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. 

Vision - A Social Entrepreneur's Starting Point

A vision is the starting point of any enterprise - social or otherwise. It is a dream, but with a plan to make it happen. A social entrepreneur has a vision of what society would look like if the problem they have identified has been solved. That might be a society where the oceans are clear of...
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Purpose - The Guiding Star

The journey of any social entrepreneur can be difficult, both emotionally and physically, and problems can sometimes seem insurmountable. They constantly need to revisit their purpose and reconnect with the reason that they committed their lives to solving the problem they identified. Our Fellows...
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Problem - Observation of a Systemic Gap

We are all aware that society is by no means perfect, and that it leaves many behind. All social entrepreneurs have identified a particular problem that they feel needs to be fixed in order for society to work better for all. It could be within their field of expertise - such as a farmer who sees...
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Strategy - A Plan of Action

A social entrepreneur’s strategy is their roadmap to bring their idea to fruition, in order to achieve their vision for a better society. It is the very practical enactment of the idea - and includes the steps that need to be taken, and the way those steps will add up to significant change. A...
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Partnerships - Mobilising Stakeholders

There are no two ways about it: in order to achieve their vision and drive tangible social impact, social entrepreneurs must partner with a wide variety of organisations. The benefits of teaming up with organisations with similar goals or who would benefit from the ambitions of the social enterprise...
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Impact - An Organisation's Footprint

Of course, impact is at the heart of social entrepreneurship. A social entrepreneur is driven by a desire to effect positive change on a community, on society, or on the world, rather than the more ‘traditional’ desire to make money. So the way that a social enterprise measures its effectiveness is...
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Challenges - The Unavoidable Trials

As Michael Sani points out in a video clip we will be posting later today, there is no manual to being the CEO of a social enterprise, so social entrepreneurs have to learn on the job. This means that there will be challenges along the way, and the only way forward is to try your best and learn from...
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Learnings - The Wisdom Obtained

All social entrepreneurs (and indeed ‘regular’ entrepreneurs) are on a journey. They will have started their organisations with a vision, as we’ve discussed previously, and an idea with which they will solve a problem achieve that vision. From that idea comes a strategy. But here’s the thing – as...
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Michael Sani on Systems Change

The issue with poor civic participation is mainly due to a lack of meaningful engagement of all citizens, regardless of their post code, education pathways or any other factor that makes us different. To reach the millions of disengaged citizens through direct service alone would require a huge...
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Mark Swift on Systems Change

I believe we will have achieved systemic change in healthcare systems when we have successfully integrated the social dimensions of health and wellbeing in all clinical and social care pathways. Compelling scientific evidence tells us that health is socially constructed through the...
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Karen Mattison on Systems Change


Karen Mattison

Ashoka Fellow since Dec 2011

The problem How people work in the UK has changed dramatically in recent years - seven in 10 of the UK workforce has some form of flexibility in their working patterns, with almost as many men as women preferring to work in this...
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Systems Change: A High-Level Summary

We use the term system change to describe an outcome as well as an approach to social change. In terms of an outcome, we describe a change as systemic if the way a system operates shifted and as a result produces a more positive outcome itself. A system change follows a change in the root causes of...
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3 UK Fellows on Systems Change

Watch the full Interviews of UK Fellows Michael Sani, Mark Swift and Karen Mattison on systems change.
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A system change follows a change in the root causes of an issue, as opposed to a surface level change, which only addresses symptoms.

Florian Rutsch
Ashoka UK Fellowship Manager

Michael Sani

Ashoka Fellow since Dec 2014

Karen Mattison

Ashoka Fellow since Dec 2011