Systems Entrepreneur: Defining the Role of Community Quarterback

A couple of years ago, Kevin Jones (curator and cofounder of SOCAP and Neighborhood Economics) coined the phrase “community quarterback” in reference to those individuals working within a local context that were pursuing systemic change within their local communities.

Throughout the years (and more specifically in the community development sector) terms such as collective impact or transformational change agents are used to describe this role.

What is attempted in each scenario is to 1) define problems as more complex than one person or organization to solve, and 2) that a coordinated and diverse strategy is necessary to realize real and lasting change. It requires working with organizations addressing the issue at the community, as well as policy, level. It can also mean changing social norms.

In the private sector, we see a similar push to define new approaches to innovation. Historically, an entrepreneur was the problem solver and developed disruptive solutions and businesses to solve these problems. Yet now, we see terms like social entrepreneur (a person that’s developed a new or innovative approach to solving a social challenge) or intrapreneur (a person that is working to solve corporate problems inside of a large corporation).

Doug Balfour (image from Geneva Global website)

Doug Balfour, CEO of Geneva Global — who previously worked as a systems engineer early in his career — has put forward, what I believe is a more appropriate definition of this critical role within communities to better describe the role of an individual or organization that can help you execute on wide-scale: a SYSTEMS ENTREPRENEUR.


According to Doug’s definition, unlike a social entrepreneur who creates a single solution that fits within the framework of a complex problem, a “systems entrepreneur is a person or organization that facilitates a change to an entire ecosystem by addressing and incorporating all the components and actors required to move the needle on a particular social issue.”

Harnessing the great results of social entrepreneurs and community change agents within collective impact to solve a problem in a more comprehensive manner is the role of a systems entrepreneur. It’s exactly where systems change thinking and systems entrepreneurs come in. It also encompasses an integrated funding model that encompasses the full spectrum of capital needs a community faces — grants, to debt, to equity.

Systems entrepreneurs want to change the entire ecosystem. To do systems-level change effectively, you need to address an issue from the bottom-up (typically change at the community level) as well as from the top-down (such as policy changes). — Doug
(from Geneva Global article Oct 2, 2016)

As we think of scaling up innovative solutions to the regional and national levels and how certain solutions in whole or in part might be replicated in different contexts, how might we better identify and support the role of a systems entrepreneur? When we look at the massive and ambitious challenges of improving health care; developing more sustainable agriculture and food systems; educating our youth; solving the massive debt crisis facing our country in student and personal debt as well as solving the historic wealth gap; we need systems entrepreneurs to play a vital role in organizing and delivery.

In this Third Wave of entrepreneurship (as described by Steve Case) that is sweeping our country (and that requires better and more intentional public and private partnerships) systems entrepreneurs will hopefully lead the charge.

What are your thoughts?

What do you think about this term: systems entrepreneur? Is it a necessary role within communities? Is it a helpful definition of a complex person or organization?

I would love to hear your thoughts!