The following is a conversation between John Kania, Founder and Executive Director of Collective Change Lab, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

John Kania, Founder and Executive Director of Collective Change Lab

Denver: My next guest has been a practitioner, researcher, writer, teacher, and speaker on how organizations and people can achieve change together. For 17 years, he ran FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm and think tank. From 2018 to 2020, he served as executive-in-residence at national venture philanthropy, New Profit, co-leading the launch of a systems change practice. He is John Kania, the Founder and Executive Director of Collective Change Lab.

Welcome back to The Business of Giving, John!

John: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be with you.

Denver: Tell us about Collective Change Lab. And what was your impetus for starting it?

John: So we launched this organization about nine months ago, Collective Change Lab. And it’s really coming out of the work that I’ve been doing for– well, it’s been over… it’s 20 years in the social sector.

But really the last decade has been, for me, in terms of the work that I’ve done in the field, has been really around collective impact, bringing organizations and individuals together across sector to achieve collective change. The basic premise being that no one organization or individual can achieve population-level change; we need to do it together.  

And so that’s the work that I’ve been involved in. And I left FSG, stepped out of FSG about two-, three years ago, and my emphasis has really been sort of: How do we, in effect, go to the next level of deepening and broadening the impact of collective change?

And so, the mission that we have is really around: How do we validate and build on what we’re calling transformational change practice so that it becomes more frequently used in the mainstream? So I can say a little more about that, but I’ll give it back to you. 

Einstein said that today’s problems will never be solved by the same consciousness that created them. We need a different level and a different transformed way of addressing problems.

Denver: Well, I want to ask you this: Why is change so incremental, John, despite attempts to achieve a lot more? 

John: Well, we’re all asking ourselves that question. I think there are a variety of reasons. I think one is just this notion that people don’t tend to work effectively. We are challenged to work effectively and collectively. And so that’s really one thing. 

I think the other though, is that a lot of change– and this has been a real focus of our new effort– that people are tending to bring about is  what I’ll call the “structural level.” It’s about: Can we scale this practice or scale this intervention? Can we change this policy? Can we shift funding so that there’s more resources going to X area? 

And so, that is typically when we talk about systems change, often that’s what people are talking about, is what I’ll call structural change, and that’s important. But what I think we’re finding and really the emphasis for the Collective Change Lab is that we need to get sort of a deeper level of change in the system – changes around relationships; changes around power; changes around mental models; what people’s world views are. And so, without change at that deeper level, I think we are in this incremental world.

Einstein said that today’s problems will never be solved by the same consciousness that created them. We need a different level and a different transformed way of addressing problems.

Systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold the problem in place. 

Denver: It sounds as if we tend to focus on the things that we can see, like those policies and practices and systems and funding, and we completely ignore the things that we can’t see. It’s almost the way we ignore prevention and healthcare and deal with somebody who’s in a crisis. It’s just the way we seem wired. 

Let’s pick up on that a little bit, John, because you’ve outlined a pretty clear delineation of the three levels of systems change. And why don’t you just walk us through those, starting with the structural change. 

John: That’s great. I’d love to do that. So the three levels of systems change are one way of summarizing what we call The Six Conditions of Systems Change that occur at three levels. So let’s talk about it that way.

One of the things that we were looking at several years ago was sort of trying to answer this question of: If you want to change the system, how do you do that? And one of the best definitions I’ve seen of systems change that I came across comes from Social Innovation Generation in Canada, was that systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold the problem in place. 

Denver: Oh, that’s a great definition. 

John: Isn’t it great? It’s shifting the conditions that hold–

Denver: Yes. So simple! 

John: Yes. It’s so simple. It’s not academic. You can put your arms around it. Shifting conditions that hold the problem in place. So, if we start with that and sort of what we’re trying to do in terms of social change, then the next question is like: How many conditions are there? Are there three? Are there 30? So how do you go about it? 

So in our research, we sort of looked at: What are the conditions of systems change? How many are they? And how can we sort of organize them the way that people can get their arms around them? 

