IEFG 2023: Getting into systems change

Elika Roohi

Some 100 representatives of education funders gathered in Edinburgh last month to dissect philanthropy’s latest buzzword: systems change.

The 2023 International Education Funders Group conference, held at the University of Edinburgh campus from 22-24 May, brought together its global network of members for the first time since 2019. The three-day conference pushed attendees to clarify the meaning of systems change; to share tools, resources, and lessons on how to adopt a more systems change approach to their work; and to reflect and act on the implications of systems change efforts for education philanthropy.

‘The reason we want to talk about systems change is because passionate people have worked on education for decades, but we don’t see the change we want to see,’ said Laura Savage, Executive Director of the IEFG Secretariat, in the conference’s opening session.

IEFG wanted its members to take the three days and explore the meaning of systems change, recognise the need to tackle education from alternative angles and unpack how to promote systems change through advocacy and research. But the member body didn’t expect its members to come away with a consensus on the subject – instead, it wanted attendees to have a better understanding of how to apply systems change to their work and realise it will look different everywhere.

Exploring and engaging with systems change

An opening session on what systems change is and isn’t brought together a panel including Sara Ruto, the Former Chief Administrative Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Education; Safi Rahman Khan from BRAC; and Rebeca Gyumi from the Msichana Initiative Organisation.

‘Systems change has to align with two things: transformation change – which means culture, values, etc, what holds the system together. And it has to be intersectional as well,’ said Gyumi. She shared an example of work the Msichana Initiative did in Tanzania around raising the minimum marriage age to 18, saying that they didn’t consider this to be systems change, but rather a law change.

‘Systems change requires the ability to look beyond the surface to reveal the underlying structures,’ said Gyumi.

Khan agreed, sharing a similar example of a law change in Bangladesh raising the minimum marriage age to 18 for women and 21 for men. Yet Bangladesh still has the highest percentage of young marriages in Asia, Khan said.

The thing we are not doing is what feels risky. But we need to flip it. The risk of not engaging can be larger.

‘A lot of policy actors think that if you change the law, that should do it. But that’s not the case,’ Khan said.

Ruto, speaking from her experience at the Ministry of Education, said: ‘A system is as good as its weakest part.

‘As funders, we need to make a strategic choice to support the weakest point of the system. For example, where can I get to the child who needs it the most? The child, who – despite the best intents of their parents, community, government – may still be left behind.’

A subsequent session sought to explore the area where philanthropy was most effective in this area. ‘Philanthropic journeys into systems change’ brought together a panel of Co-Impact’s Abe Grindle, Imaginable Futures’ Shika Goyal, and Central Square Foundation’s Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja.

‘The work we really want to do is create enduring change, and for that, we need long-term support’, said Grindle, a Director on Co-Impact’s Program’s team. Co-Impact identifies itself as a global collaborative for systems change, working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for transformative change in health, education, and economic opportunity.

Goyal highlighted the collaborative nature of the work, saying: ‘No one organisation can change the system, but if they’re connected to others, they can help.’

Goyal’s organisation, Imaginable Futures, is a global philanthropic investment firm driven by impact and the belief that learning is key to well-being and equitable and healthy societies. Imaginable Futures works in Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States.

Collaboration across sectors was highlighted later in the day in a session that focused on civil society and community-driven systems change. Panellists Emilio Lopez from the Tinker Foundation, Margaret Mundia from the Kamoa Wise Trust, Charles Nyerere from the Nachikodowa Community-Based Organisation, and David Harrison from the DG Murray Trust gathered to share their experiences working on systems change from a community-based angle.

The goal of this panel, moderated by IEFG’s Spings Akumah, was to establish the importance of working with community-based organisations and civil society as part of any effort to achieve systems change and to encourage members to critically reflect on how philanthropy can better support community-based organisations and civil society through their funding process and additional support.

As funders, we need to make a strategic choice to support the weakest point of the system.

Civil society has a really key role, said Harrison. ‘If we’re not careful, we find that when we talk about systems change, we end up talking about government. But we need to take a step back and think about civil society.’

According to Harrison, civil society has several key roles in the transformation of a system, including synergising portals into the system, as an organising constituency, and to vitalise networks.

‘Government is a vascular network,’ Harrison said. ‘While socio-economic networks are like the neural system. You need the vascular system, you need the neural system – like the body you can’t have one without the other.’

