The following is a conversation between Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici, Co-Authors of The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving. 

Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici, Co-Authors of The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change

Denver: The industry of social change has grown to be larger than the global finance industry, employing about 7% of the world’s workforce. Yet, most observers would agree that it’s not always delivering the change we need. Current approaches, which rely on industrial models of production and power to solve social problems are, in fact, designed to entrench the status quo. 

In their wonderful new book, The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change, co-authors Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici draw on 200 years of history to uncover principles and practices for social change that radically depart from these approaches. And it’s a pleasure to have them with us now.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Cynthia and François! 

François: Thank you so much for having us. 

Cynthia: Thank you for having us, Denver. 

Denver: Let me start with you, François. How did you come to write this book? 

François: Thank you, Denver. Cynthia and I have been working together for over a decade. And I think she called it my ‘magical thinking’ – that the years of experience and the years of failure that we both experienced were important to capture, first of all, just for our own learning. And then should that be successful in a way of that 200 years of social change-making led us to change our own minds, that we would want to share that with others. 

Cynthia and I worked at the University of Cape Town at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation, which was the first center for social innovation on the African continent. And in that space, we recognized that models of social change that we were working with, that we were proponing, that we were teaching, that we had in fellowship programs, were often– and I think, like many of us, felt that we were scratching the surface, doing band-aid approaches, and even when we were working in participatory ways, felt often… consultations were a little bit tokenistic. 

But the reality was in a country like South Africa, with its deep, long history of colonialism, oppression, and institutionalized apartheid, single solutions were not going to really change the fundamentals of why these problems existed in the first place. And I think many of us have now recognized that …who work in this field, but also–there has emerged this concept and this zeitgeist around systems change. 

And for us, in particular, when we started to connect to the conversation about systems change, we felt there was something missing. We felt, particularly in a global north-driven, dominated conversation, it was actors of power talking about how the system was needed to be redesigned and leveraged points, and could be somehow influenced from above. And that was very different to the experience in the organizations we were seeing that were doing much deeper work. And this is not entirely new, but I think the purpose and the emphasis on calling the book The Systems Work is to emphasize the practice. We wanted to know how to do this rather than some theoretical ideas around systems thinking and systems change. 

Denver: That’s a great point. I think sometimes when we hear systems change, we tend to sort of contemplate our navel a little bit. We don’t even know where to start. It’s kind of abstract. 

So, Cynthia, for those who are new to this conversation – what is systems work?

Cynthia: Thanks, Denver. And I think François really captured what we were experiencing, which was a frustration and a bit of fear that the things that we were doing, the work that we were doing, was in fact perpetuating the very things that we wanted to change. 

Let me back up a little bit. So, the research started with a very small research project across six different organizations that was funded by the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation. And we were able to think about the work of systems change, but really see how it was being done on the ground. And this was five years ago, six years ago when the term systems change was just coming about, and we were hearing this term, but we weren’t really understanding what it meant. And we were given this opportunity to go and visit organizations that were doing systems change on the ground and really try and identify what were the practices and the tactics that were coming out of these organizations. 

So we spent time with six different organizations in different parts of the world, and we looked very carefully at what they were doing underneath the things that they were saying outside, but really figuring out and trying to observe what they were doing on the ground tactically every single day. And out of that research, we saw three principles that emerged very clearly to us. 

The first of those was around fostering connection. So, we saw that these organizations were bringing people together and we called these people ‘primary actors.’ You can also call them ‘proximate leaders’ or peers – people that are essentially the closest to the actual complexity of the change we’re seeking. And they were bringing these people together in new relationships, allowing them to spend time together and see the problems and the issues in new ways. 

The second principle that we saw was that they were really ensuring that these individuals and these groups had the capacity to engage with problems in new ways. We called this ’embracing context.’ So oftentimes, we think about solutions as being plug-and-play – the ability to put something in a box and kind of plug it in evidence-based solutions. But what we realized with these organizations was that they were actually ensuring that people on the ground were able to adapt those solutions on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour basis. 

