Out there is in here: the importance of systems awareness


Caroline Hartnell


Systems change is an area Rethinking Poverty intends to look at in a systematic way, examining some of the key concepts such as emergence and design, equifinality, etc. While a 90-minute breakfast discussion couldn’t possibly do justice to the full complexity of systems change, Julian Corner’s thoughtful remarks at the Alliance Breakfast Club on 27 March made clear how important it is for everyone seeking change to be aware that they are part of a wider system. Corner is CEO of Lankelly Chase Foundation and guest editor of the March issue of Alliance on systems change.

Systems thinking – the way we think about systems – has been very marginal for decades, the preserve of consultants and academics, he said.  Today we have ‘a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness of everything’ – climate change, inequality, migration, etc – and a growing recognition that the intractable problems the world faces can’t be solved by one organisation in isolation. ‘The time is ripe for foundations and other organisations to bring systems thinking into their work’ – an awareness that everything is part of a system, which any one organisation has a limited ability to change.

Llankelly Chase and systems thinking
Corner described Llankelly Chase’s own move in this direction. They didn’t just switch one day, he said, ‘there was a process of trial and error, iterative working, an often painful process of stretching beyond the limits of your competence and expertise.’ A key point here is that you need to be aware of what you don’t know, and able to accept uncertainty. Once you have understood that the problem you are looking at is part of a wider system, you can look for leverage points that will give you access to that system. This could, for example, involve working for policy changes, scaling disruptive innovations, supporting advocacy for people’s rights, or improving the evidence base used by system actors, as he describes in his Alliance article. But this doesn’t mean a project will become a means to a specific, well-defined end. Rather it can be seen as a means to creating ripple effects across the system.

With time your view of the system becomes more blurry as you become more aware of conflicting perspectives and realise how messy and complex the system is. You can’t have much control over it, but you can ‘seek to influence the conditions of change’, Corner says in his Alliance article, ‘focusing on collaborations, place-based approaches, collective impact, amplifying lesser heard voices, building skills and capacities, and reframing the narratives people hold’.

In time, he said, you realise you are no longer just looking at a canvas; you’re part of it. ‘The mindsets you’ve been bringing as solutions are part of mindsets that have been perpetuating problems. Out there is in here.’ In the case of foundations, they will need to look at where their money comes from and responsible investment as well as how decisions are made, who is included, congruence between means and ends, and co-governance. Tackling inequality with accumulated wealth has to be seen as paradoxical.

Finally comes a realisation that the systems canvas is just a model, a way of thinking about the world, and what really matters are things like mutuality and solidarity – the way we relate to each other.

From the large-scale approach…
The other speakers at the Alliance Breakfast Club provided examples of different approaches to systems change, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Silvia Bastante de Unverhau is chief philanthropy officer at Co-Impact, a collaborative of philanthropists committed to effecting large-scale change, who recognise that the current system of philanthropy, characterised by small, one-off, restricted grants, will never solve complex problems. Partners contribute a minimum of $250,000 per year for a minimum of three years. Co-Impact typically invests $10 million to $25 million over five years, where there is already evidence of impact. Before they make this investment, they give a 6-8 month design grant to allow project partners to plan.

Like Corner, Bastante emphasised that systems change is about trying to find a lever – she gave the example of an education grant in Africa supporting an initiative focusing on improving the quality of teachers – and being willing to experiment, learn and accept uncertainty. Foundations can also reduce unnecessary burdens on their partners, for example not wanting them to focus on very specific goals and report back on them.

… to the very small grant
Eva Rehse of Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) describes GGF as an activist-led grantmaker, with decisions about funding made by in-country activists. In Burkina Faso, for example, GGF has made a £5,000 grant to rural women to protect their land and their livelihoods from the degradations of small-scale mining, incidentally carried out by men. These are people who traditionally have no money. As well as enabling these women to protect their land, this grant challenges the patriarchal structure and the economic system, as well as the root causes of climate change and inequality. GGF recognises that climate change requires more than exiting from fossil fuels; we need to change mindsets radically. They believe that a small grant can change the system as well as individual lives. Again, making a grant like this involves taking a step into the unknown: you can’t know what will come out of supporting this group of women.

Supporting an emerging future
Where do you have most impact? asked one audience member. This is a difficult question, said Corner. ‘It’s easy to fund innovations that hold up the old system or innovations in the new system that may go nowhere. Ideally, independent money can support the transition from one to another, creating space for the new thing to emerge.’

One key thing is that you need to work with what is already there. ‘We need to see the future that’s already here,’ said Corner. ‘We can’t create the future from scratch.’ Lankelly Chase tries to ‘get alongside’ people who are trying to create new thinking. ‘What you’re trying to do is not replace one system with another but to notice the emergence of a new system from what already exists.’ This isn’t unique to philanthropy, he said. ‘People are all trying to work out how to be part of the future they’re trying to create and less part of the present system they’re trying to change – how to surrender to interconnectedness.’

We need to create a critical mass, he went on, ‘to connect the future with itself’. ‘The future feels fragmented, unlike the present, which seems solid. We need to create a feeling of critical mass and solidity.’ ‘We need to hold on to the idea that we can create a new narrative,’ Rehse added.

Surrendering control
Playing a part in a wider system requires the surrendering of power, said Corner. Working with other funders on a place-based initiative must start not with resources or missions but with the relationships between the human beings behind the pots of money. Building trust between individuals is key to creating change. This is difficult for foundations, which like to fund tangible things not intangible things like trust. ‘We like to understand and control; not doing so can make people quite angry.’ As Bastante pointed out, foundations have always liked to produce annual reports detailing their own contribution.

Funders are coming round to the #ShiftThePower movement, said Rehse. And this could involve putting ourselves out of business, said Corner. ‘We can’t imagine a future without public servants and some kind of state,’ he said, ‘but we must be able to imagine a future without philanthropy. It’s often said that charities need to put themselves out of business; exactly the same applies to philanthropy. Money needs to be repatriated to people who need it. If philanthropy can’t imagine a system without itself, it can’t be an agent of change.’

Caroline Hartnell is the convener of the Rethinking Poverty blog. She is the co-founder of the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize and was editor of Alliance magazine from 1998 to 2015.

This article was originally posted on the Rethinking Poverty blog on 24 April 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

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