FundAction is about to launch a new round of grants: ‘Renew’ grants, intended to support systemic change. But what is ‘Systemic Change’? It feels like a jargon term, something developed for ‘insiders’. But even within communities, a common understanding is not necessarily shared. Within FundAction’s Facilitation Group, we’ve been having a conversation about ‘what is systemic change?’, to help us know what to say about the Renew grants.

In the first instance, I think it’s useful to say that the different grant programmes at FundAction (Resist, Rethink and Renew) were inspired by an EDGE Funders Alliance conference with a similar theme (Resist, Rethink and Restructure). In turn, EDGE Funders Alliance were inspired by their relationship with Movement Generation, a grassroots organisation in the USA. Movement Generation use the framework of the ‘Just Transition’ to guide their vision, and this inspired a diagram which was used to as a talking point for FundAction. So, a good starting point for ‘what does systemic change mean to FundAction?’ may be Movement Generation’s imaginative ideas for the world we’re trying to build.

Although they offer a global vision, this work is coming from a US perspective, and often ‘simple’ language in one context is impenetrable in another. This is one of the reason Edge Fund in the UK developed a ‘Glossary’ to explain every contentious term they use in their statements. They write that they ‘don’t want to shy away from political language, but also don’t want to exclude anyone’, and therefore they try to explain, via the Glossary, every concept that may not be an ‘everyday word’. This makes their Values Statement, which can be read as their approach to ‘systemic change’, a short but helpful statement for us all.

‘Change, not charity’ is a useful slogan when thinking about the difference between ‘systemic change’ and traditional service delivery. On their website Edge Fund reproduce the book Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change. In this, the authors give examples of the ways that charity looks at ‘binding wounds’, whereas change focussed on ‘root causes’. At FundAction, we want to think about collective action for justice, not fixing problems that allow the current system to continue.

A key point to systemic change thinking is understanding the potential to create substantial change. As such, this excellent two minute video is another way to understand what systems change means to FundAction. It’s a great (and short!) explanation of ‘leverage points’: how activists and civil society organisations must find places in the current system in which to strategically intervene for positive change. The scientist and thinker Donella Meadows (1999) called these places ‘leverage points’. Fundacion Solon in Bolivia made the video, and their website has lots of resources in Spanish too.

This is just a small selection of the types of things that were inspiring us as we discussed ‘What does systems change mean to FundAction?’ We also had some ideas to work with. Back in 2016, when the funders and activists who set up FundAction met, they developed a whole list of points on systemic change. The Facilitation Group took these points, and after good discussions (‘Does ‘decolonizing our narrative’ translate?!’), we simplified them to create the following criteria for proposals with systemic change potential:

  • Have a complex analysis of a system of oppression or exploitation that goes beyond simple “us vs. them” narratives
  • Have an analysis grounded in the lived experience of those most directly affected
  • An approach that addresses root causes / promising leverage points that have the potential to tip/change a system
  • Exposes old patterns and/or create new patterns as alternatives to the old system
  • Strive for a reframing of our narrative and imagination towards our values, especially those of equity, democracy and sustainability

As you can see, we couldn’t avoid jargon! So, we agreed that we would speak with any applicants who felt isolated by this terminology, in a personal, one-to-one conversation, to try and humanise this technical language. We also said we’d write this blog post, to help provide background. But most importantly, we said we’d get feedback from the community, so that we can understand the techniques, approaches and ideas that should be the basis of Renew grants in the future. So now the question is, ‘What does ‘Systemic Change’ mean to you?’