Can A Motivated Group Of People Change The Way Markets Work For The Better?

Criterion Ventures is trying to rebrand the idea of systems change, and change a few major systems–like the rules that govern the entire economy–along the way.

Can A Motivated Group Of People Change The Way Markets Work For The Better?
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Joy Anderson is not a woman who shies away from challenges. Named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in 2011, Anderson and her organization, Criterion Ventures, are all about changing the rules of the economy to become more socially and environmentally-minded—examining how churches contribute to social change, changing the way gender is valued in investing, and most recently, attempting to build a network of leaders to change the way the systems supporting economic markets work. That last piece, dubbed Leaders Shaping Markets, may be Anderson’s most ambitious project of all.


I spoke to Anderson at SOCAP, a conference focused on impact investing.”2008 taught us that the systems that manage markets–the rules–aren’t working for us,” she says. “How do you change the rules of market systems?” Her solution: gathering a group of leaders (approximately 50 have signed on) to create a language and identity for systems change–and to brainstorm ways to actually make those changes.

As Criterion’s website explains: “While much attention has been paid to social impact efforts at the level of the enterprise, far less has been focused on systems change–the work of durably reshaping how large scale systems operate. Changing how entire systems function is also an important social change lever.” In other words, triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) companies are great, but they still work in the framework of existing markets. It’s not enough.

Criterion gathered its initial group of leaders for a meeting in May. The next one is planned for January. “We find new people everyday,” says Anderson. There is no screening process, but Criterion is amassing quite a group of philanthropists, successful entrepreneurs, and program officers. In addition to the leadership meetings, Criterion is teaming up with universities on case studies that look at how past projects have changed market systems for the better, with positive environmental and social outcomes. Ideally, the case studies will lead to a framework that shows how different practices can change market systems.

The organization is also running an Indiegogo campaign to brand systems change, because right now, most people certainly aren’t excited about it, if they even know what it is. The slogan: “We made this shit up, we can change it.” Yes, systems change hoodies are available.

Criterion is also moving full speed ahead with its other systems change initiatives. The Church As An Economic Being initiative, for example, is working with partners to have 1,000 churches invest in microbusinesses in their communities. According to Criterion, if each church makes four microloans, tens of thousands of jobs could be generated.

If this all sounds like high-level stuff that won’t create any immediate change on the ground, that’s because it is. “We’re the imagination, not the implementer,” says Anderson. But without people like Anderson to help outline the big ideas, large-scale change won’t happen.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.