Connecting, Supporting, and Learning for Change: The Systems Change Community of Practice Celebrates Five Years

by freya February 28, 2024

A little over five years ago, Rotary Charities made its first Systems Change Accelerator grants with the hope of catalyzing transformational change in our region’s toughest problems like homelessness, food insecurity, childcare shortages, declining mental health, and climate change. Alongside these grants, we created a space where these new grantees could connect, share, and learn together – the Systems Change Community of Practice. This month we reflected as a group on this community’s journey, important milestones, and how the community has impacted each of us and our change work.      

Systems change leadership is hard work. Systems leaders often align interests and efforts of stakeholders from across sectors and geographies; and create structures and conditions for them to explore the root causes of issues, coordinate actions, and learn together. Transformative change takes a long time and requires sustained momentum, patience, and an ability to recognize and celebrate early signals of change. Competing interests and values can make the work fraught with conflict and complicated power dynamics. And, resources for systems change are limited, requiring radical cooperation, resourcefulness, and innovation.  

The Community of Practice (CoP) has been a space for systems leaders in the region to share these types of challenges, practice with new tools and frameworks, and support one another. Representatives from 11 different current or past grantee initiatives meet quarterly for three hours. The meetings are co-facilitated by Rotary Charities and consultant, Mimi Appel, and are structured with a mix of consistent modules. Every meeting begins with a chance to connect, usually using the seasons and nature as inspiration. In the spring we talk about what is blooming and coming alive in our work. In the fall, we discuss what we’re letting go of. Our last meeting happened to be on Valentine’s Day and we talked about the transformational power of love. Following the connection activity, meetings typically include two of the following modules: 

  • Challenges of Practice is a peer coaching conversation where participants share a challenge with a peer. The coachee shares their challenge briefly and the peer coach deeply listens, asks clarifying questions, and offers feedback based on their experience. The module allows time for both partners to act as coach and coachee. This module is consistently rated as a favorite among CoP participants for its ability to build peer coaching capacity, illuminate common challenges across issue areas, and help build a culture of mutual support.   
  • Artifacts of Practice asks participants to bring something they have used recently that has been helpful in accelerating their systems change practice for a “show and tell” in small groups. This might be a tool or process and how it was used, an agenda from a successful meeting, or a piece of a new public messaging campaign.  
  • Signs of Change uses a 1-2-4-All process to share and make sense of signals of systems change. Each participant is asked to bring two signs that they see in their system that may indicate that the system is shifting. These are usually precursors to a larger shift in a systemic factor like a policy, practice, resource flow, relationship, power dynamic, or mindset. We share the signs and then try to attach them to one more factors they might be influencing, often using sticky notes and a giant triangle (like the one shared in this FSG article). By visualizing these shifts in this way, we start to see regional patterns.  
  • Guest Contributors are invited to one to two meetings a year. These are often coaches from our Systems Change Coaching Pool who share their expertise around things like systems change storytelling, transforming conflict and tension, and evaluating change at nested levels. This often involves sharing new tools or frameworks that are added to a growing toolbox of network and systems change tools that are available to all CoP participants and coaches.    

To celebrate five years of the CoP, we conducted a story harvest where participants were asked to share reflections on how the CoP has influenced them personally and their systems change work. Participants' reflections centered on themes of finding a supportive community, building systems leadership capacity, and reinforcing the mindsets needed to sustain the complex work of systems change over time.    


Finding Community, Confidence, and Inspiration   

Participants shared that they feel a sense of belonging and solidarity among the other participants in the group. One of the group’s five working agreements relates to fostering this sense belonging. We use a welcoming ritual of sharing “offerings” with new members to help communicate that they are valued, and give some insight into the personality of the group. Regular opportunities to connect and get to know each other on a personal level and support each other through challenges have helped to grow the group into a community of mutual care. Members of the CoP are inspired by each other’s journeys as well as the new opportunities they see at the intersection between initiatives.  


