How do we change systems?

Reflections Shared by ABSI Connect’s Network Weaver Community

Social innovators love to talk about “systems change.” That’s because they are ultimately trying to shift the root causes--the underlying rules, relationships, and behaviours--that contribute to the complex problems affecting their communities. Creating meaningful change in the face of issues like poverty, climate change, the opioid crisis, or racism requires thinking and acting at a systemic level.

But what does systems change really look like? How do we know if we’re achieving it? What conditions make it possible, and what actions or actors are most likely to have an impact? A few weeks ago, a handful of folks from ABSI Connect’s network weaver community convened online to chat about our experiences with and understanding of systems change. This topic was originally brought forward by Andrea Wall from Innovate Calgary, in response to a recent letter she read in the New York Times. The letter’s author describes how the development of ecosystems and networks for poverty reduction in Canada eventually brought about important policy changes, such as increases in minimum wage and child benefits. This led us to reflect on what we’ve observed in our own sectors or initiatives as to the role of policy vs other actions in achieving change at a systemic level.

Below, we provide a loose transcript of part of our conversation (not word-for-word or comprehensive, and any errors in capturing the group’s comments are my own). We would love to hear how the thoughts below resonate with your experiences; send us a note ( or tweet us (@absiconnect) with your reactions and reflections.

Do you consider yourself to be working on systems change? Why or why not?

  • Jessica Turowski (CMHA Alberta’s Rural Mental Health project): Yes, and I see systems change as something that results from both top-down and bottom-up activities. We can’t rely on policy alone to change systems. We can’t rely only on grassroots efforts either. I see our role (through CMHA) as actively building on the work and momentum that’s already happening in Albertan communities. We need to support work that’s being done to shift how we think and talk about mental health. Mental models matter! And we need policy changes as well.

  • Naomi Mahaffy (ABSI Connect): In my past work in international development, we rarely used the words “systems change,” but we had many discussions about the most suitable role for nonprofit and government partners in addressing complex problems. Like Jessica, I’ve seen the importance of both top-down and bottom-up efforts. Sometimes we were working in contexts where government didn’t function well or was corrupt… so there was an urgency on one hand (how do we meet unmet needs?), and a desire to engage more strategically with government on the other hand (how do we help bring about needed policy and enforcement changes to create lasting change?). The organizations I respected found ways to work with champions in government over the long term while also leveraging community leaders who were innovating and creating meaningful change in the short term.

  • Matthew Ward (Homeward Trust): In 2008, Homeward Trust was created as a system planner. This meant that some of the funding and power traditionally held by government was downloaded to a community organization. I think this change was made partly for accountability, and partly because a community organization has more freedom than government to innovate, test things out, etc. Today the system looks so different from ten years ago! But I don’t necessarily describe us as system changers. We are system planners who are trying to shift the system so it serves people more effectively.

  • Heather Laird (Government of Canada School of Public Service): I do use the term systems change. There’s a value system around stewardship within government: people want to follow and uphold rules. They work to keep things the way they are. Sometimes, governments can be insular. People can get so attached to their roles that keeping the big picture in mind becomes more difficult. I like to be able to say that in healthy organizations there are roles to create change, and that change is just as important as stewardship.

  • Matthew: Interesting! In many of my interactions with government, they use systems change as a term for self-improvement. In community, we use the term to identify how we can shift, build on, change community behaviours and systems that affect people’s lives. Systems change is more of a goal to support how we engage community, which is why the system planning language feels relevant.

  • Heather - Yes, great point. It’s important to keep our focus on the people, purpose, and mission behind why we’re creating change. Not just change for the sake of change. My mission is meta…if we could create change in how government staff view their jobs, their role, and the communities they work with, it would have huge implications for other sectors - for example, how governments might fund and partner with nonprofits.

  • Naomi: This brings to mind ecological analogy: my body is a system with sub-systems (lymphatic, nervous, etc) all interacting for different purposes to help me function well. And I function within a broader community and ecosystem. Similarly when we talk about systems and systems change in social innovation, we might sometimes focus on sub-systems within a particular organization, and sometimes on broader systems in our culture or community. It’s a matter of where we draw our boundaries. Attention to each of these systems and sub-systems is needed, and they are inter-connected.

What are some examples of systems change you would point to (in Alberta or elsewhere)? What role did policy vs. other actions play in bringing about that change?

  • Matthew: Our work at Homeward Trust, and the system we’re working within, has changed dramatically over the last ten years… to the point that we were really struggling ten years ago, and now have ten years of federal funding (almost unheard of!). Now, the community gets to decide how to spend that money and what to monitor. It’s amazing, really, to think how quickly that system changed. It was both bottom-up and top-down, with government leading at times and responding at times.

  • Naomi: What led to that responsiveness of government?

  • Matthew: Partly luck, partly the right leadership. Mayor Stephen Mandel, for example, was a huge advocate. He made housing a mandated issue and elevated it to the province. This led to the formation of Homeward Trust. Meanwhile, many community groups worked hard, set goals, and did tons of work, and the injection of a lump sum of money was a huge catalyst. So there was alignment between public attention, provincial buy-in, and federal buy-in.

  • Heather: That’s a great example of how much serendipity is involved in systems change! Meanwhile I know people in other communities who’ve been working on the same issue, but without those other factors coming together they haven’t seen the same dramatic changes.

  • Heather: Another example of systems change that comes to mind is the feminist movement. This wouldn’t have been possible without many people’s efforts over the years. Most systems change examples come about through so many different actors over a long time that it’s difficult to point to one particular person. That understanding helps to ground me; instead of getting disheartened when things aren’t moving quickly, I can think: what’s my next adjacent step? What’s the best use of my resources to help create shifts where I can, while trusting that others are also doing their part?

  • Jessica: There’s something really beneficial about no single person getting credit when it comes to major changes in our culture and systems. Women’s issues, mental health, climate change, etc… meaningful change only happens when enough people see and understand its importance and decide to play a role. So we can build up people’s efficacy and belief that their contribution makes a difference.

Do you have other resources or ideas to share related to systems change?


In the examples we reflected on, systems changed because of a mix of actors and actions that came together almost serendipitously (but would not have been possible without years or even decades of tireless changemaking work). Grassroots efforts, societal shifts, re-allocated resources, political will, policy work… these factors interact in messy and unpredictable ways to shift how our systems function.

There’s also a dark, frustrating side to working at a systems level: we’ve each experienced examples in which tireless changemaking efforts don’t seem to translate into systems change. In those cases, we can--as Heather said--look for our next adjacent step. As we work to get better at thinking and acting in systems, we can join Heather in regularly asking: “what’s the best use of my resources to help create shifts where I can, while trusting that others are also doing their part?”

How do the above experiences, insights, and resources resonate with you? Tweet us @ABSIConnect or send me a note (

This blog post was written by Naomi Mahaffy, ABSI Connect’s Facilitator. ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Contact Naomi.