And then the third principle that we saw was that organizations were then working to change and reconfigure power in durable, long-lasting ways. And how did they do this? Well, first of all, they did it through the changing of policies. We think of that as advocacy work, activism work. But not just these policies. They were also changing ways of behavior and patterns – the way people were actually treating other individuals, treating other groups, so that they became part of the decision-making complex on the ground. So those three principles were really the things that we saw, and they were very different from the conversations that were being had in academia, in funders, in convenings and conferences, things that were talking about systems mapping and perfect solutions. These were things that were adaptive. They were responsive. And most of all, they were representative. 

Denver: That’s really ironic in some ways because when we think of systems change, we think of something that’s ubiquitous and pervasive and embedded. And here you are going to a very, very local level and finding the answers there where you would think that’s the last place in which to find them.

I want to get into a couple of examples of each of those three, so thanks for setting that up, Cynthia. But before I do, François, we have been taught–I’ve been taught for decades–not to focus on inputs but to focus on outcomes. But you say what’s even more important than outcomes is the actual process itself. Share with us your thinking on that. 

François: Thanks, Denver. I think we’ve all been taught that. One of the original titles– 

Denver: I’m glad I’m not the only one. 

François: –of this book was “Reclaiming Social Entrepreneurship,” a reclaiming kind of why we started off doing this work in the first place. And I think there’s been a really important effort to think about strategic philanthropy, to think about outcomes-focused projects, to take account and be accountable for our work. I don’t think necessarily that’s been entirely wrong, but I think we’ve lost something in the process. 

And I think around that, we recognize particularly, and it has been driven by mechanistic thinking. It’s been driven by engineering thinking. Like ‘We want X outcome. We need to plan for Y and Z for that to happen.’ I think everyone–

Denver: The industrial mindset as you alluded to. 

François: Exactly. The industrial… which is the education system all of us grew up with. That’s why the education system was designed the way it was so that we could be actors in an industry, in an economy. And clearly, there are efforts to shift that education system, but it requires all of us just to unlearn a little bit our default approaches to problem solving. And our default approach is to go fix and to think about what the outcome should be. And that almost we’re determining what those outcomes should be as “actors” in that system.

So, what we’d really learned from others and learned, I guess, from our own failures is that when we were focused on outcomes, we weren’t necessarily understanding these deep level changes of the systemic barriers, and overcoming systemic barriers was not possible by outcome thinking alone. And I think during COVID, we’ve all recognized and seen how systemic barriers have a real impact, whether it’s in the US and looking at the systemic barriers, the invisible barriers of racial oppression. Or whether it’s through COVID, seeing all of the barriers that women and marginalized populations faced. We’ve seen really bad outcomes for particular groups because of what was almost invisible.

So, how does one tackle the invisible? The only way to do that is day-to-day, in every single thing that we do. And I think that that’s what systems work comes through, that systems change is not something out there, grand and ambitious, like what will happen in 20 years’ time if we change a policy. But it is actually institutionalized in all of us and how we work in our organizations, in our nonprofits, in our philanthropy. And that these principles give us some direction and give us some hope of how we might start changing the way we work from today. 

Those in the position of most power actually have to become part of the system that they are trying to change. 

And that’s really one of the messages that we have in the book is that we are all part of the systems we are trying to change.

Denver: This may be a painful metaphor, but it almost sounds to me as if you don’t want to go on a diet to lose weight; you want to change and live the healthy lifestyle. That there isn’t a beginning and I lose weight. It’s almost like, “No, you have to…” and it’s an ongoing process and it’s a continual process because things will continue to change. It’s never a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Well, I’ll tell you one thing that’s going to be hard to change, Cynthia, and that’s going to be the behavior of funders. Because we talked about conditioning. Funders have been conditioned that “What’s the problem? What’s your intervention? How are you going to fix it?” You’re now beginning to ask them to think differently about this and look at the process and not just the outcome. What’s been your thinking around that? 

