Image of 3 people. Text: Scaling systems change: co-creating the way. Thursday May 7

Webinar Recorded May 7, 2020. Elena Bonometti, Tostan CEO, talks with Sanjay Purohit, Chief Curator, Societal Platform at EkStep Foundation, and Sybil Chidiac, Senior Program Officer on the Gender Equality team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on the critical components of systems change.

Co-Creating the Way

In this first of a series on Systems Change, Tostan CEO Elena Bonometti hosted an interactive conversation with two recognized ecosystem weavers, Sybil Chidiac and Sanjay Purohit, on the techniques and technologies that lead to multi-sectoral and scaffolded systems change across regions.

This 90-minute interactive webinar has been broken down into smaller videos on this page, organized by the audience questions and questions panelists prepared to answer. You can watch the entire webinar here.

Framing the Conversation

The purpose of this series is to talk about systems change and grow the field of practice. Each panelist speaks about why this conversation is important to them.

Key Points

  • Elena Bonometti is the CEO of Tostan, a West African based organization. Tostan has worked over the past 30 years at the community level, at the grassroots, to empower communities to develop and to fulfill their own vision of well being and it has inspired a larger scale movement leading to the respect of human rights and to dignity for all. 
  • Sybil Chidiac is Senior Program Officer on the Gender Equality team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She is responsible for developing and leading the women empowerment collective strategy with a focus on advancing women’s economic empowerment across Africa and particularly in Nigeria and Uganda. 
  • Sanjay Purohit, is the Chief Curator of Societal Platform at the Ekstep Foundation. From India, Sanjay brings 30 years of global experience in corporate strategy, digital transformation, and sustainable development.

Critical Components of Systems Change

The first question was: what are the critical components of systems change? Each person went in depth from their experience across continents working on large-scale initiatives.

Key Points

  • Elena describes Tostan’s point of entry to systems change as empowering education to address root causes of people not being able to fulfil their potential. She describes community processes allowing people to explore values, and then evaluate practices inconsistent with those values which has led to shifts at scale such as the abandonment of female genital cutting and women being elected to public office.
  • Sybil defines three components for systems change from her work across Africa on women’s economic empowerment: convergence of actors across sectors, focus on those most vulnerable, and finding opportunity / appetite between partners.
  • Sanjay describes the change at scale in India to impact systems like education. Valuing agency of individual actors in the system, catalyzing networks, and inspiring co-creation are three important values he cites for change at scale to occur.

Government Involvement

Audience question: what role do you see governments play in the systems change space?

Key Points

  • Sybil describes African governments with an appetite to create convergence between “ministries, departments, agencies throughout government towards an approach that is actually talking about a systems change for women and systems change being across various disciplines.”
  • Sanjay notes governments are designed to work at scale. “So many times we have always tried to say that, we should scale what works. And the question that I always say is if you want to really work at scale, with the government, then we have to answer the question what works at scale? And that’s not necessarily the same question. Scaling what works is not the same as what works at scale. And the government is very good at working at scale.”
  • Elena adds: “We see the scalability of our systems change approach at Tostan going through the community members … how a citizen can engage, ask for accountability, ask for more transparency, for allocation of resources where they think they need resources.”

Funding Systems Change

The next audience question requested perspectives on how to shift funding paradigms, specifically noting donors seem hesitant to fund systems change.

Key Points

  • Sybil responds: “It’s about the data, it’s about the evidence and being able to use that in order to make the case … working strongly with other actors is quite key. If that can be demonstrated, then that’s when I think the donor’s appetites are more open to exploring that solution, understanding the data, understanding the outcomes that can be achieved through that approach. And then definitely seeing if there is appetite from all those other actors.”
  • Sanjay adds: “How do we fund systems change? I think the question is how do we change funding systems. And I think that also is what all the people on the call and the community here have to think about. If we are serious about large scale systems change, then we have to catalyze a change in the funding systems.”
  • Elena cites the work of Catalyst 2030 to support those systems of belief that need to be adapted to embrace a systems change mentality.

Measuring Impact

The next audience question asked about challenges to measuring impact for systems change. 

Key Points

  • Sanjay notes systems change is a long term factor. “The reflex is to go and say what is the outcome? It needs a new paradigm in measurements, which has to follow our ability to understand exponential change, rather than our ability to understand linear change.” 
  • He views systems change impact from three lenses: “First, is (the approach) proving itself to be right? How are we measuring? Second, are the different actors engaging and more and more people co-creating? Third, is the scale machinery actually adopting and deploying things at scale?”  
  • Sybil adds there is a gender data gap. “There’s a lot of data that’s just missing. When  you talk about the norms that are impacting women that play into some of these other indicators around women’s participation in the economy, those have to be considered as well, yet those aren’t being collected. There’s a lot of entities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that are playing a role in strengthening better data systems across the world. There’s a call for the use of that data, because it’s only through the use of that more informed decisions, policies, and engagements can be made across a multitude of actors.”

