A practical guide
for the Great Transition
Especially, I would like to thank Aryne Sheppard for her great support and tireless
commitment during the making of this guide including many late nights and early
mornings of writing and editing, and Ina Lohner for her tremendous amount of
Introduction Page 2
dedication and creativity in shaping the graphical side of this guide.
I am grateful for valuable feedback on draft versions of this guide from the advisory
The Challenge
Why does activism need re.imagination? Page 4
group: Adrián Beling, Elena Blackmore, Charlotte Boisteau, Gonzalo del Castro, Richard
Hawkins, Stefan Tuschen and Job van den Assem. Many thanks to Anne Knol and
The Vision
Re.imagining our future Page 22
Philippa Parry for their contributions and support during the early phases of the project,
2.1 Understanding the system Page 22
and to many others in the Smart CSOs community who provided valuable ideas and input.
2.2 The Great Transition - a vision
to tackle multiple crises Page 27
- Michael Narberhaus, October 2015 -
The Model
Re.imagining change - the Smart CSOs
model for system change Page 34
Edition 2015: Re.imagining Activism: A practical guide for the Greate Transition
Publisher: Smart CSOs Lab / Michael Narberhaus
Re.imagining our strategies Page 39
The Strategies
Authors: Michael Narberhaus and Aryne Sheppard
4.1 Moving from mainstream
Design, Illustration and Layout: Ina Lohner
activism to systemic activism Page 40
The design of this guide was kindly funded by Brot für die Welt, Germany.
4.2 The roles of systemic activism Page 56
Re.imagining our organisations - What
The Organisation
needs to change in our organisations and how
can we initiate change? Page 66
Re.imagining ourselves as activists - How
The Activist
The Smart CSOs Lab is a space where activists and change agents from civil society
can we transcend our current paradigms and
come together as a community of practice to learn how to make change in the way
think differently as activists? Page 78
civil society thinks, acts and operates. The ultimate aim is to give large-scale im-
pulses for an activism that works effectively towards systemic change. Check here
Re.imagining funding - How to become a
The Funder
for more information: www.smart-csos.org
systemic funder? Page 91
Endnotes Page 98
Glossary Page 100
CC BY-SA 3.0
Worksheets for self-assessment Page 102
Most activists and social change leaders today would argue that a sus-
advocating alternative models of society and economy. They all work
tainable future will only be possible by making profound changes to our
towards a just and ecologically sustainable world and are keen to learn
lives and our political and economic systems. Yet in many campaigns
how to create more effective strategies for deep systemic change.
and strategies this is not reflected. Not few would agree that neo-liberal
Re.imagining Activism provides practical advice and questions to ask
capitalism is at the root of many ecological and social problems. But for
ourselves when we want to change organisations, campaigns or become
many activists terms like system change, Great Transition, paradigm
active on system change in another way. What obstacles do we need to
shift are too big, too utopian or too abstract and very difficult to be
overcome and how can we achieve this? Inside, you will find examples and
broken down into tangible strategies and steps. If it is already so difficult
case studies of other activists who have interesting experiences to share.
to achieve our small little steps - and often we don’t achieve them - what
A small caveat: This is not a recipe book for changing the world. There are
sense does it make to work towards utopia?
no easy answers. The work of systemic change requires experimentation
The idea of changing our economic system and
We live in capitalism. Its
and jumping into deep waters. But we can learn from others about how
the underlying culture that supports it can seem
power seems inescapable.
best to jump. The Great Transition is a leap into a new world. Without a
like an impossible task. But the current system
So did the divine right of
bold vision we will never change the world. What might seem impossible
was not given by the laws of nature. Instead it
kings. Any human power
today can become reality tomorrow.
was created and continues to be shaped by hu-
can be resisted and changed
The contexts in which our readers are active differ in some cases widely.
man beings. And as such we as human beings
by human beings.
We take this into consideration and address different circumstances
can change it again. In fact, only if we take on this
- Ursula Le Guin -
to allow a wide range of activists to become involved in the Great
task collectively, will we have a chance to create a fairer and much more
Transition. In spite of the important differences especially between
equal society where current and future generations thrive in harmony
professional change agents and voluntary activism, the common
with nature.
challenges outweigh the differences and it is fundamental to overcome
The purpose of this handbook is to help bring the dream of the Great
existing divides for the Great Transition to succeed.
Transition to life. Based on the research collated and the ideas and ex-
periences generated by the Smart CSOs Lab, we provide guidance and
support to activists who want to make a meaningful contribution to this
deeper change.
It was written for grassroots activists and social change leaders wor-
king on diverse issues such as climate change, poverty, equality, health,
human migrations and gender equality. It is for anyone committed to
building or others who are already involved in the world of building and
Chapter 1
Being too pragmatic
Focusing on the short-term impacts of our work is important and neces-
sary to avoid harm to people and the environment. The urgency is real:
Why does activism need
the climate is warming, people are suffering and species are being lost.
Much of what civil society organisations do is the pragmatic and impor-
tant work of helping the poor, the marginalised and the environment in
real time. But we need to acknowledge that fixing symptoms is not the
same as dealing with underlying causes.
Are you an activist engaged in solving global issues like climate change,
Almost by definition campaigns have to be
poverty or human rights? Do you believe that many of the ways
There are a thousand hacking
pragmatic. Campaigners have to set measur-
today’s activism and civil society organisations are trying to address
at the branches of evil to one
able short-to-medium term goals to engage
these problems are ineffective? Here we explore some of the reasons
who is striking at the root.
audiences and remain credible with their
why this could be the case …
– Henry David Thoreau, 1854 -
Systemic global crises
Most indicators measuring the health of the planet show a negative
trend: Climate change, biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans and
shrinking freshwater resources are all serious threats to life on earth.
Global inequality has been on the rise for decades.
These crises are increasingly intertwined. Issues such as economic de-
velopment, climate, finance, biodiversity, security and migration have
become highly interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and cannot
be adequately addressed with a focus on single issue solutions. These
systemic global crises require a deep rethinking of our economic, po-
litical and social systems.
Unfortunately, most activism is not yet promoting such deeper
systemic shifts, nor is it embracing the complexity of systemic change
in its strategies.
Here we analyse a number of core reasons why civil society organi-
sations and grassroots activist networks are not utilising their full
potential in tackling the deeper systemic issues:
Why does activism need re.imagination?
4 5
when focused exclusively on quick fixes: they don’t deal with root
Winning the campaign but losing the planet?
causes and can create the illusion that they will solve the problems
when they actually don’t.
In 2013 Greenpeace won again. With another of its famous campaigns,
Greenpeace achieved a commitment from German car manufacturer
Most campaigns that promote a shift in technology (see example) or
Volkswagen to stop lobbying against stricter European regulation on
aim to raise funds for aid in the fight against poverty share this pro-
car fuel-efficiency and to make its own cars more fuel-efficient. On
blem. Making the production systems/global supply chains of con-
the organisation’s own terms the campaign was clearly a success:
sumer products more energy and resource efficient and less toxic is
it was powerfully creative (with Star Wars’ Darth Vader as the main
important, but with current growth rates of consumer products the
character), it mobilised over half a million people and it achieved a
overall impact of these measures is playing catch up in a game that we
clearly defined short-term campaign goal. Greenpeace celebrated:
won’t win.
“[This] is big, because using less oil means less pollution, less impact
Aid transfers and technical support aimed at fighting poverty and
on the climate and less pressure on ... the Arctic.”
coping with emergency situations can be vital to alleviate suffer-
No doubt, fighting nasty corporate lobbyism and advancing vehicle
ing, but they don’t tackle the root causes of poverty and can create
fuel efficiency are good things. However, the messages Greenpeace
dependency on aid. In addition, development cooperation aimed at
sends with this type of campaign might be counterproductive in the
economic development is often reproducing production and con-
long run because it underestimates the power of narrative. Presenting
sumption patterns of the global north that are incompatible with the
fuel-efficient cars as a major step towards saving the climate is
existence of planetary boundaries.
dishonest because in the current context, more fuel efficiency might
As long as we don’t put enough effort into mobilising people towards
actually increase car usage (rebound effect) and without a major
deeper system change, not only will we fail to solve our problems, we
change in mobility patterns (trends towards SUVs and a projected
might perpetuate them. Too much pragmatism and focusing too much
increase from 1 to 2 billion cars globally in the next decade) the cam-
on tactics can reinforce the unsustainable status quo.
paign will have won another battle while we are losing the planet.
Without putting the campaign into the wider context of what needs
to be done and start taking people on a journey with a narrative of
deeper change, such campaigns can reinforce the unsustainable
How do you define success in your work?
paradigm rather than helping to change it.
Are you setting the right objectives?
People working within Greenpeace’s network are increasingly aware
of the shortcomings of these campaigns. Discussions about how to
Are the objectives of your change strategies designed to
create more systemic campaigns and how to integrate the problem of
contribute to effective long-term change?
economic growth into the organisation’s work are starting to happen.
Why does activism need re.imagination?
6 7
Playing the game of politics and business
Governments and large corporations are the most powerful insti-
tutions in our society today. Over the past decades as civil society
organisations became increasingly professionalised, they believed
that the most effective way to influence power was to build up their
policy expertise and become credible and respected stakeholders
for government and business. CSOs regularly participate in consul-
tations and policy processes at the national and international level
(like the UNFCCC and SDG) and many have created partnerships with
large corporations. As a result, civil society organisations have had
considerable influence on policy decisions, especially when they have
skilfully combined effective mobilisation of the public with their
advocacy efforts.
However, somewhere along the way many CSOs have lost their radical
touch and have been increasingly instrumentalised by governments
and business. Possibly as a result of getting involved in day-to-day
politics, they drifted into tactics and lost sight of the strategic
perspective. While this might be a price worth paying for the sake
of making the system more bearable in the short-term, it is clearly
problematic from a system change perspective. Today’s political
and economic institutions are driven by a complex web of vested
interests that make them highly resistant to any fundamental
change. Mainstream advocacy is at its best contributing to in-
cremental change and its worst strengthening the current system.
Later in this guide we will talk about the alternatives …
To what extent do you believe that your advocacy work is
contributing to long-term systemic change?
Why does activism need re.imagination?
8 9
As there’s no better alternative, let’s join
Trying to solve problems issue by issue
the Action/2015 campaign
Activism has a long and arguably successful history of focusing on
particular problems. Indeed, many fights have been won by focusing on
The Action/2015 campaign is a global campaign calling “to end poverty,
single issues - the history of human rights struggles as well as that of the
to meet fundamental rights, tackle inequality and discrimination as well
environmental movement is full of these wins. And even today, a case
as achieve a transition to 100% renewable energy.” As of July 2015, 1,600
can be made for focusing on single issues, for example the gay rights
organisations had signed up. The campaign aim is to achieve ambitious
movement has had tremendous successes in recent years.
outcomes at the September 2015 global agreements on the Sustainable
But given the systemic and complex nature of today’s problems, issue-
Development Goals as well as at the December meeting in Paris focused
by-issue responses are often inadequate. One consequence of focusing
on a global agreement to tackle climate change (COP21).
on single issues is that we tend to fix symptoms
Action /2015 mimics the shallow narrative of the official UN SDG texts
rather than tackle root causes. Another is that
There is no such thing as
and doesn’t make any reference to the deeper root causes of poverty and
we focus on developing great expertise on issues
a single-issue struggle,
climate change let alone the deeper structural changes to tackle these.
rather than deepening our understanding of the
because we do not live
It clearly lacks the ambition for any deeper systemic change and is play-
single-issue lives.
systemic connections between issues.
ing the same game that civil society has been playing so often at these
- Audre Lorde -
It is often directly the institutional donors or
processes: At its best it makes constructive proposals that improved the
the organisational fundraising departments pushing to focus on
outcomes to some extent but without being capable or even aiming to
narrow short-term issue oriented outputs rather than engaging with
tackle the deep institutional lock-ins of these processes that result from
the complex long-term big picture.
the national vested interests that governments mostly defend.
While many organisations involved in the Action /2015 campaign might
not bother too much about these shortcomings, some organisations that
do believe in the need for a deeper shift are signing up to this campaign
To what extent are you focusing on problems and single issues
as they cannot see alternative ways of engagement to following the
rather than tackling root causes?
official institutional agendas. More reasons that we have to build these
alternative ways to get real on systemic change …
What role are your donors and fundraisers playing in this?
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Suffering from the eleventh hour syndrome
With the justification of having to save the world, such activism can un-
knowingly reproduce the patterns of speed, efficiency and growth of the
Understandably, many activists feel a powerful sense of urgency around
world we aim to change. Urgency is the reason given for not working at
their work. Sensing the approaching apocalypse, we work more and
a root cause level - we often hear “there’s no time to transform values”.
faster to avoid disaster. After all, it is our responsibility to save the world
The eleventh hour syndrome also prevents activists from building
before it is too late. This is the eleventh hour syndrome.
reflection into their work. We are always racing to get things done
We have to raise more funds, create more meetings, travel to more con-
instead of noticing patterns and adapting strategies our as we go.
ferences, write more reports, send more emails. Activists often find
Moreover, in the long run, attempting to motivate our audiences with
themselves racing against the clock but the work is never done. As a
messages of urgency and scenarios of threat doesn’t work - it becomes
result, activists suffer disproportionally from stress and burnout.
normality and the effect vanishes.
There are deeper psychological issues at play that we need to deal with.
We need to become conscious about some of the personal motivations
lying behind this syndrome. In chapter 6 we will dig into this …
To what extent does your activist work stresses you out?
Are you driven by a sense of urgency?
How much time are you dedicating to reflection?
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Fighting the enemy
right. In social media we are linked to communities that mainly
think alike and in times of information overflow, we only read what
The identity of most social movements is defined by the ideas of re-
re-confirms what we already think. Those who disagree often stay
sistance and struggle against a ruling class, an oppressive govern-
silent because they fear the backlash, the so-called spiral of silence.1
ment, a wealthy elite etc.
We become a mob with uniform thinking.
Activists are very fast and effective these days in identifying and
We humans in general like to add a face to a problem. We prefer to think
fighting enemies. Be it the richest 1% responsible for global in-
that if something bad happens it is someone’s fault - and of course in
equality, be it the British professor who made a sexist comment or be
doing so we are often right. Oppression is not a natural phenomenon.
it Mrs Merkel who took over Greece with a coup d’état, the Twitter-
People in powerful positions (for example in government) have a
storm is very fast in targeting the enemy.
responsibility for their actions.
Social media tend to have a reinforcing effect on the reduction of
However, the personification of the enemy goes along with a re-
complexity and quick agreement about who is wrong and who is
duction of complexity. At its best, defining an enemy sharpens
messaging and makes a campaign more effective and at its worst, it
misunderstands the problem and fights the wrong enemy.