Cynthia: Well, and you’re absolutely right. This is going to be one of the biggest mindset shifts, I think those in the position of most power actually have to become part of the system that they are trying to change. And that’s really one of the messages that we have in the book is that we are all part of the systems we are trying to change. And trying to act as kind of an objective scientist manipulating variables in a lab, and trying to get perfect outcomes is, in fact, not going to work. We were excited, though, to see that there are really interesting experiments and things that are happening, particularly in small and medium-sized funders who are trying to make real changes in the ways they work. 

The first set of experiments and things that we’re seeing is in trust-based philanthropy. So, this is philanthropy where really the impetus and the power lies more with the grantee than with the grantor. And the second really interesting experiment that we saw was around participatory philanthropy. Several funding organizations that we talked to are experimenting with ways to– I’m going to say devolve, but it’s not in any way moving down the chain. In fact, it’s putting the decision-making of grants into the hands of the grantees themselves, ensuring that coalitions of grantees can actually act as the decision-makers on who gets funding, how much funding for what duration. 

So, questions about who gets to make the decisions are big ones; timeframes: How long do those grants last?  And then even how they’re measured. How do we measure change, and who gets to do the measuring? These are really big questions that I think we saw some exciting movements towards practices that are more supportive of systems work.

Creating these spaces of safe havens and creating a collective identity and changing the mental models of young people, in addition to the skills that they give them, was a really powerful principle that we saw here of why connection was important

Denver: I can’t agree with you more. I spoke to Dana Bezerra of the Heron Foundation the other day, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. And one of the things that I remember her talking about was that going into a community and not just looking for the problems that need to be fixed in the community, which is sort of the way, again, we’ve been conditioned. But they also sometimes look into communities or the communities will tell them – “This is what we’re really great at. Why don’t we build on that and build on our strengths?” We’re all taught that individually. Don’t try to just address your weaknesses. See what you’re really good at. Communities sometimes can do the exact same thing. 

So, hey, Cynthia really set this up well for us in terms of connection, context, and power. François, let me start with you on connection, and would RLabs be a good illustration of that?

François: RLabs is one of the organizations I’ve learnt the most from in my own career for the 10 years I’ve worked closely with them. On the surface, they host technical training for young people, entrepreneurship and innovation programs for young people, what would be considered at-risk. But in the context of South Africa, 50% of young people don’t complete school and those that make it to tertiary institutions don’t complete college or university. So, there is very little hope for young people entering a job marketplace and thinking about their futures. 

What RLabs does is this practice of cultivating collectives. So, they create spaces for young people to build a collective identity. They build this what we call “Building a We.” They use the technology training programs and the activities for them to feel comfortable with each other, to develop a bond, to develop this collective identity, and then pool the experiences amongst them through these training programs to allow them to both share their own stories, to give them hope and dignity, their innermost thoughts and fears, but also to transform their own mindsets around what might be possible, but then actually give them the skills to actually go and do that.

What is incredible is that this organization was started in one of the areas that is most dominated by gangs in South Africa. And we looked at the problem of gangs around the world. It is probably one of the most wicked, complex problems where we countries around the world throw… the government throws the police or the army at this. And clearly, that has not been a successful approach.

And so, from within this community, a number of X gangsters, drug dealers, drug addicts, became the leadership group of RLabs determining, “Well, what would I want my brother or my younger sister to have as a journey of hope out of this setting?

And so, creating these spaces of safe havens and creating a collective identity and changing the mental models of young people, in addition to the skills that they give them, was a really powerful principle that we saw here of why connection was important. It wasn’t as simple as, “OK. We’ll teach X person Y skills so that they can go and get, like I said, a job.”

