Systems change – are we already doing it?


Systems changeit’s an increasingly trendy phrase in our field, but what exactly makes it unique? Is systems change the silver bullet? Or another revised term that encompasses practices already common to us?

Systems change considers the underlying structures of our society and attempts to address the root causes of challenges, rather than looking at the separate pieces that make up a system.  When done right, it leads to systemic change. Does this sound familiar? Our guess is that a lot of readers already work somehow through a systems-change lens, whether or not it is intentional.

This Council on Foundations session reminded us that we are at a crucial moment. Recent literature, such as ‘Winners Take All,’ ‘Decolonizing Wealth,’ and  ‘Just Giving,’ has stimulated a discourse about underlying structures having inadvertently perpetuated some of the issues we struggle against. According to Lauren Smith, co-CEO of FSG, systems change allows us to examine and analyze this phenomenon. Some elements of systems that are more visible include policy practices and the flow of resources. But  underlying components, such as relationships and power dynamics, are also crucial. Embedded more deeply are issues related to mindsets and ways of thinking about the world. These secondary and third levels are oftentimes ignored or glided over, and not given the attention they deserve when analyzing the systems we work in. We are at the point where we must question and critically reflect on different factors and sublevels to solve the crucial societal issues we face.

Philanthropy is well placed to operate within this framework. Most of us working in this field entered it because we believe we can fundamentally change some part of an existing system and help solve or alleviate problems to make the world a better place. We bet that most people involved in philanthropy understand that, although housing the homeless is important, it is equally (if not more) necessary to understand why those populations are homeless to begin with.  We must balance short-term needs against the need to solve root causes. We are starting to see some movement toward this holistic approach. Funder collaboratives such as Co-Impact and initiatives like effective altruism are pooling resources to more concretely address larger issues, approaching both a problem itself and the factors underlying it.

We also should look at systems change in our own workspaces. What does the desire to ‘do good’ externally mean internally? You are likely using a systems change approach within your own organization. You may already be asking yourself, How is my organization structured? How does my organizational structure end up interfering with collaborative, open ways of thinking and doing? Does it reproduce internally  power issues that we are addressing as an organization externally? Once we’ve looked at systems change within our own organizations we should look at it in like-minded entities in our sector. What are the opportunities for shared work and shared grantmaking? Where are there opportunities to collaborate, specifically with those whose voices aren’t always represented? These are all systems changes.

So how do we normalize systems change to the point that we don’t even think of it as its own framework or a buzz word? Where it becomes an ingrained mindset when we set out to do any of our work? Here are the ideas we’ve thought of, which we share in the spirit of contributing to the conversation:

  • If something works, consider sharing it with peers. Scalability is often a term that you’ll hear in systems change discussions. Why reinvent the wheel when others have successfully implemented something similar? We can learn a lot from our peers, and knowledge sharing could open the doors for larger-scale funder collaborations.
  • Don’t underestimate government. Governments (and policy makers) are experts at scaling; it is the nature of their work to reach across large swaths of the population and implement massive-scale programs. In turn, philanthropy is expert at recognizing public-private gaps and creating solutions for the public’s benefit. Public-private partnerships can leverage the strengths of the other, helping to tackle the structural changes needed to solve complex societal issues.
  • Think of philanthropy networks as allies. Grantmaker associations and thematic funder networks are well placed to be catalysts for systems change thinking. They know the lay of the land, seeing the parts individually as well as how they come together as a whole. They know what the biggest needs are, and they know where there is potential to collaborate and maximize impact.
  • Look at the data. Data gives you a comprehensive picture of the ecosystem, helping you make strategic decisions and to understand how one decision could affect another further down the line. It can tell you where the funding, partnering, and knowledge gaps are, and how well the sector is doing to create positive change.
  • “Systemic change” isn’t only for revolutionaries. We often hear systemic change or similar language used with the more radical people in our field … but it can truly applye to all of us. Whether you are in the camp that believes philanthropy is part of the problem or the camp that believes it’s part of the solution, we urge you to adapt this lens to help change the structures we work in and ultimately better serve the populations and issues we care about.

We believe many people in our field agree with the principles of systems change in philanthropy: addressing the root causes of issues, viewing the system and its processes as interconnected, and recognizing philanthropy plays a role in a broader ecosystem. We also believe that, whether you work with the systems-change lens or not, we must all work together to ensure a strategic approach and maintain the enthusiasm that our work requires of us to ultimately solve the problems we seek to correct. This goal requires self-reflection, motivation, and strategic reflection on what we want to achieve, and how.

At a time of complex, constant change, it may seem ironic that we seek more change or another framework. Is systems change the change that could help us bring some order to the increasing disorder in the discourse that surrounds us?

Systems change is a mindset, regardless of what we call it.

This blog was co-written by Sarah Brown-Campello of WINGS and Lauren Bradford of Candid and inspired by the breakout session “Strategy and Tactics for Systems Change Amidst Complexity” at the recent Council on Foundations “Leading Together” conference.

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