Four-Stage Systemic Change Process

Resource Type


These resources include approaches for systems change that can be broken down into fluid stages involving stakeholder engagement in meaning making and decision-making. They often include multiple types of resources.

Systems Questions


What is the social network and how can we influence it?


What are the events, activities, actions, behaviors, and forces that affect the system, and how can we influence them?

Patterns and Structure

What are the patterns of behavior, structures, and archetypes in the system, and how can we influence them?


How do we think and learn about the system?

Grantmaking Stages

Develop grantmaking strategy

Resources in this category can help you understand the system, identify outcomes and determine grantmaking interventions.

Identify and select grantees

Resources in this category can help you understand who is in the system, the strength and content of their relationships, who is missing and the power dynamics among them.

Shape and monitor grants

Resources in this category can help you as you implement and refine your grantmaking strategy. Some of the more participatory resources in this category overlap with other grantmaking stages.

Assess impact and learn

Resources in this category can help you assess impact and learn. Since learning is often an iterative and emergent process in systems grantmaking, these resources may overlap with other grantmaking stages.


Highly participatory


Someone who has been trained on the resource


6-12 months

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To align diverse stakeholders around a shared understanding of why a complex social problem persists and identify leverage points that might improve systemwide performance in sustainable ways.

What is it?

A four-stage process to collectively engage stakeholders across a system in systemic change by harnessing the energy and sense of urgency that generates from creative tension,1 which is the gap between current reality and vision for the future. These four stages are iterative and nonlinear:

  1. building a foundation for change,
  2. facing current reality,
  3. making an explicit choice about the future, and
  4. bridging the gap between the current reality and the future.
  • 1. Drawn from: Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. (Doubleday, 2006).

When is it useful?

  • When stakeholders have trouble seeing how they contribute to the problem and what they can do to optimize the whole system instead of just their part of it
  • To identify leverage points and integrate them into a systemic theory of change
  • When systems are bound by a social change issue that can be addressed at a local, state or regional level

What are tips and cautions for systems grantmakers and the social sector?

  • The four-stage process is flexible. There is space to incorporate other tools and frameworks.
  • It is critical to engage diverse stakeholders early on in order to create accurate maps. The stakeholders should be varied enough to generate divergent thinking.
  • During the second stage, a facilitator skilled in managing power dynamics, who is comfortable with conflict resolution, may be needed for successful catalytic conversations.
  • The process includes powerful questions that foundations may ask of staff, board, grantees, and others to transform how they think about their goals and strategies. These questions can be used to help people think and act systemically. They can be found in the article “Leveraging Grantmaking – Part 2: Aligning Programmatic Approaches with Complex System Dynamics.”


Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

By David Peter Stroh
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015
Above image reproduced with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing. 

Leveraging Grantmaking: Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Social Systems

By David Peter Stroh
Foundation Review, 2009 

Leveraging Grantmaking – Part 2: Aligning Programmatic Approaches with Complex System Dynamics

By David Peter Stroh and Kathleen Zurcher
Foundation Review, 2010


David Peter Stroh

Co-founder and Principal, Bridgeway Partners

Co-director, Applied Systems Thinking