Books Driving Change: François Bonnici and The Systems Work of Social Change


And despite the narratives, it’s really hard for today’s leaders to actually work out the radical changes we need, when their mandates and agendas are to stabilize, to continue as before. There are obviously great rays of hope, but clearly not fast enough or not radical enough. And so it is perhaps with a mixed answer, I do have optimism, but I also do see us not making the most of the crisis and opportunity.  — François Bonnici, Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Books Driving Change with me, Matthew Bishop. And today I’m talking with François Bonnici, co-author with Cynthia Rayner, of The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change.

Obviously, this is a book that goes right to the heart of the mission of Books Driving Change, where we’re looking at how do we build back better in this moment of crisis that the world is facing. And this book, I highly recommend it because it is full of great practical insights and wisdom, and some great case studies that I think many people will not be familiar with. And also, some very big thoughts about the way change happens globally and the way systems change could be brought about going forward. 

But François, I wanted to start by asking you, as I ask all of our guests, in a sentence – given our audience of people who are either engaged in social change work or considering it – why should they read your book?

François Bonnici (FB): Thank you, Matthew, for having me. I’m delighted to be on your podcast, and hello to everyone listening. Probably the same reason that I would want to read the book. Initially, Cynthia and I wrote it, and we thought, well, if we’re the only two people who learn from this, then that’s almost sufficient. 

So as both a practitioner and an academic and also working in the foundation space, and really a bit paralyzed by the overwhelming challenges we have, the complexity of it, and the narrative around systems change, that we didn’t feel like we necessarily could take that back to working on a day to day basis. And so the book is called “systems work,” to imply and emphasize the day to day work we all need to do, and to emphasize that to achieve some kind of future systems change that we aspire to, whatever that might be, it’s about the process of change. And it’s about the people who are involved in that process of change that we wanted to emphasize. So we really hope it’s a very practical approach, one that is rooted in 200 years of social change making, deep case studies, hundreds of interviews with experts. But coming away with both stories that move, that inspire, and a set of practical tools and lessons at the end of each chapter. So we hope it will be a contribution to the collective journey many of us are on to try and understand what do we mean by, and how do we do, this work towards the deeper systemic change, what we call deep and enduring change. And I’ll unpack a bit further with you where we go with it.

MB: I want to start just by asking you a bit about how you and Cynthia came to write this book, which obviously came out of your work together at the Bertha Centre in South Africa. But, and I should say before we go further, that you are now currently head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which is funded by two of the founders, or the founder and his wife, of the World Economic Forum. [That fact] is in itself quite an interesting focal point of discussions about the role of the system, and how you do systems change, and whether top down organizations can really deliver that. But how did you come to write this book?

FB: It’s been a long journey. It’s been five years. And so it started pre-COVID and got revised and updated during COVID, for reasons I’ll explain. But I had started the Bertha Centre at the University of Cape Town as the first center for social innovation in Africa, dedicated to understanding approaches to social change that were innovative, that thought about social enterprise, that looked at what movements were doing. And we very quickly recognized the superficial approaches, or even the kind of service delivery type mindset, was not getting to the deep challenges and structural and systemic barriers that lay in my home country, South Africa, from hundreds of years of history. And that no fantastic solution was going to undo all of that. 

And that was a great barrier, actually a source of failure, for both myself and projects that Cynthia and I had worked in and organizations we’d worked for. Many organizations we worked with had these deep frustrations. But we also saw amazing organizations overcoming that on a day-to-day basis; overcoming the systemic and structural barriers around stigma, around poverty traps, around lack of opportunities, and turning that into agency. 

So at the time we started exploring, and researching, and working with global collaborations, like the Rockefeller Social Innovation Fellowship. We did a piece of work commissioned by the Schwab Foundation, when we were at the Bertha Centre, called Beyond Organizational Scale, looking at how social pressures create systemic change. And what we found happening in the global conversation around systems change was quite different to what we were seeing with organizations we were working with, initially in South Africa, and then we were looking and working with organizations in Latin America, and India, and even in the U.S.

MB: When I was reading, one of the things that hit me was, there seems to be this real difference of opinion as to what systems change is, and how you do it. In the sense that a lot of people view it as a kind of fixing a system with a top down approach, and you found, fundamentally, a different experience on the ground with people doing the grassroots work.

Would the work they had done to build this deep sense of trust, relational value, and distribution of agency, actually put them in a better position to be responsive and to be relevant during COVID? 