And that led to this notion of: there are six conditions of change and they occur at three levels. And the top level, the sort of the more explicit level, we called it, the more visible level is the structural level. And there’s three conditions for systems change that– we want to try to change policies, we can change practices, and we can change resource flows. Resource flows – it can be money, it can be information, et cetera. So that’s the top level of systems change, those three conditions. 

Then, one level below that we call the semi-explicit level or the relational level. Because sometimes you can see these and sometimes you can’t. Relationships and connections that exist in the system between various different nonprofits or NGOs, between various different people and power dynamics. So that second level of relational change is around relationships and connections, and power dynamics. 

Then we said the deepest level below that of systems change, which is the least visible, we call it the implicit level, is mental models. It’s what’s going on. It’s our world views. It’s our thoughts, beliefs that actually drive our behavior. 

So, we have these three levels of systems change: structural, relational, transformational; going from the most visible to the least visible. And we have these six conditions for systems change that exist at these three levels.

Denver: Let me ask you a couple of questions on that. And I assume that all three are equally important. Would that be a good place to start? 

John: Yes. I would say that it is impossible to change the system in any sustainable way without making significant progress at all three levels.

Denver: So, let me start with mental models, and I want you to draw the distinction between changing mental models as it related to same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act.

John: Great. Thank you. I think we often use the Affordable Care Act as sort of an interesting example of what was intended to be a significant level of systems change. And in some respects, was, but didn’t really, when we think about these three levels of systems change, it wasn’t, in some respects, firing on all cylinders.

So, I think as many of your listeners know, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, was one of the largest shifts in policy and resource flows that we’ve seen in decades. There were millions of people that were previously excluded from healthcare gained access to healthcare. And the Affordable Care Act included numerous financial components that were intended to… So it was doing well, in terms of structural change.

And again, what’s interesting is that, what I’ve observed is that, when we talk about people in the formalized sector in government and in nonprofits and in foundations, often, most often they spend the majority of their time as they’re thinking about system change on that structural level as the Affordable Care Act did. So it had a huge impact on that first level. 

At the second level, the relational level, around relationships and connections and power dynamics, it did a better job of bringing communities together with healthcare providers to think about the social determinants of health. But it didn’t sort of create and do enough in terms of better relationships between providers, insurers, pharma, and patients, and it didn’t shift power. It didn’t shift power from the lobbyists, the political parties, to consumers and patients. So, that’s sort of leaving opportunity on the table there. 

And then at that deepest level is probably where the biggest challenges for ACA were in terms of: Could they have created a new public narrative about why Americans who were uninsured deserve access? And even from the standpoint of thinking about how broader access to broader healthcare coverage improves competitiveness in the United States. 

So from that standpoint, we’re looking at something that was an amazing effort at a lot of levels but didn’t fundamentally achieve change at those deeper levels of system change.

Often, the most effective systems change efforts start at those lower levels and work their way up. So they start with mental models and start with shifting relationships. And that ultimately leads to structural change.

Denver: And how would same-sex marriage compare to that? 

John: Well, same-sex marriage. If you think about what happened sort of between the period of like 2000 up to 2015 when marriage equality, gay marriage was made legal. Amazing progress in terms of: how do we shift mental models.

And in fact, one of the great things about marriage equality was often, the most effective systems change efforts start at those lower levels and work their way up. So they start with mental models and start with shifting relationships. And that ultimately leads to structural change.

So the gay marriage effort did a great job in terms of they were challenged. They initially were sort of trying to make an argument based on equal rights, and they shifted their orientation to what many are familiar with was “Love is Love.” That two people who are in love should have the right to get married. 

So that, in fact, did create a mental model shift. They were able to do great work around sort of bringing players together in ways they hadn’t before in terms of relationships and connections. They were able to, principally through a community organizing route, go about shifting power. And that actually did ultimately lead to policy and practice change and resource flow change. And the ultimate, Supreme Court decision in 2015 to legalize gay marriage. 

