An Introduction to Systems Change

It's no secret that at Ashoka we believe that social entrepreneurship – the concept of an innovative solution to a social problem in the hands of an exceptional entrepreneur – is the key to solving society’s problems.

At the heart of every social entrepreneur’s ambition is to fundamentally change the system within which they work, so as to impact on the largest possible number of people, without the need for the entrepreneur to replicate their organisation or themselves. As Ashoka’s Founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, once said, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.” Counterintuitively perhaps, they aim to create a system in which they no longer have a job as there is no problem to fix!

At Ashoka, we identify and support those social entrepreneurs who have found an idea that is systems-changing; indeed, at the heart of our selection criteria is the notion of ‘a systems change idea in the hands of an entrepreneur’. So, for example, rather than support a person who is building a school (as admirable as that is), we look for people who are transforming the way children learn, at a national or even international level.

Ashoka Fellows change systems in five different ways:

  1. Redefining interconnections in market systems
  2. Changing the rules that govern societies
  3. Diminishing the gap between the private and citizen sectors
  4. Integrating marginalised populations
  5. Increasing the number of people who are social problem-solvers

In our work with our Fellows, we have seen that they all change systems through the power of their ideas. They build organisations around those ideas – organisations that are the vehicles with which they transform the status quo and significantly contribute to strengthening society. Their organisations are, like any successful organisation, built around a framework: vision, problem, strategy, partnerships, impact, challenges and learnings. We believe that this framework contains the building blocks for systems change.

As we attempt to demystify what systems change is on a practical level, we will hear from three of our UK Fellows – Michael Sani of Bite the BallotKaren Mattison of Timewise and Mark Swift of Wellbeing Enterprises – about how they have established their organisations around a systems-change approach and what exactly that looks like within the context of the problem they are solving.  Each demonstrates a true understanding that to achieve systems change – to truly fix a system – it is the impact, not the organisation that needs to be scaled. And that means being open to others taking credit and joining in, as long as the desired outcome is achieved.

Watch the full Interviews of UK Fellows Michael Sani, Karen Mattison and Mark Swift here

As you see, we believe that systems-changing ideas in the hands of entrepreneurs are how humans will literally save the world. So we want to share the knowledge and learnings gleaned from years of working with the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs, and we are very fortunate to have the support of the Big Lottery Fund (BLF) to do so. The Big Lottery Fund funds systems changing initiatives across the UK. Its grantees make communities stronger and more vibrant; change is led by the people that live in the communities themselves, so there is evidently huge alignment with the work of Ashoka and our Fellows. With BLF, we have held a series of accelerator programmes for social entrepreneurs on how to drive systems change within their organisations. Working with these people, and organisations like BLF, gives us huge optimism for the future: we hope it does the same for you. 

A Partnership of

A system change follows a change in the root causes of an issue, as opposed to a surface level change, which only addresses symptoms.

Ashoka Fellows