It sometimes seems like all of the problems that confront us these days are huge and complex. They involve multiple scales and sectors. They pit winners against perceived losers. People do not agree on the problem, much less the solution. Increasingly there is disinformation, misinformation, polarization, and overload which breeds distrust and refusal to cooperate. That is dangerous, because what makes all of these types of problems similar is that they are impossible to solve without collaboration among many different groups.

This is exactly the kind of challenge that Fundación Avina specializes in. Over 25 years working for sustainability in Latin America and beyond, we realized that big change at a scale that matters to hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, requires that a lot of different communities and organizations at different scales converge and work together. Most times the factors that impede that collaboration are really what is standing in the way of making systemic change happen. Even with a blueprint of a solution, we falter because it is too hard to get folks to begin to work through messy and controversial issues.

Fortunately, we have learned a thing or two over the years about how the change process works. Whether its water, conservation, or energy policy, the levers and wheels we have to work with are the same, because in the end it always comes down to people – how we organize, what motivates us to act and what keeps us apart. Certainly, specialized knowledge is also vital, but that knowledge is already available in the crowd. What an organization like Avina brings is often something else: a framework for building a collaborative process for change. When you use this collaborative process framework with intention to accelerate, strengthen or scale change, we call it CollaborAction.

The action framework we use for CollaborAction contains a number of concepts and techniques, but it is essentially powered by a few simple insights derived from decades of learning from trial and error in the field. Let’s look at five of these insights:

  1. Change follows opportunity
  2. Diversity powers change
  3. Change is not linear
  4. Innovation requires ethical purpose
  5. The status quo will resist disruption

Change follows opportunity

In 2020, philanthropy mobilized 160 billion dollars a year worldwide. Some of the leading foundations have endowments larger than national treasuries. The Gates foundation spends 5 billion dollars a year from its earnings. Jeff Bezos has recently pledged to create a 10 billion dollars fund to fight climate change and spend it down in 10 years. And that is just private philanthropy. If one looks at all institutions with social missions, so called civil society organizations, there are tens of thousands making up a global economy billion of dollars seeking social or environmental changes to further their causes. Add in the UN, the World Bank and regional development banks, and the resources available to fund systemic change are truly extraordinary.

On the other hand, the scale of the systems that one would seek to change are even bigger. For example, Amazon, the source of wealth for Mr. Bezos and a global transportation and consumption powerhouse, only in 2021 earned 470 billion dollars. But in 2020, Amazon was responsible for 11.89 million of metric tons in carbon emissions, and 272 million tons of plastic in packaging. It employs over a million people. To put that into perspective, Mr. Bezos could use that same 15 B to give all his employees a thousand dollar bonus every year for 15 years. That would be great for his employees, but not life-changing.

There are two conclusions we can draw – first, the systems we want to change are vastly larger than the amount of money arrayed to change them. And second, many times the wealth of the financiers of systemic change derives from an advantageous position of accumulation within those same systems.

This insight leads to one of the key learnings Avina has uncovered with its partners over the years – if you want to create large-scale change, you have to identify opportunities that significantly leverage your investment of time, resources, and people. Otherwise, your resources will be largely wasted with little to show for your troubles. Your actions have to be opportune and laser focused on an opening, a weakness, a crack, or a destabilizing element in the system. They also have to be aligned or at least resonate with the actions of others.

Some groups might say, this problem is paramount, so we will throw all of our resources at it. Be careful. Defining whether a desired change is relevant is only one of the aspects one must consider before deciding to launch a program of action to address it. Considering all of the pertinent aspects prior to taking action is one of the best ways to save time and resources. Avina has learned with its partners to analyze five aspects as part of establishing programs and setting objectives. The first aspect is what I have described above as opportunity. Sure you may want to improve childhood education or access to childcare, but what are the opportunities to do so? Where is there a potential opening or chink in the armor of the system that will leverage your actions? Related to opportunity is the idea of tipping point. Many times a system seems stable right up until one last grain of sand topples it. If your organization or coalition can identify the systems that are only a few grains of sand away from destabilization or reform, that is an excellent place to focus your efforts.