And so, two interesting examples. One, the Affordable Care Act that really started at the structural level and did less work at those deeper levels. And the marriage equality that really started at those deeper levels and led to structural change ultimately. 

Denver: That’s really good. And I think we always think it’s structural and relational and then you get to transformational. The order sometimes isn’t that way. It can be different. But I, for one, would have to say that my mental model of same-sex marriage is definitely different. 

Healthcare is still healthcare. More people are getting it, I’m glad. But it hasn’t changed the image of what I think about when I think of healthcare. So I think it really is a great example. 

I want to ask you something about relational values because we have dominant relational values and non-dominant. What would be the difference between those two? 

John: One of the things that we’re trying to explore with the Collective Change Lab, and really what we’re hoping to do, is change the narrative of how social change happens

In some respects, I think we are restricted in– and this is an opinion, but we are restricted in the Western world where within dominant culture, to really get to transformational change because of the typical values that dominant culture has—white, western, dominant culture. And these are things like… it’s about facts. It’s about measurement. It’s about knowledge. It’s about timelines. It’s about independence, individuality. It’s about compartmentalizing. We’re great in the Western world in saying, “We’ve got to basically silo things, and it’s different.”  

Dominant culture is very much, particularly in the United States, about independence and individuality, but non-dominant cultures are much more about collectivism and interdependence. And dominant cultures are about compartmentalizing, and non-dominant culture orientation is typically about holistic thinking.

Denver: And do a hierarchy. 

John: There you go. Exactly. And that is not how sort of non-dominant cultures, indigenous populations, for example, see the world. They see the world more through patterns. Instead of knowledge that’s new, they see wisdom aggregated over time being valuable. Instead of thinking about timelines, they think about things in their own time. Think about that. Can we get to a world where things happen in their own time? Could we be OK with that? 

And in terms of: dominant culture is very much, particularly in the United States, about independence and individuality, but non-dominant cultures are much more about collectivism and interdependence. And dominant cultures are about compartmentalizing, and non-dominant culture orientation is typically about holistic thinking. 

If you go through those qualities – pattern and wisdom, things in their own time, interdependence, holistic thinking – this is how social change and system change happens. But it’s not the way that predominantly white culture is looking for social change to happen. So until we can actually shift that narrative, we are going to be constrained to incremental versus transformational change. 

Denver: Dominants’ is written and non-dominants’ is oral. It’s just as simple as that. It’s completely different. But our culture pretty much is – where’s your report? And here are the guidelines, and I want the full report in terms of how you spent our money, et cetera.

Well, we’ve been talking about some of the factors for systems change. Let’s talk about it on a broader basis, and that would be the theory of change. I mean, the Collective Change Lab has to have its theory of change. And you maintain, John, that to create more radical outcomes, we need more radical containers. Share what you are talking about there?

John: I think we’re into that a bit. What I’ve observed is that it’s just really, again, through a decade of working in homelessness and in substance abuse and K-12 education, environmental issues, early childhood, et cetera. A whole bunch of different areas where we’re trying to bring – if you want to change the system, get the system in the room.

And so that really has been the work that I’ve been involved with, is: How do we get the system in the room and support that set of players, that disparate set of players, across sectors and including community and formalized organizations and institutions? How do they get together and work together?

And we’re seeing that happen more and more across society. That’s not a new thing. What I’ve seen is working collectively can get you to population-level results, but I haven’t seen the sort of population-level shifts in terms of 10% better, 40% better, and fundamentally sort of different ways of working together going on that we’d like to see. And this is where being more radical in our approach, we feel is really what’s called upon. 

What we’ve been doing is really trying to focus on: What are the ways that societies and cultures, whether or not we’re talking indigenous peoples or even thinking about spiritual traditions, Eastern or Western traditions, how have they supported transformation in coming about?

Because again, we’ve got to look different places than we have right now for our best examples of how transformation can happen. And looking across these various different approaches and cultures, and including even things like restorative justice… or truth and reconciliation, and trying to say: What are the conditions that support transformational change? And we’ve identified five, and I’ll just mention them really quickly. 