The systemic problems of our times are not the particular fault of one
group or another. Instead, if there is one main enemy, it is the system.
The systemic shift that is needed requires changes at many different
levels. Whilst the abuse of power by certain privileged groups
resisting systemic change is without doubt a key factor in the system,
dividing the world between good and bad people doesn’t take us very
far. It is important that we learn that we all are part of the system
and interact with it. We need to deal with complexity. In the coming
chapters we will explore how …
To what extent do you define your strategy as a struggle
against someone?
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Reproducing problematic values
Putting monetary value on nature will not save it
Most civil society organisations and activist networks try to win the
In 2015 WWF published its report Reviving the ocean economy. The
rational argument (e.g. with coherent, scientifically sound analysis
report, co-written by the business consultancy Boston Consultancy
and policy proposals) or they try to win the political argument by
Group, puts a monetary value of $24 trillion on the oceans. The central
creating smart memes and frames to influence day-to-day politics.
argument for WWF’s call for protecting the oceans through global
agreements like the SDG and COP21 is an economic one, i.e. that
The question of how our organisations and networks impact cultural
oceans provide immense value for the global economy. The logic of this
values and why this is important is still mostly a blind spot.
strategy is clear: WWF believes that speaking the economic language of
By putting our faith in the power of the rational argument we under-
decision makers is the most effective way to reach their goal.
estimate the importance of the subconscious mind in people’s
If markets were the solution to ocean destruction, this might be a valid
behaviour and decisions. At the same time we are often not aware
approach. But they aren’t. The economic argument suggests that if
that we do have an influence on cultural values, but often in a way
we could make a profit out of destroying the oceans (say, $48 trillion)
that it doesn’t help our causes. Nothing is free of values. In the
we should do it. But oceans are an integral part of life on earth and
way we communicate and with the messages we transmit we com-
cannot be separated out and valued like financial assets. They cannot be
municate values. With everything we do and how we behave as
substituted once they are gone.
individuals and organisations, we embody a range of values.
Unintentionally, we often reinforce the dominant extrinsic values
WWF’s strategy of framing the protection of nature in economic terms
and our current culture of self-interest and consumerism. This is
is very problematic because it reinforces the values and frames that are
problematic because research has shown that the more dominant
causing the problem in the first place.
materialistic values are, the more unhelpful a person’s behaviour
will be with regard to bigger-than-self problems, like climate change,
inequality etc.2
In the coming chapters we will explore this trap and how a deeper
understanding of cultural values and frames can make our cam-
paigns and organisations more effective.
What are the values underlying your current
campaigns / work?
To what extent are you aware of your potential
impact on cultural values?
To what extent do you believe that you are
engaging helpful or unhelpful values?
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Why the Make Poverty History campaign failed
Using money to keep the world as it is
In 2005 the Make Poverty History campaign mobilised millions of
Funding schemes are one of the core reasons CSOs are pursuing
people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of a million people
narrowly focused symptoms oriented strategies. Over the last de-
marched in Edinburgh ahead of the G8 summit. The organisers of the
cade many grant makers, including private foundations and public
historic protest were a coalition of 540 CSOs who formed the Make
funders, have further pushed their grantees to focus on clearer
Poverty History UK campaign.
measurable goals, thereby suppressing innovative, more risky and
systemic approaches.
From a short-term perspective, the campaign was a huge suc cess,
partly due to its empowering de-centralised campaign strategy and
The reasons for these funding strategies seem to fall into two
the novel and efficient use of text messaging. Celebrity endorsements
and a Live8 concert meant the campaign received high coverage by
First, many philanthropists who set up and control private foun-
the media. As a result of the campaign, the percentage of the popu-
dations as well as governments who are ultimately responsible for
lation who stated they were very concerned about extreme poverty
public funding schemes have an active interest in preserving the
increased to 32% from 25%.
status quo. These funding schemes are intentionally designed to
However, in 2011 this index fell back to 24%, lower than before the
avoid deeper system change and to preserve the value of the
campaign. Why did this happen?
philanthropists’ financial investments and wealth - their preferred
instruments are aid to tackle poverty and technology to help the
The Finding Frames report from 2011 suggests that the campaign
strengthened the values and frames of self-interest, free market and
consumerism, which in turn don’t create the long-term commitment
Second, other private funders don’t face these issues of vested
to end poverty. The messages where tackling poverty is understood
interests (or to a much smaller degree), but their organisations are
simply as making donations to charities proved too strong and the
often very conservative and too risk-averse to embark on innovative
use of celebrities in the campaign led to the unintended promotion of
system change strategies. For these organisations a core contra-
extrinsic values with potential harmful effect on the public’s deeper
diction persists: the wealth the foundation is built upon is the result
motivations to act on the issues the campaigners care about in the
of the very unequal system that it now pretends to change. Most
first place.4
funders have not yet tackled the problems that come along with
the power of money. These organisations are very hierarchical and
non-transparent. Their inability or reluctance to develop relation-
ships of trust with their grantees makes it difficult to jointly create a
common understanding about proper system change strategies and
ways to evaluate them in a more appropriate way.
In chapter 7 we will explore how grant-making organisations can join
the system change movement …
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Vested interests in philanthropy:
To what extent is your foundation (or your funder) asking your/
the Gates Foundation
its grantees to pursue narrowly defined issue-focused work?
Some of the world’s biggest and best known NGOs came together in
2013 to see how they could gain more support for their work. On the
How do you measure and evaluate success?
face of it, it sounds reasonable. Don’t we all want to work in more
conducive atmospheres? But the devil’s in the detail.
To what extent do the funding schemes encourage innovative
systemic strategies?
The Narrative Project was launched in 2014 by the Gates Foundation to
its circle of international charities who work to fight poverty. It states
How open and transparent is the funding organisation?
that the main barrier to the sector’s effectiveness was “the decline of
public support for our work,” meaning fewer and lower donations.
The project claims to use frame analysis yet does not identify nor ques-
If you would like to dig deeper into some critical analysis on
tion the frame upon which it itself is based: that aid to poor countries
mainstream activism, here are some great resources:
is the most effective way to fight poverty and all that the public need to
do is give more money.
Gustave Speth: The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008)
We might ask ourselves why the Gates Foundation wants to create a
Gustave Speth: Angels by the River (2014)
cohesive narrative on aid across the development sector. Why encou-
Noami Klein: This Changes Everything (2014)
rage others to keep seeking public support rather than question their
Movement Strategy Centre: Out of the Spiritual Closet - Organizers
own actions’ effectiveness? At least a part of the answer seems to be
Transforming the Practice of Social Justice (2010)
present in Bill Gates’ review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-
First Century: he believes that the world is getting more equal, not less;
In order to tackle the above issues we need to work at the personal,
that only excessive, family-gained wealth concentration is problematic;
organisational and social change strategy levels. We will explore ways to
and that the biggest debate to be had is on the type of taxation we
address these issues in the coming chapters.
need. It seems to have been an admirable effort in non-systems
thinking, a de-politicised separation of taxation and wealth from their
part in a system, which ensures that the poor keep getting poorer.
Why does activism need re.imagination?
Chapter 2
in hand with an acceleration of the pace of life. Even though the former
was intended to create more available time for the individual, late
modern society does not enjoy the luxury of more leisure time. On the
contrary, we seem to suffer from a constant time shortage by trying to
Re.imagining our future
do more things in the same amount of time: we live faster, work faster
and we consume faster.5
2.1 Understanding the system
DESYCHRONISATION: One perspective on these multiple crises is to see
It’s hard to deny - we are living in times of multiple global crises:
them as the consequence of a desynchronisation between different systems:
ECOLOGICAL CRISIS: Why are we consuming more resources than
• The ecological crisis results from resources being used at an ever-
nature can renew? Why are carbon emissions rising and a climate
faster pace for an ever-growing economy and nature that cannot keep
catastrophe approaching? Why are we in the midst of the sixth mass-
up with this pace. The systems are out of synch.
extinction of species?
• The spiritual crisis is the result of our minds not being able to keep up
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CRISIS: Why are our societies increasingly
with the pace of modern life, a pace we cannot determine ourselves:
unequal with the richest 1% owning 50% of the global wealth? Why is
digital globalisation and the fast paced consumer society lead to an
social cohesion breaking down? Why is nationalism on the rise?
alienation from space, from work and even from oneself. Burnout is a
SPIRITUAL CRISIS: Why do we experience increasing stress and
frequent consequence.
spiritual emptiness? Why are the illnesses of burnout and depression on
• The social and economic crisis is the result of an ever-faster capital
the rise in many rich countries?
accumulation of some and the impoverishment of others who can’t
DEMOCRACY CRISIS: Why are so many people losing faith in politicians
keep up with the pace of production and wealth accumulation. The
and the democratic process? Why is election turnout decreasing in
latter fall behind or leave the race altogether.
so many countries? Why are nationalist and extreme right parties
• The democracy crisis is the result of a political system and democratic
on the rise?
decision-making processes that can’t keep up with the accelerating
There are many answers to these questions but unlike other moments
global economy. Politics becomes reactive: we have to adapt to global
in human history, we increasingly understand that these crises do not
markets to stay competitive. This type of politics no longer speaks to
stand alone and they are not localized. Instead they are global, systemi-
citizens. They get alienated from democracy and search for alternative
cally interlinked and they share the same root causes.
anchors in extremist options that promise (false) stability and commu-
ACCELERATION: German sociologist Hartmut Rosa believes that the
nity or they become apathetic.
logic of social acceleration in modern societies lies at the root of these
crises. The main argument here is that technological progress accelerates
the production of goods, contacts and options for humans, but the time
we have available for these doesn’t change. Technological acceleration
affects the digital sector in particular, but paradoxically, also goes hand
Re.imagining our future
To what extent do people in your organisation, network or
movement have a common understanding of the underlying
root causes and system logic?
This is a fundamentally important step if we want to develop more
effective strategies to tackle the issues we care about.
If you would like to learn more about root causes of our multiple
systemic crises, here are some resources:
Hartmut Rosa: Social Acceleration - A New Theory of Modernity (2013)
Donella Meadows: Leverage Points - Places to Intervene in a System
ROOT CAUSES: If acceleration is part of the underlying logic of our
global social, economic and political systems, then what are the root
causes and drivers of this acceleration?
Social acceleration is not only a phenomenon of capitalism, it happens
in socialist economies to a lesser degree. However, the capitalist system’s
core element, capital accumulation (interest and profit) makes it
especially growth obsessive. Capitalism in its current form cannot live
without growth and the pace of technological innovation is accelerating
further and further.
The logic of growth can also be found deeply embedded in our mental
and cultural conditioning. We are living in a culture of more - for some
of us it’s more money, for others it’s more traveling, more contacts, more
experiences …
Re.imagining our future
What is systemic change?
2.2 The Great Transition - a vision
By definition the term systemic change can refer to change in any
to tackle multiple crises
system: the whole national school system, the global food system, the
local waste system etc.
In our times two problematic dogmas persist:
Systemic change is required when efforts to change one aspect of a
• The mechanisms of markets and competition (the invisible hand) are the
system fail to fix the problem. The whole system needs to be transformed.
best to create wellbeing in our societies.
Systemic change means that change has to be fundamental and affects
• Economic growth is necessary to increase wellbeing, to improve the living
how the whole system functions.
conditions of the poor and to reduce inequality.
Systemic change can mean gradual institutional reforms, but those
However, the extreme levels of inequality we have reached make it
reforms must be based on and aimed at a transformation of the funda-
more than clear that the invisible hand only works for the few and that
mental qualities and tenets of the system itself.6
wealth is not trickling down like we have been told. In addition there is
When our objective is systemic change, we need to look at the whole
an undeniable contradiction between the fact that economic growth
system including all its components and the relationships between them.
increases CO2 emissions and that climate change destroys the very
living conditions of the world’s poor that economic growth pretends to
Most systems are by nature dynamic and complex and systemic change
improve in the first place.
cannot be planned. Instead systemic change requires innovation, experi-
mentation as well as constant learning and adaptation.
Still, too many people can’t let go of the idea that our current econo-
mic system is the one best adapted to human nature and that trying
There is not one agreed upon definition for systemic change: some
to change it would entail catastrophic consequences. For many, the
refer more to the what of change (fundamental) and others to the how
collapse of the Soviet-style socialism is proof that there is no alternative
of change (involving all system actors, innovation, emergence) - it has
to capitalism or that the fall of the Berlin wall was the end of history as
to be both, but in addition it has to include a realistic consideration of
argued by Francis Fukuyama.
power in the system and how to deal with it.
Contrary to these dogmas, the idea of the Great Transition is based on
Setting the system boundaries is fundamental. Many system change
the conviction that our current societal order and economic system
projects and approaches are not tackling the real root causes because
(neoliberal capitalism) are not set in stone and that there are better
the wrong system boundaries are set. Many of today’s crises (e.g. ecolo-
alternatives beyond the false dichotomy of capitalism /socialism.
gical, social) might be ameliorated if looked at in a sub-system (e.g. food),
but in order to identify more effective leverage points we need to go
Nobody knows exactly what a sustainable world will look like and
deeper and beyond these system boundaries: ultimately today’s major
how we’ll get there. There is a need to experiment with a diversity
crises are global and deeply cultural (late modernity - see Hartmut Rosa
of ideas, approaches and policies. The vision of the Great Transition
among others). They are tied up with our economic, political and social
is a conceptual framework with principles and pillars for a sustain-
systems in the broadest sense.
able global economy and society that provides a basic and flexible
direction and pathways to get there7.
Re.imagining our future
Regarding the scale of change it envisions, the Great Transition is
The Great Transition does not suggest that everything humanity has
comparable with the industrial revolution of the 18th - 19th century. As
created is bad and should go. Much can and should be preserved. The
described by Karl Polanyi in his book Great Transformation (1944) it was
establishment of universal human rights and the role of the state
precisely during the industrial revolution that Adam Smith’s free market
in guaranteeing equality and social security are achievements that
postulates were systematically put into practice and the basis of the
should be preserved (or recuperated where growing neoliberalism
market society (market economy and nation state working in unity) was
and nationalism has put them at risk). The Great Transition is not
shaped and expanded.8 Over the past few decades, market expansion
a call for violent revolution - it is an attempt to avoid total system
has accelerated and invaded almost every sphere of life. It has become
break down on the way to a sustainable future. The seriousness of
the main mechanism directing our society. And we are not even questi-
today’s systemic crises might well mean disruption, social upheaval
oning if this role is positive or not.9
and institutional breakdown, but the ultimate objective is a politi-
cal and economic transition without violence where we keep what’s
One of the most corrosive effects of putting a price on everything is on
worth keeping and change what needs changing.
commonality, the sense that we are all in it together. Against the back-
ground of rising inequality, marketising every aspect of life leads to a
condition where those who are affluent and those who are of modest
means increasingly live separate lives. We live and work and shop and
play in different places. Our children go to different schools …
- Michael Sandel -
The Great Transition proposes that we reject the role of the market
as the underlying principle of our society and create a system that
is not dependent on continuous economic growth. For this we need
to fundamentally reinvent our core economic and political insti-
tutions. This will only be possible with the active involvement of civil
society and a deep cultural shift that unleashes untapped political
power and the desire for transformational change.
