Systemic Action Research

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?


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


A skilled facilitator


6-12 months

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To influence the system by understanding and changing the relationships and interactions among system variables and their resulting patterns of behaviors.

What is it?

A participatory process that combines design, planning, action and evaluation into an action learning cycle that is repeated every few months to enable real-time learning. The iterative phases include the following:

  1. Analyze the situation.
  2. Generate new theories of change.
  3. Plan action.
  4. Take action.
  5. Evaluate impact.

When is it useful?

  • When working on issues, fields, or movements that need to engage multiple stakeholders with different perspectives on what systems change is needed
  • In formative assessment and learning processes

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

  • SAR does not assess impact in relationship to baseline measures of expected outcomes set forth at the outset of a project. Rather, it looks at decisions, actions and impacts that emerge during the process. 
  • The process may incorporate and utilize many of the other resources in this guide.
  • The facilitators may be the only people in the process connected across the entire system. Thus, facilitators must be aware of their own power in creating the framework for learning and shaping the inquiry, and connecting the data. Consequently, it is key to be intentional about who facilitates the process. Engaging local champions to help guide the process is one effective way of distributing leadership.


Assessing Impact in Dynamic and Complex Environments: Systemic Action Research and Participatory Systemic Inquiry

By Danny Burns
Centre for Development Impact, 2014
Above image reproduced with permission from the Centre for Development Impact. 

Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale

By Danny Burns and S. Worsley 
Practical Action Press, 2015

Systemic Action Research: Changing System Dynamics to Support Sustainable Change

By Danny Burns 
Action Research, 2014


Danny Burns

Leader, Participation Research Cluster, Institute of Development Studies