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Barriers to systems change: What we’re hearing from the sector

By Rose Anderson 21 February 2020 6 minute read

The term ‘systems change’ is attracting more and more attention, and for good reason. People across the social sector are recognising the importance of systems thinking to address the root causes of social problems and to achieve long-term, lasting change. Yet those attempting to make systems change a reality may have their efforts blocked by various obstacles. What does it all mean for the people on the frontline who are trying to ‘do’ systems change?

At NPC Ignites 2019, we had conversations with charities and funders around what barriers they faced when ‘doing’ systems change and how they might overcome them. Here are three problems people have said can stop systems change from happening:

People find systems change hard to define

The phrase ‘systems change’ can feel like a somewhat nebulous concept to frontline staff, especially when there is higher-level disagreement over what counts as a ‘system’ and what the boundaries of systems change are. A good starting point is asking yourself, what’s within your power and your ability to change?

The language of service change and systems change could also be alienating to some funders and commissioners. It’s assumed that they generally prefer to fund tangible projects, and hence may perceive systems change efforts as a diversion of funds. It helps if funders are a bit more willing to take a risk with long-term funding. Fortunately, there are foundations out there, such as Lankelly Chase, who are interested in making systems work better.

Greater awareness of what people mean by ‘systems change’ is essential not just for funders, but for charities themselves. Our guide clarifies what the words ‘system’ and ‘systems change’ mean and highlights effective practices in this area.

There is an important distinction to note, however. When it comes to the question, ‘what even is systems change?’ getting an answer and gaining knowledge are vital. But when it comes to the questions, ‘how does one do systems change?’ and ‘what works?’ we’ll have to learn to be comfortable with a bit more ambiguity. We don’t have all the answers—not even here at NPC! And that’s a good thing. That gives us space to experiment, to try new things, to realise that any one of the suggestions before us could be the right one. If you’re not shackled to one way of seeing a problem, you leave room for diversity of thought, and you’re open to suggestions that might otherwise have been missed.

People don’t feel systems change is possible

Even after gaining knowledge of what systems change actually is, frontline charity workers face a stumbling block—or rather, two closely-related stumbling blocks. The first is the belief that systems change isn’t possible. A key reason for this belief is people lacking confidence—being big on skills but (seemingly) small on support.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that if there isn’t any evidence of success, then no-one will attempt systems change, but then if no-one attempts it, there won’t be any new evidence of its success, so no-one will want to try it … it’s a vicious circle. The best way to break the circle is by being willing to ‘work in the open.’ This means having a go at systems change and then sharing your learning and resources with others. Becky Elton of Changing Lives explained in an NPC guest blog that it’s okay to change course if something isn’t working. Being honest about both the good and the bad will do much to increase the general body of knowledge around systems change and make sure that charities don’t all make the same mistakes.

What might also help boost frontline workers’ confidence is greater awareness of systems change that is happening right now. We could inspire each other by shining a light on organisations and people who are already revolutionising the systems they work in.

An example of this is the Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation programme, which focuses on changing the policies, procedures, contexts and cultures around children who are vulnerable to child criminal exploitation. Police custody emerged as a key opportunity for child exploitation to be identified and disrupted, so the Children’s Society worked with Met Detention to train over 1000 detention staff to develop new responses for when children come into custody.

Of course, every charity is different and faces different challenges, but it’s good to be reminded that it can be done because it has been done.

The second, less obvious but no less important, factor is the lack of desire to meddle with the system. People might actually love the system as it is, leading to resistance to change anything about it.

Charities seeking to change systems need to think about how to overcome this attachment to the status quo. This means understanding the motivations of different system actors: for example, commissioners want to make good decisions and charities can help them with this. Frontline charities are in a unique position to see and express how the behaviours of people and agencies are affecting the beneficiaries they work with and can use this perspective to influence change across the system.

Getting started with systems change is challenging

Systems change requires time, space and energy, but not everyone feels they have enough of it to do the work. We’ve been warned that frontline staff in particular are said to be ‘time-poor’ with no space for reflection. Their enthusiasm and optimism is vital for the successful delivery of project work, so it’s important to resolve this.

Workers might need to reframe how they see their time, and charities should perhaps create new systems change opportunities that match people’s appetites—effectively making time and space. Such a solution is multi-layered, considering both internal attitude and external possibilities.

Charities have pointed out to us that leadership may be an issue as well. Leaders might claim to think differently but still urge their workers to carry on as normal. This might have something to do with the fact that systems change is often about challenging the power dynamics, structures and perceptions that reinforce the way things are. Are people in power ready to be aware of their privilege?

An understanding of power and privilege is crucial. Where does power sit in a system? Who is best able to act to change the status quo—and why don’t they? How can we, as charities, enable more people to have the freedom to redesign the systems they belong to? Engaging minds is vital for change upstream.

Additionally, we’ve heard from charities that the balancing act between short-term and long-term change needs to be handled with care. Concentrating solely on meeting immediate needs, and ignoring systems entirely, is unwise. But so is trying to address systems and ignoring immediate needs entirely. It’s a good idea to collaborate with or complement others—so, for example, if you want to begin a sustained campaign to tackle the root causes of homelessness, you could team up with a charity that’s helping homeless people find accommodation in the here and now.

In fact, partnerships with others are necessary for systems change. You can’t just work in a bubble; you have to be aware of what others are doing. The closer frontline workers get to the root cause, the more likely it is that more than one organisation will need to address it. If you feel like you’re competing with others for funding, it’s tempting to talk up your own work and make comparisons with others. However, it’s important to remember ‘we are all part of the system.’ Building positive relationships with other charities is a great way to share knowledge and ensure your impact will be significant.


The point of this was not to depress you with a list of barriers, but to inspire you with potential solutions. Systems change is a worthy venture; that’s why awareness of these three broad challenges is so vital. Those working in charities, especially on the frontline, can make a start by trying to understand what it is they’re trying to achieve, and welcoming the idea of collaboration to help overcome any issues along the way.

Come to our seminar on Systems change at the frontline on 29th April, part of our Leading Impact series, where we will be carrying on this conversation. You will get a chance to see more real examples of systems change and discuss what’s needed to embed systems change approaches.