Submitted by Russ Campbell, Communications Officer, Burroughs Wellcome Fund

Russ Writes:
These words are slowly killing me…

Tony Responds:
“Systems” have achieved a status in philanthropy very near that of a Holy Grail. I mean that in at least two senses. The first is that “systems,” like the Grail in days of yore, are spoken of in the sort of lofty and worshipful tones befitting the quest for a sacred trophy.

When you hear a foundation or nonprofit group speak of some struggling field of social endeavor, sooner or later you’re bound to hear a wistful prayer that somehow, someone could assemble a “system” around this line of work — a desire that is as deeply felt as it is mystically hard to define. Everyone knows that the desired object must be inexpressibly wonderful, but few people have any clear idea what it looks like.

The second sense in which systems are like the Grail is they are nearly always elusive. Look where you will, you may see a shimmer of something that distantly suggests the Great Thing you seek, but the closer you get, the faster it fades. In fact, much like the Grail itself, a true system (at least the kind imagined in the Social Science story-books) is something whose actual existence is a matter of empirical doubt. Firsthand sightings, as with the Grail, have been rare and of suspect authenticity. (Consider the supposedly great systems to which other fields are enviously held up: a health-care “system” in which the payers, payees, and beneficiaries are in open war with one another, or the school “system,” whose failings are the subject of constant, mutual recrimination among its governors, employees, parents, and middle managers.)

Among the social reformers, the adjectives “systemic” and “systematic” are just a grammatical variation on this theme: modifiers formed from the same vapor as “systems.” When nonprofits promise their funders that they will pursue some goal “systematically,” they seem to be evoking a keenly planned assault on multiple fronts, defeating some problem by harnessing all the elements of a putative “system” to bring about a harmonious solution. (In this common use, “systematic” and “comprehensive” often travel together.) What they are actually promising, most of the time, is just diligence and persistence — virtues, to be sure, but nothing quite so marvelous as the shimmering adjective suggests. When foundations trumpet a “systematic” approach to some intractable problem, they usually mean merely that they will try to spend their money carefully and thoughtfully (rather than just throwing it around, the way other foundations do?). Again, that’s reassuring, but not exactly life-altering.

The problem with “systems,” “systematic,” and “systemic” is not just that they are ubiquitous and therefore tiresome (though that is certainly true and growing truer as every year goes by). The problem is that these words seem to say something complicated and important, but it’s impossible to tell what that great thought might be. Even if someone is using these words to mean something specific, well thought-out, original, and genuinely important, a reader could be forgiven for overlooking or doubting that fact. After so many false sightings, people are entitled to a little skepticism any time an armored horseman arrives claiming to have located the Holy Grail.

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