Systems Change: What is it and why does it matter?

BCF session "looks Upstream"

Systems are complex – all of us live among them, whether we see it or not. Just as the world is a web of connections, our lives touch one another's in many ways. A big problem can have many different, interconnected causes. One move that's seemingly far away can have repercussions very close to home. A policy decision in one sector can have ripple effects across society.

Banff Canmore Foundation takes a 'systems lens' approach to community-building. That means we map complex problems by understanding the dynamics of relationships, we aim to focus on the root causes of problems and we value collaboration as essential to this work. It's holistic, it's broad, it's all connected.


Courtesy of Cheryl Rose

courtesy of Cheryl Rose

Last month, BCF board and committee members and staff participated in a Systems Change Session lead by Cheryl Rose, director of the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning.

Rose is an educator, a systems strategy coach and experienced at organizational development. She was the Associate Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation & Resilience (WISIR), a McConnell Foundation Senior Fellow and a core member of the design and delivery team for the Getting To Maybe Social Innovation Residency program. She has worked with a number of Community Foundations, including Niagara Foundation, Kitchener-Waterloo Foundation and Vancouver Foundation. Cheryl mentors systems leaders and social innovators across the country and is revered for her kindness, her practical wisdom and her capacity to connect and uplift those at the front lines of change.


Here are some key learnings:


Systems are so complex. But they were created by humans, and humans have the agency to change them."

- Cheryl Rose

Systems are Everywhere

“Social systems are how we put together the key influencing threads of our communities,” Cheryl Rose says. “That includes our economy, government, culture and our values. These aren’t always explicitly written out, but we know what they are and we all collectively live by and amongst them. It helps generally define what’s ‘okay’ and what’s ‘not okay’ – what works and what doesn’t work.”

Examples could also be policies, laws and social norms. Some systems are educational or institutional or economic or cultural. A systems approach looks at how these are all interrelated and how they may be supporting good outcomes and/or causing problems. These systems were never designed explicitly to cause problems, but because context is always changing, they may be failing to adapt and thus creating unwanted outcomes.


Complex, Messy Problems

Cheryl Rose says the goal of Systems Change is to look at the root cause of “complex, messy problems” which are held in place by systems.  It’s different than tackling the impact of these problems, which is still critical, she says. But if we can’t change the system, the problem will not only persist, but it will likely grow. The cause remains; the problem remains.

A good example Rose uses is food banks. Of course, they’re essential in ensuring people in society have enough food to eat. But some may not be focused on addressing what has caused the food insecurity in the first place – that would mean looking at the systems underlying the problem.


“So much depends on asking good questions, looking for opportunities and being ready for them."

- Cheryl Rose

Constant Adaptation Can be Inefficient

With the understanding that systems are at play, and that problems are a result of systems dynamics, Rose asked the BCF group, “So how might we think about things differently?”

In a way, she said, it’s like taking a big step back before you can take a wise step forward. For example, while it’s critical to provide nourishment to those who lack food security, it’s just as critical to understand what is causing that food insecurity. Rose says constantly adapting and responding to problems as they evolve can be wasteful and redundant. It can be exhausting and exhaustive to address just the immediate needs. And it can be frustrating, because those needs may be alleviated temporarily, but they’re not really be reduced or going away.

Tackling a problem ‘upstream’, getting to its root causes, can offer greater potential for long-term change, Rose says.


Systems Change is Hard. Just Get Started.

There’s no denying that systemic change is hard and often takes time. There are no quick fixes, Rose says. The first step is to accept the role we each play in these systems and to acknowledge them.  Next, get people together to investigate what’s causing our most ‘stubborn’ problems.

“So much depends on asking good questions, looking for opportunities and being ready for them,” she says. “If you can start addressing the cause of the problem, you have a chance at transforming it.”

Rose acknowledges that it can feel overwhelming and she cautions that it’s impossible to do it all.

“It’s a trap to think you have to tackle the whole thing,” she says. “Once you can see it all, once you have the information, you can shape the next steps and ensure they’re smart and wise steps. You start from where you can have some influence. And remember, since systems are made of many interconnected pieces, any change will have a kind of ripple effect.”

The important part is to just try – to approach Systems Change with a learning mindset and focus on what is possible.


“A Community Foundation has the reputation, level of trust and relationships to get people together to talk about root causes of problems.”

- Cheryl Rose

The Unique Role of Community Foundations

Community Foundations like BCF take an intersectional look at community – that means addressing a broad spectrum of issues and thinking at a bigger, systemic level. It means wondering about what causes problems as much as supporting those who are working to manage the impacts, and gathering people to talk about the systems. It’s holding questions and feeling okay about uncertainty. Community Foundations like BCF invest much more than money – we invest knowledge and social capital to bring people together.

There are not many organizations that are able to do that in a community, Rose says.

“Usually, there are issues-focused organizations,” she says. “A Community Foundation has the reputation, level of trust and relationships to get people together to talk about root causes of problems.”

BCF exists in a place of inquiry. The goal is to dig into issues with the community (including with those who lived experience with the challenges) – to learn about a problem, understand it and then make wiser decisions about how to reduce it. BCF flows resources to those positioned to take action. That often means working with multiple groups from different places within the system.

With more than 20 years of working to make community stronger here in the Bow Valley through funding initiatives, BCF is just getting started on systems-level work. Our Strategic Plan identifies this approach as a priority. Our goal is to be investing systems-level change in each of the community priority areas we’ve identified. Watch this space for more to come!

Courtesy of Cheryl Rose
Courtesy of Cheryl Rose


This is the first in a series of articles about Systems Change practices and how they can be applied in the Bow Valley.

Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop!

Stay up to date

Join our Newsletter today