FB: I think that’s right. And I think we had quite a frustration with even the term “systems,” because we all do mean very different things. And if you ask someone sitting at the World Economic Forum or if you asked grassroot activists, you’re going to get very different answers. And so I grew a little bit allergic to the term, and then ended up writing a book on the topic. And it’s not to discount any of them. And I think what we talk about in the book is that these challenges have complexity, they have scale, and they have depth. And what we had seen was that the focus of the conversations were around scale – if we can solve problems, and that everyone is doing it in a particular way, that is systems change. 

If we can do it in that complexity lens, where we have levers, and we can intervene in a system, and we are able to shift the balance of actors and systems and relationships, that is a form of a complexity view of systems change. 

But what we felt wasn’t part of the conversation was really the steps. And that we felt that both those other dimensions and approaches could represent a perpetuating of the system of actors of power –  if the existing actors, who are architects and gatekeepers of a system, are the ones redesigning it. And so what this book seeks to do is really emphasize a depth component; and more than just say this is an additional component, say it’s also the critical necessary one to take all those three lenses on how we are strategic and start to meet the bottom up with a top down.

MB: And why do you think we’ve got to this position where even at a moment like this with COVID, and the World Economic Forum, and the great reset and all that, there’s this very top down approach to social change? That, at least in terms of the general discussion, it is about how Biden’s going to spend 3.5 trillion on infrastructure, and it’s these big numbers, big change, very industrialized approach. And I think everyone that’s been on the frontline in some way or another, quickly recognizes the very people who so much as these activities are intended to benefit, are the last ones to get asked what they think should be done or given any power to say that. How have we got to that situation?

FB: Chapter one of the book actually covers the industry of social change. And I do think there are some deep historical roots, both in terms of the industrial era, but also the kind of postwar period. We talk about the Green Revolution and how some of these big moments in history of social change reinforced certain practices, approaches, mindsets. But also how funding flows, etc. 

I think one of the big pieces of all of this is the power concentrated in both public and private sectors and how that is dissipated and fragmented in what remains, the “plural sector.” I much prefer [the term] to “third sector” or “nonprofit sector,” because of its plurality. But because of its plurality there isn’t the collective power for decision making – an authority to really state and influence how social change strategies happen. And they’ve been recipients of decisions and systems and structures and flows for so long that they’ve become dependent on it in a way. This is not a new narrative but perhaps looks at it in a new light. So we’re somehow at that moment of recognizing that, if we just continue on that pathway, we’re not actually going to change any of the rules of the game. 

But those of us who work in this sector are also complicit in it in a way. So there’s also a bit of a self critique in all of this; that actually, the fact that those of us who work somewhere in the sector, often have our livelihoods and careers dependent on the fact that these problems continue to exist. So in a way, the big shift for me was recognizing that the role or purpose of not for profit, social enterprises, social change making organizations is quite far removed now from the delivery of goods and services that can improve people’s lives. And really, I quite strongly have seen that the ability to create agency, to empower and equip both people who experience particular problems or are invested in communities – whether they work for an organization or volunteering in a particular community somehow – [is extremely important]. That the purpose of social purpose organizations needs to shift. 

And I won’t go too much into detail now, because I know you will want to unpack a lot of that. I’ve taken your question, and I’ve gone a bit further. But we are in a position of a great imbalance of power. And the heart of it lies there. But also not recognizing the real intrinsic value of many of these local organizations – whether they be larger networks, or local and small – in creating social capital, in fostering social cohesion. And that we don’t have a good way to value and recognize, during this time of COVID, how critical that’s been – [looking at] issues of trusts and social capital and being there for each other. And recognizing and having empathy with one another. And so I think that a lot of the book focuses on ultimately social capital and relational value, and how we build that, and how important that is for these longer term aspirational outcomes we have. 

MB: That’s actually a very helpful framing, because as I read the book, I kept thinking this is really about how do you empower people. Not the vast majority of the population, but the people on the ground, who are the ones that are supposed to be being helped by so much of the activity – whether it be government, or nonprofits, or even business now that it’s supposedly finding its social mission. But really, it’s about that some of these things that are there in the dialogue, the popular conversations, amongst the elite are around networks, platforms, etc. But here, your book was really about empowering the people, the masses, and really giving them the ability to harness some of those tools and things in a different way. And there’s lots of inspiring examples, so maybe just talk to a couple of them. I found the Slum Dwellers International a fascinating example of networking in action, but you’d say it’s more than that. And then maybe talk about one other case that you particularly found very, very inspiring.