Another key concept is scale. A cause may be very relevant socially or environmentally, and the opportunity clear, but the scale of change the opportunity offers is so small that it has little chance of altering the system. Is it a good use of resources to target a change that will not alter the status quo on the larger scale? Perhaps so, if you are interested primarily in local outcomes, but not necessarily.
The final aspect to consider is whether the type of opportunity you have identified matches your capabilities as an institution. It may be that your organization does not have the expertise or connections necessary to take advantage of a tipping point. In this case, to make a difference, you will have to mobilize partners who bring those assets to the table. In the case of Avina, our expertise is building collaborative processes among a diverse group of people and organizations. The advantage this brings is that we do not have to be experts in the causes we embrace, at least not initially. What we bring are practices for convening and building trust among the groups that do have that expertise and knowhow, so that they can share tools, align actions, and proceed together.

Diversity powers change

A key to being effective at contributing to systemic change is reflecting on what factors were important in successful processes for change in the past. Avina has built its approach to social change around the key components of successful collaborative change experiences it has witnessed and/or participated in.
It is likewise instructive to have a very honest discussion about what has not worked. Certainly, there are many examples to choose from among failed interventions, campaigns, and programs. One all too common scenario is that of an international donor or cause-related charity that pays for the installation of some infrastructure, such as wells or sanitation, makes a promotional video of appreciative villagers and then leaves. I have personally visited many broken wells and talked with frustrated communities who did not have the means or training to maintain the donated infrastructure.

The same phenomenon can occur with other types of interventions. Outside philanthropies convene coalitions to push for policy change or public mobilization, but the policy change does not happen. The mobilization fizzles when the funds run out. Any advances achieved lack an active constituency to ensure implementation. Avina and its allies have witnessed and participated in this cycle on multiple occasions. What have we learned?

One big lesson is that lasting systemic change does not come from without but within. If the affected community is not leading the charge, the system is unlikely to change. We see examples of this in everything from ineffective government programs, to “nation building”. Relatedly, the motor that drives systemic change from within is the diverse social capital that converges around the change process. When you see successful change movements, they have this in common. Whether you are working to conserve biodiverse biomes, control overfishing, or improve child literacy, the systemic change you seek will necessarily require a diverse composition of people and organizations from the communities and institutions involved who must unify around a vision and lead a movement to make it a reality.

Why is it important to have diversity? After all, homogenous groups are so much easier to work with! Diverse coalitions are more difficult but ultimately more effective. That is because systemic change requires collaboration across groups, and that collaboration requires dialog and ultimately trust building. When you exclude those who do not think like you or who are different than you, you make it unlikely that those groups will understand and support your vision. A shared vision depends on a difficult process of proposition, concession, accommodation, and concertation, but in the end offers a more powerful social basis for promoting change that is systemic. Often the main obstacle to change is precisely the lack of dialog, trust and common purpose among different key social groups, so this work of building social capital is not cosmetic but fundamental. That does not mean that every group can be trusted or reasoned with, but an honest effort to find shared values and common purpose can pay off in terms of increased impact. Certainly, if you are only speaking with groups that already think alike, the resulting change potential is small.

Despite the fact that we see time and again how diverse coalitions of communities can change their own reality, too often the story glorifies one leader, even an outsider, who arrives and saves the day for a group of “beneficiaries” subordinated within the hero narrative. If you start to notice, you will see this hero narrative repeated in different types of media. There is no doubt that leadership is essential to building social capital, mobilizing people and organizations and pushing for systemic change, but a single person or institution can accomplish little alone. When change happens, it is the result of the actions of many different types of people and organizations whose heroic role in the change process makes the difference. Each one has their own story. The best leaders understand this, and work hard to empower other leaders and communities to take the initiative and carry the flag. When you see successful examples of systemic change, you will usually find this type of collaborative leadership at work.

