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Skoll World Forum 2017 Reflection: The Catalyzing Power of Systems Entrepreneurship

July 14, 2017

By Kimberly Hogan

The problems that social entrepreneurs seek to solve—from failed school systems to infectious disease—are too big and tangled for any single organization to address, no matter how innovative or well-funded. There’s a growing awareness that we need systems entrepreneurs who recognize that large-scale problems require close collaborations across sectors–including governments, nonprofits, and businesses.

A session at the 2017 Skoll World Forum facilitated by Jeff Walker, Chairman of New Profit, explored systems entrepreneurship as a “new action paradigm” in a conversation with Raj Panjabi, Founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, and Ellen Agler, CEO of the END Fund.

Kim Hogan, Global Partnerships Program Manager at Skoll, offered her thoughts here as context to that discussion.

Zach Slobig: A recent Stanford Social Innovation Review piece called “What Exactly Do We Mean by Systems?” referenced the session at the Skoll World Forum (watch in its entirety below) on the topic of systems entrepreneurs and described it as a person or institution that acts as “a central gear … the catalytic force that creates momentum among all the other actors.” How does that description sit with you?

Kim Hogan: A system entrepreneur is somebody who knits together all the other actors in the system to work together to create change. They share high-level thinking with a bigger vision, but unlike a social entrepreneur, they may not be the key innovator. Often they help to put the key innovator in the collaborative context to help an innovation scale or to help pull on leverage points.

Zach: At what point has this become more central to the way people think about how to make social change?

Kim: I think it tends to be seen as this emerging field, but it’s actually been around for a while: this idea that there needs to be a collective perspective on addressing really complex issues. But philanthropy and social change organizations often times can operate in silos, and we’re seeing a greater recognition there.

Zach: What is a good example of successful systems entrepreneurship? 

Kim: Think about the work of eradicating disease. There needs to be collaboration between community leaders, between international governments, between healthcare providers, community health workers, and funders.

The END Fund is a great example of how this looks when there’s a organization cultivating that collaborative context, and you can hear more detail in the session Jeff Walker facilitated at the Skoll World Forum. The END Fund works to eradicate preventable diseases in the developing world and they’ve built a financing mechanism to pool and leverage funds to invest in neglected tropical disease programs across a large number of local and international implementing partners, government, and academic partners.

Zach: And what influence has that sort of success with a systems approach had in the philanthropic world?

Kim: I think there’s a real shift in understanding that these days when it comes to social problems, they will always be extremely complex. There’s no silver bullet, so figuring out how to collaborate will be the key.

Tom Wujec says in his TED talk that systems thinking exercises reveal unexpected truth about how we collaborate. I can think my idea is the most important thing in the entire system, but if I’m held accountable by other stakeholders working in different ways, the value of my innovation will be revealed.

I think a big takeaway from the Skoll World Forum session was that funders need to be thinking with systems approaches in mind. They ought to be looking at methodology and models within a context of systems change.

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