Re.imagining our future
Here are some fundamental aspects
of the Great Transition:
Economic re-localisation An important element of the future
system will inevitably be a huge re-localisation of economic value
chains. Current global supply chains don’t make much sense from a
human needs perspective and cannot work within the logic of eco-
A process of profound cultural change The Great Transition
logical limits. A higher proximity of the economy and the strict use
cannot be a top down project. Instead it requires in-depth participa-
of the principle of subsidiarity will be more sustainable, just and
tion of civil society in the process of social innovation and democra-
tic deliberation to create new social settlements.
Taking care of our global commons Interdependencies at so
Wellbeing as the ultimate goal The wellbeing of current and
many levels will demand the design and creation of effective and
future human generations as well as of other living creatures has to
democratic governance systems, particularly at the global level. New
be at the core of the system. Economic growth cannot be the main
institutions and economic mechanisms (at all levels) have to be de-
societal goal.
signed to ensure human activities re-generate the global commons.
A culture of sufficiency Consumerist culture must be replaced
Putting equality at the heart of the system We must ack-
by a culture of sufficiency. If consumerist culture is a social con-
nowledge and reverse current and historical inequities including the
struction created during the mid-twentieth century (kicked off by
unequal use of resources across the globe, unjust labour practices
Edward Bernays using psychoanalysis to market products and spur
as well as the invisibilisation of minorities such as indigenous and
mass production10), an evolution towards a culture based on human
peasant communities and other forms of marginalisation.
needs is perfectly imaginable.
For some, the vision of such a transition seems utopian and it might
Elimination of the logic of growth The current capitalist sys-
well be. Nobody knows if the Great Transition can be achieved, but it
tem is growth dependant. When growth stalls, huge problems like
is the only possibility we have to truly create a peaceful, just and
mass unemployment follow. The new post-growth economic system
sustainable world.
needs to have a DNA change to eliminate its dependency on growth.
The good news is that things are already happening. Every day more
The economy will only grow where it has to grow, e.g. where growth
people in radical pre-figurative movements are exploring ideas and
fulfils real human needs.11
experimenting with system change (see box on page 32). All of these
Rethinking the role of the market The market has to serve
movements share a core critique of market capitalism and advocate
society and not the reverse. There are many forms of economic (and
for alternative visions. Each of these movements hold strong ideas
non-economic) organisation that are not market based. If they are
about alternatives to the current system. Many of their activists
better suited to fulfil human needs, they should substitute current
have been advocating for them for a long time. These are important
market approaches (see also box on page 32).
processes on the journey towards a new social settlement. But it will
Respecting ecological limits New institutions and economic
require more exploration, organising and deliberation with much
mechanisms (at all levels) have to be designed to ensure human
broader and wider parts of society. A revitalised democracy will play
activities operate within ecological limits.
an important role.
Re.imagining our future
System change movements pre-figuring the future
P2p movement
- promotes self-organised, non-hierarchical
collaboration in the form of mostly digital networks for co-production.
Commons movement - promotes a form of self-organisation and
The movement in general sees itself in opposition to the enclosure of the
cooperation (commoning) between people to regain or protect free
knowledge commons through copyrights etc. It works towards a future
access to cultural or natural resources (the commons). Currently, these
economy where self-organised production and consumption substitutes
commons (e.g. knowledge, internet or land) are often enclosed by market
the current capitalist corporate economy. For many digital commoners
and state actors so cannot be freely accessed. Enclosure increases and
the reality of ecological limits is not a core concern.
perpetuates inequality. The Commons movement strongly emphasises
the act of commoning but is often ambiguous about the roles public
Buen vivir movement - promotes harmony between human beings
institutions and the market will play in a future system.
and between human beings and nature, and subjugates the rights of the
individual to those of peoples, communities and nature. Rooted in the
Degrowth movement - promotes a controlled decline of economic
worldview of the Quechua peoples of the Andes, Buen Vivir describes
production (degrowth) and a new equilibrium relationship between
a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced
human beings and nature. The aim of the Degrowth movement is to
and culturally-sensitive.
maximise wellbeing within ecological limits.
Intersectional feminist movement - promotes a dismantling
of the interconnected structures of oppression and a cultural and
institutional shift towards gender equality. It sees the root causes for
many of today’s problems /crises in patriarchy that has persisted over
the course of history and has created and sustained the capitalist system.
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this chapter,
The movement argues that feminism has to be at the heart of a transition
here are some great resources:
to a new sustainable and just societal and economic order.
Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (2002)
Solidarity economy movement - promotes economic organi-
Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation - The Political and
sation rooted in democracy, solidarity and ecological sustainability. It
Economic Origins of Our Time (1944)
is closely linked to the cooperative movement as one way to organise
Michael Sandel: What Money Can’t Buy - The moral limits of
in a more equal and democratic social order. For some the solidarity
market (2012)
economy movement is about the abolition of capitalism and for others
Fred Block and Margaret Somers: The power of market
it is about a humanised capitalism. The movement is often not explicit
fundamentalism (2014)
about a post-growth economy and ecological limits.
Degrowth - A Vocabulary for a New Era (2015)
Re.imagining our future
Chapter 3
Re.imagining change -
the Smart CSOs model for
system change
We don’t love models for the sake of modelling or to have a nice intel-
lectual discussion. Instead we have found that models can be practical
and important tools for re.imagining our strategies. The questions at
the core of the Smart CSOs model are: How do systems change? And
what does existing knowledge tell us about how our broken economic,
political and social systems could be fundamentally transformed so
that life on earth can flourish within the means of the planet?
The empirical experience from
The model holds a number of core messages that are important to inte-
You keep pointing at the anomalies
transition research
(Geels et al)
riorise when developing our activist strategies:
and failures of the old paradigm,
helped us see how change happens at
you keep speaking louder and with
different, interconnected levels. We
If we want to change the system, trying to convince the incumbent
assurance from the new one, you
adapted these findings to our own
system players (Regimes) to fundamentally change is often futile.
insert people with the new paradigm
needs. In the Smart CSOs model
Most campaigns and advocacy strategies are currently focused on
in places of public visibility and
there are essentially three levels that
trying to shift the behaviour of governments, businesses and consumers.
power. You don’t waste time with
are important to look at: the Culture,
While this can be successful in promoting incremental change, it is usually
reactionaries; rather you work with
the Regimes and the Niches levels.
ineffective from a system change perspective. Empirical research shows
active change agents and with the
The Culture level is where the domi-
that institutions resist change very strongly and often self-stabilise
vast middle ground of people who are
nant societal values and worldviews
when being pushed to change.
open minded.
lie and eventually shift. The Regimes
- Donella Meadows on how to
level is where the dominant politi-
change paradigms -
For systems change, we need to work at multiple levels at the
cal, economic and social institutions lie and where new or transformed
same time (Culture, Regimes and Niches).
institutions emerge. The Niches level is where pioneers experiment with
We need a much broader perspective on change that involves an
ideas and seeds of the new system.
understanding of the role of culture and radical innovation processes in
Re.imagining change - the Smart CSOs model for system change
catalysing change. We need to become skilled at identifying and making
We need to learn how to create positive feedback loops between
use of meaningful windows of opportunity for change in the old system.
the three levels.
For a suc cessful Great Transition we need to make change efforts
Activists, organisations and campaigns need to learn how to
at all three levels that reinforce one another to create positive feed-
shift societal values and frames
back loops. The strategic question here should always be: What
Most campaigns and activist strategies are not paying sufficient
effect could my action have on any of the levels and what feedback
attention to the importance of culture in change. We rely too heavily
loops could it catalyse?
on the power of information and rational argument. We communicate
and represent values of self-interest, consumerism and growth, there-
To conclude ...
by perpetuating the current culture. The Great Transition demands a
The Smart CSOs model loses most of its value if we interpret it in a
shift towards sufficiency, well-being and solidarity. Activists, organi-
simplistic way. For example, be careful not to classify any given activist
sations and campaigns can play a much more positive role in cultural
strategy or approach into one of the three levels without evaluating
change if they embody and communicate the values of the new system.
what core message the change level holds or what feedback loops might
be created, supported or weakened. While the model is a useful and
Pioneers are building the new system. They require our support.
flexible tool for strategic conversations, it is not an all-explaining
While there is a growing number of experiments with alternative
wonder box. We need to populate it little by little with knowledge
economic models, most are simply tolerated by mainstream institutions
and wisdom, from both theory and practice, to improve our under-
or co-opted by the system to play by current market rules. In many civil
standing of system change strategies.
society organisations, emerging radical system innovations are poorly
understood; they possess insufficient faith in their ability to support and
This model can help activists assess the potential of current strategies to
nurture niches to eventually become systems of influence. Disruptive
encourage (or hinder) the Great Transition. It can also support strategic
innovators creating the seeds of the new system require support and
conversations focusing on new system change strategies and how they
protected spaces to incubate their innovations. If we can support these
can mutually reinforce one another. In the next chapter we will explore
pioneers by helping them build communities of influence, they will
some of these insights in more detail.
become stronger, scale their innovations and eventually institutionalise
a new system.
If you would like to learn more about the Smart CSOs Model
Instead of playing the game of politics, we need to use windows
for System Change, here are some great resources:
of opportunity in the old system to advance system change.
System change is resisted by an elite and by institutions that defend
Smart CSOs Paper - How to break out of the systems trap? (2013)
and often abuse their positions of excessive and uncontrolled power. As
Smart CSOs Report - Effective Strategies for the Great Transition
long as groups with an interest in the status quo continue to effectively
control the system, system change pioneers will be unable to institutio-
nalise new economic models. Campaigns of protest, confrontation and
resistance are necessary strategies in any system change portfolio.
Re.imagining change - the Smart CSOs model for system change
The 10 principles for
systemic activism
Chapter 4
The following is an attempt to summarise the most important lessons
we have learned about systemic activism in our community of practice.
Throughout this guide we refer to these principles. We believe that
Re.imagining our strategies
taking them to heart can make a difference.
System change cannot be controlled in complex systems due to
In this chapter we will explore how to make meaningful steps to more
uncertainty. Be strategic, learn and adapt as you go.
systemic approaches and strategies. We have some examples and tools
Continuously expand your consciousness by learning to under-
to offer to make this as practical as possible. We propose a number of
stand your underlying belief systems and those of others.
roles that are each important to effectively support the Great Transition.
Think long-term in your strategies - it’s OK to lose short-term
Of course not every network needs to take on all of these roles; they can
fights for the sake of long-term benefits.
be fulfilled by different networks and organisations so that their efforts
complement one another.
Always look for effective leverage points and root causes.
Frame your campaigns around them.
For the sake of this chapter we are assuming that your activist group,
network or organisation has reached the decision that it wants to move
The main enemy is the system and the culture that supports
towards more systemic approaches and that it is able to deal with the
it - they shape everyone’s behaviour. Even the powerful and
funding challenges this might entail. In chapter 5 we will deal with the
privileged are locked into the system.
organisational challenges this involves and in chapter 7 we will discuss
Always consider the effects your actions might have on the
how funding can become more systemic.
different levels of change (Culture, Regimes and Niches) and
what feedback loops they could catalyse.
Ultimately the Great Transition will lead to new social
settlements as a result of re-democratised deliberation - it
can’t be decided by small groups of elites.
At the end of this guide you will find a worksheet for self-assessment
Always try to express and encourage intrinsic values like
of your strategies from a system change perspective. The 11 questions
compassion, empathy and creativity through your activities
aim to help you analyse your strategies and provide guidance to iden-
and in the stories you tell.
tify opportunities to start changing your campaigns and strategies in a
Be authentic - an over-reliance on tactics can be problematic if
meaningful way. You can also download a pdf version of the worksheet
your authenticity is at risk (i.e. you have to sacrifice your values).
here: smart-csos.org/publications
Avoid reproducing structures of oppression (sexism, racism,
inequalities) in your movement.
Re.imagining change - the Smart CSOs model for system change
4.1 Moving from mainstream
activism to systemic activism
In this section we are proposing three progressive phases of activism
that lead to a level that can most effectively support the Great Transition
- we call this highest level systemic activism.
You can use this model to assess which phase you are in right now
on the journey from current mainstream activism to systemic
activism as well as what needs to be done to become a driver of the
Great Transition.
Re.imagining our strategies
Phase One:
Strategic tools for systemic activism I
Becoming a supporter of
the Great Transition
Working with values and frames
This phase is about avoiding harm. Every campaigning organisation or
network that believes in the need for a Great Transition should at the
Values play an important role in social change. Cross-cultural
very least review and potentially adjust their campaigns to ensure every
research in social science has identified a set of consistently occurring
effort made and every pragmatic campaign designed for incremental
human values. Social psychologists refer to one cluster as extrinsic, or
change supports the opportunity for more disruptive change in the
materialistic. These are concerned with our desire for achievement,
future. In particular we should:
status, power and wealth. Opposite to those are intrinsic values.
They relate to caring, community, environmental concern and social
Frame campaigns in a conscious way by being aware of the
justice. Although each of us carries both, the importance we attach
values and frames that you communicate and their impacts.
to one set of values tends to diminish the importance of the other.
Avoid campaign goals that are in any way conflictive with the
When power values like social status, prestige and dominance come
principles and aims of the Great Transition.
first, the universal values of tolerance, appreciation and concern for
Design campaigns in a way that it communicates values supportive
the welfare of others are suppressed.
of the Great Transition, e.g. we should avoid references to consumerist
The U.K.-based Common Cause group is synthesizing this growing
and self-interest values.
body of values research. It offers guidance to CSOs on ways to
Avoid frames that reinforce the market and growth paradigm for the
engage cultural values to further their causes. Because values are like
sake of short-term objectives.
muscles - they get stronger the more we exercise them - activists
can consciously stimulate intrinsic values in communications and
First steps on framing
Imagine you work for a NGO that focuses on humanitarian aid. You
recognise that the way that you talk to the public about aid reinforces a
Researchers have also discovered what they call the values bleed-over
hierarchical worldview and you fail to explain why poverty exists. You
effect. Because values tend to exist in clusters, when one is activated,
could start to reframe your communications to reflect a more egali-
so are compatible neighbouring values. For example, people reminded
tarian and empowering worldview, and focus your campaigns on the
of generosity, self-direction and family are more likely to support
causes of poverty and crisis such as tax avoidance or climate change …
pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success
and status.
