Becoming a facilitator for long-term social change

Since 2013, the H&M Foundation has worked to improve the lives of marginalized groups. We have funded many bilateral projects with one partner organisation focusing on one thematic area with clear, measurable results. And the outcome has been amazing with improved lives for millions of people across the world. It has been a safe way to work. But now, that needs to change.

Indian woman.

The traditional way of working funding bilateral projects with one partner, one theme and a set of clear goals has shown to be too simplistic if we want to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. As a donor, we need to use our role better and stop asking our partners for siloed interventions. Social challenges don’t exist in silos but in complex systems, and the solutions must mirror that.

Because, what’s the point of building toilets and providing clean water in schools, if the children are malnourished, there are no teachers and the girls need to help with family needs at home? It’s an illustrative example, but paints the picture of what we are trying to change. Working towards systems change entails inviting all actors – from communities and authorities to businesses and development agencies. It requires working to address taboos, social norms and cultural beliefs. It requires solid cooperation. And it requires patience since results won’t come fast, but when they start to show, they are long-term from the ground up.

Inventing next practise together

To create inclusive societies for all, failing established systems need to radically change. But systems change is too complex for any actor to tackle alone – it requires broad cross-sector collaboration. So instead of looking for best practise in siloes, we have started working in ecosystems to invent the next practice together. But gathering a group of diverse individuals, organizations, businesses, and academia to work towards a mutual goal is easier said than done.

Non-Governmental Organisations are traditionally competitors; they often compete for the same pool of funds and attention, or to have their reports and insights acknowledged in the same forums. However, it’s donors like us who have created this competitive environment. Therefore, the change must start with us – we need to start asking for something else, fund differently and take active part in facilitating cross-sector collaborations.

And this is what we have started to do.

Learning as we go

Working with systems change is like a chess board, every move rearranges the playing field, and there are no clear road maps for the best way ahead. We prototype together, try, fail, learn, and try again until solutions with the power to make a difference can be shared and scaled.

To succeed, we need a clear framework to make sure we achieve the best results possible. There are several ways to do this, and we have chosen to trial the Collective Impact Approach (CI) method. It’s a highly structured collaborative model where a diverse group of actors come together in partnerships to solve complex social challenges.

With this method, we move away from being a traditional donor and become a facilitator catalysing change and creating a platform for collaboration and partnerships.

All actors partnering up in a CI Approach project must agree to:

  • Define a common agenda – collectively define the problem and create a shared vision to solve it.
  • Establish shared measurement – track progress in the same way allowing for continuous improvement.
  • Foster mutually reinforcing activities – coordinating collective efforts to maximise the end result.
  • Encourage continuous communication
  • Have a strong backbone – a team dedicated to orchestrating the work of the group.

Changing mindsets

The key in this method is the neutral backbone organisation that steers and drives the project and its logistical and administrative details forward. Donors, however, may be reluctant to pay for this type of infrastructure as it will not necessarily yield fast results. A change of mindset is needed.

Funders, like us, need to fundamentally change how we see our role. It’s no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single organisation or to build their capacity. Instead, we must have the patience to stay with an initiative for years, accepting that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time.

Changing our strategy and working with the CI method is a risk. But we are willing to take this risk and invest in the setup because we believe it has the potential to create a real paradigm shift.

Donors needing to step up

We are now testing the CI Approach in pilots in India and Bangladesh, bringing in a multitude of actors to apply a holistic approach to solve development challenges where they exist.

Systems change is complex, will not show quick results and isn’t easy to measure. But we believe that in the long run, this will prove itself to be the most cost-efficient and impactful approach to create inclusive societies for all, and our best bet to reach the 2030 goals.

As a donor, we can move the needle and enable holistic systems change – if we ask for it. We must dare to invest in complex projects and take on a more long-term perspective, be unconventional and innovative. And we need to do it now.

Related projects

See all our projects in Our Work.