System Change Playbook

A Playbook For shifting Systems

A case study in
transformative change

Ashoka Fellows have in common a commitment to systemic-level change — to addressing the underlying causes that maintain the status quo. This is in fact a central criterion for awarding fellowships.

But no Fellow would presume to achieve systems change alone. Permanent shifts in our education system, in healthcare, in our economy, in immigration, in criminal justice and beyond often take clusters of Fellows working in complementary ways.

What does that look like?

A quick case study of Ashoka Fellows working to transform our criminal justice system reveals the way different solutions reinforce one another with the aim of ending mass incarceration. And yet it also highlights how social entrepreneurs rely on a common playbook along their journeys to impact.

THE SYSTEM: Criminal Justice

With 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the United States imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world by far. Mass incarceration has destroyed lives, ripped apart families and communities, and depleted needed public resources. Layer this on top of the racial disparities of who is sent to prison and it’s no surprise that many consider defeating mass incarceration as the civil rights mandate of our time.

THE SYSTEM: Changers


Diagnosing the problem in new ways


Building alternatives that work better


Shifting culture and mindsets


shifting power and creating new leaders


embedding policies to create lasting change


System Change Playbook

Systems-changing innovators often rely on a common set of strategies in their work, beginning with how they approach a social problem in the first place. Below are a set of moves we frequently see within the fellowship that distinguish systems changers in particular, together with examples of criminal justice Fellows who exemplify these approaches particularly well.

the Problem in New Ways

All systems-changing solutions target the underlying root causes of a social problem (as opposed to treating symptoms). But they often begin by diagnosing the problem differently in the first place — drawing attention to a new set of underlying factors that may have been overlooked or underappreciated. This new angle or perspective opens up creative avenues that can have outsized impact.


Joe was the first to look at gun violence as if it were a communicable disease -- for example, like tuberculosis. Diagnosing it this way, including by honing in on transmission hot spots, opened up new and more targeted ways to treat and prevent the spread of violence in inner cities.


Gina Clayton draws attention to a problem frequently overlooked: the impact of mass incarceration on women. One in four women in the US have a family member in person in prison, and one in two for Black women. They are left to manage finances, care for kids, put up bail, drive to hearings, support reintegration, and more. Yet (until now) they’ve had no formal support groups to turn to, and little recourse for the powerlessness and psychological hardships they experience.

Build alternatives
that work better

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. This market-based strategy builds demand for a new approach because it achieves better results, often at a lower cost to society.


Christa’s Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) is an alternative to the juvenile justice system that addresses many of the root causes and risk factors that drive young people into the system in the first place. Over time, FLY increases community safety, decreases the costs and consequences of crime, and sets young people on a new life trajectory.


Steve’s insight is to make the criminal justice system an ally to the individual who is homeless and a partner to the community organizations that support that person’s rehabilitation. Now instead of a punitive response, the court system takes a more proactive, collaborative, solution-oriented approach that reduces criminal activity in the long term.


Danielle has created the only restorative justice alternative in the country for victims of violent crime in an effort to repair harm and break the cycle of violence perpetuated by incarceration. Her success to date in some of the country’s largest DA’s offices — in the Bronx and in Brooklyn — is already spreading across the country.

Culture and Mindsets

Ashoka Fellow Eric Liu often says “culture is upstream of policy”. Fellows are as much culture shapers as they are engineers — creating opportunities for us to see the world in new ways and shifting mindsets about ourselves and each other.


Danielle’s solution involves the promising use of restorative justice techniques but her work is as much about shifting mindsets as anything. She forces us to examine the effectiveness of incarceration in the first place: far from repairing harm and curbing violence, it frequently adds to the cycle of violence in our communities, which is why a remarkable 90 percent of those who have survived serious violence and are given the option to use restorative justice as an alternative choose to do so. When we begin to see incarceration as a perpetrator of violence in America rather than a solution, it’s like crossing a threshold that opens up a new world of possibilities.


Van, one of our earliest Ashoka Fellows in the United States, has launched numerous organizations and initiatives that aim to change criminal justice policies in the long run. A unifying component of all his strategies is the drawing together of “unlikely allies”: those who, regardless of race, income, or ideology, are unwilling to accept the escalating costs—moral, physical, and economic—of America’s growing number of prisons and who commit to taking action across party lines.

Shift power and Create new leaders

Through Essie Justice Group, Gina is harnessing the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities. Through Healing to Advocacy cohorts, base building and campaigns, and community-led research, Gina facilitates healing for thousands of women, builds community power and drives social change.


