that the most important communications of all are those that occur within a campaign, among the participants themselves.

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy initiative has shown a unique ability to communicate with both local partners and global audiences—a capability that will serve the campaign well as it seeks to expand the protected zones of the world’s oceans.

4. Embrace your inner policy wonk—and your inner politico. If you seek to change a complex system, you will often need to change the laws, administrative rules, and official practices governing that system.

This means being serious about policy—and being willing to engage in the often-difficult work of seeking political and regulatory change. I’m the chairman of New Profit, a Boston-based philanthropic venture group, and I’ve seen the importance—and the challenge—of policy change firsthand.

Like countless other nonprofit organizations, ours is tackling the immense problem of US educational dysfunction and inequality. We set up the Reimagine Learning Fund to ensure that all students—including those who may be marginalized or disengaged because of learning disorders or socio-economic disadvantages—can succeed both in school and beyond.

The Reimagine Learning Fund embraced systems change strategies from the start, eventually conducting a network of more than 350 educators, funders, social entrepreneurs, academic researchers, and policy experts from more than 150 separate organizations. “We see our role as a healthy balance between facilitating and actually leading the effort,” says Kim Syman, a New Profit managing partner who has helped lead the organization’s education-reform work.

That effort has included a significant policy component, assisted by a New Profit coalition—America Forward—that is devoted to lobbying and advocacy. The initial purpose of this alliance was to support the reauthorization of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and to ensure that the act gets translated into effective regulations.

For example, the coalition sought to establish a Comprehensive Literacy Center to assist children with dyslexia or related conditions. This measure was sponsored by Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the legislators whom Reimagine Learning and America Forward met with on a day of Capitol Hill visits in 2015.

Reimagine Learning and America Forward have waged a comprehensive, nonpartisan campaign to identify partners in both major parties who can help the alliance reach the elected officials, appointees, and candidates who will determine the future of education reform.

That work is by no means limited to Washington, D.C. Given the continued primacy of state governments in US education policy, Reimagine Learning and America Forward have been active at this level, working to influence state-level policy to support district-level change.

“The more we worked with school and district leaders, the more we saw the challenges they faced,” says Syman. “As a result, we are now thinking more about how to support practical solutions, not limited to those coming out of research or academia.”

5. Measure and evaluate. Then measure and evaluate again. The most successful systems change campaigns create consistent and ongoing data assessments, and rely upon those findings to guide strategy and ensure accountability.

Rigorous data collection and consistent measurement are essential components of systems change philanthropy. EducationSuperHighway (ESH) remains the gold standard in this category.

ESH’s objective is to “Upgrade the Internet access in every public school classroom in America so that every student has the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning.” ESH founder Evan Marwell and his colleagues understood that in order to prove the continued need for better digital connections in schools, they had to come up with data illustrating the scope of the problem.

To achieve this, they set up a diagnostic website, SchoolSpeedTest, in September 2012. With the help of about 100 partner organizations, 26 state governments, and 35,000 schools across the country, Marwell and his team gathered the information they needed to understand the true scope of the Internet-access challenge. “Suddenly we had a data set,” says Marwell. “No more anecdotes.” What that data set revealed was unsettling. About 63 percent of school districts—representing 40 million students—lacked the broadband required for digital learning.

As states and districts began paying more attention to the connectivity problem, ESH’s measurements would play a crucial role in assessing progress. An authoritative ongoing report, State of the States, is available on ESH’s website. Such publicly-available measurements, in turn, create added incentive for states to keep up. This seems to have created a virtuous cycle, spurring significant advances in connectivity.

Beginning in 2013—the first full year of ESH’s existence—the share of US school districts achieving the target level of Internet connectivity (100 kilobits per second) more than doubled in just two years, rising from 30 percent to 77 percent.

An Evolving Model

What seems clear is that the systems change approach to philanthropy will continue to gain traction worldwide. At a time when public budgets are under increased economic and political stress, there is a certain appeal in making the most of existing resources and expertise.

The five elements laid out above will provide a sturdy grounding for any collaborative campaign, but system entrepreneurs need to understand that any such endeavor will have its inherent quirks and complexities. After all, systems change is all about tackling our most complicated problems, drawing upon the power of diverse networks and potentially fractious coalitions.

Geneva Global’s Doug Balfour believes that while the strategies and tactics used in building past systems change campaigns may hold lessons, each will have its own distinct identity. “Each systems venture is completely different,” he says. “They are always custom. There are some principles that are the same, but the ways in which you have to put it all together are always unique.”

To address the world’s biggest problems, it’s essential that we build upon the great work already being done by traditional social entrepreneurs. It’s time to support the growing ranks of systems entrepreneurs by investing in systems incubators—and by helping systems change campaigns get the support they need to engage in effective research; communicate with internal and external partners; pursue successful policy change; and measure relevant data to see what works.

The basic steps of systems change are proven and clear. It’s up to the philanthropic sector to make this powerful vehicle of progress more available to more of today’s social innovators.

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