Working in the field of social change, we are often asked what the difference is between campaigning and systems change. The two phrases are so frequently linked or interchanged one could be forgiven in thinking they are the same thing.  NPC have a rather handy guide for what systems change is and how to choose an approach to it, and on reading this, it becomes apparent why the social sector is increasingly attracted by a systemic approach:it enables them to pinpoint their distinctive contribution in a world of competition for their share of resources.   But anyone who has attempted to map their system, and their role within it, will know that the complexity that emerges makes it evident that single issue campaigning alone will not achieve deep, sustainable change.

Mend the leak?

For us, campaigning happens when the system you are looking to change needs a sharp burst of energy to change the dynamic, the flow of power, resources and people. It can be a crucial part of a broader systems change programme, or it could be a one off reaction to external circumstance. One way of looking at it could be to compare it to the problem caused by a stuck joint on a burst radiator….water everywhere, a joint that won’t move, a spanner that won’t turn it.

Whoever is fixing that radiator will have to cultivate enough energy through any means necessary to get that joint off and the leak fixed. In fact, this is a perfect analogy for the recent PIP campaign, it took collective brute force to get the spanner turned. We fixed the leak, but the system still remains.

Change the system?

Systems change however is deeper, more methodical and more personal. We have just finished working with a fantastic organisation called One25. One25 reach out to women trapped in, or vulnerable to, street sex work supporting them to break free and build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction.

The vulnerable women are trapped in multiple systems, all layered over each other. The housing system, local authority, police, the justice system, the NHS – the list goes on. One25 provides direct interventions where all these systems overlap, where women experience the sharp edges of the systems, and then use their working knowledge to lobby and influence for change across it.  However they do more than that – their values as an organisation and the kindness of their staff mean they also provide points of humanity in the complex lives of the women they work with.

Our systems workshop and One25

When they approached us, One25 had heard about systems change and were seeking to see how, if at all, they could use system change methodology to deepen their work.  The Chief Exec sensed it was an important part of what they do but was struggling to identify if, where and how they did it.

After immersing ourselves in their programmes, we ran a systems change workshop with the staff. We started with creating ‘Brenda’, a hypothetical woman who would use One25 services, and mapped out all the public, private and charitable services she would use, identifying where they overlap and the programmes they run.

After a period of time staring at this spaghetti of arrows and post-it notes the system cloud parted and we started to notice some common themes. There was no doubt that One25 operated in a very complex environment, using evidence and case histories to influence several system players to change.  However, the workshop revealed three elements which pinpointed exactly how they enabled systems change to happen. As an organisation, they knew if the stigma, safety and emotional-well being of the women were looked after at crucial points of the systems, then the lives of the women would improve. They made sure than in all their work they campaigned, influenced, lobbied to create these three elements and slowly the systems start to adjust to enable the women to exit.

Take me to your System Leader

Because the focus on a particular dimension of change is usually shaped by the specialism of the organisation has, or the cause they are campaigning for,  a hyper self-awareness is usually required. The workshop with One 25 revealed how these deep seated values were pro-actively being used by the organisation for systems change.  For anyone exploring systems change, looking to understand the role and impact of your own organisation within the system and amongst the other actors is crucial part to selecting the most impactful approach to take. This could be anything from convening, lobbying, accelerating, influencing, campaigning, programme delivery or complete disruption.  What all system change approaches will have in common is an understanding of how their work influences all actors across the system and the ability to use their insight, values and reach to change the flow of things within in. In the case of One25 it is their unique position, knowledge and insight, alongside their values and work which makes them prime system change makers.

The systems workshop enabled One25 to identify the systems in which they work, very clearly. Using this clarity, they were able to articulate where they created interventions, and see both the intended and unintended effects of their work. This has enabled them to strategize, plan and direct their work to create the best possible outcome for their clients. The workshop may not have changed what they do, but it will shape how they do it.

At some point, their existing approach may not work, and they may be required to cultivate a stronger force to change the system. At that point they may become campaigners, but nonetheless, they will be still be campaigners for a change that will impact on the system as a whole.


If you and your organisation are interested in exploring systems change and how it can enable a focused strategy – we have two subsidised workshops available in April and May 2016.

Please get in touch for more info! esther@thesocialchangeagency.org  

If you would like to support the fantastic work at One25, you can donate here http://one25.org.uk/donate/