Munia shared her experience from the Kamoa Wise Trust in Zambia, highlighting the same need for intersectional collaboration.

‘There is no community-driven systems change if we forget our traditional leaders. These leaders understand their community, and we cannot start any project without them,’ Mundia said.

While the panellists spoke, the need for involvement of local communities became abundantly clear – but ‘who is the community in systems change in education?’ asked a member of the audience. ‘Many of us are funding large-scale national programmes – but you’re right, having community is absolutely critical. Who should we be engaging with as part of our requirements as funders?’

Nyerere and Mundia both identified the government as the entry point for their work in Malawi and Zambia.

Mundia clarified later that ‘funders should stop imposing a system, but let the CBOs and the community run their own programmes, because they know what is effective on the ground.’

A final session at the end of the first day explored the thorny question of philanthropy’s boundaries in systems change, asking ‘What right does philanthropy have to engage in systems change.’ Jacobs Foundation CEO Simon Sommer moderated a panel that included African Visionary Fund’s Atti Worku and Aid Reimagined’s Arbie Baguios.

In the session, the speakers reckoned with the critiques of systems change philanthropy, including the power dynamics that surround grantmaking and those that have allowed philanthropy in the first place.

Tackling education challenges from alternative angles

Day two of IEFG’s gathering opened up spaces for peer exchange and collaboration while pushing attendees to consider the need to tackle education challenges from different angles and unpack how to promote systems change through advocacy and research.

An interactive session in the morning invited attendees to consider expected, unusual, and surprising nodes found in education systems. While expected brought answers such as students, teachers, schools, and curricula; unexpected and surprising solicited responses that included everything from ChatGPT and other AI tools to crises like the pandemic to religious systems.

The next session brought out a creative side of conference-goers, splitting the attendees into small groups to draw the different components of the education system.

An open discussion session in the afternoon, moderated by Lever for Change’s Kristen Molyneaux, asked: How can we collaborate better to share due diligence and make the most of shortlisted grant applications?

Lever for Change, which runs ‘challenges’ for funders that want to be able to reach networks they’re not currently tapping into with their grantmaking. Their work, in addition to unlocking millions in funding, has also helped them amass a database of thousands of grantee applications. The organisation is working now to try and use that information to connect applicants to other funders who aren’t running challenges with Lever for Change, but are still interested in the information Lever for Change has collected.

‘When we ran the first round of 100 and change, we started getting a lot of requests from donors,’ Molyneaux said. ‘We got 1,900 proposals, and donors started to get in touch with requests like “what did you get in Kenya” or “what did you get in India”. Donors would say to us, “I noticed the grantee that applied for this didn’t become a finalist, can you connect me with them because we would like to fund them.”’

So, Lever for Change now works as both an administrator of funding contests, as well as an extensive database of vetted grantee applications.

The closing of the second day brought together all attendees of the conference for a fishbowl exercise to reflect on the two days of discussion and exploration of taking a systems change approach to education funding.

‘You don’t have to be a systems change funder to benefit from systemic thinking’, reflected one participant.

Another shared a reflection on risk: ‘The thing we are not doing is what feels risky. But we need to flip it. The risk of not engaging can be larger.’

A different participant spoke about the importance of trust and trust-based philanthropy in the process. ‘Risk sits very closely with trust,’ they said. ‘If we have high levels of trust with the people that we’re giving money to, then the risk is lower. Because then they feel that they can come to us. A trust-based approach actually mitigates our risk.’

Practicalities, advocacy, and research

The final day of IEFG’s conference explored the practicalities of systems change and unpacked how to promote systems change through advocacy and research.

A roleplaying exercise in the morning that split into three small groups exploring scaling, inclusion, and complementarity asked participants to assume roles like a parent, student, school principal, funder, or counsellor and engage in a roundtable meeting.

In the session on inclusion, attendees sketched out what a community conversation would look like in a place where multi-lateral agencies were supporting refugees to attend public schools. The scenario was modelled on the reality in Lebanon, moderator Jo Kelcey from IEFG shared.

‘We have to make sure that the way we’re designing these programmes is inclusive from the beginning and involves all of these different voices.’ Kelcey shared.

A final session on using research and evidence for policy change brought together speakers Renu Singh from Young Lives in India and Paul Cairney from the University of Stirling in Scotland.

The conference then closed with an exercise for attendees to reflect on how their thinking on systems change had changed over the three days of discussion and exploration.

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.

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