By what right…? Facilitating change in complex systems

Susanna Krueger and Kerstin Lehner

Foundations, either directly or by implication, often attempt to change complex systems in which many actors – governments, communities, academics – are involved. From where do they derive the legitimacy to do this within Kerstin Lehner a democratic system? Over the past years we have learned several lessons while involved in one form or another in such a complex system: the education system in Germany.

Stiftung Mercator, which is committed to creating equal opportunities in education for every student in Germany, decided to tackle the problem of children whose first language is not German. Initially, we invested €10 million in additional German tuition for pupils who struggled because of this. While the initiative was successful and reached more than 60,000 pupils, six years later tests showed that pupils from socially challenged families and with first languages other than German still did less well. The foundation therefore decided to focus on the quality of teacher training and initiated a programme that aims to equip teachers in every subject with the ability to teach German and to respond to students’ individual needs.

This puts us in contact with universities and ministries, among others. In both sets of institutions there are many decision-makers with different interests – teaching academics, boards that structure teacher training, and politicians who frame policies and make laws. As a result of our investment, German as a Second Language (GSL) is now a mandatory part of teacher education across the whole state of North Rhine Westphalia and at all universities. This success now carries through the system and is well on course to becoming a national policy.

We have developed different approaches to working in such a complex environment with many different stakeholders. As well as providing funding, we aim to mediate in the system as a whole and bring together all relevant stakeholders to move towards shared long-term goals. What have we learned so far from this ‘collective’ approach?

Lesson 1: Get an explicit mandate from core and implementing actors at the start and design the programme collaboratively

Intervening in an established public system requires a clear and explicit mandate from the core groups that are involved. In our case, we needed professors who were willing to work with us to create and implement a GSL module. This first step was easy, as some universities had already grasped that their trainee teachers were not prepared to teach diverse groups of students. The second step – to get a whole university to implement a module for all trainee teachers as a mandatory part of teacher training – was more difficult.

We tried to show the benefit for those involved. For example, deans were open to the argument that dealing with the topic of language and diversity in teacher training creates the image of a university that deals with current social challenges. Subject  professors were open to the fact that tandem teaching with someone who is already a specialist in GSL methods might minimize the effort.

Yet convincing partners and proving individual benefits is only the first step. Whether or not the foundation’s investment brings about an improvement depends on the development of a joint agenda and a shared theory of change. For the foundation, it was important that the GSL module should become a mandatory part of teacher training, while other partners preferred just to implement a GSL module for future German teachers. All views had to be made clear and a common understanding of aims allowed to emerge.

Creating a shared theory of change, however, requires resources and the willingness to understand what others might interpret as outcomes or positive impact. This is almost always a long process in which the partners must first learn to understand each others’ assumptions of how impact might emerge.

Lesson 2: Stay flexible and be ready to take risks
A clear theory of change helps one to stay on track, but the path to achieving predetermined outcomes is not always a straight one. Partners or circumstances often change during the course of a project. Foundations need to be flexible, not prescriptive and, together with their partners, find ways that lead to the desired aim.

We were thus ready to grasp an opportunity when it offered itself. We were already working on the GSL question when the state of North Rhine Westphalia decided to reform its teacher training. We were able to convene a roundtable of GSL experts (mainly professors from our programmes) and policymakers. A GSL module was created, it became mandatory, and every student teacher now learns how to teach children with language deficiencies. We were able to use this opportunity to achieve systemic change not only by getting policymakers involved but also because we were willing to invest in a network without a clear idea of what might come out of it.

Lesson 3: Ensure clear measurement and indicators of effectiveness

In traditional monitoring and evaluation, progress towards change is analysed against predefined indicators of success. However, this rather static way of doing things is at odds with the complexities of working within social systems. We need monitoring processes that can be modified through trial and error. In our view, this would be helped by an honest commitment to learning and change not only with partners, but with the foundation as a starting point. We have learned from major foundations in the US, such as the Wallace Foundation, that it can be beneficial for foundations engaging in such programmes to appoint a dedicated resource person for evaluation and learning, since processes have to be standardized, international benchmarks researched and comparability ensured. This also helps answer the legitimacy question: having transparent and professionally applied monitoring processes and using the data together with partners will increase legitimacy.

Lesson 4: Have extensive knowledge of the field and be sensitive to process
Foundation staff who manage initiatives in complex partnerships must be familiar with the field and the relevant actors, but they must also be prepared to act in concert with these actors to adjust means and aims of an initiative, so sensitivity to the process is required. All partners’ action plans must be coordinated and continuous communication ensured. In this way, the foundation is embedded in the network and is not seen as intervening from outside.

Our example shows this clearly: if we hadn’t been a part of the community and had good links to policymakers, we wouldn’t have known the details of the reform negotiated behind the scenes. We wouldn’t have been able to convene a roundtable to create a GSL module to put it in place on time. To bring people from different sectors together at the right time is one great contribution to social change that foundations can make.

Lesson 5: Address the dichotomy of being both facilitator and grantmaker
Funding and facilitating system change at the same time can be problematic. The financial backer is not the (only) decision-maker. Experience shows that it is better for the main funder to fund robust coordinating bodies and arrange external facilitation than to assume this role themselves. In the case of the GSL module, the foundation had a clear agenda, but it was crucial to accept the expertise of those who actually work in teacher training, who know what students need to learn, and who need to adapt new content to their seminars and lectures. Change is not achieved by merely investing money in the system, but by changing the behaviour of those involved – in this case, teachers and trainee teachers.

If foundations are not prepared to relinquish the desire for absolute control, collaboration cannot flourish. Foundations should increasingly see themselves as innovators and facilitators – not as supervisors – who shape change through professional process management and who develop their agenda together with their partners. Doing this requires the courage to make mistakes, which must be backed and promoted publicly by board and management.

Lesson 6: Sacrifice individual recognition
Foundations need to be prepared to sacrifice individual recognition and invest in larger and longer-term programmes. This increases acceptance and legitimacy within the democratic process and leads to greater impact. The GSL module is an open-content document, free for everyone to use and adapt. Most of the universities took ‘our’ GSL module as a basis but we didn’t insist on putting our brand on it.

Foundations have no electoral mandate to change a system. Legitimacy for them to do this can come only through explicit mandates from the community, including the state. A facilitative approach with grantees and the networks they are embedded in can also help to make the foundation a legitimate partner within the system, as can a flexible, yet goal-oriented, evaluation approach to transparently show the results of working towards agreed thematic goals.

Susanna Krueger is director of goodroot (GmbH), whose mission is to help foundations and non-profits describe and increase their social impact. Email

Kerstin Lehner is project manager in the Centre for Education at Stiftung Mercator. Email

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