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We’re Beating Systems Change to Death

“Scalable solutions” might be a better approach

Systems change! Just saying the words aloud makes me feel like one of the cognoscenti, one of the elite who has transcended the ways of old-school philanthropy. Those two words capture our aspirations of lasting impact at scale: systems are big, and if you manage to change them, they’ll keep spinning out impact forever. Why would you want to do anything else?

There’s a problem, though. “Systems analysis” is an elegant and useful way to think about problems and get ideas for solutions, but “systems change” is accelerating toward buzzword purgatory. It’s so sexy that everyone wants to use it for everything. And even if it’s becoming one those phrases that means whatever the user wants it to mean, funders are calling for it, so the doers have to scramble to look like they’re doing it. 

It doesn’t help that there are likely no two words in the English language with a broader definition than “system” and “change.” Once there is too much divergence on the meaning of a phrase, it ceases to be very useful as a way to drive concerted action. Variants can add richness if they coalesce back into a useful definition, but more commonly they create confusion: once the multiple-definitions horse is out of the barn, it rarely comes back. See “impact investing.”

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