The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change

ISBN : 9780198857457

Cynthia Rayner; Francois Bonnici
288 Pages
135 x 216 mm
Pub date
Aug 2021
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The issues of poverty, inequality, racial injustice, and climate change have never been more pressing or paralyzing. Current approaches to social change, which rely on linear thinking and traditional power dynamics to 'solve' social problems, are not helping. In fact, they may only be entrenching the status quo. Systemic social challenges produce bewildering results when we try to solve them due to their complexity, scale, and depth. While strategies to tackle complexity and scale have received significant attention and investment, challenges that arise from deeply-held beliefs, values, and assumptions that no longer serve us well have been largely overlooked. This book draws on stories of committed social changemakers to uncover a set of principles and practices for social change that dramatically depart from the industrial approach. Rather than delivering solutions or being lured by grander visions of 'systems change', these principles and practices focus on the process of change itself. Simple yet profound, these stories distil a timely set of lessons for leaders, scholars, and policymakers on how connection, context, and power sit at the heart of the change process, ensuring broader agency for people and communities while building social systems that are responsive in a rapidly-changing world.


Introduction: Working in Systems
Part I. Principles of Systems Work
1 An Industry of Social Change
2 Complexity, Scale, and Depth
3 Connection, Context, and Power
Part II. Practices of Systems Work
4 Cultivating Collectives
5 Equipping Problem-Solvers
6 Promoting Platforms
7 Disrupting Policies and Patterns
Reimagining the Future
8 Measuring for Learning
9 Funding for Partnership
10 The Principles in Action
Appendix: Case studies: Organizational Practices and Tactics of Systems Work

About the author: 

Cynthia Rayner is a researcher, writer, lecturer, and social change practitioner affiliated with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB). Her research focuses on social innovation and how organizations and communities work to shape social systems in collaborative ways. She advises social enterprises and investors in the design of sustainable business and investment models to achieve positive outcomes for society. She was a fellow with LGT Venture Philanthropy developing a government integration strategy for a peer-based support model for mothers living with HIV, and served as program director for a South Africa-based NGO providing support and education to children.; Francois Bonnici is physician, professor, and social change practitioner with over two decades of experience working across multiple countries, systems, and sectors. Deeply rooted in context and frontline work in his formative years, he has worked extensively with civil society, foundations, and multilateral actors, in both the public and private sector, in progressive and catalytic partnerships that seek to advance the work of front-line agents and understand the organizational practices of systems work towards more transformative social change. He serves as the Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, a leading international foundation that has been dedicated to advancing the most impactful models to social change for over two decades.

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