Change is not linear

If you have ever worked in philanthropy, you will be familiar with the logical framework. It is a useful tool for aligning goals with actions that generate measurable outputs and results for an agreed upon cost. Many proposals for funding must apply some version of this linear logic, and they are judged by it. The only problem is that life very seldom follows a linear process. This is especially true as you seek impact at a broad scale. The more people and other variables you have to factor in, the more likely that these increasing “degrees of freedom” will generate unexpected effects and complications that will in turn interact and generate effects, sending chaos rippling through your logical framework.

The unexpected can present a dilemma – should you update your plan to reflect the new reality or keep to the plan even though the premises it was based on are no longer valid? Funders will want to know why the plan is not being followed, perhaps unaware of dramatic changes in context that alter initial assumptions and the plan that these assumptions precipitated. In our rapidly changing reality, facts on the ground are in constant evolution, so agility and adaptability are just as important as having a well thought out plan.

For this reason, it is useful to think of the change process as a constantly evolving phenomenon with a life of its own. It is dynamic and chaotic. More often than not, we are trying to guide change as it lurches in unexpected directions, rather than lining up dominos in a neat line. The more ambitious the goal, the more variables and risks it entails, which means those involved must expect to make frequent adjustments to their plan of action. A plan is important, especially as an initial alignment tool, but so is measurement, adjustment, learning and adaptation to an evolving context.

This is easier said than done. It requires decision-making close to the action, fluid communication, and flexible frameworks. A project that follows a strict hierarchical logical framework must therefore be understood as a piece in a much larger and fluid change process. Ideally, projects should be either of short duration or flexible enough to permit needed adjustment according to facts on the ground over time. In all cases trust and group decision-making are required to validate or update assumptions and keep the action plan relevant and viable. If all partners have a clear understanding of the systemic change that is the target of the change process, the chaotic environment can generate opportunities as well as challenges.

As mentioned, change process should be aimed at opportunities. These opportunities will evolve over time, some will diminish, but also new ones may emerge. Often these new opportunities were not in the original plan. If all partners are clear on the desired impact, and an alternate more promising path opens up, plans can be updated or adapted to take advantage of the new possibilities. Many of the greatest impacts result from timely responses to unforeseen opportunities. Of course, too much flexibility and constant revision can generate paralysis as well. This is why an accountability system to indicate progress toward the desired outcome is a critical element in any change process. Inputs and outputs can evolve according to context, but all actions and results must ultimately be judged in terms of their advancement towards the desired systemic change.

Innovation requires ethical purpose

Every successful change process has some element of innovation. Innovation is a tool that allows us to destabilize a system. A new element changes the math, disturbs the pattern, cracks a window. Television was key to the solidarity of the US civil rights movement. Twitter has powered many social movements across the globe. Non-violent protest has provided a toolkit to protesters the world over. New ideas, technologies and approaches flow across borders and spark or speed social change.

Although we live in a time of great innovation, especially in terms of miraculous technological advances, it is safe to say that a large portion of that innovation is not necessarily aimed at improving the quality of life of human beings. Even when it is packaged as beneficial, connecting us or giving us access to information, for example, the result may not be as beneficial as anticipated. The same media platforms that allow us to find communities can also plug us into hate groups and conspiracy theories. Access to so much unvalidated information leads to fragmented realities, where groups lose common references and the ability to have constructive dialog. Innovation generates winners and losers and has unintended consequences.

Like fire, innovation can be positive or negative, depending on the purpose and manner in which it is employed. While most technological innovation is driven by consumerism and market signals, it can still generate useful tools for social change movements. Likewise, social innovation with an initial good intention can spin out of control and generate negative outcomes. The Arab Spring, powered by social media, disrupted several dictatorships, but the ultimate results are decidedly mixed. Destabilized systems can slide in a number of directions if the disruption is not embedded in a broad-based collaborative change process. A similar technology-enabled mobilization in a society like that of Chile with its strong social networks and history of democracy and coalition building, led to an open and transparent constitutional assembly.

