Advocating for Understanding and Investment into Systemic Change

Recent years have seen the concept of systemic change as a means of creating greater social impact becoming more mainstream, joining social entrepreneurship and impact investment in the cache of the sector. It has seen advocacy from a range of major players within the social sector, not least Ashoka, arguably the longest-standing supporter of investing in changing systems over simply funding programmes to plug gaps, however there remains a long way to go in shifting more funding, support and acknowledgement towards the preventative end of the spectrum.

Much of the lack of enthusiasm comes from the current financial and political market currently affecting the western world, with the major economies only just starting to emerge from the 2008 financial crash, and the frightening rise of right wing popularist political figures and agendas.  Funders shy away from risk, buoyed by a influx of talent from the private sector, intent on the measurement and quantifying of every piece of social impact going.

While this focus on measuring impact has been a powerful tool in ensuring money is well spent, we learn from our mistakes and all within the sector are making more informed decisions, it has also come with its downsides. One of these has been a fostering of data-driven relationships between funders and implementers, removing the previous trust-based relationships of old, and support for systemic change investments has been one of the key casualties of this change in dynamic.

The advent of a focus on outcomes, as opposed to the traditional output measurement, has been welcome in fostering a more open discourse around how change happens. However, the foisting of traditional practices within funding and evaluation on systemic change threatens to derail it, diminish its ambitions and remould it into something unrecognisable for the comfort of others.

Systemic change is, by its very nature, a new way of doing things, a new approach to an old problem, unashamedly ambitious and by no means guaranteed to work. It does not have three years of impact statistics, partly because it’s untested and partly because measuring systemic change is incredibly challenging, it has not been supported by the great and the good of the philanthropic world and there is no evidence-base that it will work.

However, while an evidence base might be hard to come by, it can be supported by a number of other powerful resources:

1.       A strong understanding of the dynamics of the system, the players, the barriers, key stakeholders etc.

2.       Articulated paths to change, including levers, assumptions.

3.       Acknowledgement of the potential political, economic and social changes that could affect these paths.

4.       A theory of change.

5.       A commitment to iteration and adaptation based on the situation.

These are not the norm for the vast majority of funders and practitioners within the social sector. Unsurprisingly, attempts to change external systems requires the changing of our own internal systems and thought processes. It needs commitment to risk, in partnership with people, who armed with the above, have every chance of altering an ecosystem beyond recognition and creating genuine change, acknowledgement that it will not be easy and the path will change and it needs genuine learning partnerships to be established, not simply annual reporting schedules with pre-determined output and outcome metrics.