Working within systems for social change

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(Illustration by iStock/Bulat Silvia)

For as long as most of us can remember, social enterprises and social movements have sought to disrupt systems from the outside or bring about fundamental top-down policy change. But while these tactics have often worked in the past, their growing ineffectiveness in today’s world suggests the need to rethink their allure in favor of new strategies that leverage what already exists, in order to circumvent the dysfunction that constrains change at almost every level. .

To be honest, this achievement came as a surprise to us. Like so many others, the lure of disruption and top-down systems change was hard to ignore, until the facts showed us that something had changed. And it was undeniable.

It all started when we at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation saw that some of the newer organizations in our portfolio weren’t just focused on understanding the ecosystem surrounding the problem they were tackling (and specifically inventory of existing infrastructure and distribution channels and their repurposing, imperfect as they are), but they were more successful in creating lasting change. When we looked at the impact of more than 30 of the most influential organizations in our portfolio, the data was unequivocal: organizations focused on leveraging existing infrastructure and delivery systems had almost a direct impact three times greater that organizations focused on disturbance as their first lever. (In fact, the cost per direct life affected by these “leveraged” organizations was fifteen times less than those attempting to disrupt the system from the outside.)

What became abundantly clear was that top-down change – new policies, new programs, new funding – was simply unattainable in the toxic and polarized political environment that has become the new norm, preventing the adoption of new social policies (not to mention the financing mechanisms needed to pay for them). And the same goes for organizations that have tried to disrupt from the outside: too often, they have failed to attract adoption or capital to last long enough to see the disruption take hold.

Simply put, the government’s inability to create deep change is forcing donors and the organizations they support to adopt a different way of thinking about problems and their solutions. This requires a new set of analyzes to be performed when considering solutions that address deep-rooted societal inequalities: instead of seeking to disrupt and radically rebuild the ecosystems, infrastructures and co-dependencies that exist around the sectors you focus on, we need to invest up front to understand them. This way, we can understand where an innovation or solution sits in the larger system, what co-dependencies exist that need to be addressed, and what critical links and pathways between entities need to be established.

Finding leverage in the criminal justice system

In 2016, we met and spoke with a number of former US attorneys, state and local attorneys, judges, sheriffs, and police chiefs to better understand where organizations working in space could really have a lasting impact. As we understood and mapped the different stages, actors, and dependencies, we determined that efforts to transform the systemic politics that govern charging decisions – the so-called “smart crime” movement – were too dependent on political decisions and externalities that had little to do with the criminal justice system itself -even and everything to do with who was in power at any given time at the time. As a result, time and time again, the efforts made over the years have been wiped out in a matter of months, leaving the most vulnerable with no meaningful change in their lives. This led us to focus our investment objective on what would remain over time, regardless of changes in administration: to focus on organizations that were working to keep people out of the system and , equally important, strove to keep people who had been in the system or were ready to be released from coming back into the system once released.

For example, we have supported Advance Peace, Detroit Justice Center, Essie Justice Group, Public Rights Project, and many others that have had a tremendous impact on the lives of individuals, even as sweeping changes in federal and state justice policies penal system have considerably increased incarceration. Rather than seeking to transform the criminal justice system, the organizations we have invested in have worked within the system to keep people out of it (or re-offending) by providing greater intervention before they are charged and providing significant support to individuals before they are charged. their release to give them a better basis to survive outside of these institutional systems.

We have also seen that much can be accomplished by working within a system to enable it to better serve its members. For example, many of the agencies with criminal justice, probation, and parole responsibilities fundamentally lack the resources to carry out their mandate. In many cases, it’s not that these agencies wanted to keep incarcerated people who would otherwise be eligible for parole; instead, many who want to fulfill their legislative responsibility simply don’t have the data and tools to do so. For example, calculating a person’s sentence often means pulling together decades of quasi-retroactive sentencing improvements and reforms and reconciling them with court and county records; those eligible for early release are often unaware of this or unable to prove it. Recidiviz, an organization we invested in in 2020, works with 10 states (and counting) to provide agencies with the data they need to identify and release eligible individuals. These agencies have welcomed the assistance, and the results speak for themselves: to date, Recidiviz has been tasked with helping these agencies release 65,000 people who were eligible under the law but had become invisible. and would otherwise have remained incarcerated. Recidiviz did not need to drastically disrupt the system to have an immediate effect; he only had to provide the data to execute the existing authority of the agencies.

in education

We see the same thing in education-based organizations. For example, Kinvolved, now part of PowerSchool, didn’t try to disrupt public education or drastically change the curriculum to improve outcomes. Instead, he focused on alleviating the chronic student absenteeism that impeded any level of instruction. After all, students who do not attend school cannot take advantage of any enhanced program. Kinvolved’s solution was to work with existing schools to provide real-time information to parents, guardians and the schools themselves on those who did not show up so that real-time intervention could take place. The result? Kinvolved’s upstream intervention resulted in reports of 10% higher daily attendance on average and an 8% decrease in chronic absenteeism at its partner schools, forever changing the trajectory long term for hundreds of thousands of students.

And in health

We have seen a similar impact with organizations focused on connecting individuals with the benefits they are entitled to, particularly those who are eligible for health benefits (but who have become systematically “invisible” to the health system). Estimates place the number of so-called “invisible” individuals north of 15 million. Organizations like bosWell, Fabric Health, Live Chair and many others are working to find these people in their neighborhood by contacting them where they are. are rather than where the system thinks they should be. Outreach includes social workers and advocates positioned in food pantries, hair salons and hair salons and laundromats to name a few targeted neighborhood locations.

In a job like this, there is no disturbance. Health providers want to find these beneficiaries and providers have a system in place to deliver services to them; they just need to know who they are. These start-up organizations are not creating new health systems; they simply provide an essential link between individuals and the providers responsible for providing services to them. The capital costs to complete this work are only a fraction of what a new system would cost or the cost of creating new installations, and more importantly, execution risk is minimized.

Takeaway meals

Relying on government partnerships in a politically polarized world is risky at best. Our takeaway is to instead rely on existing programs, infrastructure and funding and reallocate as needed. And this trend is not just a phenomenon in the United States. We also see it in Africa, India and Europe, with organizations working on the front lines to provide what is known as “last mile access”, access to representation within existing legal systems and activities to ensure government compliance with their own existing regulations. , to name just a few of the targeted areas (organizations such as Indus Action, BarefootLaw, Food For Education, Accountability Counsel, and many others). Their success rates are a powerful reminder that successful innovation and its implementation are entirely dependent on effective distribution. Providing benefits and services to people who need them does not happen automatically. Starting with a system in place and/or creating access to existing government benefits, rights and remedies is a game changer for getting things done. Without it, nothing happens at all.

Not all complex societal problems can be solved by working within systems, of course; many cannot. But in a world where top-down or external policy change is often impossible, another approach should be considered, especially for organizations seeking to achieve the most immediate impact possible with the resources they have. Organizations that search hard enough will find the paths that exist. Our recent experience shows that those who do create an even greater impact at a fraction of the cost, without sacrificing time to achieve that result. In a world where help is often scarce, seeing these redirected pathways take hold is a game-changer.

Read more stories from Jim Bildner and Stephanie Khurana.

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