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Systems Change: Why Our Best Idea Is So Hard to Explain


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“Systems change” isn’t just for the wonks anymore. It’s the aquarium taking on the systems that threaten marine life. It’s the food bank that’s not just feeding people, but taking on the broken food system behind pervasive hunger. And it’s every organization, staff member, and donor learning the difference between a racist uncle and the broader structures, policies, and institutions that harm Black people en masse.

In every area of the nonprofit sector, organizations are moving beyond narrow, individualized charity to more sophisticated and systemic theories of change that tackle the root causes of our most pressing problems.

The work of systems change is bold, lasting, and more aligned with principles of community-centric fundraising that doesn’t see donors as heroes, but actors in a system we all play a role in. It’s the difference between trying to do more every year and trying to put ourselves out of business.

But let’s be honest—systems change is hard to talk about.

If you’ve ever been stuck in a donor meeting attempting to effortlessly breeze through your 10-point theory of change, or tried to summarize the interconnected problems in your city’s education system in a brief newsletter update, you feel me.

Systems change may be good for the cause, but as it pushes nonprofits toward deeper issues and more complex solutions, it asks a lot more of us as nonprofit communicators. Specifically, it poses a few major challenges:

The role of storytelling.

We know that emotions drive giving decisions and that stories work better than statistics to engage donors’ emotions—so we embrace the gospel of storytelling in fundraising. Yet systems change work asks us to shift our focus from the individual to the systemic level. It’s easier to tell the story of an individual working her way out of poverty than to capture the multi-generational story of all the factors that combined to put her there in the first place.

Hard to measure impact.

Donors also want to see impact, usually in the form of measurable outcomes. It’s much easier to measure and envision the number of students who graduated college or the units of housing built than it is to show how you’re transforming a whole system like education or housing. It’s hard to point to the problems you’ve prevented, and complex systemic interventions often take years to bear fruit.

Jargon aplenty.

Systems change work often brings in experts from multiple fields, and they all add their own specialized technical language to the mix. Finding a shared language between experts, activists, communities, and donors is hard, which is why we end up with vague sentences like “we pursue an integrated approach to aggregated problems that will foster equitable solutions at scaled impact.” What?

It can backfire.

As the Communications Network points out in a recent piece on this issue, systems language risks making donors feel that solutions are out of reach all together. It is much easier (and perhaps makes a donor feel better) to sponsor an artist-in-residence at a theater than address the broad issue of lack of access to the arts in public schools.

In their research on homelessness, Frameworks Institute found that an effort to emphasize the systemic nature of the issue led many to view it as inevitable rather than a problem that the nonprofit sector can solve.

But the power of systems change work is well worth the communications hurdles it presents. So how do you get through to donors and bring them along?

Tell individual stories that illuminate a larger system.

Strategically identify stories that don’t only appeal emotionally, but demonstrate some kind of system failure or solution (and remember to do so responsibly).

And as you do it, don’t rely exclusively on stories of people whose unbridled resiliency helps them overcome hardship. This can reinforce the “bootstrap” mentality that it is up to each person to overcome adversity rather than a collective and equitable system that can afford them the opportunity to do so.

Balance inspiring stories of individual resilience (I got through college even while I had to work two jobs) with stories of people who faced the barriers of systemic failure (I couldn’t go to college even though I’m smart and talented because I didn’t have money), as well as examples of systemic solutions (the role of affordable community college).

Avoid overreliance on a single narrative.

No one individual story can accurately represent a system in all its complexity. Instead, consider creating a bank of stories that can be shared individually or together, leveraging the power of storytelling to paint a broader and more nuanced picture of systemic issues.

For IGNITE, a nonprofit focused on supporting young women in politics, we complemented a brochure that breaks down the broader barriers to women in politics with a series of profiles of young women of different races and class backgrounds, from different states, and with different political ideologies to show how these systemic issues play out in practice and what a solution looks like for real people on the ground.

Use graphics and metaphors to bring complex ideas to life.

Sometimes interconnected problems are easier to draw than to narrate. For example, use graphics to show how factors like poverty, racism, development pressure, and gentrification all contribute to an issue like affordable housing.

Or (as Frameworks Institute suggests) use a guiding metaphor to animate a concept with visual or sensory language that donors can see and feel. Is your systemic issue a headwind working against every individual? A crack in the foundation of your city? A weight that every child carries with them until we remove it? Look to the writers on your team who can bring the system to life.

Expect to educate donors.

While some donors are already on the systems change bandwagon, don’t expect that everyone understands how it works or why it’s a good investment—some may even feel that the lack of immediate outcomes is a drawback. For those new to the concept, start with specific examples of what systems change looks like and why the lasting impact matters.

Focus on tangible solutions.

Knowing that systems change may be discouraging for donors who don’t see a pathway out of such deeply rooted problems, make sure not to lose sight of what solutions exist. Your vision may be bold, but the road to get there can be focused, measured, and tangible.

Community foundations have a leg up here since they are naturally poised to take the broad, systems view—so we can take a cue from those organizations who have been at systems change work awhile and have learned how to define and measure it. While transformation may be the end goal, focus on measurable systems wins like:

  • Policy measures: “We advocated for laws that made it legally harder to criminalize poverty.”
  • Broad population change: “Our state has a 15% increase in low-income college graduates.”
  • Narrative shifts: “More people in our community understand that investment in early childhood has a lasting effect on society.”

Make sure it passes the conversation test.

From formal A/B testing for a broad audience to informal focus groups with your closest donors, take every opportunity to make sure you’re getting feedback on what’s making systems change click and what people stumble over.

While some jargon is probably inevitable, don’t be too attached to every word in your strategic plan or theory of change. There’s no reason you need to call it systems change if it means nothing to donors—it could be as simple as “we’re not just making sure people aren’t hungry today, but preventing hunger in the first place.”

We’re glad that a systems change approach is here to stay because it will shape a better, healthier, more equitable society we sorely need. But to make it work, we have to make it meaningful and accessible for all the stakeholders and donors we hope will join us.

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Anna Goren
About Anna Goren Anna offers balanced and collaborative solutions to complex communications challenges in the nonprofit sector, where she shares a passion for her clients’ missions and is motivated by...
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