One is deep relational work among those that are involved. The second is to focus on inner change that leads to outer change. The third is cultivating healing. The fourth is transforming power. And the fifth is bringing in the sacred. Now, when you think about those five qualities, they’re rarely present when we think about mainstream social and environmental problem-solving. And again, our focus is really: How do we bring these qualities more to the center of the work?

Denver: I’m going to pick up on one of those, if I can. And that is, and I don’t know if this fits the rubric of dominant and non-dominant, but I’ve got to tell you, when you talk about leadership, it’s always externally focused. It’s: What are you going to do as a leader to impact your community and your organization or whatever? 

But you talk a lot about the inner work of change, whether that fits the non-dominant or not. And I know that this year, I believe, you’re going to be launching a systems leadership community of practice to share and build upon all of this. Tell us a little bit about that and what that work is going to look like.

John: Well, we’re still in the early stages of experimentation, and I think what we’ve got is a couple of different… we’re potentially going to work with a set of donors. We are working with some collective change networks globally. And really working with a set of leaders in a couple of different forums to explore this question of: How do we create more transformational results? And using the initial frame that I just laid out as some hypotheses based on what we’re seeing, how leaders, both individually and collectively, see engaging in all of these ways? One of the arenas that we are involved in is really helping people think to do that inner work. Peter Senge, the great systems-

Denver: Right, one of your mentors.

John: And one of my mentors, is fond of saying, quoting one of his mentors that “the impact of the intervention is based on the interior condition of the intervener.” 

And I think most people, when they hear that will say, “there’s actually some wisdom to that.” But we don’t tend to think about that. We don’t tend to think about actually how we show up and how we are ultimately affects the impact of the intervention.

Denver: Our presence often is our influence and we don’t recognize that, not at all. Well, that’s going to be interesting. You’ve got to keep me posted on that. 

You also talked a little bit about proximate leaders and the outsize impact they could have. What is a proximate leader? Give us an example if you could. 

John: So, a proximate leader… We actually wrote an article about this recently… I wrote with a couple of my colleagues at New Profit where I  was an Executive-in-Residence for a couple of years. And a proximate leader is really somebody who is in a meaningful relationship with the groups whose identity or experience or community is being feared, dismissed, marginalized. So essentially, it’s somebody who’s living within the community. 

And that can sound like, on the one hand, I think that’s a blinding flash of the obvious. I think we feel and we felt a need to sort of elevate the role of the proximate leader because quite often, and historically, particularly in Western society, the proximate leader has really not been identified as the individual with lived experience, as the one who in some respects may have the best expertise at the table… if you even invite them to the table. 

So, a great example of proximate leaders, one we actually wrote about in our recent article, are Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison – two Black women who are running an organization, a movement, a network called GirlTrek. And GirlTrek is focused on supporting Black women in communities to improve their health. Black women tragically are dying at higher rates than any other population in the country, experiencing high levels of hypertension, obesity, et cetera. 

And Morgan and Vanessa, they come from this community. They are two that brought some level of health expertise, but more importantly, expertise in really understanding how to help women and community come together. And Black women in communities all over the country that are members of GirlTrek are coming together, and they’re getting out and walking. And basically, the protocol is walking five days a week for at least 20 minutes, and many are going longer. 

But importantly, the benefits that are coming out of this are addressing and going to really some of the root causes that have been challenging Black women and have been sort of deeply entwined for centuries, that really relate to sort of social and structural inequities, income inequality, underemployment, lack of leisure time, disconnection. So instead of this really being about fitness, which is the way the industry has often looked at the challenge here, they sort of flipped that on the heads, and they talk about a 360-degree agenda to make communities healthier. 

So the women, while they’re out walking, they see what’s going on in their communities. They’re starting to make improvements. They’re starting to advocate. They’re working at multiple levels. And it’s just a really powerful example of how somebody who’s sort of coming from the community and is a leader in that community can see the problem in a very different way and bring about just an enormous– I think they’re north of a million women out walking at this point. It’s just a really incredible movement. And it comes from the lived experience and expertise of these two women.

