As part of our inquiry into what it takes to change a system, we developed and tested a three-part hypothesis as a framework for collaboration with charity and funder partners.

3 elements of systems change

Their feedback has been incredibly useful. As well as confirming our three-part hypothesis is valid, they raised a number of constructive challenges which we’re now working with them to address.

Read on for some of the things we’ve learnt while using and sharing our hypothesis for systems change.

Learning about systems – and your role in them

This element of the hypothesis involves actively interrogating your role in the system, alongside others within it.

It can help you learn what’s driving systemic issues and to build understanding about where power lies, the results and patterns a system is producing, and why – so you can shift power and create change.

Organisations we work with often want to build a deeper understanding of the system around the social issue they exist to tackle, but this approach has its own challenges:

  • Looking inwards
    Organisations that exist for social good can struggle to see the power they hold and how they themselves might be upholding or contributing to harmful systems. It’s vital to meaningfully interrogate your own role in the system you a part of.
  • Limiting understanding
    Viewing the system as, for example, the local authority or statutory services limits understanding of a place and excludes other relevant services – such as voluntary groups, community members, faith-based organisations and the police.

How do we respond to this?

We often use the Bronfenbrenner ecological systems map to bring together different perspectives on the system and to build a deeper understanding of who and what is needed to make a change.

It’s important to bring together funders, commissioners, frontline workers and service users, and to identify where they sit within the system in relation to others.  It helps everyone see the interconnectivity.

Systems mapping can help you identify any expertise that’s missing from the room – but the act of bringing people together is not the solution in itself. In order to shift sector norms, we must look closely at our own role – openly talking about it and sharing our learning with others.

Deep and active collaboration

Deep and active collaboration builds on the need to bring the whole system together around a

shared goal with empathetic, meaningful and intentional relationships, and with shared processes for listening, learning, holding information and iterating. It’s about a willingness to collectively change embedded values, structures and processes.

Systems change partnerships face a number of challenges here, including:   

  • Feeling overstretched because they’re funded to deliver in partnership but don’t have the time to build the trust and meaningful relationships that are needed to do this effectively.
  • Being able to demonstrate and articulate impact to other stakeholders (particularly funders) when so much of that impact shows up as shifts in relationships and attitudes.
  • Recognising the importance of interrogating your own role within a system – and that deep and active collaboration requires introspection and honesty about your own needs and motivations.

How do we respond to this?

This work requires time and patience – and building flexibility into the design phase of any systems change work is vital.

Our solution to learning about and evaluating  a programme that’s working towards place-based systems change measures shifts in relationships and enables tracking of long-term incremental changes.

Our researchers and learning leads go beyond ‘what happens’ to capture what is said or felt. They view more subjective reflections – such as tone of voice, communication styles and the feeling in the room – as critical evidence around the process of change.

As a researcher, engaging with a wide and diverse range of perspectives on how the system is working – through interviews, workshops and surveys – is critical to understanding, measuring and supporting deep and active collaboration.  

Changing what is heard and valued  

Reimagining what is valued can happen when there’s a change in whose voices are heard and the stories we tell about an issue. To do this, we need to change the perception of normal incentives, risk levels and resource flows.

Many of the projects we’ve worked on have focused less on ‘changing what is heard and valued’ than the other two elements of systems change.

The main avenue for changing what is heard and valued tends to be involving people with lived experience. To do that meaningfully, traditional power holders must genuinely share power.

This raises the following challenges:   

  • The voices of people with lived experience are undermined or intentionally overlooked. Perspectives and experience are all too often erased – and trust is broken as a result.
  • A programme is designed with different voices, but the monitors and measures of success don’t change – limiting the potential for the programme to change what is valued.  

How do we respond to this?

We respond to this by acknowledging the power and space we hold as a commissioned partner – and by remembering that we can influence whose insights are valued through:

  • our approach to engaging with potential commissioners
  • the way we design research, learning and evaluation methodologies
  • the way we analyse and report on findings (as set out in our Equitable Evaluation statement)

A clear articulation of what meaningful co-production and participatory research entails – and how it is often undermined – enables us to have these conversations with partners and to identify where we can’t have a useful role in supporting change.


Our inquiry into what it takes to change a system comes to an end in May. While it’s clear that systems change work isn’t easy, we’ve brought together people from various sectors and systems to explore how to work towards it.

We’re grateful to everyone who has engaged with our hypothesis and shared their experiences.

We’re inviting all practitioners, funders and researchers of systems change work to join us in on 21 May 2024 at Renaisi’s London office to hear the findings of the inquiry.

Want to find out more?

Get in touch if you’d like to try our hypothesis, discuss your systems change work, or get support to map your system.

Kezia Jackson-Harman