Storytelling and systems change

An i2Insights story based on one originally told by Thea Snow, David Murikumthara, Teya Dusseldorp, Rachel Fyfe, Lila Wolff and Jane McCracken

authors_thea-snow_david-murikumthara_teya-dusseldorp_rachel Fyfe_lila-wolff_jane-mccracken
1. Thea Snow; 2. David Murikumthara; 3. Teya Dusseldorp; 4. Rachel Fyfe; 5. Lila Wolff; 6. Jane McCracken (biographies)

How is storytelling important in driving systems change? What does good storytelling look like? What makes it hard to tell stories about systems change work? We address these three questions.

But first, what do we mean by systems change? We use the definition developed by New Philanthropy Capital (Abercrombie et al. 2015): “Systems change aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanisms which make the system operate in a particular way. These can include policies, routines, relationships, resources, power structures and values.”

How is storytelling important in driving systems change?

Stories play different roles at different levels of the system. They can be used to change the system, as well to evaluate, understand and showcase the change that is occurring.

One way for stories to change the system is by supporting individuals to change how they see themselves, their communities, and their broader context. Systems change when people change: how they relate to others, who they are in relationship with, and what they believe they are capable of doing. Stories change the system by supporting individuals to:

  • build empathy with other perspectives
  • shift their mindsets
  • build new connections, relationships and conversations
  • teach and learn
  • see new possibilities
  • understand and see the world in different ways
  • reshape the rules of the systems
  • shine a light on the way things are shifting within communities.

What does good storytelling look like?

Good stories must be authentic, and must honour the voice of the person or community whose story is being told. Stories need to use the language and voice of the community. In addition, it should be story-holders who decide which stories should be told, and how they should be told. Unlike data, which is often defined, harvested and interpreted with very little community involvement, storytelling offers an opportunity for much greater agency and control by the storyholders.

Although centring community voice and control is key, this is uncommon. In addition, it can feel challenging to use stories for the purpose of advocacy, while also honouring the person whose story it is.

Good stories resist bending themselves to fit a pre-existing narrative – they tell the story that needs to be told, even if that sits somewhat in tension with the dominant narrative. This is critical, because telling stories that challenge the dominant narrative actually helps to dislodge that narrative.

Good stories:

  • are resonant, warm and relatable
  • don’t use academic language
  • are persuasive and engaging
  • are emotional – they capture the heart
  • go deeper than data – providing more context and insight than numbers can
  • are honest, authentic, inclusive and gentle
  • are accessible.

Not all stories are good stories. Stories are not good when they:

  • are shaped to serve someone’s agenda and to elevate their needs above others
  • pass judgment on a person’s situation
  • are centred in ego
  • are designed to promote something
  • are driven by the motives of the storyteller, rather than the needs and priorities of the community.

Stories can take many forms – from the more mechanistic case studies and testimonials to immersive experiences, such as film and documentary to podcasts to theatre.

Stories of systems change need to embrace nonlinear, dynamic and more fluid forms.

Good stories need to be guided and bound by protocols. These protocols can cover obvious things, like ensuring there are clear rules around how stories can be used, that story-holders are given the chance to review stories before they are shared, and that stories are accurate. However, protocols can also offer guidance on more subtle issues, like ensuring stories preserve dignity, agency and nuance. It is important to have processes and practices in place which make the people sharing their stories feel safe, protected and respected.

What makes it hard to tell stories about systems change work?

There are six key issues that make it hard to tell stories about the work involved in systems change:

  1. Power and trust: Power imbalances and a lack of trust can make it very hard for people to share their stories. Sharing stories requires rawness and vulnerability, which will only happen if people feel safe and believe that there is value in sharing their stories. But often, insufficient time is dedicated to building trust and respect between those sharing their stories and those capturing them.
  2. The complex nature of the work being described: Systems change is messy work – it involves so many parts of the system working together to drive change, and that can be very hard to capture in a story. These are not the linear stories we are used to and this makes the story more difficult to craft. Such stories are also unfamiliar to governments and philanthropists (the essential funders of community-led, place-based work), who tend to look for neat stories of cause and effect, which these stories are not.
  3. Skills, resources and capability: A key barrier to effective storytelling is simply not having the time or funding to do it well. It is time- and resource-intensive to capture and share stories. Capability around storytelling is also required. Storytelling does not come naturally to everyone, and requires an understanding of story architecture, as well as what makes a compelling story.
  4. Readiness to receive stories: To have an impact, stories need to be heard. For stories to effect change, the right people need to not only listen to the stories, but also hear them. Sometimes listeners aren’t ready to receive the message. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right for the message to land in a way which actually brings about the change needed. Sometimes it’s hard to get stories to the ears, eyes and hearts of people who most need to hear them.
  5. The limitations of language: Finding the right language to tell the stories of systems change requires talking about changes in mindsets, practices and capabilities, which are hard to capture in the deficit-oriented language often used.
  6. Bias: Storytelling is not a neutral exercise. The way that questions are framed, the way that answers are interpreted, what is left out and what is included, all act to shape the stories that emerge.

In conclusion…

This i2Insights contribution is based on Snow et al. (2021) and was edited into i2insights style by Gabriele Bammer. The report by Snow and colleagues resulted from a collaboration between Dusseldorp Forum, Hands Up Mallee and the Centre for Public Impact and is based on the stories told to them by the backbone teams, community members, organisations and storytellers they spoke to.

Does this account of storytelling and systems change mesh with your experience? Do you have additional points to make about the role of storytelling in driving systems change? Or what good storytelling looks like? Or what makes it hard to tell stories about the work involved in systems change?

To find out more:

Snow, T., Murikumthara, D., Dusseldorp, T., Fyfe, R., Wolff, L., and McCracken, J. (2021). Storytelling for systems change: Insights from the field. 22 November 2021, Centre for Public Impact; Dusseldorp Forum; and, Hands Up Mallee. (Online – open access):
This report provides a much more detailed account of the research, along with the contributions of everyone involved.


Abercrombie, R., Harries, E. and Wharton, R. (2015). Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it. 23 June 2015, New Philanthropy Capital: London, United Kingdom. (Online – open access):


Thea Snow leads the Centre for Public Impact’s work in Australia and New Zealand. The Centre for Public Impact acts as a learning partner for governments, public servants, and the diverse network of changemakers leading the charge to reimagine government so that it works for everyone. Her experience spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and she is based in Melbourne, Australia.

David Murikumthara was a program manager in the Centre for Public Impact’s Australia and New Zealand Aotearoa Office. He is now co-founder of a startup that uses emerging technologies to create better social coordination. He is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Teya Dusseldorp is executive director of Dusseldorp Forum, an independent foundation focused on improving education, health and social outcomes for children, their families and communities across Australia. She is based in Sydney, Australia. As well as providing funding and support to initiatives demonstrating positive, long-term change for young people, the Forum brings people together to foster collaboration and share solutions to better meet the needs of this and future generations.

Rachel Fyfe is the communications manager at Dusseldorp Forum and has worked in For Purpose communications for over 16 years. She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Lila Wolff is the communications lead at Hands Up Mallee, based in the Northern Mallee region of Victoria, Australia. She coordinates all aspects of Hands Up Mallee communications, with an aim to create spaces where community, service providers, businesses and government can come together to create change in our community.

Jane McCracken is the executive officer at Hands Up Mallee, based in the Northern Mallee region of Victoria, Australia. Hands Up Mallee was established to bring local leaders and community together to address social issues and improve health and wellbeing outcomes. Hands Up Mallee works in partnership with the community, local service providers, agencies and takes a place-based approach to solutions for local issues to ensure action taken is the right action for our unique community.

7 thoughts on “Storytelling and systems change”

  1. The storytelling approach is the foundation of career development work, and in this narrative paradigm, there are parallels to interdisciplinary research. For example, Watson (2017) noted that a storytelling approach to the career counselling and assessment process calls for learners to become active agents in contextualising multiple stories in the multiple settings of their lives, including the work they do with others). This storytelling approach places its emphasis on core constructs of the narrative approach in career counselling: connectedness, meaning-making, and agency including learning and reflection for collaborative processes.