Denver: No question about this. One of my very, very favorite organizations. Morgan has been on the show a couple of times. 

And I think if I recall correctly, the idea that Black women find self-care to be a luxury because so much is placed on them. They have to get them to the point where they have to say, “you are allowed to take some time for self-care,” which you almost have to start to be able to get them out the door to start walking. And it’s an absolutely wonderful community. 

You also wrote a recent article about “snapback.” And that’s when we see this positive change and everybody’s really happy with it. I’ll tell you the truth, John. I get worried about it in philanthropy a little bit. I’m saying to myself – unrestricted giving, multi-year giving, participatory grantmaking. What’s going to happen when the world gets back? But talk a little bit about how the equilibrium can take it back to where it started …and maybe some of the things you can do to avoid that.

John: And your observation on philanthropy, I’d love to hear more about that. That’s interesting. 

So, snapback — it’s a concept.  It was coined by a former colleague of mine, Brenda Zimmerman, who unfortunately passed away several years ago. But basically, we’re trying to capture the shift in patterns and behaviors that take place in a system, and acknowledge that systems may shift to a certain degree, but they naturally resist change. 

And so, you can think about system resilience. And two types of system resilience. One is engineering resilience. And this is like if engineers are building a building or a bridge, if a storm comes along, you want the bridge to sort of sway with the wind, but you want it to snap back. You actually want it to go back to its original position. 

So let’s juxtapose that against ecological resilience, which you think of ecosystems – ponds, oceans, forests. They do best when they’re able to adapt to change. They’ve got to move over time. They’ve got to move to a new equilibrium. And so, when we think about systems change, we’re looking to really see if we can help the system move to a new equilibrium. And we want to sort of not have it snap back as it does in engineering resilience. 

So one way to think about that, if you have a marble in a bowl and you tip the bowl a little bit, the marble will sort of roll up the side of the wall and then it will roll back. And so, it will go back to its equilibrium. What we want to do in systems change, we actually want to tip the bowl so far or lower the wall of the bowl so far that the marble jumps over into a new equilibrium. Let’s say, if we put two balls side by side, the marble jumps over into a new equilibrium. And then, you’re in a better position to keep things from snapping back. But they will snap back.

And you mentioned philanthropy. It’s just human nature. And snapback happens at all levels. It happens at an individual level. Like, if a person gets a new job definition, they say, “Sure!” And then six months later, you’re like, “I’m not so sure about this.” Or an organizational level – resistance to change. A new strategy comes along and people, “Ah, we’re not as happy with it.”

Denver: Lose 10 pounds and then put on 20. 

John: Exactly. Or I think at an initiative level, I think in philanthropy and other places, power players may sort of say, “We’re going to open up decision making. We’re going to engage the community, more participatory process.” And then six months later, “That is a lot harder than anything I wanted.” They’ll snap back. And it also happens at a societal level. 

So, that’s what we’re talking about with this notion of snapback. And I think, often, we sort of assume that things are one way, and that if they’re proceeding and they’re getting better, they’re going to continue. But constantly, over and over again, we see it snap back.

So what we suggested in the article was to anticipate that snapback will in fact happen if you’ve been successful. And we talked about gay marriage earlier and the milestone in 2015 of gay marriage being the law of the land by the Supreme Court decision. 

And, the article we talk about the snap that’s occurred since then where 70% of people in the country support marriage equality, and most people know someone who identifies as gay or queer. And yet there, since 2015, there’ve been numerous laws enacted targeting LGBTQ rights in the workplace and healthcare, housing, schools. That’s the snapback that’s occurring.  So, we talked in the article a bit about different ways that you can mitigate that snapback actually happening. 

Denver: And my just being aware that it’s going to happen is one of the most important things. Be wary. It’s never over until it’s over. It’s going to come back.