Innovation in the form of tools and know-how is not risk-free, but it is a necessary ingredient for systemic change. One way to de-risk innovation as part of a change process is to look for tools that have been developed by communities in a similar situation. Exchange of ideas and technologies is often mediated by the so-called developed countries of North America and Europe. There are certainly many great innovations that these countries offer, but their dominance has to some extent eclipsed the potential of exchanges among societies of the so-called Global South. Many times, the communities in these regions have similar challenges that make their innovations more relevant for one another than a technology or idea imported from more industrialized societies. This transfer of knowledge is perhaps an untapped source of “innovation with a purpose” that could spark or speed systemic change processes across Latin America, Africa and South Asia.

The status quo will resist disruption

If you are interested in systemic change, one good sign that you are on the right track is if you meet some resistance. If no one objects to what you are trying to do, chances are you are not a threat to the system you are trying to change. Unsustainable systems stay in place because the associated social and economic systems actively keep them in place. By definition it takes energy to maintain unsustainability.

A change process seeks to eliminate that life-support system. Naturally, some groups and individuals believe they benefit from the system, and they will defend it. When a change process begins to make inroads, it will likely be perceived as a threat and inspire resistance.

Part of what allows unsustainable systems to dominate is a social power asymmetry that distributes unequally the negative consequences of the imbalance. The people on the bottom floor of a flooding building will get wet first. If those most adversely affected have no access to power or voice in civic decisions, those who do are unlikely to correct the situation. Power rarely reacts unless it has to as a matter of survival.

Sometimes those in the business of social change avoid talking about power dynamics, but they are common to all human activities and social structures. It is the way we organize ourselves. Just because we do not choose to name it does not mean that it is not operating. In fact, the decision to NOT talk about power dynamics is often an unspoken testament to its influence.

Systemic change alters power dynamics, both as a precondition and as a result. As a precondition, excluded groups need voice and access. When they do, it becomes harder for empowered groups to ignore the imbalances that exist, and the perverse outcomes. For that reason, a change process grows out of a diverse social capital, where access and voice for all communities is a necessary first step in correcting power asymmetries that allow unsustainable systems to endure. This inclusion of different interest groups, perspectives and interests will often provoke resistance. When the table of decision-making seats more stakeholders, and power is more equally distributed, systemic change has already begun.

However, there is a difference between correcting power asymmetries and struggling for power. The latter implies a zero-sum game. A collaborative change process is strongest when it succeeds in gaining support from a broad and diverse coalition of groups, including many of those who may initially resist change. Not everyone who has access to power is aware that others are excluded. That ignorance is part of why such imbalances persist. And some among both the powerful and the powerless will resist change simply because they are change-averse. One cannot assume that all of those who resist a call for change are enemies. Indeed, some of the most important allies of a change movement come from those within the associated power structures who have access to knowledge and tools that are essential for systemic change to happen.

All of these lessons stem from almost three decades of action, experimentation, and observation. Once you think about it, you will see that many approaches to systemic change suffer due to a failure to apply one or more these insights. Millions of dollars are thrown at projects that are not associated with any specific opportunity for change. Those resources are often wasted. The economies that keep systems in place flow with billions of dollars. Unless there is an identified leverage point, a million dollars is not likely to make a difference. Likewise, we see social change movements fail over and over again because they do not achieve real diversity of communities and points of view, devolving into an us vs. them narrative that leads nowhere.

A recent example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement in the US that failed to reach out to reformers within the police force, thus ensuring that change would not occur. Linear thinking still predominates in systems change thinking, although in nature no systems change in a linear fashion. Simple reductionist cause and effect project formats are favored by most funding institutions, leading to incremental change at best. The pace of innovation will only increase in the coming decade, including social surveillance, bioengineering, crypto-currencies and increasingly unequal access to the benefits of technology.

Those seeking social change must be adept not only at adopting innovation where appropriate for a social purpose, but also at guiding innovation itself toward social welfare, environmental health, and public goods. Finally, social movements must expect resistance if they are truly going to change systems. If the leaves don’t rustle you have not shaken the tree. At the same time, some of the most important members of a change alliance are precisely those who may resist at first. They hold the keys to the keep.