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How to Create Positive Outcomes Through Transformative Systems Change

As a social-good leader, you strive each and every day to tackle social needs and create meaningful impact in the lives of the most vulnerable members of your community. Whether you deliver groceries to families facing food insecurity, deliver educational resources to those left behind by local school systems, or provide workforce development services to those often overlooked, you make the lives of everyday people better. Addressing immediate needs is a critical part of creating social impact, but it is only part of the equation for creating lasting social change.

Many of the needs and social issues you address exist because of failures of communities, systems, and governments to either prevent or meet those very needs. Solving challenges such as food insecurity involves more than just providing access to nutritious food, it requires traveling upstream to identify and solve the root causes of why individuals and families lack meaningful access to nutritious food.

Systems Change

This approach is known as systems change and it involves the complex and sometimes overwhelming process of identifying the root causes of society problems and then making the necessary changes to solve them. Just as there is never just one cause of a complex social challenge, there is always more than one approach to systems change. Though the strategies are nearly endless, they can be broken down into three main categories.

Incremental Change

Incremental changes are small improvements that you create by working within existing rules and systems. For example, you may find that necessary resources to address a specific need already exist but are being underutilized or inefficiently managed. You could create incremental changes by expanding awareness of the resources or improving program management.


To reform means to alter something to make it better. Reform-based systems change involves taking existing systems and modifying them in ways that provide long-term and equitable social change. These reforms could include approaches such as simplifying enrollment processes, expanding program delivery methods, or adding additional services to an already existing program.


Transformation is more than just reform to an existing system, it is a complete change from one state to another. Creating transformative systems change requires social innovation, or the process of finding new and creative solutions to pressing social challenges. Developing these innovative solutions often requires tearing down barriers and overhauling ineffective strategies and programs to create something better.

Transformative systems change has the most potential for solving complex challenges that have been created by generations of ineffective or inequitable systems. But it is also the most difficult to accomplish because it requires extensive collaboration between a diverse group of stakeholders that includes government, social-good, private sector, philanthropic, and community resources.

Collective Impact

Because of the cooperation needed to create transformative systems change, one potential strategy is employing the collaborative model known as “collective impact.” The Stanford Social Innovation Review introduced the idea of collective impact in 2011, and it has steadily grown in popularity since. Collective impact is a structured approach to collaboration across government, business, philanthropy, nonprofits, and citizens in order to address complex social problems. This approach brings together like-minded participants through a formal system that includes shared measurement tools, mutually reinforced activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organization.

Systems-Change Advocacy, Support, and Solidarity

One group working to develop and expand opportunities for systems change is the New Zealand based organization, Systems-change Advocacy, Support and Solidarity (SASS). SASS was founded by a diverse group of community and social-good leaders who bring together their experience and wisdom to create community-led, collaborative solutions to systemic problems such as poverty, domestic violence, and food insecurity. According to SASS, “Systems Change is too big and complex to do alone - it requires working together. And that means all of us - communities, Systems Change initiatives, funders, government, media and passionate individuals.”

As part of their approach, SASS advocates for putting people at the center of every effort to create systems change. Meaningful change requires listening to and involving the individuals who are more affected by the needed changes. Success should also be measured by how the changes create positive long-term outcomes in the lives of individuals.

SASS’s model also includes an outline of five pathways to creating impactful systems change.

  • Enable Systems Change Leadership

  • Strengthen Relationships and Working Together

  • Address Racism, Bias and Exclusion

  • Overcome Funding and Bureaucracy Challenges

  • Encourage Experimentation and Amplify Transformation

Centralized Technology Infrastructure

Systems change, especially efforts including collaboration, require the infrastructure to power the initiative. Part of this infrastructure must include a technology platform that allows stakeholders to collect and store information that provides insight into the outcomes created by both individual organizations and the initiative as a whole. It is impossible to understand the success, or failure, of a systems change initiative without the tools necessary to measure and communicate impact.

SureImpact is a purpose-built impact management platform that is designed for social-good providers by social-good providers. SureImpact provides the data collection and impact reporting infrastructure to meet the unique needs of social-good organizations as they work to create the systems change required to drive innovative solutions to complex social challenges. SureImpact’s simple and collaborative case management and outcome tracking tools are designed to help nonprofits manage, measure, and communicate their social impact while also increasing data capacity for their team members and supporting a high-performing culture.

Watch About SureImpact to learn more.


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