Much of what we’ve discussed really comes nicely together in a case study that you have available on your website and has to do with systems change in the criminal justice field.  An organization, a community organization based in Springfield and Chelsea, MA and in Baltimore… It’s called Roca. Just give us a highlight or two from that that kind of ties everything we’ve discussed together. 

John: So, Roca is an amazing organization. As you said, they’re pretty place-based, geographically-based, but they’re really nationally recognized as best-in-class at what they do. And they’ve achieved profound outcomes. 

They work with high-risk young men and young mothers, many of them, most of them actually formerly incarcerated, and really support them in building a thriving life. And they decided a number of years ago, in addition to their direct service work, which is working directly with youth and working in a really amazing way, that if they were to really help the youth be totally successful, that they needed to affect systems change. They needed to work with parts of the criminal justice system that were impacting these young people. 

So I won’t go into their full systems change strategies, but I’ll just highlight one area, and we do have a case study on this. And this is a good example of what I talked about earlier in terms of setting a radical container. They use peacemaking circles. And some may be familiar with these. You find them in a lot of different cultures, not just in indigenous. But Roca actually learned their particular approach in circles from an indigenous group in the Yukon Territories in 2000. 

And the basic approach to peacemaking circles… and you typically would have 16 in a circle, something like that, is that it’s creating a space for deep listening to happen. It’s often used in restorative justice and conflict resolution. And you’re trying to create a space where healing and deepened understanding can happen.

And what Roca will often do is they’ll bring together members of the criminal justice system… often, for example, police with youth in the same circle. And the idea again is for people to basically be able to share in an open way. And they have some very literally sacred ways of creating an environment that leads to a deep understanding where people are sharing in ways that they typically don’t.

And what’s profound about this is that… and there are just numerous, numerous examples of this, of youth and police truly emerging from these circles transformed. And the important part about that, that is in and of itself, at the individual level, the fact that that’s taken place is pretty profound, but it has led to structural change. It has led to policy change and practice change, and resource flows. Police have changed their policies. Criminal justice has changed their structure to working with youth, and that’s ultimately what we’re looking for. 

Denver: Fantastic. And one aspect of that that I really enjoyed was this concept of a talking piece that you can only talk when you’re holding the talking piece. And for youth, who so often are waiting for their seniors to interrupt them, you have to let them finish and get their thoughts out. And I mean, that is part of, you said, the dialogue and the deep listening. 

Let me close with this, John. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. I don’t think this one’s going to be any different. It’s a portal or a gateway between one world and the next. As far as your work is concerned, what do you hope that new world will look like?

John: Well, I think I’m striving, as many, many people are, for a world of greater equity and justice. I think that means ultimately that power and resources do need to shift. And that doesn’t happen lightly. We know it doesn’t happen. 

And so, I think more and more people are going to need to have a different world view on how we deal with where we are today. And we have fundamentally– it’s been said over and over again, there has been a shift in consciousness. Not in everybody, but there has been a shift in consciousness in the world. 

And so, there’s always the question of: How bad do things need to get before people actually see things differently? And I think we’ve seen an example of that over the last two or three years. And I don’t know what the future will hold in terms of: Do we have to go through figuratively another couple of pandemics to really get to the point where we get together? 

But I’m an optimist, or at least I’m hopeful, that we’re on a path and we may snap back numerous times. But we’re on a path that it’s a better place for equity and justice in the world.

Denver: Tell us about the Collective Change Lab website, what visitors will find when they go there and maybe how they can get involved. 

John: Thank you. So,, all one word. We were sharing resources in terms of where we’re seeing transformational change, writing our own case studies. We will write more. We share our theory of change and give a bit of the detail on what we talked about in terms of how systems change and who our team lineup is. 

And, this coming year, we’re going to reach out and explore a couple of different questions that we think are core. One is: How do we tell systems change stories in a way that more reflects how social change happens? We’re going to be looking at how power gets shared and some examples of that; and what’s the role of collective healing in systems change?

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, John, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program. 

John: Thank you, Denver. Always a pleasure.

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