Alliance Breakfast Club: #SystemsChange

Amy McGoldrick

‘Intractable problems the world faces cannot be solved in isolation,’ began Nick Glicher, Director of TrustLaw at the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) in his welcoming remarks. ‘Problems are interconnected and interdependent – and so are solutions.’

Alliance’s first Breakfast Club to be hosted by TRF was an alignment of space and theme. TRF focuses on creative collaboration, and empowering organisations with the information, tools and resources that those organisations need. ‘Sustainable impact ecosystems require information flow… it is a fundamental part of it, and systems can’t change without it.’

TRF providing the space to facilitate this real-time ‘information flow’ helped to create one of the largest and most inspiring Breakfast Clubs that Alliance has ever held. More than 60 delegates swept into the auditorium, eager to discuss the magazine’s special feature but also to hear directly from three distinct and yet complementary speakers. The panel were wonderfully chaired by Angela Seay, Chair of Trustees for The Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation, who filled in for Charles Keidan (Alliance editor).

Julian Corner, CEO of Lankelly Chase Foundation and guest editor of the Systems Change feature was the first to speak. Corner immediately explained the fringe nature of systems thinking, despite its longevity: ‘Systems thinking, the discipline which has really underpinned how we all think about systems – even if we don’t know it – has itself been a marginal discipline for the decades it has existed.’

Bringing this thinking into the heart of foundations’ work and ideologies has never seemed more pertinent; as Corner noted, ‘Don’t think it’s an accident that now is the time.’ Foundations feel like the perfect crucible for this discipline, as it both speaks to scale and freedom, to sit well alongside both the systems that foundations are trying to affect, but also sitting apart from them. The versatility and freedom of foundations ‘lends itself to the manoeuvring around of the interrelationships between things, rather than focusing on the “things themselves,’ said Corner.

Corner outlined four attitudes to systems in his article, and he referred to them in his opening remarks:

1. The system as a unit of intervention: ‘Foundations who realise that focusing on one bit – as if it wasn’t connected to others – get to a point of trying to paint on a broader canvas.’

2. Messy contested systems: ‘The immediate problem is scale. How do small actors engage in something so overwhelming? There is then a push to find so-called “leverage points”.’

3. Seeing yourself in the system: ‘If you pursue this path long enough, this uniquely-framed canvas stops feeling so neat… The edges feel blurry, and what you’re looking at is not an objective image of a system but a contested space that has multiple perspectives, and you are but one actor with but one perspective. Start to see where the energy and change is that’s bubbling through, and where you can giving a helping hand to.’

4. Beyond systems: ‘Stop thinking of yourself as looking at a canvas, and looking at a system, and start realising that you’re within the picture yourself. You are part of the system… Many of the mindsets you’ve brought to creating the solutions are closely akin to the mindsets that have been keeping the problem going.’

‘Many of the mindsets you’ve brought to creating the solutions are akin to the mindsets that have been keeping the problem going’

Silvia Bastante de Unverhau, Chief Philanthropy Officer at Co-Impact, was next to speak. Previously the Global Head of Philanthropy Advisory at UBS, Bastante began by telling the audience that in talking about systems change and philanthropy, she likes to start with the self. ‘Where do we come from; what is my one perspective?’

Originally from Lima, Peru, Bastante grew up around poverty. ‘My mother likes to remind me that when I was five, I kept asking “What is the meaning of justice?”’. Fast-forwarding through her life and career, Bastante revealed an anecdote from when she was at UBS in Zürich. A philanthropist returned from Kenya, enamoured with black rhinos and keen to aid conservation efforts through building a park to aid their preservation. Bastante came back with her team’s research and her own previous experience in this area that in order to save the black rhino from extinction, human attitudes also need to be approached; namely, de-value the rhino horn. The work that was truly in need of funding was in changing mindsets and working with nonprofits in Asia on a campaign of information. ‘The gentleman returned to me and said, “What you say makes a lot of sense. But I still want my park in Africa”.’

Bastante acknowledged the ego within philanthropy, and the mechanisms that exist aren’t effective enough to bring philanthropists together within the systems change sphere. ‘The capital does not address what the world actually needs,’ said Bastante. Maximum grants are around £10 million, and usually quite restrictive. 50 per cent of foundations have less than $1 million and no paid staff. ‘There is an assumption that small pilots that are successful will be taken to scale, but this doesn’t happen.’ Grants aren’t in line with systems change, either. Bringing these actors together is obviously easier said than done, ‘but working with others helps you to realise you’re a part of the system’.

A collaborative of philanthropists to affect large scale change, Bastante explained that their first round of grant currently totals $80 million for health, education and economic opportunity. The ‘Co-Impact community’ joins at a minimum of $250,000 per year for a minimum of three years. Before they award these grants, Co-Impact also gives a $500,000 design grant, providing their project partners (not ‘grantees’) 6-8 months to create space for social entrepreneurs to advance their work and their thinking.

‘Systems change requires commitment to experimentation,’ revealed Bastante, and that in creating this strong coalition of actors, amplifying disadvantaged voices and recognising uncertainty and the unknown, Co-Impact seeks to support the organisations who are at the forefronts of their field. ‘Anyone who says they’re an expert in systems change is lying, as it is incredibly context-dependent!’

‘Anyone who says they’re an expert in systems change is lying, as it is incredibly context-dependent!’

