Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

What is systems change?

How can foundations effectively contribute to changing complex systems, like Detroit’s education system? The team at The Skillman Foundation is on a journey to deepen our understanding of how we can best leverage our organization’s resources to improve education in Detroit. The following blog shares practical insights from what we are learning about shifting systems for the better.

Later this year, The Skillman Foundation will launch new community-informed strategies. Guiding our grantmaking and changemaking efforts is an aspirational vision of an exceptional and equitable education system that opens pathways to opportunity, where all partner for student success. Getting there will take many people across roles, institutions, and sectors contributing to a common goal: transforming Detroit’s education system.

To change the education system, we must first understand how systems operate. Additionally, our efforts must be racial justice focused to acknowledge the ways racial biases have flawed the current design of the education system.

Key takeaways

  • Detroit’s education system is a complex system.
  • Policy creates the conditions for change in complex systems. Education policy change is essential but not enough to transform the education system.
  • Transformation requires strengthening the capacity within the education system to drive and sustain policy changes.
  • Engaging in systems change requires new ways of thinking about evaluation and learning.

Understanding systems change

What is a complex system?

A system is comprised of interconnected parts that form a unified whole. Education systems, like the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), involve hierarchical and networked components, each with their own embedded structures, power dynamics, and beliefs. The interdependent nature of these parts is what makes systems so complex.

DPSCD includes the Board of Education; superintendent; district offices and staff; schools with administrators, teachers, and staff; community organizations; neighborhoods; families; and students. Each of these parts are linked together through relationships (e.g., teachers and students, school administrators and staff, community organizations and schools) and power dynamics that are highly visible as well as some that may not be as apparent. Outcomes are a result of how all parts function together, not one part alone.

The iceberg model below shows how interconnected parts overlap to produce outcomes in a system.

Source: Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative (2023), 26, fig, 1.

When we think about systems we must think them from multiple perspectives, considering both the individual components and their interrelationships. This approach reveals how decisions at one level impact other components, creating a comprehensive understanding of the system’s dynamics.

For example, curriculum decisions made at the school district level affect what happens in individual classrooms and community resources affect student outcomes. By looking at these interrelationships, we can better understand how the system functions and how various parts affect each other.

How do systems change?

Systems change is an ongoing, iterative process involving shifts in resources, patterns, relationships, and mindsets at multiple levels. Because systems are dynamic with interconnected parts, change efforts require ongoing cycles of innovation, reflection, and learning to understand how the system is evolving in response to our efforts.

Changing systems involves…

Source: Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative (2023), 26, fig, 1.

What is systems transformation, and how does it relate to system change?

Systems change asks: “How do we make the system function more effectively?” Systems transformation asks: “How are we fundamentally changing the goals, power structures, and incentives of the system to produce better outcomes?”

Efforts to change and transform a system can each occur within the same context, and each serves a purpose. Transformation is the ultimate goal for systems change when the system is inequitable and does not work for the people it intends to serve.

Systems transformation is the fundamental rewiring of a system. Systems transformation can be both a process and an objective. As a process, it’s about repatterning the rules and structure within the system. As an objective, transformation happens when we fundamentally alter how a system operates to yield better outcomes.

What is the role of policy in transforming education systems?

Policy establishes the conditions for systems change, but transformation requires altering the underlying structures and power dynamics. An education policy win is a significant step, but recognizing the dynamic and interconnected nature of systems is crucial. For policy change to be sustained, solutions must be deeply embedded, and progress must be self-perpetuating. The longevity of education policy changes hinges on the resilience of the education advocacy and organizing ecosystems, continuous learning, and feedback from the community about what is or isn’t working.

The Foundation’s emphasis on influencing education policy change stems from our understanding that policy decisions create the rules (incentives, consequences, and constraints) that determine how the education system operates and the outcomes that are produced as a result.

How does racial justice influence approaches to education systems change?

A commitment to racial justice involves examining root causes and underlying power structures in the education system. The Foundation aims to realign power structures to make decisions transparent, share power, and to ensure the voices of those most proximate to the impact of the system have greater influence and command of how the system is designed and resourced.

How The Skillman Foundation seeks to advance system change

Fixing inequitable power dynamics is crucial for transforming Detroit’s education system and is the key to addressing the challenges that keep inequalities in place. Changing the education system means redefining its main goals, looking at power dynamics closely, and actively rearranging how power is shared.

The Skillman Foundation is itself an actor in the education system we seek to improve. To change how power works in education, the Foundation must also change its own practices to:

  • Be transparent and invite community accountability: Be transparent and clear about the Foundation’s thinking and doing. This invites the community to hold the Foundation accountable when our actions are misaligned with shared priorities and visions. For example, in November 2023, we hosted Community Design Workshops to share our emerging strategic direction and invite partners to test our thinking and inform improvements. Participants raised important questions and offered insights that have informed internal conversations about ways to strengthen our approach.

  • Intentionally share power, ease grant partner burden, and maximize flexibility in grantmaking: Explore, pilot, and adapt new ways to share power, like community co-design and counsels. Our Ground Building team is partnering with community to co-design a Youth Power strategy. Together, youth organizers, adult allies, and other local funders have engaged in shared learning and planning about what it would take to support the youth organizing ecosystem to grow its collective power. Other examples include changes to streamline our grant application and reporting process to reduce partner burden.

  • Embed community perspectives in systems change efforts: Learn from and with grant partners, Detroit youth, educators, and community to ensure systems change efforts are rooted in local context and culture. Facilitate alignment on priorities and strategies. Along with the activities noted above, other examples include racial equity assessments—asking our grant partners and Detroit community members whose voice is missing in our strategies and outreach and exploring the impact of racial inequities in the context of our work. Additionally, the Foundation has an upcoming effort we’re partnering with 482Forward on to support a collective of Detroit education storytellers to learn how stories can drive systems change and to build and advance a shared aspirational narrative about public education.

How we’ll use learning and evaluation to fuel system change

Evaluation can support those who work in complex systems and accelerate efforts to create change. Systems evaluation requires making continuous feedback, learning, and adaption priorities throughout the journey, a shift from after-the-fact assessments to real-time insights that will help grapple with strategic choices. When working to shift systems, learning is essential to understand how change is unfolding (e.g., disruption of existing patterns, new connections, level of buy-in) and how the structures, behaviors, relationships, and patterns of the system shift can interact differently to produce outcomes.

The Foundation has contracted with Frontline Solutions for an internal and field learning assessment. Our goal is to surface insights from the field, understand current learning practices across the organization, and identify areas for improvement to better support the Foundation’s new ground building, policy and systems change strategies. We will publish key insights about learning for systems change from Frontline’s interviews with peer foundations later this year.


Misra, Susal and Marissa Guerrero. 2024. “Investing in Systems Change Capacity.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. DOI: 10.48558/4hfx-k118

Moore, Marah, Beverly Parsons, and Patricia Jessup. 2019. “How Evaluators Can Use a Complex Systems Lens to Get ‘Untrapped’ From Limiting Beliefs and Assumptions.” American Journal of Evaluation 40(1): 75–91. DOI: 10.1177/1098214018756578

Hargreaves, Margaret B. November 2018. Leveraging Systemic Change: Evaluating What Works. Chicago, IL: NORC @ the University of Chicago.

Preskill, Hallie, Srik Gopal, Katelyn Mack, and Joelie Cook. 2014. Evaluating Complexity: Propositions for Improving Practice. FSG.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA). 2023. Evaluation of the Shifting Systems Initiative.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA). 2022. New Report | Shifting Power to Shift Systems: Insights and Tools for Funders.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *