Slowing down to speed up — what does systems change really mean for The Children’s Society?

Helen Dudzinska
On the front line of systems change


Part one:

The past two years have taken their toll on all of us. The intense and prolonged uncertainty has impacted at both an individual level and our collective experience as a society. It’s impossible to emerge from a global pandemic unscathed and as the world starts to open up it feels like an important time to take a collective deep breath, reflect on what we’ve learnt and consider how we can process what happened and move forwards.

As a children’s charity working with some of the most vulnerable young people in society, this period of reflection is crucial. We know the pandemic had a huge impact on young people, especially those already experiencing discrimination and disadvantage. Many families that were poor, got poorer, criminal and sexual exploitation numbers increased, and young people’s mental health was tested.

The Children’s Society are committed to creating a society built for all children. Through our direct work with young people we’ve learnt that delivering services face to face is not enough. As we look to the future, we know that systemic change is needed. As young people face greater life challenges, we need to lean harder into systemic approaches to create meaningful change that will impact more lives.

In 2017 our organisational strategy made an intentional move to design services and programmes that would purposely shift the focus away from the child to the systems around them. This journey was kick started in 2018 when, in partnership with Point People and funded by Lankelly Chase, The Children’s Society adapted the Systems Changers programme for use in the youth sector. You can read a short summary of our learning here.

Since then The Children’s Society has gone on to design award winning programmes such as ‘Disrupting Exploitation’, ‘Prevention’ and ‘Tackling Child Exploitation’ which have focused on improving and changing systems. Nerys Anthony explains more about the organisational journey in her brilliant blog.

Towards the end of 2020 The Children’s Society also embarked upon reviewing our organisational strategy, another opportunity to reflect, learn and establish key priorities for the future.

Destination 2030 launched October 2021 stating our vision — A society built for all children. Our goal is to overturn the damaging decline in children’s well-being by 2030, setting a path to long-lasting growth.

We know that to achieve this, we will need to be impact-driven, responsive and adapt to the changing needs of young people. The strategy renews our commitment to changing systems that simply don’t work for disadvantaged young people, addressing the systemic drivers of low wellbeing being a key priority.

With a backdrop of emerging from a pandemic, a new organisational strategy and a great foundation to build upon, it felt essential to pause and consider, ‘what now?’

There are some big questions, with no simple answers:

  • What’s next on our systems change journey?
  • What will it take to build a society for all children?
  • How do we ensure we are addressing the systemic drivers of low wellbeing?
  • What does this mean for us as an organisation?

What we do know is that we can’t achieve this vision with only certain parts of the organisation ‘doing’ systems change. We already recognise the fantastic work of our systems change programmes, and we know our policy, campaigns and research teams work tirelessly to challenge systems that are not protecting the young people we work with but what next?

Building external partnerships has and always will be key to our systems change work but this period of reflection was about looking inwards, considering the conditions we need to create as an organisation to maximise the impact we have on improving the lives of young people. We began to challenge our internal organisational narrative on systems change, asking ourselves are we really clear about what we are trying to achieve, do colleagues feel confident and supported? Through this reflection we realised we need to make systems change a more accessible topic.

The new organisational structure created two System Change Lead roles and as the people taking on this challenge

and I recognised we need to work across the organisation to ensure everyone has the skills, confidence and mind-set to think and work systemically. Everyone has a role to play in creating a society that works for all children, from our retail colleagues through to HR, and seeing the bigger picture of the way young people interact with societal structures is crucial to this.

Systems change isn’t an exclusive thing only some people can ‘do’ it’s a mindset, a way of working and viewing the world to achieve societal change. Obviously we know The Children’s Society can’t change the world alone, we are committed to working with our partners and wider society. However having a cohesive, inclusive approach to supporting colleagues to embrace systems change seems feels like a good place to start!

Phew! So now we had that small matter sorted, we asked ourselves again, ‘what now?’

We concluded we need to listen! We need to speak colleagues across all areas of work and dig beneath the surface to understand:

  • What the current understanding of systems change is,
  • The extent to which colleagues feel connected to systems change work,
  • What systems are we trying to change,
  • Identify stories of systems change that we haven’t heard,
  • What support colleagues need to further understand systems change and implement the principles within their everyday work
  • What we need as an organisation to enable us to achieve our big ambition of addressing the systemic drivers of low wellbeing to create a society built for all children.

These are the questions we sought answers to as part of or systems change listening exercise. We contacted people from across the organisation and did a shout out on our internal communications system asking if people would like to get involved. We had a great response and have now connected with over 45 colleagues. We are really looking forward to sharing our findings in the coming weeks, what we’ve heard so far is fascinating. Blog two coming soon to share more!