One of the most common pathways to systems change is to ‘scale’ a successful small-scale innovation.
The theory is simple. Social innovators develop and test a new model or practice that they think can make a positive difference (e.g., improve grade 3 reading rates, protect wetlands, reduce the racism some people encounter when trying to secure good housing). This is usually (but not always) organized as a pilot project. If the experiment is successful, they then work with funders and early adopters to expand the practice broadly enough that it can ‘change’ a system and generate widespread impact.
The video System Thinking and Evaluation, by Kylie Hutchinson, Chris Lovato and Bev Parsons is an excellent introduction to evaluating systems change. It describes how an evaluation of a hypothetical initiative to improve nutrition in a community must both ‘zoom in’ to explore the programmatic effects of the effort (e.g., improved health of program participants) and ‘zoom out’ to assess influence and change on factors in the larger systems that affect their individual health (e.g., urban design which affects levels of physical activity, the quality of industrial food production, the culture of portion sizes). The video also reminds us that deep and durable progress on complex issues depends on our ability to reshape the deeper systems that contribute to those problems in the first place.
One of my roles as ‘curator’ of the Tamarack Institute’s Evaluating Community Impact work is to track and share ideas and methodologies that community changemakers might find useful in their work.
Over the next six months, I will focus on evaluating systems change and social change. Innovators all over the world are focused on reforming or transforming systems, whether they be related to energy, child protection, ecological education, economic, social systems, or (more likely) a mix of all them.Read More
Michael Quinn Patton, evaluation expert, has argued that even the best intentioned, well-resourced evaluation processes can become, “the enemy of social innovation” if change-makers, evaluators and funders employ a traditional – rather than developmental – approach to assessment.Read More
One of the toughest challenges for social innovators and evaluators is to describe the “it” they are trying to evaluate. While they typically have a general idea of the outcome they would like to see (e.g., an end to homelessness, addressing mental health issues, a feeling of inclusion), they often struggle to lay out the pathway(s) to get there. This makes it difficult for both parties to land on questions, indicators and/or methods around which to build an evaluation design.Read More