Community building for systems change

In a new paper, our outgoing Head of Community and Communications Naomi Alexander Naidoo reflects on the role of community building for systems change. Drawing on examples from the Lab and other community-based organisations, and thinking from systems change thought leaders and community building experts, the paper explores how and why community building can be an effective strategy for systems change, and why it is such a core part of the Lab’s work. In her final blog, Naomi summarises some of the report’s key learnings.

Our community has always been of central importance to the Lab: we know we won’t change the financial system alone, and we work with our community to determine our priorities, co-create our activities, deepen our analysis, and grow our outreach. The Lab’s very first activities were convening diverse actors from across and beyond the financial system to explore a better future for finance, and since then we’ve cultivated a powerful community of over 600 systems-changemakers, including activists, campaigners, innovators, intrapreneurs, thought leaders and more. When I joined the Lab as Community Manager in 2018 we invested in nurturing our community, launching a community programme with support activities for changemakers including matchmaking, regular events and a community noticeboard for community members to share updates and ideas. In our new 2030 strategy, community has an even more elevated role: we see building our community as one of our two key contributions to change (alongside working on specific high impact initiatives), and it is one of our four programmes targeting the key financial system impacts that are needed to transform finance.

But why is community building so important to transforming finance? And, more broadly, why is community building an effective strategy for systems change? Our new paper Community building for systems change explores the role of community in building in systems change, and our ideas and reflections about why community building can be an effective route to systems change. It asks:

What is the role of community building in systems change? Why is it an effective strategy for creating systemic change? How can we build communities with high potential for systemic impact?

The paper is intended to contribute to an ongoing conversation about strategies for systems change, building on the Lab’s work to date, the practices and ideas of the practitioners and thought leaders mentioned in this paper, and many more people and initiatives who are creating change in the financial system and beyond. It includes:

  • Background and context: what does the Lab mean by ‘community’ and ‘systems change’? What is the story of the Lab community so far?
  • Understanding the relationship between community building and systems change: what does community building for systems change look like? What is the role of community building in systems change? How does the Lab approach community building for systems change?
  • Understanding how we can build communities for systems change: what is a community of practice? How do you build communities of practice? What do theories and models of community building tell us about how you can create communities for systems change?

In particular, we focus on a model of community building for systems change developed by Margaret Wheatley, a pioneering systems thinker and founder of the Berkana Institute. Wheatley describes how change begins with networks, coalitions and alliances of people with shared interests. Out of these wide networks, communities of practice develop: smaller groups of people engaged in similar work, who support each other and collaborate to build new knowledge. From these communities of practice, systems of influence that have real power and influence can emerge and fundamentally change the system. We have adapted this model to explain how we see the role of community building in our approach to systems change:

  • We build and support a wide network of people who believe in the Lab’s vision of a financial system that serves people and planet. We call this the Lab community.
  • From the community we develop smaller communities of practice of people and organisations doing similar financial systems change work, to support, learn from and collaborate with each other. We call these communities of action.
  • Through the communities of action, we create the conditions for systems change to emerge. We do so by working on specific initiatives with clear leverage points and high potential to affect change, with a focus on initiatives that shift power dynamics and mental models in finance.

The paper also deep dives into how you can build communities for maximum impact. Examining several different models and theories of community building from peer organisations and community building specialists, we identify three vital components of effective community building:

  • A shared purpose that unites the community
  • Value creation and exchange that enables community members to not only receive value from the community, but also contribute it
  • A progression of engagement, where members can increase their commitment to and participation with the community over time.

Identifying these features not only guides us on how to build communities, but also helps to further illustrate why community building can be so useful for systems change organisations. If done well, community building can enable long-term, sustained collaboration between many different actors on the mission of changing a system. Because value exchange and a progression of engagement are vital parts of community building, this can unlock much greater resource than any one organisation could have on its own. This can enable learning, knowledge and impact to multiply, and so increase the chances of change emerging at a systemic level.

After leading community building at the Lab for three years, I am soon moving on to a new challenge building a movement to end gender-based violence at feminist tech non-profit Chayn. I’m really grateful to have worked with such an inspiring community of systems-changemakers during my time at the Lab, and to be able to share these learnings and reflections before I go. I look forward to seeing this thinking develop in the coming years as the Lab continues to build its transformative community and learn about the role and potential of community building for systems change. I also look forward to contributing to this ongoing conversation and learning, as a member of the Lab community.

Read the full paper here. Share your ideas and reflections about community building for systems change with us by emailing Stay in touch with Naomi on Twitter or LinkedIn.