Blog December 2019

Systems change: Exploring the new world

People today face complex problems that require bold and creative solutions at a systems level. But what does system change look like, and what role can funders play in supporting it?

For over a decade, we have supplemented our open awards at The Robertson Trust with a proactive, programmatic funding approach which aims to produce learning around the root causes of and potential solutions to challenging problems facing communities. Most recently, this work has seen us work in areas such as Criminal Justice, Improving the Life Chances of Children and Young People and Alcohol Misuse, among others.

It is through this that our interest in systems change approaches stemmed. With each problem we focused on, we recognised that many of the complexities were embedded in networks of cause and effect that couldn’t be addressed by the creation of a new service or intervention. Although many of our programmes produced learning for informing policy and practice, we became interested in what was needed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that caused systems to behave in a certain way. We saw first-hand the need for a whole-system, flexible and responsive approach and recognised the importance of building relationships with key stakeholders both in the voluntary and statutory sectors if true long-term systematic change was to be achieved.

Crucially we knew that our independence and resources placed us in a unique position to support a systems change approach. What we didn’t know, however, was what this meant in practice and how best we as a funder could support and enable these kinds of discussions.

Working with Stirling Council - an opportunity to explore

Through some early exploratory conversations with Stirling Council around developing a piece of work to support children and families in the area, we quickly realised that there was an opportunity for us to explore a more systemic and collaborative way of working together.

As opposed to discussing and then funding a project or intervention, the starting point for our work with Stirling Council was investing our collective time and resources in conversations which reflected on the nature of the system which currently supports children and families in Stirling, not just the services. This took the shape of a series of facilitated discussions over a period of six months with key officers from within the local authority exploring systems change and the implications for their work.

We were lucky to engage with officers who were keen to be reflective and learn, were not afraid to share their challenges and vulnerabilities, and who were generous with their time. We were clear from the offset that we were not bringing a pot of money to the table – but rather that we wanted to sit alongside these conversation to better understand what a process to consider systemic change within a community might look like, and what added value a funder might bring top this work (beyond the obvious “money” answer).

In establishing these boundaries and permissions at the outset, we were able to focus our conversations around relationships, roles and understanding of the “system” we were talking about.

What did we learn?

Our work over recent years has increased our understanding of the need to develop collaborative, person centred approaches which shape the system to meet the needs of people, and not the other way round. We knew that supporting this work could be a way for us to add value to systems trying to address complex problems. But what could we learn about the role of a funder working in complexity?

We learned about the importance of relationships; taking the time to establish roles and develop a shared understanding of purpose. We learned about the importance of independence, with the fact that the facilitated sessions were not ‘owned’ by any one partner being described as “crucial to success”. Perhaps most importantly, we learned about the importance of using our resources to provide a safe, neutral space that allows partners to learn and reflect in an environment that is not focused solely on delivering services.

We are pleased the full case study is now available to share and we hope that other funders in particular will find it useful and may have their own learning to contribute in future.

For The Robertson Trust, we expect work around complexity and systems to be something we spend more time on under our new strategy. We recognise that we are only at the start of building our own understanding of complex system change work and we are really excited to get alongside this conversation with others working in this space.

Download the case study

Exploring the New World: Case Study