Systems change: what it is and how to do it

Blog written for London Funders by Rachel Wharton (Researcher, New Philanthropy Capital) and Alice Evans (Director – Systems Change, LankellyChase Foundation)

Systems change: what it is and how to do it

What is systems change?
Systems change is about 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.

Why is it important?
Unless we attempt to deal with the causes of social problems, we will only be mitigating the consequences of malfunctioning systems, or even providing inadvertent cover for their failure—we will not create the change we want to see. Systems change is not the only way of addressing social problems, but it provides a helpful way of understanding them and evaluating them, and sets out principles for achieving change.

How do you do it?
This is a tough question! There are many different ways of approaching it depending on who you are, what place you hold in the system, the type of power you have, and the issue you are responding to. The guide to systems change from NPC, supported by LankellyChase Foundation, aims to demystify the term and approach and offers six key principles to follow:

It has much in common with thinking from the fields of prevention, collective impact and strategic philanthropy—there is a need to collaborate, to build a learning culture, to involve beneficiaries and not to over rely on top-down leadership.

What does this report mean for funders?
The systems change guide was published around the same time as a very readable strategy for systems change from the Finance Innovation Lab and the report by Collaborate, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Big Lottery on Supporting Social Change: a new funding ecology. These suggest a growing desire for different methodologies and approaches to address some of society’s stubborn issues—a desire to articulate the need for a change that goes beyond case by case approaches, beyond organisational boundaries and beyond the sticking plaster.

At LankellyChase this report, alongside other learning, tells us that we need to build relationships with public sector commissioners and that we need to be led by the voice of people with lived experience, as well as those in the voluntary and statutory sectors. This takes our organisation into uncharted territory—it is causing us to ask ourselves if our traditional grant-making process is truly fit for purpose when viewed through the scale of the challenge we face (and it feels this question applies to other funders and to commissioners in public services too). The answer for us is probably no. But in turn this raises further questions for us—namely what does a different way of working look like? It is leading us down the path of focusing on place and how we use our independent resources to support areas to think through their responses to severe and multiple disadvantage. 

But it doesn’t stop there. NPC’s guide contains recommendations for all funders. We are all players in changing the system. And it asks us to reflect on how we act:

  • Are we as open as we claim to be?
  • Are we as courageous as we ask others to be?
  • Do we bear as much risk as we ask grantees to hold?
  • Are we as humble as we should be?
  • Are we sharing power?
  • Are we sharing learning as much we should?

For us at LankellyChase, the answer to each of these questions is that we are trying hard, but could do much better. It is our hope that this report encourages all independent funders and public sector commissioners to consider these questions and how ‘systems thinking’ can help tackle some of the challenges we all are grappling with.

A blog written for London Funders by:
Alice Evans, Director – Systems Change, LankellyChase Foundation
Rachel Wharton, Researcher, New Philanthropy Capital