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Bringing a Systems Change Lens to the Community Sector

A Reflection by Annika Voltan, Executive Director of Inspiring Communities

About a week into our collective social isolation journey I got a phone call from a colleague wondering if I was interested in helping to develop and implement an idea conceptualized by the provincial Department of Business. Essentially, the question was whether we could find a way to both help restaurants in rural communities keep their doors open, and get food to school students who no longer had access to food through the breakfast program – potentially using a technology solution to help the coordination. Like so many during this time, I jumped at the chance to help the emergency response efforts. 

Less than 3 weeks later, the first meals were served on Good Friday in three pilot communities in Cape Breton. By the end of June, the initiative, casually coined “Food for Thought”, will have delivered over 35,000 meals to 11 communities across the province. There’s no way it would have happened without the involvement of a wide range of partners including Student Taxi (an Antigonish-based company that led the operations of the program), Click2Order (the online ordering system), local restaurants, and school staff, along with many others. This initiative has been an incredible testament to what’s possible when people come together around a common purpose, work collaboratively, and put our most vulnerable at the center. Given the typical silos of government, the fact that it was triggered and supported by the Department of Business is notable, as is the subsequent partnership with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. While it may not be a financially sustainable solution for the long-term, there are many lessons for the community sector from this case study that can inform thinking about how to enter the post-COVID rebuilding and recovery phases. 

Systems Change and the Community Sector 

There’s a lot of jargon out there these days when it comes to ideas for how we can solve the complex, “wicked” problems we’re facing. One phrase that gets tossed around a lot is “systems change” – but what does it really mean?

At its heart, systems change is about addressing the root causes of social problems that are held in place by patterns and behaviours, creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to escape. Actions aim to fundamentally change the parts and structures of systems that hold behaviours in place. It’s critical to consider how systems exist at multiple levels of society, and to make sure that problems aren’t examined in isolation. For example, food insecurity can’t be addressed without considering education and health, but are often treated separately.     

A 2019 survey (https://www.csc-ns.ca/state-of-the-sector-report/) revealed that the community sector in Nova Scotia is made up of about 6000 not-for-profit non-government organizations and social enterprises aiming to provide a range of social, cultural and environmental services. COVID-19 has shed light on the importance of the sector for meeting the needs of our most vulnerable. And yet, organizations face many struggles – most notably, lack of access to secure funding. Concerns also exist around attracting talent (due in part to funding challenges) and succession planning for leaders. About 32% do not have a written strategic plan, making their long-term survival questionable. A follow up study of the impacts of COVID-19 on the sector (https://www.csc-ns.ca/covid-19-impact-survey/) revealed that organizations are shifting their activities to respond to the crisis – while facing financial challenges and future uncertainties about longer term economic impacts. 

COVID-19 has shaken our preconceived notions of how things “should be” (our systems) overnight. So far we’ve been in a response phase focused on ensuring people’s needs are met during the lockdown period. As we look ahead to the phases of rebuilding and recovery, we have an opportunity for systems change based on a critical reflection of what we can leave behind in a post-COVID future. 

At the same time, the building momentum for the Anti-Racism movement accelerated by the deaths of George Floyd and others are amplifying calls for action to address systemic racism. Again, looking ahead we need to critically examine how existing systems can be dismantled and rebuilt on equitable footings.

Rebuilding the Community Sector

Looking to the future, formerly out of reach policy ideas like guaranteed basic income and shifting how we allocate resources to the justice and mental health systems are suddenly looking more plausible. We need to take this moment to stretch our thoughts about what’s possible for systems change. Learning from COVID response initiatives we need to rethink how we approach our most pressing issues. For too long, social and economic priorities have been at seemingly opposing ends of the spectrum. It’s time to recognize the value of the community sector in weaving our social fabric, building social capital, and reducing the divides between us. 

Cross-sector and cross-community collaboration is needed if we are to uncover innovative approaches to working together and sharing resources. Traditionally (and understandably), many not-for-profits operate with their heads down to serve those closest and most in need. And while this approach helps to support the people coming through the door each day, it does little to create the space to consider how to affect systems change and can lead to hopelessness and burnout. 

Going forward in a post-COVID world we will undoubtedly be in a scenario where resources are even tighter than before. But, what if we examined how social programs could exist that serve the local economy and meet the needs of our vulnerable populations? What if we considered how technology can be used to do better social service delivery? What if we took a step back to consider how we might restructure the community sector in a way that supports collaboration between organizations and sectors? What if we put historical inequities and power imbalances at the centre, and recognized the knowledge that lies in communities about how to move forward? We might find that we can change the systems that have been holding us back from living in a society where all people are given an equal chance. We might just come out on the other side of all of this on better footing than we started.