A Systems Approach to Social Change: Tools for Teams that Think big

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As changemakers, we confront social problems that appear intractable. Changes in our economy and work lives, widening inequality, sub-cultures of fear and hatred, and a climate of government austerity have all led to a set of complex challenges facing our communities and a breakdown in past approaches to addressing these needs.

To support those trying to make headway in changing systems, we co-created the Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide, in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

A systems approach enables groups to think big – to better map, articulate, understand, and influence the problems we face today. It recognizes that practitioners and funders may only be able to make cosmetic changes if their interventions fail to consider the complex web of issues, relationships, and unpredictable events that their work is enmeshed within. A systems approach helps us rethink our assumptions about systems and change – and make different decisions about how we can work with others to advance justice.

Friends of the Earth, in partnership with MAG, took a systems approach in order to better understand the many forces leading to the destruction of our environment and determine what Friends of the Earth needs to do differently to influence these systems. 

One result of this work is that Friends of the Earth changed how it campaigns - they now encourage local activists to not only advocate around specific environmental reforms, but also to address wider issues of racial justice, enforcement, and the corrupting influence of big money on government. 

Systems thinking means looking at the root causes of the problem so you can minimize the chances that you will fight the same battles over and over again without really winning the war.
— Michelle Chan, Vice President of Programs, Friends of the Earth - U.S.

The Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide provides many other examples of how different networks, nonprofits, and funders use a systems approach and tools in distinct ways. 

We invite you to explore the tools, take the Systems Change Self Assessment to find out how you are integrating a systems approach in your grantmaking and change initiatives, and share what is working for you

 

Photo by A BremnerCC BY 2.0