Today, the world is full of people energized to do good. Their hunger for social and political change is largely a cause for optimism. Groups of thoughtful, committed, action-oriented people have always been a driving force behind transforming societies into better versions of themselves. I'm most energized by the courage and enthusiasm of Generation Z.

But while we should encourage greater civic engagement, do-gooders should have no illusions about what it takes to make change. Shifting an entrenched system is challenging, unpredictable, and requires more than a little bit of luck and patience.

Most efforts fail. Having good intentions far from guarantees success. And those who aren't careful can unwittingly make problems worse.

Why aren't good intentions enough? And why do efforts to change systems fail?

As a social entrepreneur working to shift the education system and train a new generation of civic leaders, I am fascinated by these questions.

After reflecting on my own experiences, talking to systems change experts, and poring over case studies of success and failure, I've distilled three of the most common reasons do-gooders' efforts bite the dust:

  • Reason One: They fail to understand and develop themselves
  • Reason Two: They fail to understand their chosen problem
  • Reason Three: They fail to understand what it takes to solve the problem

For each reason, I've included reflection questions to illustrate how easy it is to fall into one of these traps, and to help you avoid these traps yourself.


Reason One: They fail to understand and develop themselves

  • Do you know which issues you are most passionate to address?
    Working on systems change takes extraordinary patience and stamina. You will quickly be ground down if your heart and soul are not fully prepared to weather the long journey ahead.
  • Do you know your skills and core strengths? How can they be applied to supporting an effort to change a system?
    What are you even doing if you don't know yourself well enough to identify how you can provide value to a cause?  It may not make sense to try to "fix" other people's lives if you haven't even reflected on your own.
  • Do you have mastery over your emotions? Is your ego in check?
    To change a sociopolitical system, you must forge partnerships within and across sectors. And if you are emotionally unstable or you let your ego get in the way, no one will want to work with you.
  • Do you know how others perceive you?
    Being blind to how you come off to others is irresponsible, because their perceptions affect their interactions with you as a collaborator and leader. How does your action plan account for how people trust people who look like them, think like them, and have experienced similar struggles?

Reason Two: They fail to understand their chosen problem

  • Do you understand who this problem affects and how?
    You can't fix a system without addressing its roots. And one of the best ways to uncover those roots is to talk to the people the system has affected the most.
  • Do you know who has a financial or political interest to stymie change?
    A system will not change if nothing is done about the powerful groups and individuals dedicated to preserving the status quo.
  • Do you know what other issues exacerbate or are impacted by this problem?
    Considering interconnected or related systems is essential to understanding where to prioritize time and resources.
  • Have you explored the history of this problem?
    The past reveals a lot about how things came to be and which interventions have been more or less successful.
  • Do you know what has worked? What hasn't?
    It's arrogant and irresponsible to try and shift a system if you haven't pored over case studies of current and past work to do the same.
  • Do you know how these people and interventions are connected?
    "Mapping" the ecosystem of systems change-makers is essential to understand where a new intervention may fit in, if it needs to exist at all.
  • Are there types of interventions that are needed but don't yet exist?
    You won't know this until you've spent serious time studying the actors in the ecosystem.
  • Do you have a thesis for how these efforts could collectively be more effective?
    If you don't, your well-meaning actions may simply contribute to the disorder of the collective.

Reason Three: They fail to understand what it takes to solve the problem

  • Do you have good reason to believe that your intervention can shift a system from an undesirable "equilibrium" to some better status quo? It's wise to question whether your approach for changing a system will actually leave a system better off in the long run. For the benefits of an intervention to sustain, the economic and political dynamics of a given system must become fundamentally re-aligned. Successful interventions involve building new alliances to coordinate and pool resources to create greater value for all stakeholders involved.
  • Do you know what it takes to organize diverse partners for collective action?
    If you have not built relationships on deep trust or cannot persuade relevant stakeholders to walk in step, you have no shot at changing a system.
  • Do you know what it takes to scale a systems intervention?
    Social change does not scale the same way an organization does. Scaling impact looks like individuals, governments, businesses, and impact organizations collaborating and collectively creating change.
  • Do you know how to secure funding for an intervention?
    You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you can't secure the bag, it's near-impossible to take action. Vision without execution is just a hallucination.
  • Have you adequately "apprenticed" with the problem?
    You can read all the books about an issue that you want (and you should), but nothing will teach you more about a problem than first-hand exposure to the system affected by the problem.
  • Do you know how to adapt your systems-change approach when your assumptions prove faulty?
    Every intervention you design will be based on assumptions. Some of these assumptions will be proven wrong. That's perfectly fine. The key is to use your updated understanding of reality to evolve the intervention so it is as effective as it can be.
  • Do you know how to build a team that can get everything done?
    Social good organizations get a bad rap because they can be terribly inefficient and blow through runway. It's hard for anyone to make even a small dent on social problems, so if a leader cannot recruit A-players with complementary skillsets and perspectives, success is unlikely.
  • Do you know how to craft and broadcast a compelling vision of the future?
    Storytelling and marketing is essential to recruiting, fundraising, and getting the word out to beneficiaries and the general public.
  • Do you know how to use state-of-the-art technology to support your system change efforts?
    So much goes into managing a project and organization efficiently and at scale. Luckily, there are so many cheap or free tools you can easily adopt today to stay organized, schedule meetings, communicate with teammates and partners, automate repetitive tasks, and be more effective day-to-day.
  • Do you know how to acquire mentors and advisors?
    As I've mentioned above, social change doesn't come easy. There are so many pitfalls that keep even the most well-intended individuals from making a difference. Mentors and advisors with systems change experience help you avoid these pitfalls.

Make no mistake, being able to answer all of these questions does not imply you are destined for success. But what it does imply is that you are serious about figuring out how to become someone capable of making a real difference.

You may be wondering: why did I write this post? In May, I left my job at Google to co-found Civics Unplugged. One of the main reasons I left was because I saw a huge gap between what it takes to make change and how well our education system actually prepares students to make that change.

During the Fellowship program that we're launching in January, our students will explore all of these questions that are so critical to their development as leaders. And after twelve weeks of online lectures, engaging group activities, hands-on mentorship, and meaningful project-based work they will be flown out for an inspiring, all-expenses-paid, 3-day convention in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown University — which will feature high profile speakers, skills and issue based workshops, celebrations of their collective transformations, and more.

If you know are a high schooler who wants to set sail on a life-changing civic leadership development journey, share this post with them and nominate them 🎁 or send them the application form 📮 so they can apply directly. The application deadline is November 30th.

Feel free to send us an email at admissions@civicsunplugged.org if you have any questions!