My Equation for Systems Change Results

My Equation for Systems Change Results

I challenge collective impact teams working in service of better results for people, especially people who have been marginalized for generations, to consider this formula as a frame to guide their work.

In my last post, I argued that creating conditions for economic security requires more than job creation and wage growth. In fact, it requires transforming systems across public and private sectors so that economic well-being for all people living and working in a city is possible. Through my ten years doing results-based work, including on The Integration Initiative, I have watched an array of initiatives across the country work to harness the principles of collective impact to drive results for people and the communities where they live, work, and play.

Even with such efforts and despite the fact that this work spans different sectors and issue areas and takes on many forms, we continue to see incremental and/or segmented change rather than large-scale, transformative systems change and results for whole populations. Disparities remain, inequities prevail, and gaps widen in education, housing, health, business, jobs, income, wealth, and more. So the question remains: What will it take to achieve results at scale?

I’ve observed relationships and resources as the common denominators in successful initiatives led by highly impactful leaders. This phenomenon is consistent with leaders and communities increasingly embracing a results-based approach for their programs and strategies.

For practitioners, leaders, funders, and community members, the inception of Results-Based Accountability framework reinforced the belief that “relationships plus resources equals results.” Relationships are a means to engaging likely and unlikely partners to align around a common result, creating and building trust to accelerate the partners’ progress toward results, and facilitating greater accountability among partners for a shared result. Resources, intangible and tangible, enable stakeholders to design and implement a set of strategies that have a reasonable chance of making a measurable contribution to the shared result.

Relationships + Resources = Results

But while we’ve seen relationships and resources harnessed to positively impact communities, it is not enough. We actually need to undo the social, political, and economic structures that were created to maintain the status quo, which historically and disproportionately keeps people of color out of the social, political, and economic marketplace in ways that will enable them to thrive. Examples include the burning down of Black Wall Street, predatory lending to poor communities, and charging higher interest rates to families of color with the same credit risk ratings as white families.

Living Cities faces this now as we work to close racial income and wealth gaps for all people in US cities so that they are economically secure and building wealth. We know that we cannot do this alone, so we are leveraging our relationships and resources to come together around an audacious goal, disrupt prohibitive structures, and build transformative ecosystems where all can thrive. In order to achieve more than incremental and segmented change, I offer a third element: risk.

Introducing a Third “R”

As I have participated in, facilitated, and led collective impact efforts, my mental model for results has evolved to include the necessity of risk, which is to challenge the status quo; put personal, professional and institutional capital on the line; and acknowledge failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. I’ve seen results at scale in places where cross-sector leaders are willing to take risks and be disciplined and unrelenting in their quest for change.

Relationships + Resources + Risk = Results

We exist in systems where risk is associated with loss, scarcity, and failure, and we therefore avoid taking risks that can actually move us closer to results. Philanthropic and nonprofit institutions are largely designed to combat the ills that plague our society and facilitate well-being for people, communities, and the planet. Unfortunately, we allow the strength of our relationships and the power of our resources to be overcome by our risk aversion. And, I’d argue this behavior is in part due to the legacy of the social constructs (race and class) designed to advantage some (the “one percent”), entangle others in the perceived personal and financial risk that would be undertaken to fight systems of oppression (the so-called middle class), and simply exclude the rest (low-income people and racialized groups).

We exist in systems where risk is associated with loss, scarcity, and failure.

For example, there are plenty of people in power who would wince at the vision of “all people economically secure and building wealth.” Their immediate reaction is to think that it’s a zero-sum game, and that they must have less in order for others to have more. On the other hand, people who have largely been without resources and power may doubt that they could benefit from a thriving economy given the longstanding structures that have excluded them. Finally, there are those of us, like myself, who see the aspiration in the statement, but not without some skepticism and fear of failure.

The underlying assumption of each perspective is that we are operating in a system of scarcity rather than abundance. This mental model is part of the dark magic of European Imperialism, which led people to fiercely protect their resources, jobs, land, relationships and even white/light skin color from being taken away, conquered, and exploited. The fear of loss is so profound that we’ve created communities, systems, and structures that reinforce the belief that there isn’t enough for us all, even though we’ve learned over time that America’s resources are bountiful and that the diversity of its people–socially, economically, politically, and morally–is an advantage.

If you are still not convinced, note Angela Glover-Blackwell’s work that shows that “an equity-driven growth model would grow new jobs and bolster long-term competitiveness while at the same time ensuring that all—especially low-income people and people of color—have the opportunity to benefit from and co-create that growth.” In other words, we have no reason to go running scared. Equity and inclusion are just as much an economic imperative as they are a moral imperative.

For cross-sector leaders who set out to achieve results at scale, the risk is to leverage the power of complex relationships and the heft of collective resources to actively and unapologetically dismantle exclusionary structures that have become the bedrock of our society, shift our mental model to equity and abundance, and harness democratic capitalism in a way that allows all people to thrive economically.

Completing the Formula for Results At Scale

My equation is completed by the discipline in how we approach relationships, resources, and risk.

Discipline(Relationships + Resources + Risk) = Results

Discipline & Relationships

People make up systems and the processes, practices, and policies that govern them. Too often, however, we discuss the system as completely separate from the people (leaders, managers, staffers, customers) who ensure systems function. By separating people from systems, it is easy to avoid being accountable for the impact systems have on people within and without.

As leaders, managers, staffers, and customers, we must ask ourselves: “What is my relationship to the result of this program/strategy/institution/system, and what must I reconcile with my personal self and in my role in order to ensure that I am making the best call in service of results for people?”

“As a leader, What is my relationship to the result?”

Discipline & Resources

Thinking of money as the only resource needed to improve outcomes for all people is a limited view. We have a tendency to assume that all we need is money. I challenge you to think of a system that is not working well for people—this could be education, healthcare, or the criminal justice system. Would unlimited capital make the problem go away? No. The structural inequalities that exist in the system would perpetuate the asymmetries that already exist. Rather, we have to be good stewards of our financial resources and focus on how and when we deploy all types of resources, including, but not limited to human capital, social capital, time technology, knowledge, and information.

Discipline & Risk

There are a number of different kinds of risks that we in philanthropy, from a position of privilege and power, should challenge ourselves to take on. Specifically, we need to embrace the risk associated with long-termism that achieves population-level results over time, even though it is easier to show our boards quick wins and successful projects than to invest in the grueling work of systems change that can sometimes take years to yield tangible population-level results.

It is easier to show our boards quick wins and successful projects than to invest in the slow and grueling work of systems change.

The tension here is that the problems we need to solve are urgent and the pressure to show impact dominates. Because we believe we have to choose between quick wins and patient progress, we default to the former. We actually don’t have to choose. In fact, we can set a population result (e.g. economic security and wealth-building for all people in cities) that may take 10 or more years to accomplish, and shore it up by designing bold, systems-level strategies that are oriented to our result. The key to success is being disciplined in our approach to establish performance measures that allow us to track progress and make adjustments, but stay the course to see systems change and realize the result.

In service of our relationship to the result, we must also push ourselves to take the risk of naming the structural inequities that caused the outcomes we see today. As leaders, it may be a risk to name racism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness, but these are risks we must be willing to take on in service of bettering outcomes for all people.

Given the growing disparities across multiple social determinants of economic security or health, we need to push harder, take more risks, and be disciplined in our approach to results.


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