A foundational approach to systems change: A snapshot

Systems change. To some the word comes with a promise. A chance to create a bigger, deeper lasting impact. A shakeup, a change in the status quo. A fundamental reshuffle. To others, the idea is fraught with confusion. What is it? What does it even mean? And how do you do it?

Despite the growth of the field of social innovation over the past decade, many innovations have not had the large-scale impact or influence that they need. There is often an assumption that supporting social innovation will lead to systems change. However there is not always a natural progression. Large-scale power dynamics often remain unaltered. And just because one intervention works, that doesn’t mean it impacts, influences and changes the other actors in the system.

As our social challenges become deeper, many are increasingly looking to the field of systems thinking and systems change for answers. Systems change is defined as ‘addressing the root causes of social problems, which are often intractable and embedded in networks of cause and effect. It is an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that cause the system to behave in a certain way.[1]

There are a group of funders across the world that are interested in contributing to changing a bigger system, rather than just with individual projects or organisations.

So what does this look like in practice? And how do funders communicate what they’re doing? At SIX we are conscious that systems change could become just a new fad, so we explored these questions in depth with 22 foundations from across the world during a recent retreat on Wasan Island in September 2016. The retreat was part of our Funders Node work, which connects foundations all over the world that are supporting social innovation. The following examples provide a snapshot into how some of foundations we are working with are approaching the complexity of systems change across the world.

1. Lankelly Chase, UK – Focus on learning

Lankelly Chase’s approach is based on guiding principles that systems produce outcomes, not individuals or organisations, and that everyone is right, but only partially. They see everyone as part of an interconnected whole and believe that power should be shared and equality of voice actively promoted. 

They understand that navigating complex systems is difficult, particularly for those facing multiple and severe disadvantage.  By recognising that the system is as much about the people as the mechanics and infrastructure, they prioritise people at all levels and ensure that multiple voices are heard. 
They work with their partners, either through grants, commissions or other partnerships, by walking along side them in their journey of change. Alice Evans, Director of Systems Change, spends the majority of her week either speaking with or meeting the people they support to work through new obstacles and challenges. It’s no longer about monitoring and evaluation, but learning. Partners increasingly understand that they are entering into a relationship, one built on trust and mutual accountability to achieve a bigger impact. 

2. Robert Bosch Stiftung- Building a network

For the Robert Bosch Stiftung, one of the largest private foundations in Germany, it’s all about a supportive network. Their approach to systems change stems from a belief that it’s much easier to work within a network – it means they can access different parts of the system and key players more easily.

Markus Lux, Director Strategic Development and Deputy Head of Department International Understanding – Europe and its Neighbours, is developing this network and digitalising 52 years of contacts. The network is broad, consisting of former grantees, student fellows, loose connections or anyone else who feels connected to the foundation. Affecting social and systematic change is much easier if you have connections, whether that’s someone in the German Foreign Ministry, a journalist in Russia or a hospital in Stuttgart. The digitalisation of this alumni network will enable changemakers to be able to more quickly connect and support each other to advance change not only in Germany, but also across the world.  

3. Robert Wood Johnson, UK – Broadening definitions
In its mission to improve the health and health care of all Americans, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation realised that it needed to expand its efforts beyond the doctor’s office and address the social and environmental factors—such as early childhood development, education, housing, jobs, and the built environment—that influence people’s health. In 2013, RWJF unveiled a bold vision for a Culture of Health in America, where good health is a fundamental value, guiding decisions from what food to eat to how to design towns and cities. RWJF envisions that, when this “Culture of Health” is realized, healthy living will be part of everyday life and everyone in America—no matter who they are, how much they earn or where they live—will have the opportunity to pursue good health and wellness. RWJF knows that creating this culture will take time and require unprecedented collaboration from all sectors and systems.

As RWJF works together with others to build a Culture of Health, it is taking inspiration from communities around the US and the world that are taking a more comprehensive approach to health–from cities who are offering ‘veggie prescriptions’ that are vouchers for fresh produce for those that are food insecure, to neighbourhoods that are organizing Peace Walks with police officers and residents calling for an end to violence, to employers who are offering longer synchronised breaks in the workplace to encourage more group exercise.

4. Big Lottery Fund, UK – Understanding the systems

The Big Lottery Fund is supporting systems change in particular across their Strategic Programmes or multi-agency partnerships led by social sector organisations aimed at investing more in prevention in order to shift the dial on some of society’s most pressing social issues. The Fund is committed to supporting practitioners involved in these partnerships to be able to share their stories in terms of what is working or what’s hard about systems change. The Fund – due to its approach of putting people in the lead – is also very interested in supporting any mapping work around the funding ecology in relation to systems change, in particular to better understand who is backing and to what extent, investment in systems change leadership development as well as empowering practitioners alongside people with lived experience within communities to identify and define what they want and need for the future, regardless of sector and funder involvement.

5. Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland – Influencing at all levels

As part of their objective to reach communities that haven’t been reached by traditional grant making, Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland influences at all levels. As Stephanie Rose, Investments and Communities Manager at the Foundation said ‘we continually talk about wanting to empower communities and then as soon they find a voice, they’re squashed by the structures in place.’

The Foundation has therefore adopted a multi-pronged approach to change these structures and help create the conditions for empowered communities. At a community level, they are enabling communities to have a voice. This means understanding what the community wants to change and exploring what is within their control to change. At an operational level, the foundation works with a variety of people who can advise on the delivery of the programme and help build a supportive network at different levels and sectors across Scotland. And at a strategic level, they work with those who either have been involved or are currently working in high positions of power. This has included former Permanent Secretaries and the Chief Medical Officer shine a light on the macro power relations and to understand the systematic blocks to creating change.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Funders Node or connecting with these foundations to deepen your own impact in relation to systems change, get in touch with us.

[1] Evans, A.; Wharton, R. ‘Systems change: what it is and how to do it’. Web blog post. London Funders: http://londonfunders.org.uk/systems-change-what-it-and-how-do-it.