Create system awareness and develop a systemic understanding
The lesson for systemic activists is that we need to be conscious about
of root causes and leverage points. Any campaign - even the
the values we are activating and reinforcing through our work. Our
most incremental - should be the result of careful consideration
current culture is dominated by extrinsic values whereas intrinsic
that follows intensive systems thinking exercises. Your campaign
values are weakened. Re-balancing cultural values is central to the
strategy should be designed to support deeper systemic change as
Great Transition and we need to learn how we can have a positive role
much as possible while the campaign might maintain a pragmatic
in shaping values.
short-term objective. We need to learn about systems thinking …
Words are not as neutral as we often believe. There is a hidden world un-
Re.imagining our strategies
derneath our words. Frames operate behind the scenes, affecting how
Strategic tools for systemic activism I
we view things, large and small. They are like little stories triggered by
The Pope gives a lesson on Great Transition framing
the words we hear and the experiences we have. The way we see things is
With his very political encyclical Laudato Si in May 2015 Pope Francis
influenced by the words we use. For example the phrase tax relief makes
gave an important lesson on how to strategically frame the global sys-
us think of taxes as a burden, as something we need relief from instead
temic crises (especially climate change and inequality). Activists can
of something that contributes to society for our collective benefit.12
learn a great deal from this carefully written piece of communication.
Frames can be engaged deliberately and they are all the time: it’s called
The guru of cognitive linguistics George Lakoff was thrilled: “The pope
framing. The advertising industry is particularly good at framing, or if
has framed the issue so powerfully, often in language that flows most
you like, at manipulating us through its strategic choice of frames. For
easily and readily from a Pope, and yet makes so much moral sense,
example, car ads show us empty roads to associate cars with freedom
whether you are Catholic or not, religious or not.”14
instead of associating them with negative side effects like traffic jams
The title of the encyclical On Care for our Common Home establishes
and pollution.
the most important frame right from the start: Using the metaphor of
One of the important challenges we face when we think about framing
the Earth as Home, he triggers a frame in which all the people of the
for the Great Transition is that growth is generally associated with
world are a family, living in a common home. As a family we should
something positive, something that we can’t live without. Growth is also
care for each other. A home is something we all depend on, physically
considered a deep frame that we cannot easily change because it is so
and emotionally.
deeply embedded in our brains. In the book Framespotting, Laurence and
When the Pope says, “The alliance between the economy and tech-
Alison Matthews suggest a way to reframe growth as something that is
nology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate inter-
definitely good (because children grow and we celebrate this) but only
ests”, he sharply points toward the underlying system logic of market
up to a point. Adults don’t grow. Maturity is when you outgrow growth.
fundamentalism lying behind inequality and the climate crisis.
“The best story of our times may be a coming of age story: if we can rea-
Unlike so many mainstream campaigns, Pope Francis shows he is a
lise that a childish fixation on endless growth should give way to a more
superb systems thinker when he states: “To seek only a technical
mature outlook, we will have grown up.”13
remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate
what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest
If you would like to learn more about values and
problems of the global system.”15
frames and how this can be applied in your strategies,
Maybe next time we are in search of effective frames for a system
here are some great resources:
change campaign, we should reread the encyclical Laudato Si. Surely
Common Cause Handbook (2011)
Finding Frames - New ways to engage the UK public on global poverty (2011)
Common Cause Handbook for Nature (2013)
George Lakoff: Don‘t think of an Elephant (2004)
Laurence and Alison Matthews: Framespotting - Changing how
you look at things changes how you see things (2014)
Re.imagining our strategies
Strategic tools for systemic activism II
Strategic tools for systemic activism II
As a first step, spend time mapping your system or problem of interest. A
How to identify effective
systems map is a visual representation of a complex system that helps you
leverage points
identify its components, their connections and the rules governing them.
For the Great Transition to become a reality, we must find places in the
Free mapping tools are available online but hand-drawn diagrams can work
current system in which to strategically intervene for positive change.
just as well. The iceberg model shown here is a simple way to start revealing
Donella Meadows (1999) called these places leverage points. Leverage
system patterns, structures and unconscious assumptions. Increased
points are points of power that when pushed, cause changes in other
leverage for change can be found by diving to deeper levels of the
parts of the system; some are more powerful than others. For example,
iceberg. Addressing these deeper system levels can counter short-
changing the goal of a system is a more powerful intervention than
sighted decision-making and gets us off the symptoms-solving treadmill.
adding a new rule. Imagine if growth in human wellbeing were the goal
Another important tool for analysing complex systems is the causal
of our current economic system rather than growth in GDP! That would
loop diagram. These diagrams graphically depict system variables and
be a more transformative change than simply implementing a new policy.
the causal links between them. Importantly, causal loop diagrams help
As systemic activists, our aim should be to find the most powerful
us identify positive and negative feedback loops so we know which
leverage points possible or what we call root causes. Although there is
direction to push for change. Meadows offered a tragic example of
no simple formula for identifying them, we can get better at identifying
misunderstanding causal loops: world leaders have correctly identified
leverage points and learn how to push them effectively.
economic growth as a powerful leverage point in our world system -
they just push in the wrong direction. As chains of causes and effects
are revealed through analysis, systemic activists can better identify
why the system behaves the way it does and which variables they can
strategically influence.
Adapted from Senge, P. (1990)
Re.imagining our strategies
Strategic tools for systemic activism II
Strategic tools for systemic activism II
Examples of promising system interventions/leverage points
Once we have identified a promising leverage point, we need to explore
potential windows of opportunity and our strategic capacity to move in
Here are just a few leverage points in our economic, political and social
this direction.
systems that we might want to work on. They could be considered high
or very high leverage points due to their potential to shift the system
considerably towards the Great Transition.
If you would like to dig deeper into how to use systems
Reducing working hours - A re-distribution of work, i.e. fairer alloca-
thinking and identify effective leverage points, here
tion of work, can be an effective leverage point to reduce unemployment
are some great resources:
and increase equality, as well as reduce carbon emissions, build stronger
social connections and improve physical and mental health.
Linda Booth-Sweeney and Dennis Meadows: System Thinking
Basic income - Many believe that an unconditional basic income
Playbook (1995)
(i.e. every citizen receives an income by the state regardless of his / her
Donella Meadows: Leverage Points - Places to Intervene in a
working situation or other conditions) could be a very strong instrument
System (1999)
for improving equality, ecological sustainability and wellbeing.
Cooperatives - Housing cooperatives (owned by the people who live
www.Thwink.org: Root Cause Analysis - How it works at Thwink.org
there), workers cooperatives (owned by the people who work there) or
consumer cooperatives (owned by the people who use the services) can
be a powerful means to reduce the growth obsession of the economy
and to create a fairer and more equal society.
Local currencies - Complementary local currencies are seen by many
as an important means for more resilience at local and regional levels.
They can foster localisation of the economy and therefore be ecologically
more sustainable.
National indicators of progress One of the highest leverage
points according to Donella Meadows is the goal of the system. The most
important indicator of modern economies is the GDP: success of the
system comes down to measuring economic growth. If we want to
change the system, we need to change its goal. Bhutan’s Gross National
Happiness indicator is one example of an alternative.
Re.imagining our strategies
Phase Two:
Phase Three:
Becoming connected for
Becoming a driver of
the Great Transition
the Great Transition
In our Chapter 1 assessment, we saw that our networks and organisations
Only in this phase are we developing true system change capacity. Through
often exist in silos, unable to collaborate. We need to overcome this
rigorous processes of questioning our own worldviews and assump-
silo mentality.
tions we develop a new consciousness and systems understanding.
Through the application of analytical systems thinking tools we develop
Join a community of practice - Connect and learn with networks,
strategies and narratives focused on effective leverage points.
organisations and movements involved in diverse struggles to
expand your horizon beyond the issues you care about most. This is
What if the Stop TTIP campaign had told such a story:
an important first step before thinking about coalitions or institutional
Governments are desperately fighting for a return to high economic
arrangements of any kind. Even if your organisation is not yet ready
growth and are willing to sell anything that might be in their way - our
for the Great Transition, you can personally join such communities
rights, health and environment among them …. But wait a minute!
of practice. By connecting with others and learning together how to
Something’s wrong here. We cannot sacrifice everything we value - health,
change the system you will be contributing to the emergence of a
rights, environment, our livelihood - for the sake of say an additional 0,1 %
of economic growth. And is more global trade really a good thing in the
movement for system change. .
first place? Will it create more wellbeing or will it just destroy the environ-
ment while it makes a few rich a little bit richer? We need to discuss, where
A safe space for learning
are the limits to this all? What alternatives are there that can improve
One of the success factors of the Smart CSOs Lab is that individuals join
wellbeing for all including future generations? In the meanwhile let’s join
out of their personal motivation to learn about systemic change. They
our forces and stop TTIP to avoid making things worse.
take their organisational hats off when they are in the space of the lab.
The members of the community are involved in diverse struggles of
activism but are united by a common purpose of respectful joint learning
in a non-hierarchical space where they develop the necessary trust
Put a system change vision in place - This is of course not something
outside their institutional rules. The community provides a backbone
you will do in two days. It is part of a bigger organisational change
for the difficulties members face when promoting systemic change in
process (see chapter 5). The new vision is the framework of reference for
their institutional contexts.
everyone in your organisation / network and is therefore fundamental
to move things in the same direction.
Connect with and learn from the pioneers of the new
Develop a common system change story with other movements.
system - Acquiring an understanding of the seeds of the new system
Deconstruct the old stories by asking questions like: What are the
will take you on a journey towards a more systemic world view and
stories we need to change? What are the underlying assumptions?
reinforce motivation for deeper change. Only if we understand what
Are there larger mythologies of the dominant culture that must
is already going on in these pre-figurative movements can we
be challenged?
identify appropriate roles for ourselves and our organisations in
the Great Transition.
Re.imagining our strategies
Strategic tools for systemic activism III
Construct a new story by creating an understanding of existing
Street started to gain attention there was a broken story that provided
stories and cultural assumptions around an issue and ask: How does
fertile ground for a new story to emerge, one that Occupy was shouting
our story target underlying assumptions in the dominant story.
out into the world. This was the failing American Dream. The new story
that has continued to grow ever since is the story of the 99% vs. the 1%.
Embed your campaign communications into a system change
Winning the Story Wars argues that we need to identify the perennial
narrative - Now you are a driver of the Great Transition. You have
stories that are starting to break and tap into these myth gaps with
worked hard and have developed your systems change literacy. Your
powerful new stories that have the potential to replace the old ones. For
campaigns will never be the same again because no matter what
the purpose of advancing the Great Transition, there are a number of
your campaigns are about, you will skilfully embed them into a wider
failing stories that are calling to be replaced. Here are three:
narrative of systemic change.
The broken story of economic growth - while the story is still
powerful, there is a growing sense that economic growth is incompatible
with tackling climate change. It is showing cracks. A better/new story
would focus on wellbeing in a much broader sense than material wealth.
Strategic tools for systemic activism III
The broken story of the invisible hand - in times of growing
inequality, the belief in the invisible hand is vanishing. A better/new
story is that a more cooperative economy suits human nature and helps
the planet and people to thrive.
The broken story of technological progress - while this story
is still powerful, the understanding is growing that the acceleration of
Storytelling is an effective and increasingly popular communication tool
technological innovation is part of the problem rather than the solution.
because contrary to the standard presentation of facts and numbers,
A better/new story would deconstruct the link between wellbeing and
it touches people on an emotional level. Stories make it much easier
continuous innovation.
for us to remember the intended message. Today, storytelling is often
being used to serve a short-term campaigning goal without necessarily
considering its long-term impact on the way we think about the world
and how we make sense of reality.
But stories can have much deeper cultural impact. In his book Winning
If you would like to dig deeper into how to use
the Story Wars acclaimed storyteller Jonah Sachs writes about the
storytelling effectively for systemic change, here
stories that have been told for generations, across centuries and even
are some great resources:
millennia. He calls these stories that make sense of the world myths.
Sachs argues that especially in our times, some stories that have been
Jonah Sachs: Winning the story wars (2012)
valid for very long are no longer making sense to a growing number of
Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning: Re:Imagining Change (2010)
people - these are called myth gaps or broken stories. When Occupy Wall
www.storybasedstrategy.org (check for Story Based Strategy Chart)
Re.imagining our strategies
Work with different roles - Not all systemic change is about
campaigning. In the next section we will introduce different ways
Systemic activism requires
systemic activism can contribute to the Great Transition. Systemic
activism requires fighting the old, supporting the new, creating new
discourse, building movement and working with a different level of
fighting the old,
consciousness. There’s a lot to do. Let’s see how …
supporting the
The Rules - Experimenting with different
approaches and roles of systemic activism
The Rules is a global decentralised network of activists committed to
deep system change. As we explore different roles of systemic activism,
The Rules is difficult to define. It was created in 2013 by a small group of
creating new
experienced campaigners with an excellent understanding of the failures
and challenges of traditional campaigns and institutionalised civil society.
So they embarked on a truly innovative journey.
The Rules attempts to target key leverage points in the economic system
building movement
as a way to advance system change. As one example, in 2013 it campaigned
against the City of London as the Tax Haven of the World (i.e. its role in
spurring tax avoidance of truly astronomic levels). It provides research
and framing, funding and logistical support to grassroots movements,
(e.g. Ekta Parishad, Kenyans for Tax Justice) and facilitates large coalitions
of organisations to swarm around specific leverage points and issues
working with a
(e.g. Our Land, Our Business, targeting the World Bank). Importantly, for
such campaigns, The Rules connects Southern and Northern movements
for maximum grassroots movement power.
different level
More recently, The Rules has focused on deconstructing the narratives
around capitalism and neoliberalism, and attempting to introduce a
of consciousness.
more powerful logic around the need for deep change into mainstream
The Rules mindfully chooses its frames to engage people. As one
example it is engaging in reframing the story of poverty as something
created by humans that requires system change and which cannot be
addressed by charity.
Re.imagining our strategies
Supports deliberation on
fundamental questions and
4.2 The roles of
Uses windows of opportunity in
helps create new discourse
systemic activism
the political/economic system to
and a cultural shift.
target key leverage points that
Here we introduce the different
can help shift the system.
roles of systemic activism that your
organisation or network can take on.
Some might want to take on a few
roles at once. Others will focus on
one. This is a question of capacity
and the theory of change you believe
in. Ultimately, the Great Transition will
require diverse but complementary
strategies and roles. The systemic
activism roles described below are
meant to be strategic drivers of
the Great Transition so we haven’t
included the role of the pioneer,
namely those doing important work
in their niches. Instead, they focus on
supporting the seeds of the new
system, movement building, fight-
ing the power of the old system and
helping shift entrenched narratives.
Creates meaningful connections and
learning cycles around the question of
Helps the new system emerge
system change between movements
by naming, connecting, nur-
and networks at multiple geo-
turing and illuminating the
graphical levels, including globally.
pioneers of the new system.
Re.imagining our strategies
The Acupuncturist
Targeting fossil fuel divestment as a key leverage
point for system change
Uses windows of opportunity in the political/economic system to
target key leverage points that can help shift the system.
Arguably the most interesting campaign of the climate change move-
ment in the last few years is the Fossil Free Divest campaign kicked off
Social innovation labs have become quite popular in recent years. Much
in 2012 by Bill McKibben and led by the environmental group 350.org.
of what emerges from these labs sounds as if systemic change were
Since 2014, The Guardian has led the spin-off campaign Keep it in the
entirely about collaboration and innovation. The self-stabilising nature
Ground, a real novelty due to the fact that a newspaper is campaign-
of institutions and the power and vested interests of those who benefit
ing on climate change.
from the status quo are often ignored in these contexts.16 Capitalism has
a great ability to co-opt these well-intended innovations when they can
The divest campaign/movement puts pressure on public and private
serve the interests of capital - as it happened with the sharing economy:
investors to divest from the fossil fuel industry. There is a moral argu-
Airbnb and Uber showed to be a rather brutal next stage of the neoliberal
ment for this (four fifths of fossil fuels need to be kept in the ground
system. Capitalism can also generously ignore the niches of radical
to avoid catastrophic climate change) as well as a financial one (the
innovation as long as they don’t threaten the system.
value of these companies is a bubble if we are serious on climate
change). A number of high profile institutions (Church of England,
Without contestation and conflict we will not tackle the underlying
Glasgow University, philanthropic foundations etc.) have joined the
logic of our collective problems and systemic change won’t be possible.
movement and have started to divest.
The Acupuncturist has a key role in identifying fights that are worth
fighting from a system change perspective. Importantly, the focus here
The ultimate aim is to damage fossil fuel companies through
is not about winning campaigns as it would be
reputation loss. The campaign seems to be a promising example of
under the criteria of most mainstreams efforts.
identifying very targeted leverage points in the system in addition
It might well be that there is a window of oppor-
to creating a powerful narrative around it in order to trigger deeper
tunity to shift policy and that this can support
systemic change. To make the campaign even more powerful, more
systemic change but most importantly, the
recently the idea of reinvestment has been added: “Now the institu-
Acupuncturist identifies fights that can
tions have an opportunity to reinvest in ways that are aligned with
change the logic of the debate, shift
their civic duty. Divestment will unlock significant amounts of capital
mind-sets and create new narratives.
providing a massive opportunity to reinvest in social goals like energy
So even if the campaign is lost in
democracy, affordable housing for all or universal education.” says Dr
the traditional sense, if it helps
Jo Ram, co-founder of Community Reinvest.
to deconstruct old stories and
shift frames, it is a win.
The Questioner
Friends of the Earth is engaging with the big
picture in a new way
Supports deliberation on fundamental questions and helps create
new discourse and a cultural shift.
Big Ideas Change the World is the name of a project recently embarked
upon by Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (FoE
According to Harvard professor of political philosophy Michael Sandel,
EWNI). It is the organisation’s attempt to put the big questions on the
one of the great missing debates in contemporary politics is about the
table and start engaging environmentalists, academics as well the
role and reach of markets. We are simply not addressing the big moral
wider public in a serious dialogue about what is really needed to deal
questions of our times. We are not debating the big questions that
with the biggest challenges of our times.
focus on justice, inequality or the common good because we believe
that market solutions provide a neutral way of resolving conflicts. One
The project was kicked off when the organisation realised their
result has been the loss of trust in our institutions. Many democracies
campaigning work was too incremental and not tackling the root
debate today about technical issues instead about big values like
causes of the worsening ecological crises. The organisation also felt that
justice or the common good. For the Great Transition to materialise, it is
insufficient resources were spent on long-term thinking and strategy.
fundamental to regain these deliberative spaces. If politics is incapable of
With the Big Ideas project, FoE EWNI has initiated an analysis and
creating these spaces today, civil society must take on the role of opening
dialogue about long-term megatrends and how to address their root
and expanding them. We need to attract more citizens from diverse
causes more effectively. While the initial dialogue has been limited to
social groups and classes to participate in the fundamental debates of
particular academics and thinkers, the aim is to broaden the conver-
our times: What is the good life? What are the moral limits of markets?
sation to the wider public after the initial phase closes with the launch
When do markets serve the common good and when are more cooperative
of a book.
approaches better suited? Pre-figurative movements deliver important
The upcoming strategy review will show if the organisation draws any
ideas and valuable experiences but systemic change requires much
conclusions from the Big Ideas project for their campaigning work. It
bigger and broader social dialogue. In fact, it requires a renewed delibe-
might also reveal how much value the organisation attributes to such
rative democracy that can create the basis of new social settlements for
dialogue as a strategy in itself and as a way to expand the spaces to
a truly just and sustainable society.
debate the big questions of our times.
The Questioner takes on the important
role of facilitating dialogues around these
questions. This can involve different ways
of engagement including arts, theatre
and music.
Ultimately the Great Transition has to lead
to new social settlements resulting from
re-democratised deliberation - it can’t be
decided by small groups of elites.
Re.imagining our strategies
The Gardener
Local initiatives in Catalonia cultivating
the solidarity economy
Helps the new system emerge by naming, connecting, nurturing
and illuminating the pioneers of the new system.
The Catalonia Solidarity Economy Network (XES) and Estarter are two
initiatives based in Barcelona that both aim to strengthen, expand and
A transition to a radically different economic system is nothing
improve the solidarity economy in Catalonia, Spain.
that can be planned by an individual or result from top-down, pre-
conceived strategic plans. The economy is a highly complex system
XES was already created in 2003 and has since served as a support
that can only radically change through emergence. Emergence
structure and laboratory for new ways of working, consuming and
happens when “separate, local efforts connect with each other as
investing.Among itsnow 150 institutionalmembers aremany cooperatives
networks, then strengthen as communities of practice. Suddenly
but also other types of social business as well as associations and informal
and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale.
organisations. XES promotes best practices among its members and
This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that
helps create visibility by organizing annual solidarity economy fairs.
were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they
XES doesn’t see the solidarity economy as a silver bullet against all
simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of
problems in today’s economic system but as an important piece for
the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess
an alternative system.
them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power
Created in 2013, Estarter is a small initiative set up by a group of local
and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change.
activists, academics and practitioners who saw there was a need for
Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things
capacity-building on how to set up and run collective projects like
to scale.”17
cooperatives or community initiatives. Despite an extremely difficult
To support the emergence of the new economic system, the Gardener
labour market over the last few years in Spain, Estarter has organised and
has an important role in naming, connecting, strengthening and
facilitated courses especially for young people to help them start their
illuminating the pioneers of the new
own cooperatives or other forms of solidarity economy entities.
system, thus increasing the potential
that the seeds of the new economy
become systems of influence (e.g.
community-owned modes of production,
co-operatives, non-proprietary and open
If you would like to dig deeper into the theory behind the
source solutions, etc.).
role of the Gardener, here are some great resources on how
to work with emergence:
Using emergence to take social innovation to scale - Berkana
Institute (2006)
David J. Snowden, Mary E. Boone: A Leader’s Framework for Decision
Making (2007)
Re.imagining our strategies
The Broker
learning cycles that help converge the thinking and strategies of these
different groups in activism and civil society.
Creates meaningful connections and learning cycles around the
The Broker creates more encompassing communities of practice by
question of system change between movements and networks at
connecting activists from different clusters who want to learn how to
multiple geographical levels, including globally.
change the system. Activists can find alignment with other clusters and
We live in a network society where people hive off to form clusters. This
work collaboratively for greater collective impact. By doing all this, the
happens everywhere including the civil society context with its issue
Broker has a system change-creating effect.
sectors, informal networks, movements and grassroots organisations.
These clusters get stronger as people develop friendships, establish
norms and build reputations.18 Here are some consequences:
New Economy Organisers Network
Clusters develop their own language
(e.g. shorthand symbols),
NEON was created by the New Economics Foundation in 2013 to connect
information runs quickly across the cluster and the cluster develops
progressive individuals from diverse contexts in the UK (civil society, ac-
a deeper shared understanding based on the same belief system. A
tivism, academia, media etc.). It aims to strengthen the movement to
self-sealing logic emerges: members read the same articles, the same
replace neoliberalism with a new economy based on social and environ-
books and generally re-confirm their own thinking.
mental justice.
Information doesn’t travel between groups. As a result of group-
The community has now more than 900 members mainly based in Lon-
shorthand, it is hard for individuals from other groups to understand
don. Though local groups are now emerging across the UK.
at variety of capacity- building and community building acti-
ly two years it has already built a thriving community out of
olated change agents.
tep, NEON is now making connections with movements across
hare its learnings and learn from other groups.
es do you see yourself in?
e (s) could your network or organisation take on?
your strengths?
Chapter 5
a coherent vision to tackle our systemic crises. This vision serves as a
shared framework for all co-workers and helps align organisational
objectives and strategies.
Re.imagining our
Structuring around solutions and systems
Many organisations and activist networks are still entirely organised
around specific issues and have consequently developed an organisational
culture of issue expertise, one that is reinforced by professional
When it comes to considering system change strategies, most civil
pathways that drive toward specialisation. This means that much of
society organisations, including grass root networks, face some kind of
the work happens in silos and the connections between issues remain
constraint. We frustrate our colleagues, partners and constituencies if
unseen. Given the systemic and complex nature of today’s problems,
we don’t fulfil their expectations (based on doing business as usual)
these silo responses are often inadequate.
and we have a reputation and trust to lose. Most funding schemes are
To gain a more systemic perspective, it can be more appropriate for
far from supportive of the new approaches (involving higher levels of
organisations to structure around systems and deeper leverage points
uncertainty) needed for long-term system change. But the most difficult
(solutions). For example the way we live, work and travel has a profound
constraint is the organisation’s culture, its structure and way of doing
impact on the way we shop and consume food, as well as on the amount
things. A change in mind-set and the development of the right capacities
of waste we produce. These life systems provide important leverage
are required.
points that are not easily identified with a focus on problems like climate
This chapter explores some important enabling factors for organisations
to work more effectively on deep economic and cultural change and
offers approaches we can use to initiate change in our organisations.
Getting prepared to
work systemically
Setting the right criteria for success
Often success criteria focusing on short-term outputs such as shifts
in government policy, fail to tackle underlying root causes and might
thereby contribute to perpetuating the problems. The multiple
crises of our times demand that civil society organisations commit to a
vision that focuses on root causes rather than symptoms. To work
successfully on system change, networks and organisations need
Re.imagining our organisations
Decentralising decision-making
sation who want to see communication and fundraising activities serve
transformative social change strategies. In order to become fit for sys-
The hierarchical structure of many CSOs is the result of wrongly inter-
temic change, changing the organisation’s structure is an important
preting the best way to deal with complex systemic challenges. When
step. Cross-functional teams, instead of departmental lines, can enable
traditional mechanical models of problem solving fail to provide satis-
more holistic strategies where fundraising and communications become
factory results in organisations, those at the top of organisations (and
important voices that serve the team’s change strategy. The technical ex-
similarly funders) often start to mistrust their staff and introduce
pertise of staff (e.g. fundraising or communications) can be cultivated
greater control mechanisms (including new reporting requirements
through functional communities of practice operating across the orga-
and levels of hierarchy) as a way of dealing with failure. This command-
nisation to realise synergies but without exercising dysfunctional hier-
and-control approach disempowers campaigners and project leaders.
archical power. Also for example the relationship between project leads
A great deal of energy is lost to internal conflicts and the success of the
and funders is more effective when it is direct rather than managed by a
organisation’s work is hampered.
fundraising department.
Mechanical approaches are inadequate - systemic challenges require
Ultimately the goal should be to create learning organisations based on
exactly the opposite. We need to take risks, experiment and learn as we
free, horizontal exchange and flows of information, a commitment to
go along. Research shows that neither top-down decision-making struc-
learning and personal development, valuing people and their inborn crea-
tures nor organisations
What if power weren’t a zero - sum
tivity, a climate of openness and trust and learning from experience.
with a strong culture of
game? What if we could create organi-
consensus building are the
sational structures and practices that
Developing an open and collaborative
best at dealing with syste-
didn’t need empowerment because, by
structure and culture
mic challenges. The most
design, everybody was powerful and no
successful organisations
Often as the result from pressure to secure funding, organisations in
one powerless?
are those with structures
civil society operate in an unhealthy environment of competition and
- Frédéric Laloux,
and decision-making pro-
distrust. Competition for resources and recognition do not foster the
Reinventing Organisations -
cesses that allow teams to
level of collaboration needed if our main aim is to put ourselves at the
make autonomous decisions. This avoids a huge amount of bureaucracy
service of the common good. CSOs have become increasingly protective
and creates an empowered workforce in which people feel responsible
of their brands and isolate themselves against the outside world.
for their decisions. One additional feature that can ensure high quality
At the same time, many activists who years ago would have joined a pro-
decision-making is to establish an advice process where any person can
fessional CSO, turn their backs on what they see as hierarchical siloed
make any decision but must seek advice from affected parties and peo-
institutions. Less formal, non-hierarchical flexible platforms are sprea-
ple with expertise.19
ding. To be successful in this increasingly networked society, CSOs need
In many CSOs structured by departments, fundraising and communica-
to open their doors and become truly collaborative organisations.21
tion teams create powerful internal alliances and synergies that appear
successful if measured by fundraising results. But a focus on fundrai-
sing goals can create time-consuming conflicts for those in the organi-
Re.imagining our organisations
Promoting diversity and freedom from oppression
Living the values of a sustainable
The environmental movement (and similarly other movements) has a
and just society
history of being white and middle class dominated. An organisation
Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. This wasn’t
that wants to be a credible advocate for a more equal and inclusive
just a slogan, it was strategic advice. Gandhi knew that we cannot be
society should promote gender and ethnical equity, and avoid re-
successful in promoting a better world if we are unable to put those
producing the structures of oppression that exist in the wider system.
values into practice ourselves.
