Market development, field building or systems change?

Rob Macmillan, Principal Research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, reflects on the new report examining the nature of market development in relation to community business.

Should funders and umbrella bodies be concerned not just with supporting individual organisations (e.g. community businesses, charities and voluntary and community organisations), but also with the wider context in which they operate? Should they look more broadly at, and try to influence, the policy, regulatory and financial environment within which organisations are working? This might make more of a lasting difference, enabling a wider group of organisations to flourish and succeed, than a pure focus on individual grant-making. But what does this broader approach involve, what should you aim realistically to achieve, and how should you assess what difference you might have made?

These questions are underpinning the wider influencing work of Power to Change’s dedicated ‘market development team’, and a long-term evaluation which sits alongside it. The team, and the evaluation, have been asking what is meant and signalled by ‘market development’. This can be complex, given that community businesses are operating in, and themselves shaping, multiple markets for particular goods and services, across different geographical scales – for example, in community energy, running a community pub, health and social care services, community-led housing, or early years’ provision.

But the market development team’s approach is broader, with a focus on creating the conditions for community businesses to flourish. This includes awareness raising about the nature and value of community business as a concept, building new policy relationships, lobbying and advocacy on regulations and financial investment, supporting new initiatives, and convening networks of support infrastructure for community business. The team has been putting energy and resources into a wide range of initiatives, and seeking to ‘learn by doing’ to assess what might gain traction and have a legacy effect – creating a lasting difference for community businesses as a whole.

From this, it is clear that ‘market development’ for Power to Change sits alongside allied approaches which seek to shape broader contexts beyond the support for individual organisations, such as ‘field-building’ and ‘systems change’. These have been the focus of much discussion on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. ‘Field building’ has been adopted by many charitable trusts and philanthropic foundations, particularly in the US. The aim is to use their position, resources and expertise to shift the policy landscape in a chosen field. This often appeals to people in a newly emerging area, who perhaps see themselves as spearheading a ‘movement’. Power to Change often refers to ‘community business’ as a movement, although it traces connections with longer-standing developments, such as co-operatives. ‘Systems change’ is a more recent and nowadays highly fashionable development, though sometimes over-used. It requires identifying a set of institutions and relationships as a structured ‘system’ and seeking to alter it in particular ways to generate different outcomes.

In all three approaches, the language can be vague, abstract and obscure, but it can also provide signals about what seems to matter to those involved. A ‘market’ implies a particular set of competitive exchange relationships organised around demand, supply and price. This provides a powerful message about the commercial orientation of community business. The term ‘field’, when put to use alongside ‘movement’, suggests a more open-ended and developing set of relationships, where the intention is to raise the profile and strengthen the identity of a particular group or cause, in order to gain both attention and resources. A ‘system’ implies an already bounded, coherent, yet highly complex, set of structures and relationships, usually therefore in need of change.

What is variously entailed by a ‘market’, a ‘field’ or a ‘system’, and the extent to which in practice they are synonymous, is up for ongoing discussion. As is the nature and effectiveness of the kinds of concrete activities involved in developing markets, building fields and changing systems. We think it is time for some considered reflection on these questions – what do you think?

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