Start Network’s new strategy: Shifting the conditions that hold the system in place

Change means action: Start Network's new 3-year strategy for 2024-2026 has just launched. It crystallises our value offer as a systems change organisation and sets out how we will address the challenges in the humanitarian sector.

Ian Burbidge headshot

Ian Burbidge


Time to read: 5 minutes


“It’s 2033. We are one year off marking our 20th anniversary. The Network has grown considerably with 30 hubs and 240 members, we are leading the way towards localisation with over 70% local actors. Half of our hubs are fully independent, financially and legally. We have now opened up the network to include humanitarian and development actors, engaged the private sector and governments, and our efforts in engaging peace actors has won us a Nobel Prize as well. Our current portfolio stands at GBP 100 million just for this year; having also expanded our funding model aside from the Start Ready and Start Funds, we now have a Resilience Fund that is linking both response and anticipatory action. We have sadly seen an exponential increase in disasters but have also worked through our hubs with communities to build capacity to withstand these shocks. We now have innovation programmes active in the majority of our hubs with members trialling a hotbed of new ideas, different funding mechanisms and different ways of working. The humanitarian system is largely unrecognisable from 2023 and Start Network and its members have played a major role in its transformation.”

Such was the scale of ambition among our members at the final session of our 2023 annual member’s Assembly as they helped imagine the CEO’s 2033 Assembly speech. It is exciting to dream big and in so doing imagine the detail behind our vision for a locally-led and proactive humanitarian system. But dreams need to be brought to life in practice and this has been our focus over recent months as we have sought to capture our ambition within a new strategy to guide us over the coming three years.

Start Network was born in 2010 out of frustration with the state of a humanitarian system that had not kept up with changes in the world and with a desire to change the system through practical experimentation. We’ve grown to close to 100 members working across six continents and begun transitioning to a decentralised, Hubs-based membership model. We have shifted resources to civil society organisations through the Global Start Fund which has disbursed upwards of £127 million across 78 countries since its inception. We have launched Start Ready, a leading-edge approach to anticipatory financing that has allowed us to better support communities at risk. Community-led innovation programming has helped build resilience through home-grown solutions to recurrent crises, and we have provided opportunities to amplify community impact on a global scale. But there is more to do to tackle those aspects of the system we believe most need changing:

  • power and resources are concentrated in a handful of dominant and self-interested organisations making key decisions far from the locus of crisis;
  • accountability is to donors and governments rather than people in crisis;
  • funding is too reactive and too slow to reach those impacted by conflict and disaster;
  • the system is overly risk averse with risk disproportionately carried by smaller organisations without commensurate funds or support;
  • the sector doesn’t prioritise innovation and as a result there is a lack of demonstrable models and evidence for viable alternatives to current practices.

So we’ve looked back and seen the distance already travelled by those early pioneers at Start Network from whom we’ve inherited both the baton and the responsibility for change. We’ve looked ahead and seen the distance yet to travel but remain undaunted. We’ve looked around and seen the continued need for our work in the present. In doing so we’ve engaged with our staff, our members, trustees, and stakeholders across the system.

The resulting strategy crystallises our value offer as a systems change organisation and sets out how we will address the challenges summarised above. We will build on the progress we have already made by developing the network of Hubs, by getting funding into the places it’s needed earlier and quicker than ever before, and by designing and testing innovative new ways of operating. All with the principles of local leadership, devolution and decolonisation at their core.

This strategy also sets out in practical terms how we will realise our value as a systems change organisation: by working with five keys to systems change⁠ and by leveraging our organisational strengths. The five keys are those largely invisible aspects of systems that need to be recognised and shifted to create change: the system’s purpose, power, relationships and resources, and the more visible practices within it. We focus our work - our hubs, funding models and innovation programming - on those aspects of the five keys that we believe are most likely to help shift the conditions that hold the system in place. To do this most effectively we draw on our organisational strengths, born of our heritage:

  • We are a networker supporting collaboration, partnership, peer exchange and learning across a growing network of civil society organisations working on behalf of at risk and crisis affected communities and connected through regional and country-based hubs.
  • We are a leading-edge funder enabling members to access rapid, early and risk-informed funding based on collective decision making and local leadership.
  • We are an innovator recognising that if we are to change the system, we must experiment by designing and testing practical alternatives to core aspects of the status quo - embodying the very spirit with which Start Network was established in 2010.
  • We are an influencer drawing insights and learning from our work and sharing them to help take our work beyond those already convinced of the case for change and building a wider movement for systems change.

Our strategy is founded on the hypothesis by aligning and leveraging these strengths to take practical actions we can help shift the conditions that hold the current humanitarian system in place. This is how we can help create change at scale and work towards such a bold picture of the future as our members painted at our 2023 Assembly. Getting there won’t be easy, nor will it be quick, but we believe that not taking action to improve the humanitarian sector is not an option. This is the work we are committed to doing at Start Network, work we are well placed to do, and work that is, perhaps, needed now more than ever.

Our strategy offers us a map for the next stage on that journey.

Read our Strategy 2024-2026

Download here