We should create and nurture a culture where we all can flourish.
We know that values matter. They matter at all levels. The way people
Promoting work-life balance
in a network or organisation interact with each other has an impact on
the actions of members in the outside world. Also, in our interconnec-
The culture of grassroots and professional civil society organisations can
ted world, the public knows what happens inside our organisations. We
encourage and even demand that people dedicate almost their lives to
are under increased scrutiny and therefore authenticity (living what we
the organisation’s cause. Working through evenings and weekends is not
preach) matters more than ever.
unusual in some workplaces. There can be a common sense of urgency,
a belief that we need put all our energy into saving the world before it’s
It is important to develop consciousness and self-awareness about
too late. This leads to burnout and frustrations, especially if the world is
values internally, but nobody should ask for perfection. We are all part
not saved after investing day and night as well as our health.
of the system we are trying to change, and thus subject - to an extent -
to its rules. Forgiveness for not being perfect and for not living up to
It’s encouraging to see that some organisations are already instituting a
some ideal is part of the story and makes an organisation’s culture
standard 4-day workweek and discouraging evening and weekend work.
more humane and therefore more values-driven.
Creating adequate policies and an internal culture of work-life balance
can help us live the values we preach.
Caring for people in the organisation
Practicing sustainability
Civil society organisations and movements reproduce the dominant
practices of the competitive market environment. Often practices in
Some civil society organisations have strict policies in place aimed at
the non-profit sector are worse because they are hidden under the
limiting and reducing air travel through carbon budgets and /or travel
appearance of a fair and democratic culture. Salary structures in
policies. But many organisations and activists still give little attention to
professional organisations are often unfair and non-transparent - with
their work-related air travel - the excuse being that it’s for an important
the extreme cases of premium salaries for executive directors and zero
cause and is different from the rest of air travel. The global travel circus
pay for interns. Recruitment practices can reflect hierarchy, compe-
of civil society needs to be examined critically. What air travel is really
tition and market logic instead of equality, humane relationships and
necessary? What can be done by video-conference or train? How many
respect. In general, people management policies and practices as well
global conferences do we need to organise?
as the way we treat our colleagues should be consistent with the values
Other important environmental policies like food and energy sourcing
our organisation strives for (equality, fairness, less competition etc.).
seem to be easier to implement and can help organisations live their
values and be more authentic.
Re.imagining our organisations
Developing organisational
Initiating the organisational
systemic change capacity
change process
Initiating change as a senior leader
Developing leadership skills for systemic change
If you are a senior leader and the senior management team is convinced
Along with changes to organisational culture and structure, working
of the need to shift the organisation to become fit for systemic change,
effectively on systemic change also requires substantially different
you can then lead the process.
leadership skills to those that have traditionally been promoted in
CSOs. Some key leadership skills required for systemic change are:
(1) Leaders must be able to develop solutions collaboratively in interna-
Embarking on a big strategic change project isn’t easy and requires
tional, cross-sectorial and non-hierarchical networks. (2) Leaders must
time - as the UK development organisation Tearfund discovered when
be able to initiate and facilitate deep structural and cultural changes
their advocacy department began their own: “Continuously questio-
ning the status quo and engaging in system thinking is a complex and
at the level of individuals, organisations and systems. (3) Leaders must
uncomfortable challenge that bears the temptation to fall back into old
become innovators and develop the sensitivity, determination and
patterns of thinking and working. At the same time the right balance
perseverance to engage in innovative action in environments of iner-
must be found between trying something different and considering
tia, blockades and lack of support.22
what is achievable and feasible in the scope of the organisation.
Creating a good mix of skills and competencies
for systemic change
Organisations fit to work effectively on systemic change are character-
ised by a lack of hierarchy, a culture of trust and collaboration, and a
While issue expertise remains important, an organisation that is not
spirit of openness. Rather than starting a purely top-down change
mainly focused on producing policy documents and does not aim to
process (never a good idea!), there should be a special emphasis on
have the answers on everything, needs a mix of skills and competencies
inclusiveness. The organisation needs to be brought on board as a whole
that many organisations today lack. Among the skills needed to work on
and staff should feel inspired by the change.
systemic change are thinking in systems, building/nurturing networks
and movement organising (see also the roles of systemic activism in
To make such a process successful, here are some things to consider:
chapter 4.2). Overall, the Great Transition requires cultivating a good
understanding across the organisation about the (economic and cul-
Start the change process in the spirit of co-creation by inviting staff to
tural) system challenge and the seeds of the new economy that are alrea-
co-own the process.
dy emerging (in theory and practice).
Analyse the actors, positions, power structures and power dynamics
within the organisation in the same way you’d analyse external actors
when developing a campaign.
Re.imagining our organisations
current paradigms and that required continuous dialogue to clarify the
Don’t try to get everybody on board - it is often better to go for the
terms of the debate and CIDSE’s position. These discussions were espe-
change within some parts of the organisation first.
cially necessary on controversial concepts like green or inclusive growth,
Publish annual failure reports to foster a culture of transparency,
as well as de-growth, in order to avoid misperceptions about where the
reflection and learning.
organisation was headed.
Create spaces for staff to reflect on their personal motivations and
Some of the fruit of the alliance’s work can be seen in its 2016-2021 stra-
values (what they really think & what they really believe in).
tegy, one which members were consulted on. The new strategy puts
Cultivate organisational awareness and authenticity by drawing
more emphasis on the democratisation of power and less on policy work.
CIDSE conceives the new strategy as people-focused, one that will inspire
on the inner experiences of staff - when leaders and staff speak for
with stories of change, strengthen existing alternatives, and support and
themselves, it fosters trust and a shared sense of responsibility.
strengthen communities of change.
Bringing a network organisation
What to do if I’m not a senior leader?
on board for systemic change
If senior leadership isn’t on board, initiating change in the organisation
Based in Brussels, CIDSE is an international alliance of Catholic develop-
is more challenging but is still possible. Whatever structure your organi-
ment agencies comprised of 17 member organisations from Europe and
sation has, you will need to bring others (and ultimately senior leaders)
North America working together for global justice.
on board.
The financial crisis in 2008 was a wake-up call for the alliance: there was
something fundamentally wrong with the system. They asked them-
The following actions might be useful for you to get started and
selves whether their efforts for global justice and sustainability were
enough or having the right impact. They realised they needed a radical
change in their approach; their work was issue and policy focused, neg-
Start small: invite colleagues for an informal gathering to discuss
lecting interdependencies and system lock-ins. The CIDSE team orga-
your concerns and ideas about systemic change.
nised a workshop to bring the alliance together to analyse and respond
to the situation.
Invite an inspiring speaker to tell a convincing we are winning
The workshop proved to be a light-bulb moment for many member or-
battles but losing the planet story, tailored at the organisational
ganisations. The alliance agreed to develop a new mandate to address
work context, to initiate a discussion among staff or members of
systemic change, to rethink the current concept of development, and to
your network.
build new coalitions that reflect the global power shift. In this process
Create an internal community of practice of change agents who share
the power of working collaboratively was clear: had it not been for their
a common interest for systemic change.
collaboration, member organisations could have found themselves with
Recruit at least one senior sponsor who can create a protected space
radically different understandings of what working for global justice
for internal dialogue and provide resources for experimentation with
means. Of course, questioning the current paradigms that we live and
work within is not always smooth sailing. Over the course of the project
new ideas.
CIDSE learned that articulating alternative paradigms takes time and re-
quires frank discussions. People needed time to deepen their analysis of
74 75
Try to make the space grow by inviting new staff to join the conver-
sation - this can create momentum and the conditions for a larger
organisational change process.
Start an experiment: create a low-resource project or campaign based
on system change strategies that will help you learn on a small scale
and offer a success story to sceptical colleagues.
The action experiment - a tool
for organisational change
Regardless of your place in the organisational hierarchy, the organisa-
tional change strategies listed above become even more powerful if you
approach them from an action learning perspective.
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
The idea behind action research (or action learning) is that our change
chapter, here are some great resources:
efforts become more effective if done in continuous learning cycles (see
diagram below). Action research
Action Research is a disciplined process
demands that we break down big
of inquiry conducted by and for those
Frédéric Laloux: Reinventing Organisations (2014)
change inquiries like: How can my
taking the action. The primary reason
The Barefoot Guide 2 - Learning Practices in Organisations and Social
organisation become fit for the
for engaging in action research is to
Change (2011)
Great Transition? into more man-
assist the ‘actor’ in improving and /or
GIZ: AIZ Leadership Toolbox - Leadership for Global Responsibility
ageable questions like: How can I
refining his or her actions.
get started tomorrow to increase
- Institute for the Study
Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless: The surprising power of
my organisational support base?
of Inquiry in Education -
liberating structures - Simple rules to unleash a culture of innovati-
To embark on an individual or coll-
on (2014)
ective action experiment, break down your change goal into shorter lear-
Peter Reason and Kate McArdle: Brief Notes on the Theory and Prac-
ning cycles so you can adapt your actions as you move forward. While
tice of Action Research (2003)
we might believe that we do this intuitively already, experience shows
At the end of this guide you will find a worksheet for self-
that effective action research requires a conscious effort to ensure our
assessment of your organisation from a system change
learning is meaningful. So we plan, take action, observe, evaluate and re-
perspective. The 11 questions are a tool for organisational
flect in cycles.23 As we bring in more and more people into the process,
analysis and development from a systemic change perspec-
we create organisational capacity and become a learning organisation …
tive. You can also download a pdf version of the worksheet
here: smart-csos.org/publications
Re.imagining our organisations
System Leadership
Chapter 6
Peter Senge and others who have studied system leadership have found
three core capacities of systemic activists:
1. Ability to see the larger system: instead of focusing on the parts of
Re.imagining ourselves
the system that are most visible, systemic activists should re-direct their
attention to the whole. The problems we see out there are also in here.
as activists
2. Fostering reflection and generative conversations: systemic
activists should set aside time for thinking about their thinking. Our
The role of the systemic activist
assumptions and mental models can limit our perspective and prevent
us from truly understanding different views of reality.
We can all agree that our world needs systemic change - it’s the reason
3. Shifting focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating
you’re reading this guide! Moving from mainstream activism to
the future: systemic activists should work towards building a positive
systemic activism requires that we think differently about the world’s
vision for the future. Highlighting the gap between a future vision and
problems and their solutions. Traditional approaches to activism and
the present reality generates creative energy.
social change mimic the culture they are trying to transform: the im-
pulse to control and fix, us vs. them frames, reductionist interventions,
Cultivating these capacities is not easy and requires practice. Individuals
win-loss mentality. Before we can be effective at systemic change, we
who become effective systemic activists commit to their own learning
have to critically examine our current assumptions and worldviews
and growth.24
and then relinquish old ways of thinking that no longer serve us.
Besides decreasing our efficacy, traditional approaches to activism have
another cost: they can leave activists feeling disillusioned and cynical.
In his book Theory U, Otto Scharmer tells us that “two leaders in the
Social change is rarely linear but traditional activism measures success
same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely
in a linear way, leaving activists vulnerable to discouragement and low
different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each
self-esteem, and wondering if their work is even worthwhile.
operates”. The logic seems inescapable: the quality of our understanding
will have a direct impact on our success as activists. Because we are part
When dealing with a complex system, it is important to remember we
of the system, our state of consciousness matters.
cannot stand outside it. The new system is unfolding before us in ways
we can’t predict; we are part of the system we are trying to transform
Donella Meadows believes that changing paradigms and the ability to
and we will change with it. Systemic activists need to be open to new
transcend paradigms are the two most powerful leverage points in a
perspectives and sensitive to shifting patterns and trends. The work of
system. What if we think of ourselves as one of the systems that needs
re.imagining ourselves as activists requires the cultivation of new skills,
transformation? How can we transcend our current paradigms and
capacities and ways of seeing the world; the work is personal. Without
think differently as activists? This chapter offers some insights into the
changing our personal lenses, we will continue approaching our activist
challenges we might face as systemic activists as well as some practical
work in the same ways.
tools to cultivate new skills and capacities.
Re.imagining ourselves
Evaluation tool: Have you fallen into the hero trap?
Challenges for systemic activists
Take a moment to reflect on the statements below and note whether
they seem true or false.
Activists are part of the bigger social system that needs transformation
• You believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things.
and are subject to its constraints. Even those of us committed to sys-
temic change and the Great Transition have been conditioned to think
• You believe that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique,
and behave in the same ways as the prevailing culture. It’s pretty much
you’ll be able to solve problems for others.
guaranteed that at times we’ll fall back into the old habits and ap-
• You believe that people will do what they are told if you give
proaches listed in chapter 1. As we navigate this new path of activism,
them good plans and instructions.
we must be patient and compassionate with ourselves. Being aware of
• You believe that as a leader, you should have all the answers.
the challenges systemic activists face will be helpful in avoiding some of
the pitfalls ahead of us. Here are some common challenges you’ll likely
• You take on more and more projects and have less time for
face as a systemic activist:
Challenging cultural paradigms creates resistance - Systemic
• You believe you can save the situation, the person or the world.
activists can be blocked, marginalized or even ignored as a result of sys-
If you answered true to most of these statements, chances are you’ve
tem resistance. Our peers might feel threatened or confused by the new
fallen into the hero trap. The myth of heroic leadership rests on the
approaches we advocate. At times, we will be criticized, isolated or open-
illusion that someone can be in control. The reality is that no one is in
ly opposed, sometimes by our colleagues.
charge of complex systems and therefore, no one person can fix them.25
Pressure to engage in traditional forms of activism - Systemic
activists work under the same time and resource constraints as before.
They will feel strong pressure to revert to old ways and old paradigms of
activism even when they know they don’t work.
Skills and capacities for
An unfair burden of proof - We will be asked to prove ourselves,
systemic activists
to show results but won’t always be given the time, space or resources
to experiment. Because systemic activists are working with complexity
A new kind of leadership is required to tackle the systemic problems we
and emergence, taking risks and learning from failure are essential to
face: catalysing the Great Transition requires vision, empathy and wis-
their success.
dom as much as it does technical expertise and tactical know-how. Cre-
Demand for new skill sets - We have been committed to developing
ating interventions and organisations capable of system change means
our smarts (expertise and analytical skills). The soft-skills of engaging
we all have some transformative learning to do.
people and working with emotions seemed less relevant, so we haven't
invested time in their cultivation. Many of us don't feel competent or
Transformative learning involves not only changes to our beliefs and be-
comfortable working with emotions or uncertainty.
haviours, but a change in our understanding of ourselves. Becoming a
systemic activist means critically reflecting on long-held assumptions
Re.imagining ourselves
and making conscious efforts to expand our worldviews and develop
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
our capacities. Below you will find a set of ideas and recommendations
section, here are some great resources:
for those keen to re.imagine their roles as activists.