Denver: And it sounds to me, having read it, is that this connection is the way for us to deal with complexity because we have biologically evolved to have simplicity, and we tend to make everything too simple with simple narratives. But when you get everybody together — we’re pretty stupid alone, but we’re pretty smart together. And that’s how we can deal with it. 

The second thing is context, Cynthia – equipping change makers to respond to their own context. And a couple of examples there, perhaps mothers2mothers?

Cynthia: Yes. mothers2mothers is one example. We also have Family Independence Initiative, and Buurtzorg. I’ll talk a little bit about mothers2mothers, and then I’d also like to talk a little bit about FII. Mothers2mothers is an organization also based in South Africa, but working across the continent. They work with mothers who are living with HIV and they put them in peer relationships with pregnant women, also living with HIV, in the anticipation of embarking on new behaviors that will allow them to have babies that are HIV-free, as well as having families that are living in good health. And what we saw about this organization was not just that surface work of peer groups, but also just the fact that they were ensuring that these conversations had safe places to be able to be had, and that the women themselves felt that they were able to share their experiences in unscripted ways. 

So, when we talk about adaptations and embracing context, in a lot of philanthropy we’re thinking about: What’s the evidence-based solution and how can we kind of plug it into the context and make it work? And oftentimes, that results In really confounding issues. We think, “Oh, it worked here. Why is it not going to work there? And what we realized about complex situations is that every situation presents new opportunities and new issues. And so, if we can ensure that people are capacitated, empowered with their lived experiences, as well as their learned experiences. So that’s, “I’ve got an experience that’s similar to you, but I also have training in order to know how to deal with this problem.” That’s what it really means to embrace context. And mothers2mothers is one example of that. 

Another example is: Family Independence Initiative. This is an organization that pulls together peer groups of families who are living in conditions of poverty, but who obviously understand their context more than any other social worker or outside expert service worker. So, they’re an organization that says, “We will not help.”

 In fact, Mauricio Miller, who is the founder of the organization has had to fire people. because they are helping. He says, “Helping is not what we do. What we do instead is bring people together who are experts of their own lives and ensure they have the data, the stories, the support in order to be able to make decisions that are going to allow them to emerge from poverty.” And they sit in these peer groups. They have a computer that has been given to them. They’re able to journal about their experiences. And through sharing their experiences, both with each other and then across the country, they’re able to then make decisions that allow themselves to design the lives that they want for themselves. 

So these are two organizations that are embracing context in ways that are not plug-and-play, not out of the box, but rather ensuring that people on the ground have the ability to make their own decisions for their own lives. 

If you look back at actually where the big system changes in the world were, often there was this movement, a significant movement of people behind it, addressing, confronting, reconfiguring power.

Denver: And I find that last point to be a huge one in that the people who were engaged in this work really have to grow on a whole new set of skills that they are going to have to bring to the surface. We can’t do it the way we’ve always done it, which is pretty much to direct and guide, and it’s more of a facilitator, coach, something… I don’t know exactly what the word would be. 

Well, let’s get to the third pillar here and that is power. Now, François, power exists to preserve power. We know that. So how do you go about reconfiguring power? 

François: I think this is part of a larger conversation that I think we’re recognizing certainly in philanthropy. And I think it’s a recognition within the nonprofit sector that’s actually the one element that nonprofits and communities often don’t have. 

So, we’ve learnt a lot from activist movements around how to build and consolidate the power of people. And if you look back at actually where the big system changes in the world were, often there was this movement, a significant movement of people behind it, addressing, confronting, reconfiguring power.

You see it in many ways across all of the organizations we’ve looked at. And I’ll talk about maybe just one or two from the book. And also to point out that you’ve said we’ve gone to the very local, but to demonstrate that actually that’s where the shifts begin. But actually, all of the organizations, we also– 

Denver: Always have.

François: Yes. Have studied have also had very large-scale level changes. So we talk about reconfiguring both patterns and powers. So patterns are obviously the institutionalized ways in which we work, which we need to shift, but also that address and think about shifting policy. 

