How, when, and why do certain solutions achieve system-level shifts? Four years ago, the Skoll, Ford, and Draper Richards Kaplan Foundations, Porticus, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors set out to explore that question through the Scaling Solutions toward Shifting Systems initiative.
The initiative’s most recent publication was released this summer: Seeing, Facilitating, and Assessing Systems Change, which focuses on how funders can design for and measure progress on systems change, drawing on experiences from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and North America.
Heather Grady, Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and Edwin Ou, Managing Director, Funder Alliances at Skoll Foundation, answered some questions from Alliance digital editor Elika Roohi on what can be learned from the ongoing research in this area, including how to engage in systems change philanthropy amid the crises of today’s world.
Elika Roohi: So much has changed in the world in the last four years. Have you seen examples of positive changes in the direction of systems change philanthropy since you began your research?
Heather Grady & Edwin Ou: Yes, during these years our team has both discovered and uncovered more examples of philanthropy using systems approaches, and seen an increase in interest and application of systems approaches.
For instance, consider the systems change work of the J.W. McConnell Foundation that is dedicated to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and stewarding the environment for a sustainable future. The work of the Garfield Foundation is another example, where they make grants to multi-stakeholder networks to fuel collaboration and systems that build their capacity to solve complex social-environmental issues. There are still many others.
The increasing use of the words ‘systems change’ indicates a growing interest and uptake.
…we learned that when things get really difficult at a societal level, funders recognise that, through empowering grantees to navigate through complexity and dynamism, the results are generally better.
ER: What would you like to see more of from the philanthropy sector in this area?
HG & EO: Before the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of funders interested in systems change didn’t really see how their internal practices and policies, such as providing only short-term, restricted grants, made it difficult for their grantees to achieve change on a deeper level. In 2020, funders have realised that grantees can be more effective, address challenges, and work on underlying causes of problems much better if they are provided with longer-term, more flexible grants – especially supports that enable capacity building, risk-taking, and sharing of lessons learned.
The COVID-19 Pledge (COF) in the US, and similar commitments by funders elsewhere, show that there is a willingness to adopt different funding practices in order to scale impact and support grantees better. We would like to see more funders revising their internal processes at a faster pace.
ER: Your 2020 report, Seeing, Facilitating, and Assessing Systems Change, drew on experiences from Kenya, Colombia, India, and the United States. What were some global trends that you saw in this are? What about regional trends?
HG & EO: Globally, we saw that so many more philanthropic actors are interested in collaborating with other funders to create more efficient and effective processes, as well as drawing in program partners from the beginning to encourage a user-centred design approach to their supports. We also identified how funders are recognising that internal funding silos – programme areas with rigid boundaries – need to be expanded to have more a more holistic understanding of the underlying causes of problems and how we solve them. The convergence of COVID-19, and corresponding analysis of why some communities are far more vulnerable than others, and the racial justice movements that illustrate so well how there are no simple solutions to complex problems, are what philanthropists in all these countries are talking about.
Outside of global trends, we noticed that locally-based foundations, which are often both operating programmes and staffed with proximate leaders with roots in partner communities, are demonstrating their relevance now. Their intellectual and social capital can oftentimes be more important than any financial capital a funder might have to contribute.
ER: What were some of the key findings from your research?
HG & EO: The first was that there is diversity amongst funders in terms of their willingness to embrace complexity in supporting and measuring change. A minority of funders are very comfortable with embracing complexity and allowing grantees to pivot as they deem necessary as situations change or new conditions reveal themselves. Most funders institute planning, monitoring, and reporting processes that are somewhat at odds with the reality that program partners deal with in terms of complexity and making interventions in the face of dynamic situations for those they are trying to serve.
Fund work that doesn’t neatly fit into one programme area (e.g., supporting networks and social movements rarely do) – that is often the most impactful work.
Related to this, we learned that when things get really difficult at a societal level, funders recognise that, through empowering grantees to navigate through complexity and dynamism, the results are generally better.
We were also struck by the fact that most funders want to know, ultimately, what kind of long-term impact they are contributing to, but they face a conundrum because the support they give is often short-term – often a couple of years – so they only get information about project activities and short-term outputs or outcomes.
ER: In the last several months, the systems of our world have been rocked by COVID-19. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on systems change philanthropy?
HG & EO: Many funders are being more generous and see that, even if their investments are less secure, they should be giving more, earlier.
We believe this tragedy is setting in motion some changes in how the sector will fund for years to come. Indeed, there may be more opportunities emerging from this crisis that could enable the re-imagining of social, economic, or environmental systems at more structural levels.
ER: For a foundation that is new to the area of systems-oriented funding, what advice would you have?
HG & EO: Find and collaborate with others whose philanthropy you admire – you will avoid to some extent reinventing wheels.
Think in advance about what kind of impact you want to have, what kind of changes you want to measure, and then work with an experienced evaluator who will guide you on how to design a thoughtful assessment framework for the long-term.
Fund work that doesn’t neatly fit into one program area (e.g., supporting networks and social movements rarely do) – that is often the most impactful work.
And bring in diverse perspectives to the portfolio design work, especially those who are experiencing – or working at the coal face of – the challenges you are addressing.
ER: Alliance published an issue on philanthropy and systems approaches in 2019, so I’m wondering what you think about the discourse surrounding systems change and philanthropy? Are there matters you feel the sector isn’t talking about that you’d like to see be a part of the conversation?
HG & EO: As the discourse and practice on systems change in philanthropy grows, there will always be those who think the core concepts are being unhelpfully watered down, and others who think any movement in the direction of using more of a systems approach is good. The field is recognising the need to embed equity into the design of supporting systems change.
Our research and the many interviews and convenings we held give us confidence that the trend is positive. And yes, most of us will never be systems change experts, but we can still apply the design and evaluation principles that are exemplified in the report, and in this process find new and better ways to achieve impact.
Elika Roohi is Digital editor at Alliance.