Norika.pngI was new to systems change when I started participating in the CoP. I had recently started working in a backbone role for a systems change initiative and it was sometimes difficult to know what was typical and whether I was taking the right approach. At the end of my first CoP meeting, I remember feeling like I had "found my people" and there was a lot of comfort and reassurance in knowing that my experience was typical and that even with the challenges our initiative was facing, I was on the right track. Overall, this gave me confidence to lean into my role and embrace the systems change process in a way that helped me feel grounded and ready to grow. 

- Norika Kida Betti, Child Caring Now 




Sarna.pngIt was a no-brainer to explore whether there might be ways for our movement building work in organic waste diversion to amplify or add value to the work happening in food rescue since rescue is one of the key strategies for diversion. 

- Sarna Salzman, Organic Waste Diversion Initiative reflecting on the intersection with Food Rescue and the Healthy Food Access group     




Building Collective Capacity for Systems Practice 

The CoP serves as powerful amplifier of learning and innovation - a virtuous cycle of knowledge exchange and application. Members bring insights and challenges from their initiatives to the CoP, where shared experiences and collective wisdom not only offer solutions but also enrich the community's knowledge base. As participants apply these insights back in their initiatives, they generate new learnings and practices, which they then bring back to the CoP. This recursive process strengthens both individual and collective capacities for systems change.  


Mary.pngI forwarded the Systems Change Evaluation & Learning Canvas to a sub-group of people who are making presentations about food insecurity in our region. It was the perfect rubric to evaluate what messaging they should be focusing on to deliver the best information to address food insecurity. 

- Mary Clulo, Healthy Food Access  




Robin.pngThe overview of Factors in Systems Change…has continued to transform how I think about and approach the natural tensions and opportunities that exist in my work. I even have the handout within eyesight at my desk to support me in continuing to think about and navigate the polarities that naturally exist and could be potential leverage points in my work. 

- Robin Hornkohl, Child Caring Now 




Shifting Mindsets 

Within the CoP, members organically discover and strengthen the mindsets and behaviors that enable systems change.  Through sharing their own stories, artifacts, and challenges, the CoP reinforces shifts from conventional approaches to changemaking towards more holistic, inclusive, and adaptive approaches to systems change, encouraging members to think and act in ways that are deeply attuned to the complexities of the systems they seek to change. This realization of the importance of a “systemic mindset” grew into a tool that was developed by an ad hoc group in the CoP’s first year and is still in use today, Habits of a Systemic Mindset.    


Woody.pngAs a data person, I tend to be focused on the outcome and activity measures and not on the other indicators that show that the system and its participants are building capacity – gaining more confidence, more trust in each other, more willingness to take on experiments that will improve the way the system functions. Being involved in the CoP has caused me to seek out, affirm and celebrate those other important changes in our network – changes which I think are helping to strengthen our network partners in their resolve to carry on with this complex work. 

-Woody Smith, Child Caring  Now 



Jon.pngOne moment has had a transformational impact on the way I think about my work and the entire nonprofit sector… Ashley said that it took a dedicated champion and advocate for people experiencing homelessness…This person had experienced homelessness themselves, and their inclusion added an entirely new dimension to the Coalition's knowledge and decision-making. 

- Jon Throop, Benzie Conservation District 




As we look back on the five-year milestone of the Systems Change Community of Practice, it's worth celebrating that the CoP has not only fostered a supportive community of changemakers but has also amplified our collective capacity to drive meaningful transformation. Through shared challenges, successes, and the collective wisdom of this space, the CoP has become an example of the power of connection, learning, and mutual support in navigating the complexities of systems change. Looking ahead, we are inspired by the potential for even greater impact as we continue to grow and deepen our practice together. 

For more information on how members of this community are transforming our region, check out three case studies in our recent publication Stories of Change: How a Systems Change Approach is Transforming a Region

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