• Systems change leaders have a specific skill set allowing them to navigate complex challenges in a rapidly changing environment.
  • They improve social systems by enabling whole groups of society to become changemakers.
  • The work of systems change leaders is still constrained by current funding practices.

In the spirit of the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting – “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World” – all stakeholders are called upon to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In the discussion about securing financial resources and political will, however, one key factor has been largely overlooked so far: the people who can contribute to solving these issues.

These people are called social entrepreneurs, changemakers, or systems change leaders. What unites them is a specific skill set allowing them to navigate complex challenges in a rapidly changing environment: cognitive empathy to recognize and understand social and environmental issues; the ability to collaborate in teams across cultures and sectors; the courage to be different; and a bias to action. What truly distinguishes them is their unique approach: they create inclusive environments in which diverse groups can contribute to mobilizing around a shared vision to build a solution.

To unlock the potential of this approach, we need to improve funding practices to better support systems change initiatives and adopt a new metric for success in all sectors.

Infographic about system changers by McKinsey & Company

Learning from systems change leaders

Systems change leaders improve law enforcement, value chains, education, healthcare, city planning, and many other social systems on a national or even international level by enabling whole groups of society to become changemakers.

Here are just two examples: Truckers Against Trafficking, founded by Kendis Paris, turns truck drivers into witnesses who recognize and report human trafficking activities on US highways. NUCAFE, founded by Joseph Nkandu, helps coffee farmers in Uganda to organize in associations that stay in control of the coffee until it is processed.

The value of these ventures doesn’t come primarily from training truckers or helping farmers in negotiations directly. It comes from influencing policies, changing industry standards, and providing the blueprints for programmes that get broadly replicated. Truckers Against Trafficking promoted legislation in US states that make anti-trafficking training mandatory for a host of commercial driver’s license holders. As a result, 800,000 truckers are now making life difficult for traffickers. In Uganda, about 80% of coffee farmers are now organized based on NUCAFE’s model. This has almost eliminated extreme poverty for coffee farmers and led to better opportunities for education and political participation.

A new approach to funding

Despite their great value, the work of systems change leaders is still constrained by current funding practices. Most funding is geared toward short-term projects with clear, measurable results – often based on the number of beneficiaries reached – rather than collaborative, evolving approaches that can create lasting systems change.

To change these practices, we have collaborated with leading organizations in the social sector (Catalyst 2030, Co-Impact, Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and the Skoll Foundation), as well as SYSTEMIQ as a facilitation partner. Our collaborative report Embracing Complexity builds on more than 60 interviews with funders and intermediaries, and a survey of over 110 systems change leaders. It puts forth five principles to better fund systems change initiatives:

  • Embrace a systems mindset by being clear about the systems you want to change, incorporating systems change into your DNA, and actively look for funding opportunities
  • Support evolving paths to systems change by flexibly funding systems leaders with transformative visions of improved systems rather than projects, investing in learning and capability building and encouraging collaboration among systems change leaders
  • Work in true partnership by acknowledging and working against power dynamics, providing support that fits systems change leaders’ needs, and being mindful of their limited resources
  • Prepare for long-term engagement by being realistic about the time it takes to achieve systems change, acknowledging that the path of the initiatives will change along the way and encouraging realistic ambitions
  • Collaborate with other stakeholders by aligning with other funders, building networks for systems change leaders, and leaving the leading role to systems change leaders

Many of our interview partners had long awaited such a collaboration among funders, intermediaries, and systems change leaders and were eager to join and spread the word about funding systems change. Our group of co-publishers invite others to join this initiative.

A new metric for success

As a reader of this article, chances are that you have honed your changemaking skills throughout your life. Many others have never had the chance to develop these skills. This constitutes a new inequality: those who are in a position to contribute to solving society's complex challenges are in high demand, while those who do not have access to the necessary opportunity and platforms feel increasingly left “out of the fight”.

If we want to overcome this inequality, governments, businesses, schools, and parents all over the world need to adopt a new metric for success: the degree to which they enable others to become changemakers. To get started, we merely need to ask ourselves a simple question: "What percentage of people in my network, organization, or family know that they are changemakers?"

Systems change leaders have already adopted this metric. They build towards a society where everyone thrives, is powerful, engaged, and can contribute. We believe that as a leader in the 21st Century, you should do the same.