Report review: Systems Change – a guide to what it is and how to do it

| Helen Sharp

Published byNew Philanthropy Capital

Author – Ellen Harries, Rachel Wharton and Rob Abercrombie

Date of publication – June 2015

I want to understand systems change. This is based on my growing impatience with an unkind system which often resists the brave new collaborative world but at its worse, entirely sabotages it. It’s time to think big and this report has been an excellent introduction to what could seem an overwhelming and unruly ally.

“Systems change literature is concrete and compelling when making a case for it but can be vague about how to achieve it.”

Understandably, there are various approaches to systems change with many debates and little consensus, but New Philanthropy Capital have pulled all of these together, drawing out their similarities and themes to provide you with a clear set of principles which should be considered when you’re attempting to change a system. It could be a minefield, but I found this report reassuring in its critique of the process; there are some key points which I’d like to highlight:

  • How you define the boundaries of the system can be very significant and these can differ, depending on people’s perspectives (page 10).
  • Beware the underlying dynamics of a system and the unintentional consequences that might occur somewhere else (page 29).
  • That learning, reflecting and adapting are major and recurrent themes to systems change.
  • It explores some of the myths and assumptions we draw on to keep systems in the status quo (page 42).
  • The conclusions and learning are usefully broken down into sections for charities, funders and the public sector (page 42).

After reading this, I know which practice of systems change I would align to and overall, New Philanthropy Capital recommend taking a collaborative and reflective approach, one which involves all stakeholders including citizens and one which pushes and challenges the boundaries and assumptions we hold so dear. It chimes so clearly with the ‘new way of thinking’ – now I feel more able to try it out.

“There is an ongoing need to shine a light on dysfunctional systems which fail to address social problems or actively make them worse.”

Click here to read the report in full.

Photo by Clint Adair

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