Via workforce development programs and even fatherhood training, Dallas is helping non-custodial, incarcerated fathers re-engage with their families and reintegrate into their communities as active changemakers and more present fathers.


Through his “participatory defense” movement, Raj equips those most impacted by mass incarceration to participate in the defense process within courtrooms -- including working alongside public defenders and developing social biography books or videos. The result is that friends and family members of those accused can make a real difference in case outcomes and shift the balance of power in our justice system.

Who is involved in the process of changing systems is often as important as the system change itself. Rather than seeking to “serve” people, Fellows create pathways for all of us to shape the future as changemakers in our own right.
Embed policies to create lasting change

Policy advocacy has been core to Christina’s system change strategy from the start. The 2019 Freedom for Immigrants’ ‘Dignity not Detention Act’ became the first statewide legislation to halt the expansion of immigration detention in California in favor of community alternatives. Today, states from Washington to Maryland are adopting similar bills, fortifying Christina’s push for federal policy change.


In part due to her rigorous impact documentation, evidence-based approaches, and journal publications, Erica successfully passed a first-of-its-kind law in Minnesota that banned shackling mothers during childbirth and improved the treatment of pregnant incarcerated women. By leveraging the success of this bill, Erica has been able to scale her work nationally, expanding her doula network from Minnesota to Alabama, with 10 other states working to replicate her work.

Policy change is one of the most powerful levers for solutions to reach large numbers of people and become permanent. 57 percent of Fellows change a state or national policy within 5 years of their election.


Rather than protecting their intellectual property like most businesses would, systems changers are more likely to give it away and support the independent spread of their solution. In this way, they care more about growing ideas than organizations — in seeding a whole new approach rather than maintaining strict control.

At Ashoka we often refer to this as the difference between being the king of the hill and being the hill itself. Rather than capturing the market, Fellows are interested in growing or shifting the market in part because they recognize that is the only realistic way for a new solution to become mainstream and benefit all. In fact, 90% of Ashoka Fellows see their ideas independently replicated by others.

Of course, this approach comes with its own set of challenges: How do you give away what you’re doing while ensuring the integrity of what makes your approach work in the first place? Or how do you measure impact when it extends well beyond the walls of your own organization, your team, your budget?

“We’re not out to prove that what we’re doing is extraordinary. We’re out to prove that it’s ordinary — something that anyone can contribute to and lead.”

– Raj Jayadev


If there was ever a moment for systemic-level change in America and around the world, this is it — a global pandemic revealing in stark relief the inequities designed and maintained by the current world order, overlapping with a racial justice movement 400 years in the making. What do systems changing innovators need to meet the moment?


Social entrepreneurs remain chronically underfunded, each leveraging limited financial resources for outsize social impact. Christina Fialho, for instance, launched an idea with just $122,000, and 8 years later, her organization not only protects 50,000 immigrants every day she co-authored the 2019 California Bill banning private, for-profit detention facilities and prisons. In the last 10 years, $1 invested in Ashoka Fellows has unlocked $140 in additional investment, accelerating their impact. The type of funding matters. Funding relationships built on trust and sharing a common purpose means donors can grant multi-year, unrestricted funds that enable innovators like Christina to impact systems. Funders and systems changers have identified strategies that work in this report.

A network of peers

Upon election, Ashoka Fellows join the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world — for life. Changing systems is a lonely journey, and the Fellowship curated by Ashoka, built on rigor and trust, connects peers that see the world differently. It creates deep connections that nurture not just the systems changing, but also the social entrepreneurs’ well-being, with depression and burnout on the rise. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that effective change can only be achieved if the wellbeing of the change-maker is secure.


They need support in amplifying the powerful innovations so they are widely known and adopted. Amplifying their systems changing solutions enables them to gain the visibility & traction needed. It also accelerates the ability of systems changer to explore new opportunities for collective impact at a global scale.

A Fellowship Lifts All Boats

Each Ashoka Fellow joins a global network of 4,000 peers — a lifelong learning and impact community like no other.


Ashoka has been a bullhorn for our call to action — spreading our idea across the planet.

Ashoka is a homecoming for social entrepreneurs who have been homeless. There is no better community that understands the loneliness of leadership.


of Fellows credit Ashoka with refining and deepening their impact .

Ashoka is a network of individuals who don’t understand limits or boundaries – people who don’t care for the convention of the day.

I literally would not have been able to continue building this solution if I hadn’t received the stipend from Ashoka in the development years


Fellows report they collaborate with 4 other fellows on average after being elected .