Janet Digby for the Peter McKenzie Project
Janet is an Auckland based project manager who has been working on the Peter McKenzie Project since its inception. She loves analysis and synthesizing information and working with people who are experts in their field. “The Peter McKenzie Project is wonderful as it is looking at how Aotearoa can ensure more children and young people can have a good life through changes to our systems.”
The JR McKenzie Trust is making a big bet, a big bet that involves $17 million and a focus on systems change. It’s called the Peter McKenzie Project (PMP), after Peter, a grandson of JR McKenzie, who decided that one fund should be spent down entirely over up to 20 years, to achieve positive social change. He was kind and thoughtful and wouldn’t like to have the project bear his name, but it does because, sadly, he died in 2012.
The goal of the PMP is to enable children and families in New Zealand to flourish. As a result, the significant negative effects of poverty for children and young people, which are often lifelong, will be reduced. It’s worth mentioning here that children are part of families so when we speak of child poverty, we are really talking about whānau poverty.
Poverty is considered to be a complex problem, which means different approaches are needed to address the root causes and make a meaningful difference. That’s where the system change comes in. Yes, lots of people are talking about systems change now, but bear with me. Many believe that this approach shows real promise, although even the experts admit they are still learning about what works and how to clearly communicate about what its all about.
Much of the focus on poverty reduction to date has been on funding new or existing programmatic interventions which are needed because systems aren’t working. There is now a realisation that perhaps another approach is helpful too – one focused on upgrading the systems which are preventing families from having a good life.
This isn’t to say that programmes can’t be effective, they can. Many people rightly claim that their journeys have been significantly altered by a specific programme or service. The issue is that even the good ones generally don’t become mainstream and can’t get long-term funding. As a result they don’t achieve scale (reach more people).
Programmatic interventions help people beat the odds. Systemic interventions can help change their odds.”
The Peter McKenzie Project Committee saw an opportunity to try something different, hopefully enabling the project to punch above its weight in terms of creating change. In 2017, a ‘Call’ was sent out seeking ideas with a systems focus which would reduce the number of children living in poverty. It attracted 260 ideas. (We think we’d do a better job of framing the opportunity now - systems change isn’t entirely straightforward to understand or communicate – we are certainly learning.)
Many of the people who submitted ideas were great at describing the problems in the system, but quite a few of the ideas received weren’t really using a systems approach, rather they offered existing, new and improved programmes which aimed to make a difference to a greater number of families. This is understandable, there are lots of times when system change seems hard and the immediate need is important and can be met so people focus on that. The Call for Ideas helped PMP understand that perhaps the systems change field isn’t well developed in New Zealand.
The 260 ideas which came in were filtered, and quite a few groups received some funding to develop or test their ideas. Three groups have so far received significant multi-year funding and you can read about those below.
While for PMP these are really big investments, we know the overall size of the pūtea is small in relation to the size of the problem, and in comparison to other players, most obviously government.
The PMP is now working with ideas still in development and on some proactive projects too. PMP is also looking to help build local capacity and capability for systems change in the hope that this will result in more whānau flourishing.
The PMP Committee and many others working in this space firmly believe that the current situation with so many children growing up in poverty was not inevitable, and that a focus on effective changes to our systems will result in more New Zealand families flourishing.
We ensured in the 1990s our over 65s are one of the best looked after and least deprived groups in the world, and this is great. There's no reason why we can't do exactly the same for our children."