Some problems persist in our region despite the efforts of strong nonprofit organizations, faith communities, philanthropy, government, and business. They are problems like homelessness, food insecurity, childcare shortages, declining mental health, climate change, and biodiversity loss. They are complex and intertwined and affect us all and our ability to thrive.
For decades, charitable organizations like ours have generally focused on addressing the symptoms of problems like those above 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.
For us, it means supporting cross-sector collaboration aimed at addressing the upstream conditions that create complex community problems. We’ve been on a journey with our community in Northwest Lower Michigan since 2014 to adopt this way of working: a systems change approach.
One of the stories featured here 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. More importantly, three additional stories of change feature regional initiatives resolved to address youth/young adult homelessness, food insecurity, and barriers to health and health equity using a systems change approach.
Stories of Change 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. Full of actionable insights, the case studies are an informative example of purpose-driven collaboration and a source of hope in an unpredictable, fast-changing world.
Rotary Charities of Traverse City is not alone in wondering why traditional practices for changemaking simply don’t seem capable of transforming the conditions that hold Northwest Lower Michigan’s most pressing community problems in place. Stories of Change shines a light on the many individuals, organizations, and initiatives who are responding to the question by 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.
This document contains all four case studies, three featuring the evolution of 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—and a fourth sharing the story of how Rotary Charities of Traverse City itself came to support systems change work. 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.
Beyond sharing these stories to empower new forms of changemaking locally, we are delighted to contribute our collective learning to the broader field of systems change. Despite its growing popularity, a systems approach can be difficult to make sense of, let alone apply—even for those of us who are deeply engaged in the work. There seems to be a critical gap between the amount of innovative work underway in the field, and the number of available stories of systems change in action. We hope to help bridge that gap and meet the needs of practitioners who are looking for examples of people putting theory into practice.
Discover more about how a systems change approach is being applied in northwest lower Michigan through the voices of 14 people who are deep in the work. This 8-minute video shares their unique perspectives on what a systems approach is, what it takes, and the promise they think holds for the region.
The four case studies are rooted in a place that spans multiple counties in Northwest Lower Michigan. The people, organizations, and initiatives—and the relationships among them—that bring these stories to life cannot be separated from the history, geography, and culture of the region. Place-based systems change work honors this important context and leverages the relationships, shared experiences, and values nurtured by a common place.
These stories of change are for community members, changemakers, organizations, multi-stakeholder initiatives, funders, and other social sector institutions who see the opportunity of this time to explore systems change as a pathway for addressing our most pressing social and environmental challenges.
They are for those who seek stories of impactful changemaking in action and pragmatic reflection on what purpose-driven collaboration requires.
Stories of Change is for anyone who seeks renewed hope in our ability to change the odds in favor of communities where everyone can thrive.
Driven by a vision of a more adaptive and thriving Northwest Lower Michigan, Rotary Charities of Traverse City is a committed partner to changemakers working to address complex problems and create community assets for all.
This story documents Rotary Charities’ evolution as a place-based funder. It is the story of how the organization’s strong desire for greater impact on the region’s toughest community challenges inspired a search for promising alternatives to traditional practices—a search that set off a transformation within its culture and grantmaking and ultimately led it to formally adopt a systems change approach.
Transparent about the challenges and opportunities that Rotary Charities encountered along the way, this story shares the organization’s journey from charity to changemaker.
Over the last five years, the Northwest Food Coalition, Goodwill Northern Michigan’s Food Rescue, and Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities have progressively moved into deeper partnership to strengthen the emergency food system in Northwest Lower Michigan.
United by a shared commitment to addressing local food insecurity, the three groups work together to create greater access to healthy food for more than 70,000 individuals at risk of food insecurity across five counties—a region twice the size of Rhode Island.
Since 2016, the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness (NWCEH) has been working to prevent and end the persistent challenge of youth/ young adult homelessness through a coordinated community approach.
This story of change shares how NWCEH members and their partners are working together in new ways to bring an end to youth/young adult homelessness and to interrupt the cycle of chronic homelessness that begins for many at an early age.
Since 2016, the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region (NMCHIR) has been working to improve health outcomes and health equity for residents living in Northern Lower Michigan. Today, more than 160 cross-sector partner organizations work in coordination across a 31-county service area to improve the social determinants of health.
Together, partners draw on systems change approaches not just to break out of silos, but also to build the collaborative capacity required for creating a shared understanding of the broader community system and for aligning their strategies to shift the conditions that perpetuate health inequities and disparities.
On January 26, 2023, over 230 changemakers and community members gathered at the Traverse City Opera House to hear the stories captured in Stories of Change. Watch the video below to feel the energy of the event!
Five key insights emerged across the four case studies featured in Stories of Change 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.
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 and building relationships, 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.
Given the complex nature of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 want to thank storyteller Jessica Conrad for expertly leading this project. Jessica handled each story with care and dedication—careful with its complexity, shared language, and multiple perspectives. Her process embodied values like patience, relationship building and trust, clear communication and roles, and inclusivity, reflecting a deep grounding in systems practice.
Jessica currently supports purpose-driven people and organizations in a consulting capacity with research and writing, coaching, facilitation, and custom offerings in the realms of leadership, storytelling and communications, organizational learning and development, and program design. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We want to thank everyone who contributed to in many ways Stories of Change, including:
Sally Bancroft of Bancroft Graphics for designing the report.
Tina Allen, Maureen Clore, Tara DeGroot, Ari Elaine, David Van Horn, and Ashley Halladay-Schmandt representing the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness.
Christina Barkel, Mary Clulo, Jan Delatorre, Meghan McDermott, Taylor Moore, Val Stone, Sammye Stroh, Lisa Tanner, Kris Thomas, and Anneke Wegman representing the Healthy Food Access Partnership.
Erin Barrett, Sarah Eichberger, Rose Fosdick, Sara Johnson, Emily Llore, Paula Martin, Jenifer Murray, and Jane Sundmacher representing the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region.
As well as, Lorraine Beers, Marlene Bevan, Freya Bradford, Becky Ewing, Kristin Hettich, Jeff Hickman, Kendra Luta, Greg Luyt, Homer Nye, Miriam Owsley, Marsha Smith, and Sakura Takano representing Rotary Charities of Traverse City.
We would like to express our sincere gratitude to you all for your time, for sharing your perspectives and experiences with systems change—and, most importantly, for your critical contributions to the work of creating an adaptive and thriving Northwest Lower Michigan.
Freya Bradford, FBradford@rotarycharities.org
Director of Systems Change & Learning, Rotary Charities of Traverse City
Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, Ashley@endhomelessnessnmi.org
Director, Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness
Emily Llore, E.Llore@nwhealth.org
Director of Community Health Assessment and Improvement Planning, Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region
Taylor Moore, TaylorM@goodwillnmi.org
Manager, Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan