A couple of weeks ago I was in London staring at a sign on a pink boat: ‘System change, not climate change’. Along with many others, I watched Extinction Rebellion make the case for a radical transformation to tackle the climate emergency that we are facing.

As well as being the first time I’ve seen a pink boat on the streets of the capital, this was the first time I’ve heard so many people talking about systems change. Those of us working for social and environmental transformation have long used the term but there is still much confusion about what it means. As the phrase ‘system change’ enters the mainstream, here are three things we’re learning about systems change in the social sector.

More and more people are aiming to change systems

Charities and funders that I speak with are often frustrated that they find themselves dealing with the symptoms of failing systems—from county lines to educational inequality, homelessness to criminal justice. These issues are long-term, involve lots of actors, and originate from multiple factors.

A growing number of charities and funders are responding by taking a systems change approach, aiming to tackle the root causes of issues or alter underlying structures, relationships and mindsets. The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation programme targets ‘focal points’ in the system such as school safeguarding procedures or how police treat young people at the point of arrest. Save the Children is applying systems change frameworks to improving early learning outcomes for children growing up in poverty in the UK.

NPC is thinking systemically in our own work on homelessness and charities in the prison system. We are inspired by others such as Mayday Trust’s research into how the current system for people who become homeless is broken and Revolving Doors’ work to break the ‘crisis-crime cycle’ for good.

We need to turn the mirror on ourselves

We have written about the dangers of seeking to change others only without turning the mirror on ourselves. We are all part of the system. Our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships may help to uphold the current status quo—even if we are trying to change it.

Following the April demonstrations, Extinction Rebellion faced criticism that its tactics excluded people of colour and it is now taking action to address issues raised. Turning the mirror on ourselves in the charity sector means confronting the way that power dynamics, lack of diversity, or risk aversion can undermine the change that we seek. Changing ourselves is vital if we are to make progress on the issues that we care about.

Systems change is hard—we need to learn and adapt

Systems change aims to tackle deep-rooted problems, which will not be solved overnight. Complex social systems are in a constant state of flux and charities can struggle to keep up. It is vital to learn and reflect as we go, working with allies across the system and changing course as needed.

Theory of change is one tool that can provide a learning framework for systems change. The process of developing a theory of change can provide a space for reflection, test our assumptions about how we work and challenge our role in tackling issues. It can complement systems mapping techniques that help us to identify leverage points, understand connections and feedback loops, and set parameters for where to focus our efforts.

But systems change also requires a wider learning culture. This means developing reflective practice, building relationships across traditional siloes, sharing failures as well as successes, listening to others—especially those with lived experience of issues—and cultivating self-awareness. It means learning from other countries and other sectors, as NPC has been doing with our recent learning exchanges with SITRA (The Finnish Innovation Fund) and the cross-Whitehall Systems Thinking Interest Group.

None of this is easy, but we believe it’s worth it to tackle complex social problems. NPC has put systems change at the heart of our new strategy as one of four approaches that we think can help to make the world a better place for people and communities. We’re committed to learning and adapting as we go, working with others and convening people to share learning across the sector.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please contact katie.boswell@thinkNPC.org

Interested in systems change?

Attend our training on Thinking big in your theory of change on 22nd October to learn more about taking a systemic approach to theory of change.

Join us at NPC Ignites on 10th October to explore the barriers holding us back from systems change and how to overcome them across the charity sector.

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