On the Impact Frontier: Leaders Who Are Shaping Market Systems

In Bangladesh, a thousand families still weep for loved ones who perished in April when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed.  Who is to blame? Is it the factory owner who was trying to keep costs down to prevent the business from moving elsewhere? Is it western consumers who want to buy cheap clothes? Is it the corporations for driving costs down? Or is it the investor who wants to maximize their quarterly return?

Who is to blame? All of them. And none of them.

What happened was a failure of the market system as a whole to value the lives of people who serve it. The good news: Because our society created our market systems, we can change them.

A new wave of innovators are redesigning the rules of our markets, going beyond even the environmental and human rights activists of the past century and today’s social entrepreneurs and sustainability professionals whose focus is at the enterprise-level. These innovators look beyond the symptoms, beyond activism that might, for example, push the apparel industry to conduct independent safety inspections of the supplier facilities. They think big. They reframe the boundaries of the problem, elevating it to the system level where they can search for leverage points–places where a small change can lead to large shifts in system behavior.

What do system change leaders do?

System change leaders are global thinkers and restless achievers. They are promoting radical transparency through the apparel industry supply chains—exposing the practice to push prices down at the expense of the welfare of people and the environment. This market disruption increases the cost of tolerating poor practices by shifting demand towards businesses that build or utilize responsible supply chains where the safety and fair compensation of workers is an imperative.

In developing economies, networks of women’s organizations are targeted for investment. This initiative transfers economic power to women who would otherwise be suppressed, enabling them to play an active role in shaping global agendas for social, economic and political change.

Innovation in the seafood industry has historically been hampered through lack of business support and seed funding, reinforcing the status quo that is damaging our oceans. A non-profit accelerator for seafood businesses supports new ideas that drive sustainability, efficiency and traceability through the supply chain. Providing access to business services to these early stage ventures enables the good ideas to succeed.

Impact funds are catalyzing political change for good by investing in technology that helps people to unite around an issue. Previously unknown candidates are able to catalyse support quickly through citizen engagement. Raising millions overnight from the crowd and leaving previously established powerhouses struggling to adapt. This shift in power dynamics is creating long-term political impact that lasts beyond one election cycle.

In an effort to understand this work, to uncover the secrets of the trade, we, and other systems change “wonks” like us have partnered with the Criterion Institute to research exactly how one goes about changing the structures, dynamics and rules of market systems: What are the strategies that over time create sustainable change? What leadership styles and organizational models support the long-term engagement in systems change?

We asked a diverse group of 24 systems change practitioners about themselves and their journey. How did they find themselves in this role?

 Non-linear career path

 What on a first glance might look like a meandering career path, on second glance is the systematic collection of a suite of skills that enables these leaders to understand their issue within the market system. To cross boundaries between disciplines and to find solutions in unexpected areas with unexpected allies. Many interviewees talk of an “ah ha” moment, a critical point in their life that provides some clarity over the work they feel compelled to do.

Wall Street financiers realized they could not reconcile the destructive incentives that drive capital markets with the social and environmental investments we value in our own neighborhoods. Conservationists realized the destructive forces they are fighting are driven by perverse market forces. Early pioneers of social investing realized that political power and rights-focused policy work tilt the capital markets windmills in an important way.

Within this skill development path are the ingredients of passion and expertise about an “issue,” which stems from life experience or formal education and this is combined with education in economics, business or public policy, providing the skills to understand how their “issue” fits into our market system.

Adaptive capacity

Many started their work thinking one particular solution was the answer, for example, starting a fund targeted at an underserved market, but finding this model too inflexible to serve the diverse needs of the target audience and ultimately designing a network of partners that coalesce around certain issues.

Another systems change leader, trained as a real estate and land use attorney, sought to revive Los Angeles neighborhoods by providing pro bono legal services to local nonprofits developing land for low-income use. But finding the flow of resources insufficient, he shifted efforts to bringing private investment to low-income communities through new grocery stores and banks, solving multiple market failures at once.

This work involves a certain tolerance of uncertainty—or maybe it is confidence that the process of innovation will uncover the answers you are looking for.

Confidence and humility

Interviewees often described themselves as beginners or even impostors in the fields they operate within. Moving from journalism to seafood, from activism to leadership development, or from media to impact investing; there’s a certain type of confidence necessary to put yourself back in the “learner” seat as you develop your expertise across the system you seek to change. Or is it simply the drive to learn new information, skills and expertise can override the fear of starting again?

Conjoined with this confidence that propels systems change leaders into learner territory is a humility that reminds them to find collaborators with more expertise. Armed with little medical experience or training, one interviewee nevertheless identified the possibility for major transformation through public health interventions. He sought connections, resources, and a community of experts and is now working at the intersection of medical treatments and well-being.

Yet as they operate across different fields, imaging the problem from the system perspective, system change leaders are also firmly in the driver’s seat. They are pushing their agendas forward. Taking responsibility.

How do these characteristics translate to strategy?

Without a doubt, deep-rooted values and formal training are deeply connected to the ability to leverage and manipulate economic power dynamics toward specific, sustained outcomes that are making our world a more equitable place to live.

High-level understanding about how market systems function within a given context enables the creation of alternative systems to crowd out the negative market forces—from building radical transparency within supply chains to establishing new funds that invest in new sustainable ventures that displace those that rely upon damaging practices.

Stay tuned for our next article, which will explore these strategies in greater detail and offer ideas for building, supporting, and promoting the work of this new community of leaders. If you have any thoughts or questions about this piece, please leave a comment below.

Jos Hill is a conservation practitioner who works on interdisciplinary initiatives to develop system level solutions to promote conservation and reduce poverty. Jos is currently serving as the Director of Asia Pacific Programs for Olazul and is leading an effort to create a new sustainable livelihood model through the trade in marine aquarium species. 

Rachel Mosher-Williams is a consultant and thought leader whose work focuses on network development, strategic program design, and impact measurement within philanthropy and the broader social sector. She is currently Principal of RMW Consulting.

This research was conducted as part of the Leaders Shaping Markets initiative at Criterion Institute, which is building a community of leaders who recognize that it is not enough to use market to scale social good, but that we need to change the rules of market systems. To get involved or stay informed contact leadersshapingmarkets@criterioninstitute.org

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