Community-driven systems change: A practical way to shift power in global development and philanthropy


Sadaf Shallwani


Traditional global development practices aren’t working.

Despite substantial investments in development efforts over many years, many large projects initiated by traditional, top-down Global North philanthropic funders, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and others have not resulted in meaningful and lasting change in communities. In some cases, there has even been unintentional harm done because of the disruption of local economic and social systems.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement and call to reimagine global development and philanthropic systems in ways that support social justice and equity – shifting power, resources, agency, and voice away from funders, INGOs, and others based in the Global North, and into the hands of the people and communities in the Global South. This movement has been further fueled over the last 18 months, as racial justice uprisings have challenged the global development sector to reckon with how it supports and perpetuates white supremacy, racism, and deeply inequitable distribution of wealth and power.

Firelight Foundation has released a research report and toolkit around community-driven systems change – a value-driven approach and set of tools to operationalize a genuine shifting of power to communities and local institutions.

Community-driven systems change – what is it and how can we support it?

Over the course of three years, in co-creation with a vast network of grassroots partners across Eastern and Southern Africa, we asked what we, in philanthropy and global development, can do better and how to provide communities and local institutions the resources and support they need to be in the driver’s seat of change. A clear framework emerged, along with a set of practical tools that provide funders with guidance to help shift power into the hands of those with the most knowledge: communities themselves.

We learned that lasting impact happens through community-driven systems change – when people come together to determine, own, and drive positive change for issues facing the communities to which they belong. This might sound obvious, but centering communities as leaders and experts to improve their own systems is often far from the norm. We also found that the most impactful actions focus on addressing the underlying systems and root causes of concern – rather than only reacting to symptoms.

Systems change requires national level strengthening alongside community ownership and action. While philanthropy has begun to recognize the importance of systems over symptomatic interventions, one major flaw in some definitions of systems change is that they overlook or ignore the importance of community ownership and action. We must invert our perspective and recognize the value of a grassroots approach to change that considers the needs of a specific community while maintaining vigilance towards the wider system at play. This is a fundamental foundation for success.

Our collective learnings were striking – in their clarity, consistency, and operationalizability. I invite you to learn more about what we discovered in our research and to recognize the unique power that you, your colleagues, and your institution have in adopting these learnings sincerely and with humility, in the pursuit of more effective giving and a better world.

Download and review Firelight’s report and tools at

Sadaf Shallwani, PhD, is the Director of Learning and Evaluation at Firelight Foundation.

Comments (1)

Platine Nyuyki

Thank you so much,

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