    What this means in practice is that learners are encouraged to seek connecting themes within the stories they tell that reveal to them salient or emerging interests and career directions. In the case of interdisciplinary research, this applies to the knowledge and skills that the researcher brings to the collaboration. Through this reflective process, learners can make sense of their past and present in terms of career development and/or knowledge and skills, and can also construct a future story to advance their personal career development. In the case of collaborative interdisciplinary work, each future story allows the group to share visions of how the team will progress utilizing individual strengths, and identifying next steps for future directions. This narrative approach supports the advancing collaboration interdisciplinary work through communication and relationship building. This process provides structure to the reflective process by guiding group members to find meaning and connectedness.

    Thus, an interdisciplinary narrative approach can highlight knowledge-skills-abilities-and-values related to problem-solving and collaborative inquiry. For example, Parker (2017) noted that the work of identifying what matters most in one’s life [and one’s work] requires reflection and thought, since deep understanding and meaning cannot be decided at a single point in time (citing Krumboltz et al., 2013). Salience, or what is most salient to members in their practice and work at the present time will emerge through narrative inquiry, resulting in a resolution process to build strong collaborative interdisciplinary research partnerships.

    • References

      Parker, P. (2017). Card sorts: A constructionist approach to career exploration. In M. McMahon (Ed). Career counselling: Constructivist approaches (2nd ed., pp. 250-259). Routledge.

      Watson, M. (2017). Bridging quantitative and qualitative career assessment: the Integrative Structured Interview Process. In M. McMahon (Ed). Career counselling: Constructivist approaches (2nd ed., pp. 260-269). Routledge.

  2. I really like this statement: “Systems change aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanisms which make the system operate in a particular way. These can include policies, routines, relationships, resources, power structures and values.” Systems thinkers love the ICEBERG metaphor and how it combines with Donella Meadows’ idea of leverage points within the system that you are hoping to influence – so these stories need to target these points of leverage. The deeper that you go below the surface of the “tip-of-the-iceberg” the greater the leverage – power structures and values are the deepest!

  3. I think story telling is an important method that complements others in a mixed methods approach. The ISE4GEMs (UN Women 2018) systemic evaluation approach starts with the ‘Boundary Story’. A story weaved together by a variety of stakeholders about the project, program, policy or whatever it is being evaluated. It is more than a set of questions asked by an evaluator to clarify the evaluation’s objectives, activities and outcomes. I have facilitated sessions with a team of people who manage a training program. They reflected thoughtfully on the program as they themselves narrate its story. It lifts thinking above a logic model approach. They talk about challenges, power games, heart-warming achievements. They are deeply invested. The story is personal as well as organisational. It is there’s. The value of writing a Boundary Story at the outset is to determine the boundaries of the evaluation. This approach reveals subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between what’s on paper to the grant-makers, and what has been done in practice. This opens up the actual scope of the evaluation. The story goes beyond what a funding application can do. And, as the Boundary Story is a published appendix to the evaluation report, I have found grant makers actually love reading it – warts and all.

    Reference: Stephens, A., Lewis, E. and Reddy, S. (2018). The Inclusive Systemic Evaluation (ISE) Approach for Gender Equality, Environments, and Voices from the Margins (GEMs): A Guide for Evaluators for the SDG Era, Evaluation Guidance Series, Independent Evaluation Service (IES) of the Independent Evaluation and Audit Services of UN Women (IEAS): New York, United States of America. (Online – open access):

  4. Thanks for this piece. The ethics around story telling is one aspect that one struggles to deal with, especially in a multi-cultural context. Secondly, when working with informal communities at risk of eviction, telling so much gives them away and it is challenging controlling the aftermath of such stories (more exposure, higher risk of government attention and eviction). Is there any way to control this?

    • Thanks for your comment, Basirat! Through our digital campfires (a follow on piece through this work), we’ve been working with a group of people here in Australia on a storytelling ethics framework. This was inspired by who are well worth checking out, and may have some suggestions around the second part of your question too.


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