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This article draws on the theory of systems change as outlined in “The waters of systems change” by Kania, Kramer and Senge.

A fish is swimming along one day when another fish comes up and says “Hey, how’s the water?” The first fish stares back blankly at the second fish and then says “What’s water?”[1]
— Kania, J; Kramer, M, Senge, P. 2018. The water of systems change. FSG Reimagining Social Change

There’s nothing like calling in a critical friend to illuminate what is implicit and invisible in the waters that you’re swimming in. That’s what recently happened between Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa and the Centre for Social Impact (CSI). They formed a critical friendship that lifted the veil on what’s needed for transformative and innovative approaches to funding in the play, active recreation and sport space.

The Centre for Social Impact was bought in to help Sport New Zealand examine its fund management model and review how it manages grant investments.

This was planned before the March COVID-19 lockdown. The lockdown made it all the more important to have a sound platform from which to consider both recovery and reimagining how people work across a system.

Rachael Child and Dain Guttenbeil, associates from CSI, examined Sport New Zealand’s funding approach. They benchmarked this against best practice. They assessed Sport New Zealand’s level of maturity in this developing area of practice in the sector.

The process harnessed assets and strengths that were already in place at Sport New Zealand and realised the potential of what could be. Here are some of their revelations and responses.

Mental models

Funding is not about one-size-fits-all. The benchmarking against best practice showed the opportunity to move from transactional, responsive grants and contestable processes, to more diversified approaches to funding. Sport New Zealand realised the different roles it could take as a funder, including more innovative and transformational roles.

Relationships, connections and power dynamics

The centre of Wellington isn’t well placed to have all the answers. Sport New Zealand realised it needed to continue to grow local insights, evidence and conversations with communities, so that they didn’t make assumptions or leap to solutions that might not best fit local needs.

The process opened Sport New Zealand up to look at how they could better engage with communities. Not only place based, but communities of interest – seeking out new partners and building shared understandings and capabilities.

While Sport New Zealand has long had a principle of being locally led, the process showed how they could better apply this principle to their role as a funder.

Rachel and Dain also examined the organisation’s operationalisation of its Te Tiriti commitments. They worked with the Rautaki Māori team to explore how Sport New Zealand could bring its commitment to Te Tiriti to life through the process for commissioning funds. For example developing culturally distinctive pathways for Māori and collecting data and intelligence in a way that is aligned to Māori culture and values.

Structural changes

The advice and support from CSI resulted in a funding framework that will help Sport New Zealand to allocate the new $265m government grant for the play, sport and recreation sector. CSI is now working with Sport New Zealand on an in-depth work programme to evolve its fund management approach and help embed transformative approaches to funding investment. Sport New Zealand has plans to build capability, strengthen governance processes, expand the investment team and look for complementary skills that support innovation and co-design.

This once-in-a-generation review of how the system operates took courage. The result is bold and progressive. Sport New Zealand has a practical framework that has scale, reach and complexity.

Diving into the waters of system change has affirmed aspirations, confirmed intentions, provided new knowledge, and built a plan of action for Sport New Zealand. Coupled with a mindset of humility, connectedness, and insightful conversation it has harnessed the strengths that were already in place and highlighted the potential of what could be.