Study systems thinking and complexity science
The dominant culture has conditioned us to analyse problems using
simple cause and effect logic. In Chapter 1, we learned that the approach
of traditional activism is to try to save the world issue by issue; it is often
Find (or create) a community of practice
difficult for activists to see the big picture. In fact, George Lakoff argues
We have a lot to learn from one another. Working towards deep systems
that no human language has the grammar to express what he calls sys-
change means that much of the time, we can’t rely on best practices. We
temic causation. So seeing and explaining problems (and their solutions)
will be experimenting with new interventions and models of change. As
with a systems lens will take some practice.
we develop new strategies and tools, we can learn from one another’s
The good news is that there are lots of tools and resources out there to
successes and failures while deepening our understanding of the shared
help us think and problem-solve this way. There are some key insights
systems we all live within.
from systems thinking that will help us re.imagine ourselves as activists.
A community of practice is a group of people who share a common pro-
For example, the complexity lens tells us that we cannot step outside the
fession or concern. Practitioners self-organize to meet their own needs
system. It tells us that we should expect the unexpected since complex
but are also committed to serving the needs of their peers. By shar-
systems do not behave in linear, deterministic ways. Complexity science
ing information, resources and experiences, members gain skills and
also shows us that initial conditions matter greatly. Systemic change
knowledge that support both personal and professional development.
requires preparedness and opportunity. Imposing our will on the social
Communities of practice take many forms. The Smart CSOs Lab is an in-
or economic landscape will backfire if we haven't sufficiently tuned into
ternational community of practice focused on systemic approaches to
present realities.
activism; others are smaller and more localized.
We all know the world is complex but our strategies rarely acknowledge
Systemic activists also need moral support. It is easy to lose perspective
that complexity. Studying systems thinking helps us focus on observing
(and heart) when working alone or in a context that doesn’t support
and listening to pick up patterns in a changing environment. It can also
new approaches to change. At times, we will feel misunderstood, margi-
tune us into emergence so we can support and amplify momentum for
nalized or even persecuted. A community of practice provides support
positive change.
through on-going interactions with practitioners who share a common
language and purpose. Don’t underestimate the importance of connec-
tion with like-minded peers and colleagues.
Re.imagining ourselves
Focus on relationships
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
section, here is a great resource:
Relationships are critical to systemic activism. We all yearn for connection
or what Hartmut Rosa calls resonance. The neo-liberal, capitalist world-
view holds that more is the key to the good life. The tragedy of the modern
Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling (2013)
world is that many of us have the world at our fingertips but the world
no longer speaks to us. Alienation seems to go hand in hand with the do-
minant cultural paradigm. Rosa argues that the good life isn't realized
Prioritize time for reflection
through the accumulation of more things but is instead a way of relating
We need time to think. The ever-accelerating pace of our world creates
to the world. Resonance is a way of relating that opens us up, makes us feel
delusion, feeds our reactivity and increases our feelings of insecurity.
meaningfully connected and tells us something about the world.
Developing our capacity for reflection is a counter-balance to the accel-
Climate change and global inequality can easily leave us feeling over-
eration of our culture. As activists, we have the tendency to jump from
whelmed. The urgency of the issues we face can pull us back to the com-
belief to action quickly but we must not succumb to the eleventh hour
mand and control approach to change. As experts, we tell people what
they should do and what they should believe and our success is measured
The authors of Getting to Maybe believe that standing still is an essen-
by the number of votes we receive or the size of the audience we reach. By
tial skill for systemic activists. Standing still is the capacity to see and
treating human beings as aggregates of beliefs and behaviours, we inad-
understand complex systems and adjust one's actions according to that
vertently disempower them and alienate them from our cause.
understanding. It is about marrying reflection and action; the world in-
We can create spheres of resonance by providing social support and a
teracts with us, and changes as we act upon it, so we need to get good
sense of membership. Sharing our concerns and hopes for the future
at observing, reflecting and acting in a cyclical rather than linear way.
with one another serves as an important buffer against psychological
Prioritizing reflection is also critical in the transformation of our con-
stress and releases new energy for change. As systemic activists, focusing
sciousness as activists. Hartmut Rosa tells us that the problematic drive
on relationships allows us to build trust, good will and social cohesion -
for growth and acceleration that guides our current economic system
we will win even if we don’t always meet our short-term goals.
also lives in us. The logic of growth is embedded in our heads and souls:
As a practice, tune in to your conversations and notice how often you're
we want to increase our knowledge, expand our reach in the world,
trying to convince or persuade someone to change their behaviour or
engage more people, be more productive. Regular reflective practice
adopt your point of view. Sharing good information is important but ar-
illuminates beliefs, assumptions and mental models that operate un-
guing probably won’t get us very far in the long run. Instead, allow people
consciously in our lives. It is the gateway to deeper self-awareness and
to express their own feelings and insights. Pay attention to your interac-
decreases the likelihood we’ll reproduce problematic values in our work.
tions with citizens and colleagues and build in unstructured time for just
We need to cultivate our intuition and start trusting it more - intuitive,
being human together.
reflective ways of knowing will help tune us in to new patterns and
help us see problems differently. Good ideas often take time. Systemic
Re.imagining ourselves
activists should cultivate the discipline of stepping back, reflecting and
Quaker activist Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap between where we are
observing the world and its problems from a wider perspective.
today and where we know we could be. Acknowledging the emotional
dimensions of our work makes us more effective as activists, and the
work itself more meaningful.
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
section, here are some great resources:
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
section, here are some great resources:
Dave Gray video: Liminal thinking
Hartmut Rosa video on resonance (speech at degrowth
conference 2014)
Joanna Macy: Coming Back to Life - Practices to reconnect our
Steven Johnson: Slow hunch - Where good ideas come from (TED talk)
lives, our world (1998)
Parker Palmer: A Hidden Wholeness - The journey toward an
Engage the whole person
undivided life (2004)
Per Epsen Stoknes: What We Think About When We Try Not To
As activists, we carry a heavy burden. Our work requires us to confront
Think About Global Warming
the stark realities of climate change, economic inequality and human
Susanne Moser: Getting Real About It - Meeting the psychological
suffering on a daily basis - it takes an emotional toll. The sensitivity that
and social demands of a world in distress
led us to the work of activism in the first place can become problematic
if we ignore our emotional lives; as our psychological defences go up, our
Cultivate humility
awareness tends to go down diminishing our intellectual performance
and our compassion for others.
We live in an achievement-oriented culture. As professionals and indivi-
duals, we are conditioned to define our value by our achievements. We
Along with preventing burnout, understanding the emotional impacts
celebrate successes and strive to know more as a way to feel good about
of the problems we face as activists provides critical insight into the re-
ourselves. And we do our best to cover up or explain away failures. Some-
sistance we experience in society. The people on the other side are not
where in there, learning gets lost.
always our enemies. The apathy we witness from the human commu-
nity is less about not caring and more about our fear of distress, guilt
Systemic change means entering new territory and experimenting
and the growing sense of powerlessness. Although we don't all have to
with new strategies. We play the game of politics and business because
become psychologists, we need to respect the power of psychological dy-
we know it. Although ineffective, the game is a familiar one and gives
namics within individuals and communities. When we've grappled with
us a feeling of competence and control. When working on complex
our own emotional resistance, we are much better able to understand
problems, we must come to terms with the reality that much of what
that of others.
happens in the system is out of our control. Often, we deserve less credit
for successes and less blame for failures than we imagine. As systemic
Bringing your whole self - the emotional and the intellectual - to the
activists, we can't rely on past experience or best practices to solve prob-
work of activism takes courage. It requires strength to work in what
lems - if we want to learn, we need to become comfortable with failure.
Re.imagining ourselves
Letting go of controlling and fixing is also freeing. When we relinquish
Signs of burnout
the notion that we can be the hero and fix all the problems we see in the
Burnout is a “chronic state of being stressed and out of synch with work”.
world, our focus shifts to our unique strengths and abilities. We can take
Watch for the early signs to prevent the painful experience of burnout:
our place in the wider community of activists and change leaders and
1. Exhaustion: feelings of being overextended, stressed and depleted
collaborate for collective impact.
of emotional and physical resources. You feel drained and lack the
energy to face the challenges in front of you.
Build personal resilience
2. Cynicism: responses to various aspects of work are negative, callous,
The role of the activist requires energy and stamina and forging a new
resentful or excessively detached. What begins as an emotional buffer
activist path requires even more. Our work is motivated by core values
leads to a loss of idealism and enthusiasm for the work.
and can be hard to put aside at the end of the workday. The feeling of
3. Inefficacy: feelings of a lack of achievement, and resulting doubts
there's always more to do often leads to overwork. The work of activism
about self-worth.
also requires that we hold knowledge of overwhelming social and
Burnout is a sign of imbalance. If you experience any of these dimensi-
environmental problems in our awareness. At different times in their
ons of burnout, take some time out to rest and restoration.26
careers, systemic activists will face uncertainty, fear, confusion,
exhaustion and perhaps even burnout.
Burnout is a sign of imbalance between our activist goals and our per-
sonal needs. To ensure our own health and wellbeing, we need to be
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this section,
diligent in taking care of our bodies, minds and spirits. Take care of your
here are some great resources:
physical health by spending time outside and getting enough exercise.
Find at least one or two close colleagues or friends who can listen when
you need emotional support. Explore practices for cultivating inner
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone: Active Hope - How to face the
peace and calm and commit to one that works for you.
mess we're in without going crazy (2012)
Mary Pipher: The Green Boat - Reviving ourselves in our capsized
culture (2013)
Cox Laurence: How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal
sustainability in social movements (2012)
Re.imagining ourselves
Remember what you’re fighting for
Chapter 7
One last invitation: Get out from behind your desk and engage directly
with the community you’re working for. Talk to your stakeholders face to
face. Connect with nature. Spend time with colleagues without an agen-
Re.imagining funding
da. An analytical understanding of the issues we work on isn't sufficient
to keep us going. Our passion and motivation for systemic activism will
only be fed by an experiential connection to the people, places and living
In chapter 1 we referred to two groups of grant making organisations.
things we care about.
In the first group are those with vested interests in the current system.
Their funding schemes have been intentionally designed to meliorate
the negative symptoms of an unsustainable and unjust system but
to preserve the privileges and interests of philanthropists. The second
Going forward
group are all other funders: conservative or progressive, but with some
potential to contribute to the Great Transition. In this chapter we are
Re.imagining ourselves as activists opens us up to a new relationship
dealing exclusively with the latter. The ideas we explore are meant to
with our work and our community. It restores our sense of hope and me-
be useful for decision makers in grant making organisations and for
aning but requires a lot from us in return: courage, faith in ourselves
activists who want to contribute to making funding more systemic.
and faith in others, patience and perseverance. Donella Meadows likens
the scale of the Great Transition to that of the agricultural and industrial
The strategic considerations in the previous chapters of this guide are
revolutions. We have a big job in front of us, so let's commit to a path of
as relevant to grant making organisations as they are to grantees. But
learning, self-exploration and growth.
within this broader need for strategic reflection on how to become more
effective in tackling systemic crises, grant making organisations face
Meadows offers systemic activists five tools - along with some inspira-
some fundamental differences. The differences can be reduced to one
tion - for this third revolution in human culture: visioning, networking,
word: money.
truth-telling, learning and loving. The last might be the most important:
"It is not easy to practice love, friendship, generosity, understanding, or
Money as a problem
solidarity within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams
are geared for lesser human qualities. But we try, and we urge you to try.
Systemic activism lacks money
Be patient with yourself and others as you and they confront the difficulty
of a changing world. Understand and empathize with the inevitable re-
Even if the revolution will not be funded (as the same named book
sistance; there is resistance, some clinging to the ways of unsustainability,
argued27) and even if we question the purpose and effectiveness of
within each of us. Seek out and trust in the best human instincts in your-
much of the money donated for civil society efforts, in order to make
self and in everyone. Listen to the cynicism around you and have compas-
effective contributions to the Great Transition, grass roots activists and
sion for those who believe in it, but don't believe it yourself."
professional civil society organisations require some level of funding.
Even more, the fact that most funding schemes do not currently support
Re.imagining ourselves
systemic change strategies is arguably the biggest barrier for a more sys-
temic activism.
It is difficult to find anyone who is
While in recent years more money
happy with current funding systems
for social change has been avail-
[…] Funders feel they cannot achieve
able in the global funding system,
the impact that they want, while
a declining share of this money
practitioners feel they cannot get
has been invested in tackling root
the money that they need, especially
causes. As a result, the long-term
long-term, flexible funding to
impact of this funding might ac-
confront the really difficult issues.”
tually be diminished.28
- Michael Edwards -
In their anxiety to better control the impact of their money, most main-
stream funding schemes ask for narrowly defined single-issue outputs
instead of supporting long-term innovative system change strategies. In
addition, the popularity of social entrepreneurship and impact investing
shows that many in the funding community see the market paradigm as a
Control and hierarchy
solution rather than a problem.
Many donor organisations are highly hierarchical and non-transparent.
Because funders control where the money flows, to an important de-
The mainstream funding system mimics the market society: whoever
gree they hold the key to a fundamental shift in civil society and how
has the money has the power. This neither empowers activists nor does
activism is done.
it lead to good funding decisions. Without developing relationships of
trust with their grantees it is impossible to create a common understand-
Dirty money
ing between funders and grantees about proper system change strate-
gies. As discussed in chapter 5, today’s global systemic crises require
There is a paradox in the fact that most of the grants provided by foun-
more open and collaborative organisational structures and cultures.
dations originate from investments that cause the problems their fund-
ing aims to fix.29 If funders want to be part of a movement for system
change, they need to go further than implementing responsible invest-
How to become a systemic funder?
ment strategies. The role their investments play in sustaining global cor-
porate capitalism needs to be considered more fundamentally.
Although it might seem overambitious considering the current state of
the sector, a vision of systemic funding would imply to put the money in
the service of a joint activism between conscious funders and activists.
Profit-oriented conservation of wealth is
Funders need to embark on a challenging journey of self-reflection and
where a lot of our problems originate
transformation that involves difficult discussions about money, wealth,
- Farhad Ebrahimi, Founder and Trustee
privilege and power.
Chair of Chorus Foundation -
Re.imagining funding
£15 per month - and every member has equal voice in the organisation.
Changing the donor organisation
Transparency and accountability are crucial to the model.
