Five Insights from Systems Change in Action

by admin February 1, 2023

Some problems persist in our region despite the efforts of strong nonprofit organizations, faith communities, philanthropy, government, and business. 

For decades, charitable organizations like Rotary Charities of Traverse City have generally focused on addressing the symptoms of complex problems in an effort to help individuals beat the odds. In the search for alternatives, however, more and more organizations are shifting to focus on addressing the root causes of problems to change the odds for those who are most vulnerable to their consequences.

We are delighted to share a brand new publication Stories of Change: How a Systems Approach is Transforming a Region that shines a light on three local initiatives experimenting with a systems change approach—one that seems capable of supporting changemakers in addressing problems at their source to change the odds for those who are most vulnerable to their consequences. The document features the evolution of three multi-stakeholder systems change initiatives in Northwest Lower Michigan—the Northwest Coalition to End Homelessness, the Healthy Food Access Partnership, and the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region. Each selected initiative has a years-long relationship with Rotary Charities and has been using a systems change approach long enough to begin seeing shifts in the complex community problem it seeks to address. 

One of the stories featured is our own and shares our journey of turning inward to reflect on both our own ways of thinking and acting, and the practices we have adopted in the process of launching a new program area that targets the underlying causes of complex community problems. 

The publication, authored by systems change coach and storyteller Jessica Conrad, offers a unique look at what’s possible when many individuals, organizations, and initiatives adopt a shared approach to affecting positive change and align their efforts to address the upstream sources of our toughest community challenges.

Five key insights are highlighted that point to the practices that have accelerated changemakers’ progress in transforming the systems at the heart of complex community issues. These insights are for anyone—regardless of organizational context or stage in changemaking—working to change the odds in favor of communities where everyone can thrive.

The following is adapted from the full publication, Stories of Change.


1. Systems change through trusting relationships and clear roles

With a priority on bringing diverse stakeholders together to harness their collective perspective, ingenuity, and power, the four case studies show the critical importance of creating trusting spaces where changemakers from throughout a system can regularly convene. 

These spaces support people in creating authentic connections, often with unlikely partners, at both the individual and organizational levels. They allow people to feel safe to learn together about the system at the heart of their work. They also empower people to self-reflect, challenge each other’s assumptions, and communicate openly. 

Typically supported by a set of ground rules, or agreements, and strong facilitation, trusting spaces enable people to strengthen the relational foundation of their collaborative work and open up new possibilities for the future they seek to create. 

People leverage these spaces to clarify their individual and organizational roles within collective systems change work, as in the example of the Healthy Food Access Partnership story. The three groups initially struggled to build consensus around a long-term vision and to put their work in motion due to competing priorities and limited experience with collaborative decision-making. 

With external facilitation support, changemakers began practicing transparent communication and crafted a formal partnership agreement that clarified their roles, distributed power and responsibility, established methods for accountability, and supported their realignment around the shared goal of increasing access to healthy food and nutrition education for individuals experiencing food insecurity. 

The process of creating the partnership agreement, and the agreement itself, created a strong foundation for collaborative action that ultimately transformed the relationships among the three groups. This enabled the partners to move nimbly during a time of crisis and amplified their collective power to increase access to healthy foods for those who need it most.

“Relationships are at the heart of this work. It’s about connecting and establishing trust—and then testing it.” — Meghan McDermott, Deputy Director, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities

2. Systems change when we see them as completely as possible 

Given the nature of complex problems, it’s impossible for one individual or organization to have a broad enough view to address them on their own. The four case studies show that, to change systems, we need to see them as completely as possible. This means we need to collect multiple diverse perspectives and listen for the ways our own perspectives might be incomplete or wrong. 

“Systems change is really about being open to other people’s understanding of the world,” reflects Jan Delatorre, a program officer with the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and co-funder of the Healthy Food Access Partnership. “Being open to the idea that my view is not ‘the’ view. It’s just one view. An understanding of the issue at hand can be made more rich by listening to other people and putting collective ideas in motion.”
The four case studies also suggest that when we engage multiple perspectives, it becomes easier to identify and challenge our assumptions and implicit biases and better understand our own role in systems. 

“This is deep work,” says Emily Llore, the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region’s director of community health assessment and improvement planning. “You will have to change your own mindset and your actions. You will need to support others in doing the same.” 

We, as individuals, are all part of systems, and when we change, systems begin to shift. When many of us change simultaneously in alignment with a shared purpose, we can affect transformative change. 

3. Systems change when we make equitable power shifts 

Creating more equitable systems and, consequently, communities where everyone can thrive requires centering the voices of people with lived experience of complex community problems and shifting power into their hands. 

