Five Community-Driven Pathways for Systems Change

Posted on August 2, 2023
By Sylvia Cheuy

A group of people having a staff meeting

Front-line wisdom to make systems change happen better and more often

The predominant approach for addressing the challenges that communties wrestle with focuses on the delivery of programs that are focused on lessening the immediate symptoms of an issue. Too often, this creates band-aid solutions that may provide immediate relief but fail to address the systemic barriers that create conditions that perpetuate the issue that is being addressed.

The work of systems change focuses on identifying systemic barriers by implementing strategies and designing solutions to “shift the conditions that hold an issue in place.” Advancing systems change is an essential part of the work to achieve high-impact lasting change. However, while an emphasis on systems change is important, there is still much to learn about how do it. The fact that the majority of our paradigms, tools, practices and funding are designed to support organizationally-driven, programmatic solutions is a key contributor to what makes systems change work difficult.

The recently released paper titled Voices from the Frontlines: Community-Driven Pathways for Systems Change in Aotearoa has gathered the wisdom of those working on the front-line of community change to identify five positive and impactful pathways, each with clear direction for both practitioners and supporters, to make the work of systems change easier and more effective.

The five pathways are:

  1. Enable Systems Change Leadership – The work of systems change is neither quick nor easy. Systems change leaders need unique skills including: the ability to inspire, challenge, co-create, innovate and persevere in forging a path beyond the status quo. To enable systems change leaders they need time for reflection, self-care and mutual support from fellow changemakers.

  2. Strengthen Relationships and Working Together – Effective systems change strategies require collaboration with a diversity of sectors and perspectives to build alignment and commitment to a shared strategy and action plan. Three things that nurture working in this way are: to centre in the voice of community; to prioritize collaboration and the sharing of resources; and, to communicate regularly and well. 

  3. Address Racism, Bias and Exclusion – Systems change strategies require the engagement of a diversity of perspectives and sectors who are willing to learn from one another. This creates a richer, shared understanding of the issue that is needed to reveal new possibilities for action. Such dialogue and learning requires humility, curiosity and a commitment to acknowledge that racism, bias and exclusion have meant that we have failed to access essential wisdom that is necessary to develop effective systems change strategies. 

  4. Overcome Funding and Bureaucracy Challenges – Two major impediments to the long-term, emergent work of systems change are: navigating well-established bureaucratic power structures; and, trying to resource systems change work using funding that is short-term, contrained, and time-consuming to administer. Helpful alternatives include: collaborative, funding models; ongoing learning partnerships with funders; and the sharing of templates, tools and knowledge among those on the front-line of systems change work. 

  5. Enourage Experimentation and Amplify Transformation – Systems change work is neither quick nor easy. However, taking on this relationship-driven innovative work required to transform is less daunting with reliable support structures and an ecosystem that encourages multiple experimental approaches. Some of these “experiments” will certainly fail but will generate much-needed learning.

    Five Community-Driven Pathways for Systems Change_Webinar_Banner (1)

The identification of these five pathways is the result of a series of focused dialogues hosted by SASS (Systems-change Advocacy Support and Solidarity), a diverse and experienced group of community leaders working on the front-line of systems change in Aotearoa (New Zealand).  The wisdom that emerged through this process led to the identification of these five pathways. The members of SASS are united by a shared commitment to create a more equitable future in Aotearoa (New Zealand). This report is offered as a “gift to everyone who is passionate about creating a more equitable, inclusive, Te Tiriti-based Aotearoa” in the hope that it will help “systems change work to happen more and happen better.” 

As someone who is keen to deepen my understanding about how to contribute to systems change work, I want to say thank you. This report is a gift to the practice that extends far beyond the borders of New Zealand.


Learn more:


Collective Impact, Sylvia Cheuy, Community Change, Homepage Blog, New Zealand Aotearoa

Sylvia Cheuy

By Sylvia Cheuy

Sylvia is a Consulting Director of the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Idea Area and also supports Tamarack’s Community Engagement Idea Area. She is passionate about community change and what becomes possible when residents and various sector leaders share an aspirational vision for their future. Sylvia believes that when the assets of residents and community are recognized and connected they become powerful drivers of community change. Sylvia is an internationally recognized community-builder and trainer. Over the past five years, much of Sylvia’s work has focused on building awareness and capacity in the areas of Collective Impact and Community Engagement throughout North America.

Related Posts

Creating Community for Changemakers

Expanding Collective Impact Across the Globe

Disrupting Systems as a Field Catalyst