‘Systems change’ is a term that is heard a lot in the charity sector right now, and that’s a good thing because it’s a powerful way of seeing the world. That social problems are systemic in nature feels intuitively right to anyone who’s spent time working at the sharp end of the sector. From homelessness to re-offending, these issues go beyond individual’s behaviour to the network of cause and effect in which they are embedded. Policy, politics, the economy, public attitudes, the very structure of our society. There is a long list of systemic factors that shape and constrain what people can or cannot do as individuals.
Systems thinking can help us challenge our own role as charities and funders. Raising the question are we playing the fullest possible role in making things better. A foundation that writes lots of small cheques may be spreading its largesse broadly across worthy organisations, but it is unlikely to have much effect on the conditions that underly the work they do. More controversially, a systems world view highlights the risk that civil society can provide cover for a broken system, or even make it worse. For example, by participating in dysfunctional public service markets for things like domiciliary care or probation do we simply prop up a system that is failing people? I believe the role of civil society is precisely to highlight the structural causes of social problems, and work to change them. A systems perspective can help us see that necessary change more clearly.
There is power in systems change, but it comes with a catch. It’s a language that tends towards the abstract, and one that gets cast around casually without clarity on what is meant. We can emphatically agree with each other that, for example, knife crime is a systemic problem. This doesn’t get us far unless we understand what is meant by that – is it the result of school exclusions, gang-related criminality, poverty, or the functioning of capitalism itself? It could be one or all of these factors, each demanding a very different response. And when it comes to practicalities things get vaguer still. Compelling examples of successful system change are rare, and it’s difficult to know how to reduce it to practical actions that are within our power to take.
After a few years of grappling with the topic I’m starting to get a feel for what systems change really means for charities. With this in mind, here’s my personal list of four things you can do to adopt systems change:
- De-mystify it: The topic of systems change gets less intimidating when you realise it isn’t that distinctive. It has a lot in common with strategic philanthropy, or campaigning when done well; which means you are probably have experience of doing it already. Fundamentally it is a questioning way of looking at the world; a perspective that is always enquiring into the reasons why things are as they are. There are tools, techniques, and theory associated with it, but these are secondary to a curious mindset and provide marginal benefits by comparison.
- Ask questions: This curiosity is best harnessed by asking questions of ourselves and our organisations. Do we understand the situation we’re acting on? Do we understand the impact of what we do? Do we know what we’re good at and where we need to improve? Do we know what others contribute and how we can work with them? A systems mindset means always seeking to understand ourselves and our environment better, but balancing that need to learn with the need to take action.
- Seek to influence: It’s a simple matter of scale that we must seek an impact disproportionate to our size as organisations, no matter how much funding we might have at our disposal. It follows, therefore, that if we want to change systems, we have to find ways of influencing them that goes far beyond our ability to provide solutions and services ourselves. What might we be seeking to influence? It could be the behaviour of institutions, government policy, how markets function, the law, or public attitudes, to give some obvious examples. Seeking leverage over these aspects of the system is how things get changed in a profound and sustainable way.
- Work with others: Systems change brings the limitations of unilateral action into sharp relief. Systems are complex and inter-linked and building our influence over them means working with others. And not just other social sector organisations, but with the state and private sector too. Painful though collaboration can sometimes be, if the objective is social change then it is not a distraction from the real work – it is the real work
Systems change then is a vital topic, not because it is new, and not because of the tools that come with it (a systems map can look pretty but it’s not necessary). The real power of systems change is in prompting us to question our assumptions, to question ourselves, and to question how we can play the fullest role possible in changing the world for the better.
Rob Abercrombie is Director of Programmes and Partnerships at The Royal Foundation