The last panellist to speak was Eva Rehse, Executive Director of Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) UK and member of EDGE Funders European Steering Group. GGF was ‘set up to challenge the philanthropic system and flip philanthropy on its head,’ said Rehse. Deliberately done to offer an alternative, this drives their systems thinking to combat those that are “root causes and drivers of our ecological and social crises”.

Rehse gave an example of their work in Burkina Faso, supporting women who are protecting their farmland. ‘In our model, we have focused on giving money to those who don’t have access to any financial services.’ On the one hand, these women are protecting land due to small-scale mining’s degradation of the land (noted by Rehse as a male profession). ’60-80 per cent of the food we consume is produced by women, but they only own 2 per cent of the land.’ What is the entry point to address the immediate need – the degradation and need for food security, or for the larger systemic issues such as gender imbalance? ‘Is it enough to give women the tools to restore the land, or is there more?’

GGF’s response has been to give with three components – a $5,000 grant, to work on protecting the land ecologically and then to look at transforming the economic system that created the problem in the first place. ‘Small grants at microscale can change people’s lives if you think in a systems way.’

Similarly to Corner and Bastante, Rehse explained the importance of collaboration: ‘We recognise that we’re not experts in everything… we bring in the lived experience of the communities… it helps strengthen how we give and how we think about giving.’

Rehse referenced Let’s change the system, not the symptoms in Alliance’s March issue. ‘EDGE understand the system that is our economy, which is seen as the root cause for the environmental and social issues that we’re facing… How do we keep the good and build the new? Where are our entry points?’ Rehse called on the audience to keep questioning, to decolonise philanthropy, and examine the power dynamics. At GGF, ‘We think about philanthropy as a system, and we’re really clear that we can’t have the micro-level systems change conversation with our collaborators without challenging philanthropy itself.’

‘We’re really clear that we can’t have the micro-level systems change conversation with our collaborators without challenging philanthropy itself.’

So is the change within ourselves, within our organisation, or within the system of philanthropy? ‘It’s all of them, all at the same time.’ Critical self-analysis is key, and interrogating ourselves and acknowledging we’re as much a part of the system as everything else, and therefore how we challenge it.

At this point, questions were taken by the audience and the panellists answered in partnership. Trevor Rees at Enso Impact asked where the panellists see catalytic opportunity. Bastante replied that ‘impact depends very much upon the lens in which you’re working’ and is more of a value judgement. Rehse responded that it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to change the most urgent issue. ‘Acknowledge that all struggles have to be fought, acknowledge the ecosystem in which we operate’ and ask where the gaps are. ‘There is enough capital around to answer these questions, so it is important to stop focusing on the poster children.’ Corner answered that it is ‘much easier for foundations to fund innovations to sustain the old system, or unsustainable conditions for the new system. Funding the new system can be a lonely position, with no sustainability, but it’s precisely what independent money can give rise to.’

Tom Harrison at the JJ Charitable Trust asked about exploring ways in which foundations can help the transition toward systems change, and creating a future that doesn’t rely on people invested in the past. Corner remarked, ‘I can’t see any alternative than to try and view the future as already here… what we try to do is to fight alongside those who are already trying to hold this space, and to hold commonality. Notice the emergence of the new system within the paradigms that we are in already. Some people are willing to step forward and try and envisage something different and feel an emotional need to do that, and foundations can have a key role in helping those people to understand that they’re not going mad, and they’re not alone. Create that sense of critical mass that gives legitimacy and body to the future.’ Rehse agreed that there is so much potential in thinking about the alternatives. As an example, there is ‘multi-generation, cross-political excitement around climate change, creating something new and trying to work it out. Hold onto the positive narrative that this transition will lead to something new.’ Bastante advised that foundations can create more flexible, long-term funding – ‘support the coherence that who you’re supporting wants to have and treat your partners with trust and respect.’

‘If philanthropy can’t imagine a future without itself, it can’t be an advocate for systems change.’

The last question came as a dual-parter from Gina Cicerone at Fair Education Alliance and Katie Boswell at NPC; how to frame this sort of dialogue when it is not as appealing to funders, and is there a risk that because this systems change thinking is seen as owned by foundations and philanthropists, that this tempers the radical and disruptive aspect to it?

Bastante explained that it is ‘incredibly hard to get philanthropists and funders to change their practices. Looking at the macro-level, philanthropy is the result of a certain system… [which] can be somewhat addressed by philanthropists giving up control, as well as supporting and working with governments’ as opposed to buying their influence.

Rehse senses ‘a real momentum that discussion is changing.’ With the momentum being set by grassroots movements, it demonstrates that the best work can happen through this momentum, rather than be ‘elite thinking’.

The final point was made by Corner, who countered that whilst he fundamentally believes ‘we’ll always need a state and public servants, there are other variations on this that we can’t envisage. It cannot be off the table that we can’t imagine a future without philanthropy. ..There has to be enough space for systems change which envisages a world where there doesn’t need to be a room like this, because the money sits where it needs to sit. If philanthropy can’t imagine a future without itself, it can’t be an advocate for systems change.’

Amy McGoldrick is the Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine.

The next Alliance Breakfast Club will be on ‘Peace building and philanthropy’, Wednesday 26 June at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Registration will open in May – make sure you are subscribed to our newsletter to receive the latest information.

To watch the full recording of the panel debate, click below.

This Breakfast Club event was hosted with Thomson Reuters Foundation


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