Edge Fund also creates opportunities for people and groups to build
Many of the ideas and recommendations explored in chapter 5 are as
alliances with each other, in particular those they might not normally
relevant for grant giving as they are for grant receiving organisations.
cross paths with, and to share their learning and experiences.
Given the unique challenges donor organisations face, funders should
The highly diverse, member-led organisation now has over 100 members
pay particular attention to the following issues so they can become ef-
across the UK. Advisory Groups ensure that voices from these diverse
fective supporters (and catalysers) of the Great Transition.
communities are heard including those representing women, ethnic di-
Put systems thinking at the core - Train the organisation’s leader-
versity, gypsy, Roma and traveller communities, activists and environ-
ship and staff on systems thinking. It is the basis for rethinking the
mentalists, immigrants and refugees, and disabled people.
funder’s role in tackling systemic challenges.
Put a system change vision in place - Involve all staff in the develop-
Putting all money at the service of systemic change
ment of a new vision aimed at tackling root causes of the current sys-
The Great Transition cannot be controlled but we can build on existing
temic crises. It should guide all investment and grant making strategies.
strategic knowledge. Donors should interiorise the analysis and strate-
Mirror the society you seek - Change the way you act as a donor by
gic advice in chapters 2 - 4 of this guide and explore how their money can
becoming a more transparent, collaborative and democratic organisa-
contribute to such more systemic and therefore more effective activism.
tion. This will involve questioning long held beliefs about your role as a
Here are some ideas for how you can make your money work more
funder and giving up power and privileges as well as control over fun-
effectively for the Great Transition:
ding schemes.
Fund the four roles of systemic activism - As explored in chapter
Make your grantees partners - Switch from controlling to co-design-
4, the Great Transition requires a range of strategies and roles of systemic
ing funding strategies with activists. Create spaces for joint learning and
activism. All four roles - the Acupuncturist, the Gardener, the Ques-
reflection. Great Transition strategies and funding schemes will become
tioner and the Broker - are important and will have a powerful effect if
more powerful when the strategies are co-owned by funders and activists.
they are put in place in parallel. But they are currently under-resourced.
Funders should work with activists to strengthen all four roles.
The Edge Fund is run by its members
Fund capacity-building and spaces for learning and reflec-
The Edge Fund was founded in 2012 by a small group of individuals
tion - Funders and activists alike need to develop systems thinking ca-
in the UK to address the stark power imbalances in the funding en-
pacity to deal with the complexity of systemic crises. We all need to learn
vironment and to open up funding for those excluded from traditional
about root causes and leverage points, question our worldviews and as-
models. They wanted to get money to groups that work for systemic
change, and to those led by communities facing injustice, which are
sumptions, and deepen our understanding of the underlying belief sys-
often too marginal, informally structured or radical in their aims to be
tems of ourselves and of other activists and funders. All this will help to
considered by other funders.
create common understanding and strategy, which is what we need to
To challenge these inequalities, Edge Fund decisions are made collec-
build movement for the Great Transition. There is little funding avail-
tively by those who donate money and those who receive it. Member-
able for such learning processes and spaces. Systemic funders should
ship consists of donors, activists and members of communities facing
oppression and injustice. Members pay and average membership fee of
94 95
support capacity-building because it serves as the basis for effective
Focus on learning - M&E for systemic change should evaluate how
system change campaigns and approaches.
well, how fast and how honestly learning is captured. Learning should
be openly available to both internally an externally so that activists can
Switch to Indie Investing - Grant making isn’t the only way funders
continuously improve their theories and practice of change.
can contribute to systemic change. Some far-sighted and innovative
donors have started to shift their investments from the stocks and bonds
Set plausible milestones - Because the Great Transition is such a
market to the new economic models they aim to create through their
complex and rather long-term project, the individual contribution of
grants.30 Indie Investing could be a powerful way to accelerate the shift
any given campaign is impossible to measure. M&E for systemic change
to a sustainable and just economic system. For example, strategically
needs to set plausible milestones on the journey of the Great Transition,
putting money at the disposal of co-operatives can support a shift away
based on an agreed theory of change. Because the Great Transition is an
from financial capitalism.
evolving and organic process, missed milestones should not be seen as
Spend down - This approach means you are limiting the lifespan of
failure - they help us refine our theories of change (learning as a focus
your foundation by spending your capital faster than you replenish it. In
of evaluation).
2013, the Chorus Foundation decided that climate change is such a press-
Use the Smart CSOs model for system change - The potential of
ing issue that the money needs to be spent now rather than when it’s too
a campaign to achieve systemic change can be discussed and evaluated
late.31 The foundation will be spent down by 2024. You might consider
with the help of the Smart CSOs model for system change (see chapter 3).
that there is an urgent need to catalyse the shift to a new economic sys-
tem and that money is better spent now than in the distant future.
If you would like to dig deeper into the content of this
Re.imagining monitoring & evaluation (M&E):
section, here are some great resources:
learning for systemic change
Traditional ways of measuring the success of funding mechanisms have
Michael Edwards: Beauty and the Beast - Can Money Ever Foster Social
to be critically reviewed if we want to adopt a system change perspec-
Transformation? Hivos Knowledge Programme (2013)
tive and a normative framework like the Great Transition. To create new
M&E mechanisms, activists and donors should develop a common theo-
www.edgefunders.org: an alliance of grant making organisations
ry of systemic change. Here are some ideas for how M&E for systemic
promoting a Just Transition that decommodifies nature, re.imagines
change could look like:
work, liberates knowledge, and democratizes wealth.
Incorporate uncertainty - While improving scientific understand-
ing of complex processes is vital, the fact of the matter is that uncertain-
ty is an unavoidable part of systemic challenges. Hence, new monitoring
and evaluation tools need to incorporate uncertainty and cannot focus
entirely on narrow single-issue outputs.
Re.imagining funding
Wheatley, Margaret and Frieze, Debroah - Using Emergence
to Take
Social Innovation to Scale, The Berkana Institute, 2006
Simmons, Michael - Why being the most connected is a vanity
metric, Forbes Magazine, 2013
Pew Research Centre - Social Media and the Spiral of Silence, 2014
Laloux, Frédéric - Reinventing Organisations, 2014
Crompton, Tom - Common Cause, The Case for Working with our
The Barefoot Guide 2 - Learning Practices in Organisations and
Cultural Values, WWF-UK, 2010
Social Change, The Barefoot Collective, 2011
Eisenstein, Charles - The oceans are not worth $24 Trillion,
Gnärig, Burkhard - The Hedgehog and the Beetle, Discruption and
opendemocracy, 2015
Innovation in the Civil Society Sector, 2015
Darnton, Andrew and Kirk, Martin - Finding Frames, 2011
GIZ - AIZ Leadership Toolbox: Leadership for Global Responsibility,
Rosa, Hartmut - Social Acceleration: A New Theory of
Modernity, 2013
Reason, P. and McArdle, K. - Brief Notes on the Theory and Practice
Haiven, Max and Khasnabish, Alex - The radical imagination, 2014
of Action Research, in Becker, S. and Bryman, A. (eds) Understanding
Raskin, Paul et al. - Great Transition, The promise and lure of the
Research Methods for Social Policy and Practice: Themes, Methods
times ahead, A Report of the Global Scenario Group, Stockholm
and Approaches. Bristol, The Policy Press, 2004
Environment Institute, Tellus Institute, 2002
Senge, Peter et al - The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social
Polanyi, Karl - The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic
Innovation Review, 2015
Origins of Our Time, 1944
Wheatley, Margaret and Frieze, Debroah - Leadership in the Age of
Sandel, Michael - What money can’t buy, The moral limits of
Complexity: From Hero to Host, 2010
markets, 2012
Maslach, Christina and Gomes, Mary E. - Overcoming Burnout,
BBC, The Century of the Self, Happiness Machines, Season 1,
Working for Peace: A Handbook of Practical Psychology and Other
Episode 1, 2002
Tools, 2006
Smith, Philip B. and Max Neef, Manfred - Economics Unmasked,
Incite! Women of Color Against Violence - The Revolution Will Not
Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 2007
Matthews, Laurence & Alison - Framespotting, 2014
Edwards, Michael - Beauty and the Beast: Can Money Ever Foster
Matthews, Laurence & Alison - Framespotting, 2014
Social Transformation? Hivos Knowledge Programme, 2013
Lakoff, George - Pope Francis Gets the Moral Framing Right: Global
Van Hattum, Fatima and Schaffer, Arianne - Transforming philan-
Warming Is Where the Practical and the Moral Meet,
thropy: it’s time to get serious in Transformation, opendemocracy, 2
Huffingtonpost.com, 25.6.2015
February 2015
Hickel, Jason et al. - Pope Francis’ Enyclical vs the UN SDG’s:
Indie Philanthropy Initiative: indiephilanthropy.org/method/indie-
Who will save the planet first?, The Guardian 23.5.2015
Berkhout, Remko - The blind spots of social innovation,
Chorus Foundation: chorusfoundation.org/what-we-fund/
opendemocracy, 2014
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) - Civil society refers to the arena
Great Transition - Is a term initially used by the Global Scenario Group
of un-coerced collective action around social and environmental causes,
to describe a vision that includes egalitarian social and ecological
purposes and values. CSOs commonly embrace a diversity of spaces,
values, increased human interconnectedness, improved quality of life,
actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, auto-
and a healthy planet, as well as an absence of poverty, war, and environ-
nomy and power. CSOs are often populated by organisations such as reg-
mental destruction. In the Smart CSOs Lab we stress that the Great Tran-
istered charities, developmental and environmental NGOs, community
sition needs to overcome the market-growth logic inherent to the cur-
groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, trade unions,
rent economic system.
social movements and civil society advocacy groups and coalitions.
Intrinsic values (or self-transcendent values) - Intrinsic values in-
Definition adapted from LSE Centre for Civil Society.
clude the value placed on a sense of community, affiliation to friends
Change agent - A change agent is a person from inside or outside the
and family, and self-development (Common Cause).
organisation who helps an organisation or network to transform itself
Leverage point - According to Donella Meadows’ definition, leverage
and to adopt system change strategies.
points are places within a complex system (such as a firm, a city, an
Commons - The Commons is the cultural and natural resources acces-
economy, a living being, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing
sible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air,
can produce big changes in everything (see also page 46).
water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not
Root cause - Root cause is used to describe the depth in the causal chain
owned privately.
where an intervention could reasonably be implemented to improve
Emergence - Taken from the field of complexity science, emergence is a
performance or prevent an undesirable outcome (Wikipedia). In the
term that is used to describe events that are unpredictable, which seem
Great Transition context we are referring specifically to the root causes
to result from the interactions between elements, and which no one or-
of the global systemic crises.
ganisation or individual can control. The process of evolution exempli-
Systemic change / system change - In this guide the term systemic
fies emergence.
change always refers to a fundamental shift (Great Transition) in our
Extrinsic values (or self- enhancing values) - Extrinsic values are
economic, political and social systems in the broadest sense. It means
values that are contingent upon the perceptions of others - they relate
tackling the root causes of today’s systemic crises. See also the box on
to envy of higher social strata, admiration of material wealth, or power
page 26.
(Common Cause).
Systemic activism - An activism that is based on a good understanding
Frames - Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to
of how to work effectively in complex systems and aims to catalyse the
understand reality - and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
Great Transition. In chapter 4 we explore the meaning of systemic acti-
They structure our ideas and concepts, they shape how we reason, and
vism in depth.
they even impact how we perceive and how we act (Common Cause).
100 101
To what extent are there opportunities on the policy level that
Worksheets for
could plausibly contribute to a long-term goal of systemic
change (focused on well-being, solidarity and ecological limits)?
How are you dealing with usual lock-ins of the mainstream poli-
tical and economic institutions?
Self-assessment of strategies
Here we provide a series of questions to analyse your strategies. The
questions aim to provide guidance to identify opportunities to start
changing your campaigns and strategies in a meaningful way.
To what extent do you believe we are ready to take a fundamen-
How value conscious are you with your strategies? To what extent
tal new path/get started towards some bold new strategies?
are you strengthening helpful frames and avoid unhelpful ones?
If your organisation decides to mainly focus on a particular issue
Do you have a good understanding of the system we aim to
(such as climate change or poverty), are you embedding the single
change? Which are potential effective (high) leverage points
issue in a bigger system change narrative? To what extent are you
that might shift the system?
pointing towards the underlying logic (root causes) of the prob-
lems you aim to shift?
Are you carefully considering the trade-offs between possible
To what extent do you see yourself / your organisation in the
short-term wins and the potential long-term negative effects of
role of the Questioner - curbing deliberative spaces asking the
reinforcing broken political institutions? Explain how.
fundamental questions?
To what extent do you see an opportunity for yourself / your or-
To what extent are you connecting to other issue movements
ganisation to support the seeds of the system (Gardener) with
and how are you learning about system change in collaboration?
strategies of emergence?
To what extent do you see an opportunity for yourself / your or-
To what extent do you see yourself/ your organisation in the role
ganisation in the role of the Broker, creating meaningful connec-
of an Acupuncturist, fighting key leverage points in the old sys-
tions and learning cycles among movements?
tem? How confident are you that you’re not falling into the trap
of personalising a system problem in excess?
How decentralised is your organisation and decision-making
Self-assessment of organisations
processes? To what extent do you believe hierarchy is a problem?
This section is a tool for organisational analysis and development from a
systemic change perspective:
On preparedness to work systemically
What is the relationship between departments such as commu-
How do you define success in our organisation? To what extent
nications, fundraising and programmes? To what extent do you
do you believe that the way your organisation measures success
believe it is a healthy balance or are communications and fund-
is consistent with the change required to fundamentally tackle
raising too powerful?
the issues you care about?
To what extent is you organisation structured around teams focu-
To what extent is your organisation committed to true collabo-
sing on single issues or on root causes (across issues) and solutions?
ration and knowledge-sharing with other organisations?
Living the values of a sustainable and just society
To what extent are your organisational policies in line with best
practices in sustainability?
To what extent is your organisation’s people management with
its policies and practice as well as the way you treat each other in
your network consistent with the values your organisation stri-
ves for (equality, fairness, less competition etc.)
Organisational capacity
To what extent do you believe that enough people in your organisa-
tion have the leadership skills required to work on systemic change?
To what extent does your organisation promote gender and eth-
nical equity and avoid reproducing any structures of oppression
existing in the wider system while creating and nurturing a cul-
ture where we can all flourish?
To what extent is your organisation promoting work-life balance
through adequate policies, work load and internal culture?
To what extent does your organisation have a good mix of the
skills and competencies required to work on systemic change?