Funding Systems Change: lessons from the Cornerstone Fund

Naomi Diamond, Head of Practice at Collaborate CIC*, shares some of the learning gained from the 10 grant-holders funded in Round One of the Cornerstone Fund

Illustration of a man and a woman looking at a chart and sharing ideas.
  • Author: Naomi Diamond
  • Published: 10 July 2023

The Cornerstone Fund is a ground-breaking funding initiative led by City Bridge Fund, testing new collaborative ways of funding and providing support to enable a thriving civil society in London. 

Cornerstone is a partnership of five funders and five support organisations. Funding was available to partnerships, led by civil society support organisations ‘(infrastructure organisations’), wanting to achieve social change for Londoners.

Round One of the Cornerstone Fund ran from 2019 to 2022. Ten partnerships received funding to test and develop approaches to long-term systemic change in their field. Each partnership differed; some included public sector partners, others only civil society organisations or individuals. All partnerships wanted to push for a healthier system in their field, better able to support Londoners to thrive.

Defining systems change

Systems change is a developing theory and practice. One definition we find helpful is that systems change is about advancing equity by shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place. These are problems that can’t be solved by one organisation or service, or even one government, working alone. 

They are complex issues whose causes and consequences are interconnected and where the power to create change is spread across the system. Systems change will only happen when we work together with a common intention to make it so.

We’ve got to stop taking about them and us’. We are all part of the system.”
Community Links Bromley

Healthy systems which produce good outcomes are built on foundations of collaboration, shared power, equity, co-creation and continuous adaptation. There are many paths to healthy systems, and civil society actors can adopt various strategies and roles along the way.

System change strategies

Cornerstone partnerships, we found, adopted four system change strategies: 

  • influencing and advocating with power-holders
  • working together to build collective power for change
  • creating more connected and joined-up support and services
  • disrupting business as usual to change mindsets and behaviours through experimentation and innovation
The forum enables us to bring different perspectives together to have a common goal, and to see systems change as a possibility from the perspective of small communities”
British Refugee Council

To support these strategies, partnerships played various systems change roles, in particular acting as: 

  • convenors (bringing different stakeholders or system actors together)
  • capacity-builders (growing and sharing skills and knowledge)
  • and innovators (experimenting with approaches that are more holistic and participative)

These were not necessarily new roles for infrastructure organisations, but the way they approached them was informed by their system change strategies, and by the nature of the collaborations they formed. Learning was at the heart of everything.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; it’s ok to make mistakes in systems change as long as you learn from them along the way.”
HEAR Equality and Human Rights Network

All partnerships deployed a unique mix of strategies, roles and forms of collaboration — resulting in a very diverse set of projects. For example: 

  • One project experimented with new approaches to co-production and influencing within the context of health and social care across an integrated care system (ICS)
  • Another worked at neighbourhood level to develop resident power and new forms of participatory democracy to transform relationships with their local council
  • A third collaborated to build sector capacity to engage the media and change public narratives about race and racism
Changing public opinion instead of advocating with government directly can be considered a system mindset change.”
Race on the Agenda

Cornerstone stories

The funding period covered the first year of the pandemic, an especially difficult time for civil society organisations to be thinking about the future since the present was so challenging. 

The work was complex and their experiences are unique and difficult to standardise, so we have written a set of short stories, each illustrating one facet of Cornerstone: the purpose and nature of working in partnerships; the role of support organisations as system changers; and the system change strategies that partnerships adopted. 

Collectively, the stories are like the pieces of a jigsaw, which together illustrate and illuminate the often tricky concept of systems change.

Learning from Cornerstone

Cornerstone has endorsed systems change as essential work for civil society organisations at all levels from grass-roots up to national infrastructure — and with it the need to collaborate in all possible ways. 

Learning from the first round has shaped the second round of the Cornerstone Fund, as well as influencing a number of new funding programmes. This includes:

  • Putting equity and voice at the heart of system change, with Round Two of Cornerstone targeting collaborations aiming to tackle structural inequalities.
  • Embracing systemic change as a worthwhile aim for funders, who are now offering new systems change funds such as Propel and Local Motion.
  • Recognising that effective systems change work is long term and needs long term funding, as now offered in the Anchor Programme.
  • Demonstrating how funders can use their resources to enable learning, funding the capacity to learn and adapt to continuously improve outcomes in different contexts.
Systems change is about power shift, and creating new structures that allow people’s voices to be heard—how do people in power hear what they need to relinquish in order to do that?”
The Winch

More information

Collaborate CIC is the learning partner to the Cornerstone Fund, supporting funders and funded partnerships to learn from their work together.