Changing Social Norms

The conversation moved to the next question: how do social norms and a system of beliefs shift actually to allow for sustainably scaling systems change?

Key Points

  • Elena cites Tostan as working at scale: “The next exciting stage of life will be about really exploring those two components together (social norms and systems change), and making sure that we bring it to the next level. 
  • Sanjay reflects on changing education systems at scale, and what they’ve learned at EkStep Foundation. “How do you change one thing at scale? The second thing at scale and keep doing that again, and again? We call them the plus one thinking cycles. Because that is the change that sticks. A plus hundred on five schools never sticks, a plus one on a million schools, sticks. And then you figure out what’s the next plus one? I think that has been amazingly demonstrated by the work you do at Tostan, because that’s how beliefs and norms change at scale.”
  • Sybil adds: “Fundamentally, in terms of social norm shifts, it’s not something that can be done from the top down. Rather, it’s something that needs to be done in concert with policies, laws and systems that currently exist, and really looking at communities trying to rethink and reimagine their societies for development, for change, and for growth.”


The next topic came from two audience questions. One participant asked about the relationship between systems change and exponential change. The other specifically requested more info on platforms for addressing gender related issues.

Key Points

  • Sanjay zooms out to a wider concept of technology, pointing to the current era as an information technology era. “Understanding of context is scarce. Knowledge is scarce. Expertise is scarce. People who actually know how to respond to a complex situation, getting resources to them is scarce. And technology plays the role of that connective tissue. It is not the answer. It’s an enabler.” He elaborates on why the system needs to be nudged towards equity to perform at its best.
  • Sybil  observes social networks and cohesion happening between groups and between women across Africa. “Whenever there’s a crisis, whenever there’s a flood or drought, they start spreading information. With COVID-19 as well, they’re starting to spread information, sharing best practices, sharing the right messages around what the virus is and how it spread, hygiene that should be practiced … there’s a lot of ways that women are using technology in order to really help empower them, either by pulling information or pushing it out to others.”

Behavior Change Communication

Elena connected the next audience question about behavior change communication to the COVID-19 era. “In a world where we are told every single day what to do, what not to do, and things are changing and we are constantly in evolving environments, how closely the systems change is linked to behavior change communication, where’s the connection? Where do they intersect?”

Key Points

  • Sanjay details behaviors: “systems are a collection of behaviors and behaviors are outcomes that have many elements of the system. So they’re very, very closely linked, closely related. And in the end to affect systems change, I look at behavior from three lenses: individuals, organizations, and networks.”
  • “In order for convergence to happen,” Sybil adds, “there needs to be a behavior change amongst the various actors in actually coming together to co-create. There needs to be appetite and opportunity for really understanding the system and understanding the change that is envisioned. I think behavior change is an integral part of any critical component for systems change.”

Examples of Systems Change

In the final moment of the webinar, Elena asked for examples. “What collaborations have seen this working really well? From communities to philanthropy, government to tech?”

Key Points

  • Sanjay: “One of the systems change platforms at Societal Platform that we’re working on is called ShikshaLokam which works in the area of developing leaders in the education sector: head teachers, principals, government officials. The 1.5 million schools of India are managed by about 4.5 million leaders of different types. And this is an interesting combination of civil society organizations. We have some amazing partners who are very, very strong powerful NGOs in the education sector, people like Kaivalya Education Foundation, or people like you know, Peepul Foundation or organizations like Mantra4Change which is an amazing organization driving transformation in education leadership or Sanjhi Sikhya working in Punjab and so on, I could just keep on listing them and on the other end is the government. State government actors, education departments, in Punjab, in Andhra Pradesh, in Goa, in Delhi, in different states of the country, and the people who are working in different other sectors who are interested in coming. And so because of this digital infrastructure that they have built out, all these actors are coming together and solving problems of education at scale in different parts, and finding a better balance for all the different systems. So I would certainly urge you to look it up sometime when you have time.” 
  • Sybil reminded of the long road. “We drive for systems change, but there’s always another system that needs to be changed as we progress. We’re seeing this play out in democracies across the world where the notion of democracy is changing and the leadership to lead that, the core principles of democracy aren’t measuring up to those basic tenets. The notion of democracy needs to also change given our changing times. I don’t know that I have an answer, other than I feel like we are on this journey, more on this path. We’re all contributing. We’re going to see a point where certain aspects of the system are changed, but there’s still going to be a new frontier. Women’s rights for example, this has been such a long journey and I don’t even know if we’re in the middle of it.”


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