FB: You hit the nail on the head in terms of practically talking about what kinds of discussions are happening at the global level or in actors of powers – the network organization, background organization. And we actually see some of those same practices at the grassroots – using digital platforms, using those kinds of approaches, but with a different set of actors. And we’ll talk later about how we might connect the micro and the macro. 

But Slum Dwellers International, an incredible organization I’ve been following for years, comes originally out of India, had their global headquarters in Cape Town down the road from us, and we ended up working with them at the Bertha Centre. So we got to know a lot about their work. They have, in many ways, quite a traditional and well-known approach to having a federation – in which its members are actually the representatives and leaders of the organization. And the organization itself is some kind of federation secretariat. And it’s federated across the world, because these movements of people who live in informal settlements – slums, favelas – self organize and elect their own leadership. And there’s a really important history of Jockin [Arputham] and Sheela [Patel], who actually have been part of the Schwab Foundation, who were founders of that movement, but served as very different kinds of leaders than we generally have held up to be the change making leaders that we’ve spoken about over the past couple of decades. 

In the same spirit, I actually would love to talk about Nidan, and more specifically, about one of the other case studies from Bihar in India, that was created in the spirit and traditions of SEWA [Self-Employed Women’s Association] – a self-employed women’s collective that works with over 1.2 million women across India, through their cooperatives. And in the spirit of that worked with the street vendors, the informal workers and street vendors in India. So as you probably know well, 90% of India’s workforce is in the informal economy. All labor law to protect, support, and uphold rights for workers only covers 10% of the workforce. And therefore street vendors were, in particular, at risk from municipalities and cities trying to clean up and impose hygiene standards, or corrupt officials seeking to extort and impose abuses on street vendors. 

An Nidan has been really interesting in terms of, at the core, what it does is not to try to help solve any of these problems – similar to the example of FII, the Family Independence Initiative in the U.S. What they sought to do was actually help to build the capacity to govern, to self organize, and to execute on issues and needs that they had. 

So for example, street vendors were collectively saying, well, we don’t have time to do anything else in our lives, we barely manage to earn enough livelihood to put food on the table, and if we’re trying to also address other issues in our lives, we don’t have time to do that. So we actually need to find a way to kind of improve our income, and actually work together and collaborate. And they decided, okay, we’ll make and spin off craft cooperatives, or food cooperatives. So they created businesses. They also got together and said, well, we don’t have good services for education and health for our children, so let’s create non-for-profit organizations that can actually provide preschools and clinics, etc. And so they spun off those organizations. Then they also said, well, we still have a problem in terms of our rights as informal workers, let’s create a union and actually advocate for certain rights. 

And what Nidan was only doing was really helping the self organizing capacity, and the ability to create organizations, manage them, govern them correctly, and actually be able to implement and execute. And so 30 organizations ended up spinning off Nidan. 

And ultimately, it also helped to build this large movement towards creating the first policy in the world around informal workers. The Street Vendors Act in India became a national movement of street vendors, but also helped to change the mindset. And so working on the deeper elements of change around what actually street vending and street food meant to people in India, and meant as part of the culture, and how to celebrate that rather than seeing it only as a problem. So they worked on all of these dimensions, and gave their constituents, their members, a way to self organize and have self determination. But seeing that in kind of a modern context of a modern organization, where you’re spinning off, in fact, some kind of incubator. So that for me has been a really inspiring example. And to see so many using the tools available to us in the modern age of these different kinds of organizations but for different purposes. But really, it was driven by the street vendors and their families and selves.

Empowering and equipping the problem solvers on the frontlines to be able to make decisions in context actually allowed for much greater engagement, and much more interesting kinds of outcomes.

MB: So you mentioned these three elements, which are big themes in the book, the Connection, the Context, and the Power. Connection: different ways you can help people connect is self-evident, to some extent, and you’ve got some great examples of who’s doing that. Power: your message essentially is, empower the people, the primary actors on the ground, the people who you’re really supposedly trying to help; the biggest way you help them is by empowering them to find their own solutions. But, talk a bit more about what you mean by Context, and why that’s so important at this moment.

FB: So just to quickly talk about the other two, because I think they are all interdependent. And so maybe just to go a little bit deeper, so that your listeners can say, well, this is not the same discussions on connection and networks. But actually looking at what’s so important with that was also the ways in the practices and the tactics these organizations took to build collective identity. And that then also relates to the power of context. And so I want to just encourage that there’s quite a bit under the surface of these three large principles that we talked about, which we felt was underlying all of the organizations, and how they worked. 

