There are terms that get tossed around a lot in our sector these days, so much so that it can be hard to discern exactly what they mean. Systems change is one such concept. When I interviewed Kumi Naidoo at the Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium, we spoke about how donors can effectively support climate justice. During our conversation, Kumi urged donors to fund systems change, a call we at Thousand Currents advance in our work.
Multidimensional challenges like climate change require systemic solutions. This means that we must pay attention to more than just symptoms like floods and fires, and instead work to address the root causes of how and why such problems came about in the first place. While social, economic, and political systems have long enabled the fossil fuel and agriculture industries to wreak havoc on Mother Earth, their impact is felt across the world. And if we’re going to have any hope of restoring our relationship with nature and each other, we have to go beyond patchwork solutions that fail to address these systemic changes.
At Thousand Currents, we have spent decades cultivating partnerships with grassroots and movement organizations who know how to do just that. Our partners are meeting the complex and interconnected challenges of our time with multidimensional, courageous and visionary solutions. They are stopping toxic industries, supporting policies and laws, and building more just futures.
But grassroots groups and movements in the Global South are funded at a mediocre rate, despite the fact that these communities are the ones most directly affected by issues like climate change. Less than 10% of all global funding goes to local groups. Only 1 percent goes to indigenous groups, and a tiny .02 percent of climate funding reaches women’s rights groups. In fact, 99 percent of all global funding is restricted. This is the equivalent of turning the water off during a drought. And on those rare occasions when that water comes on, only a few measly drops trickle down—instead of a constant supply.
If philanthropy wants to upend this broken system, we need internal and external transformation. Here are 6 ways funders can start to support systems change through their grantmaking practices, today:
- Fund grassroots organisations and movements. While climate is global, its impact is disproportionate. Frontline communities bear the brunt of climate impact, and advance most of the effective solutions for addressing it. Close the inequities in global funding by making sure the majority of your funding goes to the majority world: countries and communities at the frontline of climate impact.
- Core, flexible, long-term support. Trust your grantee partners by giving them unrestricted funding that they can use however they see fit. Systems are complex and the work to shift them requires that groups are able to pivot, experiment, and adapt. Core funding enables that. Recognise that it took generations to get to this moment of crisis, and it will take decades to solve these problems. Change will not be delivered in our 3-5 year timelines. Lift time and project parameters, and eliminate short-sighted and rigid learning and evaluation frameworks. This will enable grantee partners to dynamically adapt to what this moment needs.
- Intersectional solutions. We are well past the time where we can afford to think about climate as separate from race, gender, food, or the economy. These issues are interconnected, and we must develop our capacity to multi-solve. Commit to equity and justice in all forms, regardless of geographic boundaries.
- Experimentation. Sometimes answers come from the least expected places, but only when there is enough space to allow for trial and error. Evidence-based researchers are given ample opportunities to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and our grantee partners should be no different.
- Narrative change. As Kumi reminded us during his talk, we are in an era of disinformation about many issues, including climate change. Climate justice activists and advocates are fighting back against falsehoods and reclaiming the climate narrative using creative and cultural production. This work needs increasing support.
- Collaboration. No one person or single organisation will shift the complex web of systems we are working to change. Systems change is fundamentally asking us to detach from individualistic and singular ideas of leadership and progress. Support opportunities for grantee partners to build relationships, and facilitate collaborations with other peer funders like we did with The CLIMA Fund. We got here together, and together is the only way out.
Our ecological well-being is hanging in the balance, and every choice we make matters right now. We all have a role to play in solving the climate crisis. In philanthropy, we have the power to use our resources as a redistributive and restorative tool through urgent, courageous, and bold action. Now, we just have to use it.
Solomé Lemma, Executive Director, Thousand Currents
Solomé Lemma was one of the speakers and workshop leaders at the 2021 Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium. You can read more reports from the symposium here.