Rotary Charities and the three initiatives are learning that this means involving those most affected by the consequences of community problems in processes for both decision-making and accountability, such as evaluation and learning. “This work can’t just come from organizational staff working in their offices to identify and solve problems in their community,” asserts Sarah Eichberger, a public health nutritionist with Michigan State University Extension. “You have to make sure you take the time to ground truth everything with people who have the experience of the issue you’re focused on.” 

Every decision made by the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness (NWCEH) requires the involvement and final approval of the Youth Action Board, which is made up of youth/young adults at risk of and/or currently experiencing housing instability, to ensure that services for youth/young adults are developed with their guidance. NWCEH members also sign a charter in agreement that “lived experience is expertise” signaling their commitment to dismantling inequitable power structures that stifle the voices of youth/young adults. 

“We will always be committed to hearing from the people who experience the system and hold that above everything else.” — Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, Director, Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness 

4. Systems change when learning becomes strategy 

All four case studies reveal a mindset shift among stakeholders from regarding learning as a result of evaluating strategy to regarding learning as an essential strategy in and of itself. 

In a systems change approach, learning to learn together (and constantly) is critical. “Learning is an integral part of every phase of systems change work—getting to know partners and clarifying roles, gathering multiple perspectives and creating a shared understanding about the terrain, and learning about the effects of strategies and when to change course,” says Freya Bradford, Rotary Charities’ director of systems change and learning. Learning is a key leverage opportunity for adaptation and innovation at the individual, organizational, and system levels in the work of addressing any complex challenge.

Implementing learning as a strategy requires shared infrastructure, processes, and mindsets. Within the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region (NMCHIR), for example, the Northwest CHIR Learning Community is a space for partners across 10 counties to come together for relationship building, shared learning, and cocreation. 

In June 2022, Learning Community participants focused on creating a shared understanding of health equity and learning how to embed its principles across their shared and individual work. “It’s incredible to have a space for engaging in deep learning that participants can then cross-pollinate,” says Erin Barrett, the NMCHIR’s regional community coordinator who also facilitates the Learning Community. Participants took the equity learning back to their local communities and to other work groups within the NMCHIR. Curated resources were eventually shared with health and human service agencies across 31 counties. In this way, NMCHIR partners intentionally spread learning and good practices throughout the community system to shift the conditions that perpetuate health inequities and disparities. 

 “What you learn may not be what you expected to learn, but that doesn’t devalue it in any way. In fact, it moves us along further in tackling large issues. Learning to learn together is of huge value to our grantee partners and to us.” —  Marlene Bevan, Board Member, Rotary Charities of Traverse City

5. Systems change—bring patience 

The long game of transforming a complex system can be a challenging reality. It takes time for a diverse group of stakeholders to come together in alignment around a shared purpose, let alone to begin working together differently and working on different things to address root causes. 

The processes common to a systems change approach demand patience in a context that traditionally expects linear progress and measurable outcomes within relatively short periods. Yet funders and changemakers alike in the stories featured here seem to embody this mindset shift. 

“Be patient,” advises Rose Fosdick, who serves as coordinator of the Human Services Collaborative Body for Manistee County. “You have to go through the process together to get everyone to buy in and lay a foundation for lasting change.”

 Jeff Hickman, a Rotary Charities’ board member, agrees: “Be patient with the process. Don’t expect immediate results.” 

Eichberger adds, “These issues can’t be addressed quickly, but it’s important to acknowledge the more incremental wins, like building momentum or a successful community event.” Often, the earliest signs of a shifting system are changes in how people across the system work together, who they listen to, and how they understand the problem. 

“The intermediate outcomes of systems change work look different from what we’re used to celebrating as changemakers and funders,” acknowledges Bradford, “and we need to have the patience and insight to call those wins.”  


The three systems change initiatives featured in Stories of Change are on the path to solving complex community problems. Thanks to their collective efforts, the systems they seek to transform are showing positive signs of change, including reductions in the frequency of youth homelessness, sharp increases in the accessibility of healthy food through the emergency food system, and fewer barriers to health and health equity. 

These shifts, among others, are the result of changemakers’ perseverance in creating the conditions for change at the individual, organizational, and systems levels—and they are contributing to a more fair and thriving Northwest Lower Michigan.

“We are thrilled about the success that has come as a result of this new shared approach, and we’re leaning in, patiently, for the long game,” says Sakura Takano, Rotary Charities’ CEO. “There’s not an endpoint with systems change. It’s a way of working that we believe will allow our region to continue adapting to what lies ahead.”

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