What we also looked at, was this concept of the practices. So under each of these principles there were sets of practices. And so what we were particularly interested in was, how does this stuff happen? So we can talk about context, but what’s actually happening? How do organizations do that? And we call that principle: embracing context. And in that space, we were really interested in how critical that is right now. And looking at organizations, even large organizations, that are able to distribute information – and that means data, the ability to make decisions – to their frontline workers, and to the communities and citizens that they’re trying to empower. And so context is important because that’s where decisions need to be made. 

Some of our work was also looking very much at the complexity literature, and what was a really interesting insight is that the greatest point of complexity is usually in context. So, if we’re talking about schools, it’s between a teacher and a child, and a teacher and the family – or [in a hospital] between a healthcare worker and a patient. So the greatest point of complexity also doesn’t seem that complex for the people in that position. It’s their best place to actually understand well, what needs to be done here? And so what we found over and over again, was that organizations were trying to roll out programs in different areas. This is a common narrative or pattern, where we say, okay, this works really well, in this context, so let’s roll it across the country, let’s roll it out to other countries. And for a whole bunch of reasons that doesn’t work. That’s obviously all about context. But what’s happening is that, in order for let’s say, an employee, or a project manager, or portfolio manager, to roll out a program, they suddenly were doing all of this other work, which was highly relational, to roll out the so called standard operating procedure, the program, the blueprint, that they were supposed to be rolling out. And so not having that recognized, not having that resource, not empowering the frontline workers to be able to do that contextual work, to build the relationships, was part of the reason for failure. But also part of the reason why some of the organizations that we looked at were so successful – whether that be mothers2mothers or Our Labs, or some of the other organizations that we were working with. And what’s interesting to say is, that doesn’t mean everything needs to be small and local. 

So the other really interesting example from the book is Buurtzorg, which is headquartered in the Netherlands. A very large organization, in 20 countries in the world, about a 40 million euro turnover company. So this is not a small, micro NGO. But up until recently, they didn’t have an HR manager, they didn’t have a CFO. But they had very strong technology that enabled them. This is a neighborhood care, nursing care particularly for the elderly, business. So they enabled and empowered the nurses, who were working with elderly and their families, to have all the information, to make resource decisions, to make budget decisions, to make even HR decisions around their local team that was working in a particular neighborhood. And if you look at what happened during COVID, and what happened with particularly homes for the elderly, how there was an inability to be agile, to react, to have to wait for top down decisions, to have to follow protocols. Having worked as a doctor in a system myself, once you’re at that level, you just have to follow the system. And so that was really interesting to see that empowering and equipping the problem solvers on the frontlines to be able to make decisions in context actually allowed for much greater engagement, and much more interesting kinds of outcomes. And particularly in breaking some of the traps that we found ourselves in. 

The last example I will give, which I spoke about earlier, is the Family Independence Initiative [now Up:Together], started by Mauricio Miller, whose book is a couple of years old now, but it’s probably worth featuring on your program as well. He was the founder of FII and we talk about in the book, a story where he had to fire a staff member for trying to help a family. And [FII] helps relatively poor families in the U.S., primarily from minority groups. And [he got fired] because he was trying to help [while] his job is not to help. Their job was to provide the data, the information, the list of opportunities, the peer group with other families, the IT infrastructure, so that families could make their own decisions about their future. And that was a really interesting shift for us to see how these organizations were adamant about not trying to solve problems, but really equip people to do that for themselves.

MB: You mentioned COVID. Has that made you more optimistic or less optimistic that these lessons can be learned and applied? Because, this is the third or fourth crisis in 20 years, and each time we hear that we mustn’t waste a good crisis, that we must build back better and so forth. Are you seeing these lessons being learnt, from your vantage point at the heart of the DevOps community? 

FB: I’ll start first with the organizations we looked at. Because we went back to all of them with a hypothesis that: would the work they had done to build this deep sense of trust, relational value, and distribution of agency, actually put them in a better position to be responsive and to be relevant during COVID? And, by a long way, we feel that hypothesis played out, and feel that these organizations have done incredible work during this period. Has that been learned by others? Have we all learnt how this crisis has shifted things? 

