It’s the System, stupid! A comment on Co-Impact


Tobias Troll


Co-Impact, ‘a new model of collaborative philanthropy’, aims to address ‘systems change’ through large-scale, long-term and strategic grant-making. I welcome the debate that this initiative is generating in Alliance and elsewhere.

Olivia Leland, founder and CEO of the initiative, lucidly addresses many shortcomings that conventional philanthropy, civil society and social movements are struggling with.

Grants are often small, siloed by issue area, short-term and highly restricted, rarely allowing for general organizational support.

The grantmaking landscape is also highly fragmented, with each donor imposing its own implementation and reporting requirements.

In contrast, Co-Impact’s partnership model with large-scale, long-term thinking that harnesses money as well as non-financial assets such as relationships, is refreshing, important and essential.

Still, there is a strange gap in Co-Impact’s approach: It aims at ‘systems change’, which is mentioned 11 times alone on their homepage, but without identifying what they mean by ‘the system’ and defining what systems change could actually look like.

The problems Co-Impact aims to address are results of a system of capitalism we are all living in that irrevocably damages the planet, extracts resources for corporate profit, exploits people, concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, accelerates climate change and species extinction and exacerbates inequalities.

Is this the system that Co-Impact aims to change?

Systems change philanthropy cannot work without a proper systemic analysis: What are the root causes of today’s problems? What are the roles of states, markets and capitalism in the creation or perpetuation of social exclusion, poverty, or the exploitation of natural resources? Can we address systems change without questioning the growth and profit obsession of our economic system?

‘Thinking bigger’ can’t be limited to ‘more money’, and systems change philanthropy cannot be reduced to ‘solving problems.’ That would be just another act of charity, maybe helpful in the short run, but not addressing the roots of the crises.

We have to move from charity to justice, question dominant paradigms and build alternatives to systems of exploitation.

This starts by asking reflective questions such as: Where is the philanthropic money actually coming from? How did the creation of these assets in the first place possibly contribute to the problems they aim to solve, and does their management perpetuate the crises?

This reflexivity – and systems change – is possible. Co-Impact could re-think an agro-industrial model as promoted by core partners Bill and Melinda Gates.

It could experiment with radical participatory grant making instead of top-down decisions on what is a “sound strategy.” It could address the investment side of philanthropy with the same importance as the grant-making.

It could promote spending down as a way to return wealth extracted through colonialism and tax evasion back to society. Scaling up grant periods and amounts, working in partnership and mobilizing non-monetary resources is certainly useful and important.

But, without a deep systemic analysis and theory of change it won’t help to change the system we are living in, one that produces the multiple crises we are facing.

Tobias Troll is director of the EDGE Funders Alliance and is writing in a personal capacity. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the organisational position of EDGE or its members.

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Tobias Troll

You can dive deeper into the topic of system change philanthropy through an EDGE webinar "Progressive Philanthropy Needs to Spur System Change" on 30 January 2018:

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