How to get started in systems change

Published: 3 June 2019

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash
A method to kick-start your approach, ask the right questions and ensure you have all your bases covered. 

Systems change” is the social sector buzzword of our time. It intuitively makes a lot of sense – many of us working in this sector see the need to transform the issues we are working on. We recognise that often the problems and answers lie beyond the programme we are running. However, it is hard to work out where to start in dealing with the tangle of the system”.

Break it down

Through our work over the past five years, we’ve observed that in order to transform issues you need to work at the top, middle and bottom. What does that mean?

  • The bottom – the heart of this work is delivering long-term improvement for people living with the issue. To do this effectively you really need to understand the issue, what it means for people living with it and those working on the frontline. 
  • The top – you also need to understand the environment in which you work. The policy environment, how the funding flows, the accountability structures and the barriers to change in the system.

  • The middle – it is helpful to understand either why the needs of those living with the issue are not being reflected in the policy and funding environment; or, why policy and funding streams that have been structured to meet a social need are not driving the change they hoped for. 

Is there infrastructure missing? Do people have the same knowledge and understanding of the issue?

We’ve worked in a number of sectors where we’ve seen that the change people are aiming for is blocked by not working at one or more of these levels. Below are some examples.

Example issue: Black Mental Health inequalities

We started working with a range of partners on the issue of black mental health inequalities in 2014. However, this is an issue that has persisted for decades. In 2002 the report Breaking the Circles of Fear emphasised the lack of trust between black communities and the mental health system. Over a decade later, the 2014 Lambeth Black Health and Wellbeing commission echoed similar concerns. We wanted to understand why the change many people had been working towards wasn’t happening. 

It wasn’t due to lack of attention or programmes. Previous local interventions have shown success for some users, but had been unable to create an impact in the system. National system-wide initiatives like the 2005 Delivering Race Equality (DRE)[1] weren’t able to enact and embed a joined-up response. 

Both types of response were rooted in working at one level rather than equally engaging with, and spanning, both the grassroots and policy environment. As a collaborative we felt that a new response was needed with equal ownership from communities and public services. This led to the creation of Black Thrive. 

Example issue: Community Sponsorship uptake

In our work to support community-led refugee resettlement (known in the UK as Community Sponsorship’), we found a huge community energy to support refugee families often emanating from faith groups and through community organising networks. There was also a positive policy environment with legislation in 2016 to enable community groups to take the lead on resettlement. Despite the desire for change from both communities and government, community sponsorship was still nascent. 

What was missing was the middle” infrastructure – to enable community groups to learn how to work with vulnerable refugee groups and to navigate the Home Office approval processes. A partnership from the refugee, faith and community sector helped to establish Reset – a new charity working to catalyse the growth of community sponsorship.

Ask the right questions

We are constantly reminded in our work of the need to work across all three levels. But where do you start? It’s paralysing to feel that you need to start everywhere at once. 

What we look to do is understand the barriers for change and opportunities at each level by asking the right questions. 


  • How do people living with the issue define success?
  • What are the challenges that people living with the issue face today?
  • What are the problems front line workers would like to solve?
  • How do individual local contexts affect the experience of those living with the issue?


  • What are the sector dynamics? How do people work together? What are the relationships between actors all working to achieve the same mission?
  • What are the information flows? How much information flows between people experiencing the issues and those delivering support, funding or making policy? Does the picture that emerges from the data tally with the bottom up view?
  • What are the practical challenges that people face in delivering their mission? 


  • How does the money currently flow to address this issue? Who are the funders? How much funding is there? What are the constraints put on it?
  • What is the current policy environment? 
  • What has been learnt from previous policy initiatives?
  • What credence or influence does the existing evidence base hold with those with power? 

The answers to these questions lie in a diverse research and engagement process – really listening to those living in communities and affected by the issues we are working on, reviewing past and present policy papers, engaging with those working on the issue from the voluntary and statutory sectors. We use the answers to these questions to help us identify where to start. We may start at just one level, but we’d continue to engage and observe what is occurring at the other levels as we go and consider how to build responses that can play into the other levels. 

We’ve found that this is a great way to kick off an approach that works on all three levels as we go through the process of change – we hope you do too.

Latest blogs and videos

Stay up to date

Sign up to our mailing list for regular updates.

We'll keep your data secure and won't share it outside of Social Finance, ever. For more details read our privacy policy.