A Practical Guide to Evaluating Systems Change in a Human Services System Context

Published: July 2014

Type: Publication

Evaluating systems change efforts can be messy, if not outright overwhelming. This guide offers a pragmatic framework. 


A consensus has grown in the public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors that we must use systems change approaches to effectively address society’s most intractable challenges. Demand for the evaluation of systems change efforts has grown along with it.

This guide is for evaluators who want a practical “way in” to thinking about systems and systems change.

It proposes that we can tackle systems by staying grounded in straightforward and familiar concepts, while respecting the complex nature of systems change. To help evaluators walk this fine line, the guide offers:

  • A concrete way to operationalize the concept of systems (with a focus on human service delivery systems)
  • A concrete way to visualize what it means to say a system is changing
  • A way to think about factors that contribute to the effectiveness of collaboratives that undertake systems change initiatives
  • A list of steps involved in systems change evaluation
  • A set of evaluation tools to use and tailor
  • Guidance for how to align this approach with developmental evaluation.

The result is a systems framework that offers a way to organize the messy reality of systems change into relatively neat conceptual concepts.