Navigating the Unseen: Orientating funders’ focus to the hidden wiring of change

Louise Armstrong
6 min readFeb 7, 2024
Left to right: Untethered wires, taped up wires, connected wires on circuit board. Photo credits: Mark Kats, Frames For Your Heart, Mandy Choi from Unsplash

In recent times, there has been a noticeable surge in interest and attention towards understanding the intricate details of the the back-office processes, the critical backbone, the hidden wiring of how people, groups, and organisations organise for change.

Everything from wanting more care-centred HR approaches, accounting systems with more flexibility to anchor — not constrain emergent work. To truly enabling governance structures or accessible legal advice that doesn’t constrain you — the list could go on.

It’s been something I’ve been experimenting with over time too — initially by innovating ways of doing this in collaboration I’ve been part of. Learning that hard way, (with more middle of the night worrying than I care to admit), that these things take up so much time and energy and can be seen as a distraction from ‘the’ work. Feeling and seeing the stark need for more support and approaches in place, I came to see it wasn’t just me but realising this was really widespread and something more was needed at the ecosystem level. This led to writing about this topic, being part of establishing the Transformational Governance Collective, running this Constellation Change Series. And more recently with my funder role on — being part of a ‘Boring Revolution’ session at 2023’s Next Frontiers event. But there is much more than that happening — from many others too.

As often happens, when activity starts to bubble up — the funding ecosystem starts to take notice too. Funders, often not the first movers — but an enabler of this work. In part, I’ve chosen to position myself within the funder ecosystem to understand what role funders can and should play in this. There’s been lively conversations within parts of the funding community that I’m involved with recently — about how best to support these critical aspects of all change work.

Here are some lesser processed reflections on the ongoing dialogue and potential responses to what we are observing and what the needs are. Funders have a part to play in each of these — but it’s not just them.

1. Empowering catalytic new practitioners and emerging organisations: There are a number of emerging new groups, collectives, and organisations as well as individual practitioners that see the need and are developing in response to needs in this space. From what I see there is the potential for them to play a foundational, catalytic, and transformative role in enabling others to adopt and scale new approaches.

They offer unique and fresh perspectives and innovative framings rooted in the lived experience of trying to do things differently. Often bringing the experiences of those most marginalised and harmed by the current status quo ways of doing things. These groups need development time, space, and resources. They require the space to develop models that work, allowing them to contribute unique approaches to commonly accepted issues. Without longer-term core funding, there is a risk of those being trapped in a consultancy model that can skew and narrow focus and lock you into supporting those with healthy budgets and resources and away from where the greatest need, insight and impact happens. A consultancy model risks overwhelm and focusing on day-to-day demands at the expense of their more strategic and transformative potential for them and the wider groups they support.

2. Transformation for existing organisations: It’s not just new organisations that need to pay attention to this. Arguably the harder and more daunting task is for established groups and organisations to transition and evolve how they work. Break out of established patterns and hard wiring that can often prevent change. Passionate people with ideas and great intentions can become quickly trapped by ingrained cultural dynamics and legacy systems that have layered on over time and are slow, often times seemingly impossible to change.

What makes a difference in these instances is where there is a commitment to new ways. Some existing organisations have successfully embedded new ways of organising into their structures, ensuring legitimacy and long-term commitment to these practices. For others, it comes as a forced transformation. The last few years have seen a reckoning with racial dynamics, inequality, and unhealthy working practices to name a few. Some organisations have been jolted into exploring this and find themselves facing a raft of cultural, leadership, and structural challenges without the necessary skills or knowledge to work through them well and in the course are causing more harm.

There’s been some attempt to remedy this through Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and antiracism journeys — but it always takes longer than people are open and willing to acknowledge and fund with key changes often being intangible yet highly material. The scale of these challenges means there is a desperate need for support. These process require time, space, and specialist skills to navigate challenges at a deeper level for long-term change and resilience. Business and funding models are stretched and fragile and don’t often have the capacity for the additional work required, so established groups also need time, space, and resource to do this well. Peer support can make a difference here — but alone isn’t enough.

3. Reimagining the nature of structural hidden wiring: One organisation alone isn’t going to shift established, often highly professionalised structures, practices, and norms. Many structural hidden wiring elements, including archaic operating systems, are designed for a different century and different needs but are very much the bedrock of so many organising efforts. So there is a need to look at and work with the key leverage points at the systems level and fundamentally reimagine accepted practices and disciplines.

What are the best practice accounting approaches and methodologies for ambitious and visionary work? How might the creative and renegade lawyers that emerging best organise and be supported? Beyond the Rules have done some great work around contracting. But we need this in many other places too. Too often the funding sees itself as separate, even superior, to these other foundational functions — but really it’s just part of the same operating system. So the very wiring and infrastructure of funding need innovating and transforming too. There’s been attempts at pooled and collaborative funds — but they’re hard to coordinate and often have stretched capacity. Then there’s exploring what other models for redistribution be — beyond the grant-making paradigm and without the extractivism of the current economic ecosystem.

Addressing the Challenges:

Across all of these areas, there are a number of practices and ways to address some of these challenges. None of these are new — and some of these are becoming accepted practice:

  • Direct funding: preferably core or unrestricted money to afford time and space is part of the need of this moment. But money will only take you so far. Money and resource are needed alongside:
  • Access to specialist skills and support: links to tried and tested support, people who can come in with fresh eyes and perspectives and support a group to navigate challenges in a positive way.
  • Peer Communities: There are peer-to-peer communities and a growing network of individuals ready to address these challenges, but there is no obvious place for funders to support this work. Too often peer support models rely on self-organising and coordination that isn’t valued or easily sustained over extended periods of time, overly relying on the enthusiasm and energy of individuals that make it fragile and too easy to disappear.
  • Ecosystem-led collaboration: While funders have a role and access to resources, any initiative must be rooted in a strong call from the wider ecosystem and built for the long term to avoid the pitfalls of short-lived collaborations. The Life Affirming Organisation Practice Lab event is a great example of this
  • Adopt a shared Inquiry Approach: Instead of rushing to solutions or short-term patches there’s a need for a shared inquiry, asking questions, and sharing practices to understand the complexities. To commit to a radical rewiring of the way resources flow and move. Funders could play a role — not just in supporting new and established groups to develop new practice. But also be learning and innovating together.

Ideally — a combination of these practices, and beyond, would manifest. Ensuring that there isn’t a siloed approach to the development of these areas — but that there is more chance of a coherent and resilient ecosystem that is developed to support and strengthen the collectives and movements.

Ultimately, and at least from my perspective, the renewed attention to hidden wiring signals a positive shift towards understanding the intricacies of organisational change. However, it is crucial for funders and the broader ecosystem to collaborate, listen, and support initiatives that are healthy, inclusive, and capable of fostering long-term transformation. It’s ambitious, in reality, it is decades of work, and won’t be easy. But this work is deeply needed. And if we do this — it could save many a sleepless night for changemakers everywhere.



Louise Armstrong

#livingchange / navigating / designing / facilitating / doula of change