Helena Neave

Helena Neave

Former Private Client Advisory Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Systems change: how can donors support it effectively?

Homelessness, climate change, inequality, crime: many of today’s societal issues are so complex and on such a scale that they cannot be resolved by any one perspective, organisation, sector or even government.

Instead, trying to address the root causes by looking at how our society is structured, truly understanding the complexity of an issue and its contributing factors, and trialling approaches to alter the system could be the way forward. That’s where systems change comes in.

But why should donors support this approach? Some argue that philanthropy should be society’s risk capital, used to tackle systemic issues for which short-term political cycles fail to create sufficient incentive to repond. Yet, because the full benefits of systems change work are rarely seen for many years, the impact is often not very tangible, which can serve as a deterrent to some donors.

However, many funders and private donors are increasingly aware that creating real and lasting change takes more than just grants and endowments and that they need to work together to have an impact.

Following our recent webinar on systems change, we explore the ways in which donors can support this approach effectively. Our discussion was led by Louise Armstrong, Designer and Facilitator of the Investor in Change Learning Programme at the School of System Change, and Danielle Walker Palmour, Director at Friends Provident Foundation, and was moderated by Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Charities Aid Foundation.

When might systems change be a good idea?

While systems change thinking certainly encompasses direct action, policy changes and tangible interventions, it’s about seeing these activities within the wider context and working collaboratively on a multi-pronged approach.

Not all problems lend themselves to systems change work; some have obvious solutions. But if the issue has complex, interconnected contributing factors and you’re looking to go beyond incremental change and organisational boundaries to effect long-term change or address a root cause, a systems change approach may be a good idea.

“In some ways it's like changing a lens and recognising the complexity but also realising what you're focusing on may or may not be the right bit,” explains Danielle Walker Palmour.

She offered the example of domestic violence, where the focus is on removing women from abusive contexts. Of course, that’s a vital intervention, but if you change the lens, maybe the question needs to be ‘why doesn't the perpetrator stop?’. This lens change highlights that the problem might not have been solved; the perpetrator may continue to be violent in another domestic situation.

It's unlikely that any single organisation can deal with both sides of that issue. So, as a funder, it’s important to perceive both those lenses to understand the complexity of the situation, and the key drivers behind it, in order to get any closer to resolving the issue.


How can you incorporate systems change thinking into your giving strategy?

When thinking about systems change within your granting strategy, it’s important to adopt the mindset of not just wanting to engineer change, but embracing the context or reframing the problem.

Some approaches donors could take include financing learning programmes, encouraging collaboration among systems change leaders, or investing in leaders with visions of better systems rather than providing project-based funding.

Another aspect to consider is the restrictions on your funding. Dealing with a multi-faceted issue requires a degree of flexibility to change approach where required and sufficient time to see changes take shape. Restrictions on either the purpose or timeframe of funds can infringe on the scale or length of systems change work, and thus its effectiveness. And yet, 87% of systems change leaders surveyed by Marketlinks in 2020 reported they had to adapt their initiatives to comply with funder requirements, while 43% had to make major changes. One of the most powerful things donors can do is give grantees the freedom and flexibility to carry out their work without having to make compromises.

What kind of questions should donors think about when using this approach?

Louise Armstrong pointed out that when starting to think about systems change, it’s important to expand from where you currently are. What’s happening behind the scenes that’s causing these issues?

“Ask yourself what are the different flows of information, resources or knowledge that are happening in that context? What do the relationships look like? Who’s organising whom? Who's connected and who isn't? How are we seeing and framing the world? What are the mindsets and assumptions that lie behind the actions and interventions that we're making?” advises Louise.

Are your current grantee organisations truly considering the whole picture? If not, start to look for those that are or try to encourage a more systemic approach by considering the aforementioned questions.

“While it might feel big and intimidating, there are lots of different processes to help groups think through these different approaches. You don’t have to make it up from scratch,” advises Louise.


How can donors find the right organisations to work with?

As an individual donor, finding the right organisation that aligns with your values and is doing the work you want to see can be quite a task.

The first step is to identify which organisations are working in the particular field you’re interested in. Are they viewing the issue within the wider context and recognising the complexity of contributing factors? Are they collaborating with others to gain different perspectives and fill knowledge or skills gaps?

Take time to understand their perspectives, ambitions, strengths and challenges and where they might need funding support.

Pay attention too to the track record of organisations that you’d potentially like to fund and whether they have one of affecting change in their area and have respect and influence in that space. While hard, it is important to do what you can to understand the difference that a particular organisation made to solving an issue, as opposed to benefitting from broader societal trends or the work of others.

How can donors encourage collaboration between organisations?

No organisation is big enough to solve some of the complex problems facing our world today, which is why collaborating for a joined-up, long-term approach is a key part of systems change work. Look for organisations that are actively collaborating with others, whether that’s being part of a scenario planning group or actively working with others on a particular project or issue.

If you already have grantees that are doing great work but could benefit from other perspectives or skillsets, encouraging them to collaborate with other groups working in the same area by funding sharing and learning sessions or other opportunities to bring systems change leaders together could be a highly impactful approach.

How can donors draw on support from governments?

The power and resources that lie with governments should not be overlooked when it comes to affecting profound systemic change. A government’s involvement with its permissions, incentives, resources and leadership is invaluable. There are many changes that simply cannot be made without government intervention.

Are the organisations you are supporting working with government, even indirectly, to make progress or at least get their voices heard? If not, are there avenues you could explore to encourage communication with government, even at a local level, for organisations that don’t have access to levers of power?

Another approach could be to identify where there is government support for an issue and identify any funding gaps where you may be able to finance other innovations outside this narrow area.

Working directly with governments as a funder can also be a powerful approach. In our recent interview with Jamie Cooper, Chair and President of Big Win Philanthropy, she explains how working directly with governments can have a much wider impact than working with NGOs alone. “It allows a degree of scale, impact and sustainability that is otherwise unachievable. Something that starts small can soon become regional or even national. If governments are involved in the development of projects, they are more likely to take responsibility for their long-term operation and funding, making them more sustainable, too.”

How do you define success when using a systems change approach?

Given the long-term nature of systems change, measuring success is a constantly evolving process and learning journey.

It’s something that Danielle and her team at Friends Provident Foundation revisit constantly, looking at which activities are the most impactful and how they best direct resources. Keeping your theory of change at the forefront and scenario planning are helpful tools when reassessing your direction.

While difficult, it must be understood how much change has been directly engineered by a certain organisation and not just by wider trends in society or the work of others.

Key takeaways:

Support the right organisations
Find organisations that are embracing the systems-thinking mindset of viewing the wider picture, understanding the full context and using a multi-pronged, long-term approach.

Avoid restricted funding
Go beyond grants with restrictions on time and parameters and with excessive monitoring to give organisations the freedom for trials, the space for failure and the time to adapt their strategies.

Champion collaboration
Align yourself with organisations that actively collaborate with others or focus your funds on collaborative work or projects between organisations.

Engage government
Explore avenues to encourage communication, even indirectly, with government or find channels to work directly with government bodies to draw on their influence.

Think long-term
The benefits of systems change may only be felt in five, ten, or even twenty years’ time, so prepare for long-term engagement as a funder and be realistic and patient with timelines, goals and ambitions as they evolve along the way.

Further Reading List

Listen to the webinar recording: