Philanthropy’s crossroads: Navigating dilemmas to champion systemic change


Heather Grady, Caroline Suozzi and Olga Tarasov


As philanthropy grapples with weighty questions about its responsibility and role in addressing systemic issues, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Shifting Systems Initiative are diving deeper into issues the initiative has explored since its inception in 2016.

In June of 2023, the evaluation team of the Shifting Systems Initiative published their report outlining findings of a six-month in-depth evaluation. The evaluation sought to assess the progress of the initiative to date and the state of play in the philanthropy sector regarding adopting approaches that foster support for positive systems change.

Among other invaluable findings, the evaluation surfaced key strategic dilemmas facing philanthropy today. As part of this learning and discovery process, the evaluation team hosted conversations with different groups of interviewees to grapple with these dilemmas. This discussion included critical voices pushing philanthropy to reckon with its power, privileges, and role in maintaining the status quo, including Imandeep Kaur, Kumi Naidoo, Natasha Joshi, and Pia Infante.

While addressing these dilemmas does not offer definitive solutions, the responses below can deepen our understanding of the environment and context for potential change and provide some recommendations to help the sector move in the right direction.

Dilemma 1: How do initiatives to influence philanthropy contribute to transformative rather than performative change?

Progressive philanthropy must confront its own tendencies to remain neutral or agnostic toward systemic transformation. Instead of scaling existing programs or focusing only on top-level changes (like policies), philanthropy should also aim to shift the underlying power dynamics, relationships, and mental models that perpetuate systemic issues where those systems have unjust outcomes.

Moreover, given how often funders go into periods of strategic refresh (as it’s often called), it is critical that philanthropy continues to “carry on disbursing the money, regardless of internal dynamics and politics that meanwhile require deep internal work within the organization.” The work cannot stop while philanthropy grapples with its own existential or practical dilemmas.

Dilemma 2: How should global north, predominantly white-led initiatives approach efforts to influence the philanthropic sector?

Philanthropic institutions, particularly those led by individuals from the global north, need to be aware of their complicity in perpetuating the crises we face today. These institutions should not exploit activists, grassroots organizations, or communities for their knowledge without offering adequate support. Instead, philanthropy should learn from and collaborate with these change-makers in a power-aware manner.

Additionally, the report states, “Philanthropy’s obsession with measurement is, perhaps paradoxically, a significant blocker to more impactful, transformative work.” Since systems change work can’t be easily measured, relying on stringent requirements created by “measurement experts” in the global north can deter organizations from doing the deeper, harder work to create meaningful shifts.

Dilemma 3: How could (or should) aligned initiatives and efforts to influence philanthropy relate to one another to accelerate the transformation of philanthropy?

Philanthropy can serve as a catalyst for change, but it needs to do so responsibly by changing the environment in which the sector operates. Some suggestions include:

  1. Fostering Creative Conditions: Philanthropy can set the stage for new ways of thinking by supporting change-makers and showcasing their work.
  2. Engaging Authentically: Philanthropic organizations should deeply listen to the communities they serve and act upon what they hear, rather than seeing themselves as the saviors or experts.
  3. Reframing Risk: Instead of a funder-centric view that is averse to uncertainty, philanthropy needs to consider the greater risk of underfunding transformative work while perpetuating systemic issues.

A key message woven into each of these dilemmas is clear: philanthropy must become more aware of the unjust power it wields. Instead of seeing itself as the central node of expertise, the sector should step back with aggressive humility and allow others to take the lead in crafting solutions. By giving those with the wisdom to lead the power to do so, the philanthropic landscape will move toward becoming a supportive partner to help nourish enduring, transformative change.

Readers can find a copy of the report here.

Heather Grady is the Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Caroline Suozzi is the Thought Leadership and Content Manager at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Olga Tarasov is the Senior Director, Inquiry & Insights at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Tagged in: Funding practice

Comments (0)

Oliver Greenfield

Even for those leaders in the philanthropic sector who are trying to embrace systems change - there is a distinction between new system innovation initiatives and whole system transformation. For example, in the green economy we can pioneer renewables -but unless we engage with fossil fuel and government policy on it, we shall not have a chance to stay below 1.5 degrees. In short, we need more system transformation ambition.

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