What Systems Change and Starfish Have in Common

April 3, 2019

By Tim Hanstad

As we gather in Oxford to discuss how humanity can accelerate a future that is fair, inclusive, and sustainable at this year’s Skoll World Forum, it is helpful to remember the story of the starfish.

I first heard this story from Rich Tafel, founder of Public Squared, while attending my first SWF seven years ago.

As Rich told it: a man walking along a beach covered with thousands of dying starfish sees a boy throwing them one-by-one back into the ocean. The man points out the scale of the problem and how the boy cannot possibly make a difference. As the boy throws another starfish back, he says, “I just made a difference to that one.”

The story exemplifies the mindsets of many social entrepreneurs and NGOs—we are spurred by empathy into action, not paralyzed by the scope of the problem.

At a deeper level, the story also highlights how often the response at hand addresses only symptom and not cause.

This is what makes this year’s theme: “accelerating possibility” so interesting. To accelerate change, we can’t save starfish by starfish—despite the fact that such actions are meaningful and important to those individual starfish. Instead, we need to think bigger.

We need a systems mindset, because most social problems are complex and multi-faceted. We need to get to the root of the problem lest we spend the rest of our days throwing starfish by starfish back into the water.

Let’s go back to our starfish story to explore this notion further. In the case of “Starmageddon” – the thousands of starfish who really did wash up on shore and die on the coast of Kent, England in 2008–Marine Conservation Society found that nearby dredging for mussels likely dislodged the starfish, covered them with silt, and smothered them.

The real solution was not throwing them back in the silty water. Instead, it was new regulations on dredging.

In this case, the Marine Conservation Society was able to achieve impact not only because they approached this with a systems mindset and looked for the root of the problem. But also, because they were open to engaging with, what too many in our sector still consider, an unconventional partner: government.

This is a subject that is particularly close to my heart because the organization I co-founded and led at the time, Landesa, achieved its greatest successes by engaging with governments to support changes in land-related laws and policies to create durable, systemic change. Our theory of change was and is founded on a systems mindset approach that had us collaborating with governments, civil society, and the business sector to change the laws and policies that prevented farmers from sustainably increasing their harvests to grow themselves out of poverty.

In the years since Rich shared this story, the idea of systems change work has thankfully caught on. What is still under appreciated is the potential role for government in our systems change work.

But I see signs that this too is shifting. I am now CEO of the Chandler Foundation, part of Co-Impact, a donor collaborative for systems change work whose core partners include our chairman, Richard Chandler, along with Bill & Melinda Gates, Nandan & Rohini Nilekani, Jeff Skoll, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Co-Impact works to address big, complex problems that require big bet solutions with the participation of civil society, business, and governments. As we see it, without all three of these groups collaborating on solutions, we’re leaving money on the table.

While engaging with government on policy change and governance is not something social entrepreneurs often discuss, it needs to be as we seek ways to accelerate possibility.

As Rich shared with me during that 2012 SWF, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the rules.”