MazeIn the nonprofit community, we often talk about our clients “falling through the cracks.” As a result, we spend a lot of time conducting case management sessions to help each and every client navigate “the system.” But, these are often only temporary fixes for our clients; the opportunity for better long-term outcomes lies in the system itself. If we fill the cracks and fissures in the system, we can make it easier for clients and the organizations serving them to be successful. At Social Impact Architects, we have spent the past decade redesigning systems in various communities for this reason. But, we look at it a little differently. Rather than just focusing on the system itself, we also look at the people involved in the system and how it is created, maintained and improved. The graphic below tells the story:


Most social sector organizations focus on individual effort – trying to navigate a maze (or system) to reach the cheese (or goal). Both clients and nonprofits are juggling many competing priorities, and it is often challenging for them to do anything but focus on their immediate journey. Instead, we encourage clients to, at a minimum, work together with other social sector organizations (e.g., government, philanthropy, social entrepreneurs) to really understand the maze and collaborate toward a coordinated approach. And, from there, if there is trust and true collaboration, they can start working on system change. To generate system change, though, requires more than coming together; it requires working side-by-side on the issue to develop a joint solution. That solution may be fixing the maze to make it easier to navigate or it may be blowing up the maze and starting over.

Based on our experience for more than two decades with collaborations of all shapes and sizes, here are our observations about them:

Individuals fall through cracks because communities are organized in silos.

We have written in the past about why individuals are confronted with multiple, interconnected problems (e.g., health issues, low educational attainment, credit issues), yet we have stand-alone organizations to serve each problem. In some cases, these organizations refer to each other, but often they do not. Social Impact Architects uses our process of ecosystem mapping to help achieve a goal of unifying efforts in communities; it examines how we design an ideal system together, understand our current system opportunities and challenges, and work toward building a better system. Bridges Out of Poverty also has a facilitated process to work alongside organizations that do not traditionally work together (e.g., education, criminal justice, homelessness) to fill these cracks and focus more on collective success rather than individual success.

Institutions should re-think summative outcomes and focus more on formative outcomes.

We spend a lot of time talking about terminal outcomes (e.g., graduation rate, poverty rate, kindergarten readiness, recidivism rate).  However, there are many factors that impact these measures (e.g., persistence in high school, multigenerational poverty rate) that highly influence terminal outcomes. How do we measure the early warning signs that individuals as well as our community are starting to decline? How do we implement solutions, monitor progress and continuously improve? This is the same conclusion that the Knight Foundation found in their seminal work on The Soul of a Community. Data is only good if it leads to insights that are used for better program design and evolution. What if we can collect data at mid-points, find likely failure points, and course correct as we go?

Communities and the nonprofits trying to help them can have a poverty mindset.

When I attended a Bridges Out of Poverty training, this “a-ha moment” was revolutionary for me. How many of our neighborhoods, communities and states are “just getting by”? In the training, I learned some indicators of distress, including middle-class flight, lost manufacturing and rising food insecurity. When communities are faced with these challenges, it is easy to lose sight of the greater good. As nonprofits, we are also susceptible to this. Instead of helping struggling clients and communities, we fight for our piece of the pie instead of working together to grow the pie. We put Band-Aids on problems rather than addressing root causes. We give into power structures and design programs not based on client need, but on funder interest. We neglect long-term infrastructure investments over short-term gains. We jump on shiny, new projects instead of investing in our local capacity for impact and scale of proven programs. It is important for social sector leaders and policymakers to recognize that our own mindset may be what holds us back from accomplishing real change within communities.

It is apparent in my work that people want “system change,” but sometimes “people change” is the hardest part. How many of us check our ego and logo at the door during collaborative conversations and truly engage for the greater good? As the social sector, we have to be open to adjusting our mindset as conditions change and as we glean more insights on what really moves the needle for communities. We would love to hear your struggles on achieving system change and how you have overcome them in your community.

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