Giving Compass' Take:

• Joelle Cook and Hallie Preskill analyze the difficulties in systems change work and offer questions to ask and approaches to take when starting.

• How do these questions shape your own giving? How can you orient your work on changing root issues?

• Learn what systems change looks like in action.

Systems change has received much attention in recent years as grant makers have increasingly set out to change underlying conditions that hold systemic challenges in place. The concept is becoming more concrete as foundations, community organizations, and collaboratives have made real change in their communities by using a systems lens. In addition, equity is increasingly recognized as essential for systems change work.

There are many approaches that one could take to effectively evaluate a systems change effort – and finding an effective approach involves:

  • Defining the system you are trying to shift;
  • Articulating a set of questions that will help you understand how change is happening within the system;
  • Determining what approaches have the capacity to surface changes and shifts in the system; and
  • Using the evaluation findings as a catalyst for learning and decision making.

Once you have a sense of the system you’re trying to affect, it’s useful to set some parameters for the evaluation. A set of questions will help you focus your inquiry, and might explore:

  • Aspects of complexity, including context, relationships, influence, and emerging patterns
  • The extent to which your effort is furthering equity in your community and how the evaluation itself can further equity
  • Conditions of systems that hold problems in place or leverage points in the system

An important distinction between evaluating systems change efforts, versus evaluating programs, is that in systems change work, outcomes rarely fall on a predictable, logically sequenced path. So that means that any evaluation tools that were developed for more predictable or stable programs aren’t the most useful for systems change efforts because they’re assuming a level of control and predictability that just isn’t there.

Systems change work is hard, messy, and unpredictable. Evaluation should be used as a tool to help you gather information, learn, and make decisions.

Read the full article about how to evaluate systems change by Joelle Cook and Hallie Preskill at FSG.