I think the one thing we’ve learned, now – which in my South African context is quite an open conversation – about racial bias, about the barriers between classes, about gender, clearly have been exposed at a global level. This is not only a South Africa challenge, this is a global challenge across so many ways. In some way, we’ve been able to raise the awareness that problems do have these deep structural, systemic barriers in place, and that we are failing to overcome those in our more traditional approaches to social change. On the other hand, and clearly my role is sometimes a bit paradoxical, but that’s why the purpose of the foundation is to focus on vulnerable and excluded people and ecosystems, and is to interface with the World Economic Forum, which obviously represents a network of today’s leaders. And despite the narratives, it’s really hard for today’s leaders to actually really work out the radical changes we need, when their mandates and agendas are to stabilize to continue as before. There are obviously great rays of hope, but clearly not fast enough or not radical enough. 

And so it is perhaps with a mixed answer, I do have optimism, but I also do see us not making the most of the crisis and opportunity. And perhaps it’s the mounting crisis at the same time, or the fact that we can’t really translate the COVID lessons into long term lessons, and I am deeply worried about that.

MB: So last question. The book’s primary focus is people who are in leadership of social change organizations, particularly nonprofit ones, but there is a context, which is that big government in much of the world has most of the money. And then you have the philanthropic sector that has done a lot of funding of organizations involved in social change. And then business is, increasingly now, under pressure and starting perhaps to engage more in a stakeholder centric approach that will require it to get more involved in social change, if that’s taken seriously enough. What’s the message of the book to those different groups? And if I think about our audience of people who are thinking about where they should go, how they should get involved in driving social change, what’s the message and advice you’d have for them? 

FB: I think, first of all it is for all of those in the social sector, not only for leaders. Interestingly, I got a call from Brazil where they want to translate this into Portuguese, because of the work that so many social workers are doing on the ground, which is perhaps not recognized, they feel this book would help to affirm a lot of the work that perhaps people don’t value as much. So that was really interesting to hear as feedback. 

Of course, for social change, leaders, and people who work in these organizations, are grappling and trying to figure these things out themselves. And we hope that this will have some practical insights. I hope it will also enable them to take forward conversations internally and look inside the organization, but also open up the discussions with funders. And so we have been delighted to be invited to a number of donor working groups and with individual philanthropists to engage them in this discussion. Because, there’s that internal reflection, and the conversation within philanthropy and how it’s evolving. 

And I do think, what we’re emphasizing here are those participatory approaches, but also that we need to start valuing different aspects, and perhaps becoming slightly less attached to what we’ve been obsessed about – in terms of value for money, social return on investment, clear metrics and outcomes. Not that those things are not important. But in the process of that, we may have lost something that actually leads to this deeper change, that actually we do aspire towards. 

And then I think for the government and business leaders of the world, interestingly, a lot of these practices actually speak to the moment we’re at in time where young people have the power, because of technology, to have a distributed sense of agency. We obviously have tools like blockchain, etc. And how do we maybe harness some of the tools we’ve got that actually can enable these kinds of practices in a modern era. So I think there’s something really interesting, potentially emerging there that we didn’t think about that actually, these practices might be relevant and valuable in more purposeful business or even just in business with a new generation. And then, of course, with governments, again, thinking about the value of the sector at a time where the trust in governments are, in many countries at an all time low, – even though some countries seem to be faring reasonably well. But I think there’s something there to re-embrace the sector as part of our collective future and not as an afterthought of, well just fill in the gaps of things we don’t do as we grow the economy. 

So I think there are a range of audiences for this, and why we have tried to frame it quite broadly, but then dive deeply into how does this work actually happen.

MB: Well, there’s certainly a lot of great information, great insight, great inspiration, in the book. The book is The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change. And it’s by Cynthia Rayner, and my guest today, François Bonnici. François, thank you very much for joining.

FB: Thank you, Matthew, and lovely to speak to you again.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity. 

Matthew Bishop

Matthew is an editorial consultant to Driving Change. An award-winning journalist, Matthew is an internationally recognized expert on the trends and innovations shaping global business, finance and politics, particularly the role of public policy and philanthropy. A graduate of the University of Oxford, Matthew is a former member of the faculty of London Business School. He is best known for his work on "philanthrocapitalism", a word he coined in The Economist to describe how businesses and philanthropists can make a big positive difference in the world. Matthew was a writer and editor at The Economist for over 25 years, including a decade as the magazine's New York Bureau Chief. He then led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Matthew has authored several books, including Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, and The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society. He co-founded the Social Progress Index, an increasingly influential new measure of how well a society serves its citizens, and the #GivingTuesday movement, which harnesses social media to celebrate giving and drive more effective charity. He launched the 17 Rooms partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution and is a co-funder of the Catalyst 2030 network of proven social entrepreneurs. Matthew was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was the official report author of the G8 Taskforce on Impact Investing.

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