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A shock to the system

In the social sector we bump up against ‘systems’ all the time. Whether it is a persistent re-offender or a young person about to leave care, individual problems are embedded in networks of cause and effect. Of course the decisions that individuals make; their capabilities, beliefs and attitudes, are of vital importance. But systems shape and constrain people’s choices and create situations they do not have the power to escape from. The way institutions behave, policy decisions, the way markets operate, and even public attitudes and norms are all implicated in social problems. Consider, for example, the homeless veteran who is not adequately prepared for discharge, who struggles to access appropriate help for a mental health problem before they are in crisis, who is not eligible for social housing in the location where the support of friends and family is available…the causes of an individual falling through the net are often multiple.

Charities do vital work in helping these individuals by dealing with the immediate needs they are presented with. But unless we also attempt to grapple with the causes we will only be mitigating the consequences of malfunctioning systems, or even providing inadvertent cover for their failure—we will not be tackling social problems at their root. The logic for a systems change approach to change is therefore strong, and it’s no surprise that it’s attracting increasing attention from a range of progressive charities, funders and sector commentators.

The problem is that whilst a systemic diagnosis of social problems is persuasive, there is a chronic shortage of practical guidance. Much of what is said and written is infuriatingly abstract, leaving people convinced of the case to take action, but ill-equipped to actually do so. Part of the issue is that changing systems is obviously challenging. Taking a systemic view of addressing poverty means looking at root causes like low-wages, taxation, and collective-bargaining—major policy issues that it is difficult to influence. Little wonder that systems change commentators struggle to point to many concrete examples of success. The inherent difficulties, compounded by the intellectualised discussion of the topic, mean that systems change is in danger of becoming the latest fad. A brief flare-up in rhetoric, but leaving no lasting impression on the effectiveness of the charity sector.

Supported by LankellyChase Foundation, we have today published a guide to systems change that aims to de-mystify the topic and help practitioners engage with it. You will have to be the judge of whether we’ve succeeded. In my four years at NPC there have been few projects that have been as challenging. Our overall conclusion is that when you attempt to extract from systems change some practical principles to guide action you end up with a very sensible list—but a list that is not unique. It has much in common with thinking from the fields of prevention, collective impact and strategic philanthropy.

It seems that thoughtful reflection on the process of achieving social change leads people to similar conclusions whatever label is placed on it—the need to collaborate, to build a learning culture, to involve beneficiaries and not to over rely on top-down leadership. And whilst these principles may not be unique to systems change, they are a helpful reminder of what is necessary to achieve genuine social change, and they are still far from the norm in our sector. Systems change thinking underlines the limits of unilateral action. It is naïve to think that we can tackle social problems alone and we must seek out all opportunities for leverage and influence. This doesn’t just mean working with other charities. It means working with funders, the public sector and the private sector. These boundaries are artificial and if we want real change we must bridge them, however uncomfortable it may feel.

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