So, one organization in India, NIDAN, that we have followed closely works with street vendors. So 90% of India’s workforce is in the informal economy, contributes 50% of GDP. There is no legislation, no protection, no rules around how the informal economy operates, which led to the fact that many of these street vendors were exploited, were not able to have steady lives and income and healthcare and education for their children.

But also that as cities have urbanized and evolved to think about, “Well, that’s a part of the city we don’t really want. Let’s clean it up.” And I think what NIDAN has done is both changed the mindsets and patterns to say, “Actually, let’s celebrate street food. Street vendors are actually a critical part of our culture.”If you look out, every day, the businessmen in suits are going down to eat the food in the streets or getting it delivered to them. So how do we celebrate that? 

At the same time, what you were speaking earlier, is about how do — and this is what amazing what NIDAN does, it doesn’t intervene. It really has created the capacity for the street vendors to self-organize. And out of that has come more than 30 organizations to address the issues that are important to them. NGOs for their children’s health and education. Cooperatives for craft industries and creating greater value in their products. A labor union to actually mobilize around the needs. And this ultimately created the first act and government policy around  the informal sector in India, which was called the Street Vendors Act. It really enshrined the political representation of informal workers. 

And so, while starting at the very micro had a significant effect across both the mindsets, but also the policies around what could be seen as poverty or a problem of informality that we want to formalize. That’s not the approach they took. They really worked on building power through this movement of organizing across all of India the street vendors in what was a really interesting hybrid set of organizations between a labor union movement, a nonprofit, and a social enterprise.

Denver: And maybe you can pick up on that, Cynthia, a little bit, and that really has to do with how systems change takes place in the real world. And what are some of the things to keep in mind related to the politics of systems change? 

Cynthia: Well, it’s interesting to think about politics, particularly during this time. And to François’s point about politics being both the policies themselves but also the patterns of behavior, I think oftentimes we get frustrated because we think, “Oh, well. A policy has been legislated, or new laws have been passed, but we’re not seeing how those impact our day-to-day lives.” 

And organizations like NIDAN and other organizations that we studied, they’re always iterating between policy work, which is the: get out on the streets, mobilize millions of people, and ensure that we pressure power to change. But then that pattern work is about ensuring that on a day-to-day basis in terms of what happens in decision-making on the ground, that the people who are able to do that have fundamentally changed as well.

So, in the case of NIDAN, they changed the act. They changed the policy. But in fact, the real work that they are doing now is ensuring that street vendors are sitting in town vending committees, alongside politicians, that their voice is heard, that their needs are being expressed, and that those needs are then further being met. And that’s work that takes years.

So this landmark legislation, which is super exciting, and people can kind of say, “Oh, we did it,” and then go home. No. In fact, Nidan has said, “Our real work begins. Now we ensure that the real changes that are on the ground in terms of who makes decisions are fundamentally shifted.” 

Denver: Wonderful insights. 

François, in doing the research for this book, and you guys spent years on this, was there an ‘Aha!’ moment that you had, whether you were visiting someplace or talking to someone… where all of a sudden there was this flash of insight that came to you that explained a number of things? 

François:  There were many of them, and then there was something I think that was perhaps more within me that went, “I need to change,” and I think that’s been important. 

So the first is to just recognize that this work has been happening to a large degree all along. And so, it’s not entirely new. And at some point, the book was called the hidden work, and what we’ve recognized and what’s been really powerful, and the feedback since publishing this book is that it’s given organizations a language and an affirmation of the work that they do that they don’t talk about, that is highly relational, that is quite intangible, and yet actually critical to their work. And so, that’s been very powerful to hear, and I hope and presume that some of your audience might feel that way as well. So, that’s been powerful. 

I think the “Aha”  for me… And the other book Cynthia and I wanted to write was called Just Stop, which was recognizing how–

Denver: And you stopped writing it, apparently. 

François: Yes. Stop trying so hard. And in a way, it really requires those of us with privilege, power or resources to act in a very different way. And for me also, the whole purpose of nonprofits and social purpose organizations has really shifted toward thinking about delivery of services and products and support, to really shifting to organizations that are there to help build agency, self-empowerment. And it’s a very different kind of role than many perhaps who work in movements and social movements will say, “Yes, obviously. We’ve been doing that for all along.” But I think if we really are to get to these deeper level changes, it doesn’t mean we need to stop doing what we’re doing, but we need to fundamentally shift who’s in the driver’s seat, and there are very practical ways in which we can do that. 

Most of the work that we’re talking about is not–it’s not rocket science. It’s not that it’s not there. It’s just that we don’t recognize it as being the true work.

It does require a different mind shift. It also requires listening. It requires really opening our eyes, visiting and becoming really a true integral part of the system, rather than feeling like we are kind of removed from the system.

Denver: And I was taken by the first part of your answer “And I realized I had to change.” Because I speak to a lot of leaders sometimes, and they tell me that their organizations have to change. And you want to stop and say, “Well, actually, you’re the head of the organization. You need to change.” And I do think that there’s something among a lot of people who know that they’ve had a tremendous evolution through their career, but there’s a sense that they’ve now arrived, that now that they have it figured out. And I think this is what brings home the fact that that really isn’t the case.

So, let me close with the thought, Cynthia,  and that is: What advice would you give to a social change leader that would help them start to look at this from a completely different way? And what skills do they really need to bring to the surface so they can do this effectively? 

Cynthia: It’s interesting that you’re bringing up issues of leadership, and these are not brought out explicitly in the book, but they are threaded throughout. We didn’t have a leadership chapter or a self-help chapter because we felt that these were issues that kind of just– they were the red thread that kind of ran through the whole book. Just this idea that we are part of the systems that we are changing, the way we behave as individuals and as leaders within organizations has a significant impact. I would say that the advice that I would give, is really to think about the work that is already being done in organizations and to amplify it… to unearth it and amplify it. 

Most of the work that we’re talking about is not–it’s not rocket science. It’s not that it’s not there. It’s just that we don’t recognize it as being the true work. We get very busy on the things that we put into funding proposals and into the glossy magazines and into the websites. But in fact, the work, the very day-to-day nitty gritty work of social change is happening in those small adaptations that on the ground, grassroots workers are doing on a day-to-day basis to make things happen and to shift to the context as they’re happening. And we need to amplify, support, lift up that work. And you’re right. It does require a different mind shift. It also requires listening. It requires really opening our eyes, visiting and becoming really a true integral part of the system, rather than feeling like we are kind of removed from the system. That’s the advice that I would give. 

Denver: Well, that’s good advice.

François: If I can jump in, Denver, and say a number of funders have asked us, “Well, how do we fund this work? And what should we be looking for?” And I think the advice there is to go back to the organizations you’re already working with and create a space for them to talk about the work that perhaps they wouldn’t normally talk about. And I think through the conversations we’ve had, our aspiration is that these conversations get started, that the dialogue gets started about what work really matters to organizations that they perhaps wouldn’t necessarily be put into a funding proposal or talk about because there is no clear outcome around what might be possible. But somehow intuitively, people with lived and learned experience actually know what should be done in a way that I think we’ve crowded out sometimes with the more kind of linear, industrial approach.

Denver: Well, there’s no question about it. It’s a lot more complex to me than the people who are living in the midst of it. It’s not as complicated to them as it is when somebody is from the outside. Well, the title of the book is The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change.

It is an absolutely wonderful read, and it underscores that important truth that it’s not just what we do, but how we go about doing it that makes the lasting difference. Cynthia and François, I want to thank you so much for being here today. It was a great pleasure to have you on the show. 

Cynthia: Thank you, Denver. Thank you for having us. 

François: We’re honored, and we really wish you well, Denver. Thank you so much. 

Denver: Thank you.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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