An Ecosystem Approach to Social Change

Recently, we’ve seen a growing weariness among those working on longstanding efforts to transform public education. But we don’t think it’s because those pushing for better schools have lost faith in the potential of children. Rather, the exasperation felt is around the question of how to achieve transformative change when a deep-rooted status quo seems to push back at every turn.

This exhaustion is understandable in some respects. With just a handful of exceptions, very few cities have seen sustained improvements in student achievement. NAEP scores across the country are mostly listless. The U.S. ranks 31st of 70 countries in math, science, and reading on the PISA and unrest among educators grows rapidly in many regions around the country.

Almost every day, well-intentioned educators and the philanthropists who support them run headlong into the challenge of trying to create meaningful impact in a system that is not conducive to change. But advocates who are willing to broaden their lens and take a more “ecosystem-oriented approach,” thinking critically about and focusing on advocacy, politics, and policy, can move the needle towards sustainable change in these complex systems.


In the world of philanthropy, there are far too many eager grantmakers with a narrow gaze fixated on specific programs and isolated problems. Rather than taking a holistic view of the environment in which their favored initiatives operate, these would-be change agents often take the broader landscapes for granted. In reality, these landscapes are complex ecosystems that differ greatly from one community to the next. Among the most important variables is how the advocacy, policy, and political conditions in a given ecosystem either accelerate or impede progress toward substantive goals. These variables are pivotally important not only in education, but also in every sector of social good from healthcare to criminal justice reform.

When the families, practitioners, advocates, and philanthropists who seek change fail to embrace the work of shaping their ecosystem, more often than not, otherwise effective programs and interventions fall short of changing the status quo. But, when those actors work intentionally to improve their ecosystems, real transformation — and progress — becomes possible.


Taking an “ecosystem-oriented approach” is critical for creating sustainable change in complex systems for many reasons, but we want to highlight three in particular: the importance of empowerment, reinvention, and leverage.


Creating sustainable and valuable change means working alongside and empowering the communities who are impacted by said change. Big systems – and society at large – are characterized by an uneven distribution of power between the system themselves and the communities they serve. In education, this takes the form of thousands of parents on waitlists to access higher performing schools, families who must go to extraordinary lengths to receive special education services, superintendents and school officials who turn a deaf ear toward the families they represent, and so on. An ecosystem-oriented approach to change seeks to fundamentally disrupt these dynamics by empowering communities and elevating the voices of families and stakeholders who have long borne the brunt of systems that don’t meet their needs.


Existing systems — whether a large company, government agency, or school system — rarely reinvent themselves and almost never do so without external pressure. Bureaucracies, even when run by well-intentioned leaders, tend to truly evolve only when changes in their environment force them to. Families, practitioners, advocates, and philanthropists who are not content with the pace of change in their communities have to catalyze reinvention. An ecosystem-oriented approach creates pressure that moves existing systems toward reinvention and in doing so, creates space in which evolution and innovation can occur.


We spend roughly $650 billion a year in public money on K-12 education in the U.S. This means that, as an enterprise, our public schools operate as the equivalent of the 20th largest GDP in the world. Direct investment from private philanthropy will never come close to matching the resources invested by state, local, and federal government. Creating systemic change largely depends on our ability to influence – even modestly – how public resources are utilized; in fact, this is arguably the highest leverage change we can pursue.


Embracing an ecosystem orientation is a critical step toward catalyzing transformative change and one that every philanthropist can take, regardless of the scale and approach of their philanthropy. In working with philanthropists and change agents intent on expanding their impact in this way, we’ve learned many important lessons on how to be effective through empowerment, reinvention, and leverage. There are no simple streamlined solutions or silver bullets. But, rethinking your approach with an ecosystem-orientation can help you move past what feels like a lull in progress and take a crucial step towards driving systemic change.