As we face a looming 12-year deadline on climate change, increasing threats to democracy, and a global refugee population of unprecedented size, effecting social change at a systems level has perhaps never been more important. But what does sustainable systems change look like in practice? How do we convene multiple actors within a given issue area, and bring them together in unexpected ways to drive change? The speakers on the “Accelerating Systems Change” panel at this year’s Skoll World Forum offered key insights on those questions and more.

Scoping the issue

When tackling complex, far-reaching social problems, determining how and where to focus efforts is key, says Safeena Husain, Founder and CEO of Educate Girls. Educate Girls combats gender inequity in India by ensuring young girls are enrolled in school. But, when Husain first set out to do this work, the enormity of the problem was not lost on her: India is home to 1 billion people spread across 650,000 villages. Where, then, to begin?

Government data helped her locate the state with the most acute gender disparity: Rajasthan. Then, by sending community volunteers door to door, Husain learned the problem was more concentrated than she thought: 5 percent of villages in India are home to 40 percent of the nation’s unenrolled girls. “If we really focus,” she realized, “and really use an evidence-built model, we can actually solve 40 percent of the problem.” With a clear vision for success and a sharp focus on where the need is greatest, Educate Girls has enrolled over 380,000 girls since its inception.

Leveraging unlikely actors

Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), has taken a creative approach to combating environmental degradation in China. While in the West, he observed, NGOs work through the court system to enforce regulation, China’s governmental system has yet to function the same way. So, IPE sought a different catalyst for change: the public.

In Ma Jun’s words, IPE “pushed transparency to a disruptive level in China” to influence government action, by developing mobile-enabled technology for public transparency.  Now, it’s clear which corporations are outsized contributors to pollution. Not only are private citizens engaged in environmental protection now, but corporations are using IPE’s database to assess the relative “greenness” of their supply chains.

Thinking creatively

Marc Freedman, Founder and CEO of, reminded listeners that just as we created the current system, so can we redesign it. seeks to “change the story about aging” by engaging those 50 and over in social sector career opportunities and bridging the divide between young and old. Society has segregated people based on age, he noted, with “young people in educational institutions, middle-aged adults in the workforce, and older folks in retirement communities, and nursing homes.”

But studies suggest we have a lot to gain by bringing people together across age demographics. “Older people who connect with younger people and form bonds with them are three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so,” Freedman noted. The solution? “We need to be as creative around bringing people together in daily life as we were around separating them out,” said Freeman. The status quo can seem like the unbendable order of things, like the “oxygen in the air,” he said. In fact, it was created and can therefore be re-created.

Building coalitions

Social entrepreneurs are not the only ones who must think creatively about how to tackle problems and convene stakeholders. Funders, too, must innovate to support implementers in creative and flexible ways. Olivia Leland, CEO of Co-Impact, has convened a cohort of funders to invest jointly in proven, scalable social change initiatives. Through this collaborative approach, she says, her organization “takes the long-term view in philanthropy,” serving as a bridge to scale for social entrepreneurs tackling systems change.

What’s next?

While these speakers have made incredible strides, much remains to be learned. For one, as increasing emphasis is placed on the system at large, how can we make sure communities on the ground remain at the heart of the work? And, how can we ensure integrity of impact as efforts are scaled nationally, globally? For starters, Husain offered this: philanthropic capital should be “empathetic, multiyear, and flexible,” and it should fund a “vision of success” that’s defined by the social entrepreneur and the community she serves. Social entrepreneurs, after all, and their perseverance in chasing a better vision for the future, are where systems change begins and ends.

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