The gift of funding systems change: sticking with it and learning from others


Increasingly, foundations are showing an interest in systems change work as a means of achieving greater impact when tackling intractable issues. In our new report ‘Funding for systems change: The story of Barrow Cadbury Trust’s Transition to Adulthood Campaign’, IVAR and Barrow Cadbury Trust explore the conditions needed for this model of working.

In this blog, Ben Cairns, Director at IVAR and Sara Llewellin, Chief Executive at Barrow Cadbury Trust, offer their reflections for others to sense check whether they have – or even want to develop – those conditions.


Telling the story of Transition to Adulthood (T2A) – BCT’s collaborative criminal justice campaign making the case to policy makers, practitioners and sentencers for a distinct approach for young adults (18 to 25-year-olds) – presented an opportunity to press pause, and do a deep dive. It also felt like a good fit with our wider work on facilitating shifts towards more open and trusting grant-making.

As researchers, the story makes a compelling case for funders to be active in systems change. It might be different and difficult, but the gains can be profound and significant. But there is also much that may alarm those interested. The field expertise required to work in this way; the uncertainty and unpredictability around success; the open-ended nature of the commitment; the complexity of the collaboration – most or all of these are a far cry from traditional grant programmes.

It reminds us that systems change isn’t for the faint-hearted, for people in a hurry, or for people who prefer order and certainty of outcome. It’s messy, it’s erratic, and you’re never really sure what’s just around the corner.”

Our intention, though, is not just to deter or discourage. Trusts and foundations – with their wealth of assets and their independence – are uniquely placed to support systems change. They have the money, the time, and the patience. They can afford to take risks, to shift power, to disrupt. To play a leading role, like BCT, or to be a patient cheerleader. All of these choices – to do it well and thoroughly – are in their gift.


At Barrow Cadbury Trust we see ourselves as actors in civil society, not just supporters of it. We are rooted in the social justice values of Quakerism, although of all faiths and none. We work purposefully to tackle the root causes as well as manifestations of injustice, alongside coalitions and ecologies of others who share our desire for change.

However, working like this demands a number of conditions which are significantly different to those which many foundations can provide.  By setting them out here we hope they will prove useful to others either considering or embarking on this kind of work for the first time. 

The most important of these is a long time horizon: real systemic or structural change takes many different hands working together over a long period.”

Rest assured, we do not think that this is the ‘right’ or the ‘better’ way. It’s a way and it’s our way but there are many ways to assist changemakers and this is just one of them. What matters is that we each do deliberately and consistently what we can do best.

This is a joint blog being co-hosted on the Barrow Cadbury Trust and IVAR websites.

You may also be interested in:

Funding for systems change: The story of Barrow Cadbury Trust’s Transition to Adulthood Campaign
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Bringing trust-based learning to life: four actions for funders

Steps for more effective social change

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Collaborative working in complexity

Helping it go well

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