Systems Change Funding

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on March 2, 2017

Wondering how grantmaking can be more systemic and transformative? A great Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide helps answer that question. Although aimed for grantmakers, it’s also valuable for donor agencies and those applying for funding. The guide is the product of the US-based U.S. network of funders Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), the capacity-building Management Assistance Group (MAG) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

“The daunting problems facing society today,” the Guide explains, “are deeply embedded in a web of intractable issues, fragmented relationships and unpredictable events. As a result, philanthropy cannot focus on one issue or set of grantees and achieve long-term change. Instead, grantmakers are trying to influence the bigger picture in all its complexity.”

The Guide comprises an introduction with explanation about the basics such as what a system is and why the approach is important, a self-assessment tool for both funders and those they fund, and a section on tools and resources.

My favorite section is the self-assessment. It reflects the thoughtfulness of the guide in general, by providing a range of valid answers that allows you to gauge the degree to which you take a systems approach, rather than just a “yes/no”. Systems grantmaking is a journey, not simply an approach.

The Tools and Resources section describes 39 frameworks, methods and tools, in terms of the amounts of time, expertise and participation; a few have more in-depth profiles.

GEO’s Meghan Duffy explains that the project grew from initial discussions at the Packard Foundation around the systems resources available to grantmakers and nonprofits. The final approach is to support funders as they move to a full organization-wide systems approach, rather than just an approach for a specific project, program or portfolio.

The big challenge for funders? “Jargon,” Meghan explains. There was lots of discussion to try to make it as simple as possible. However, she adds, it is about a paradigm shift so people do have to learn new concepts and words. Susan Misra from MAG says she ended up explaining “complexity” as comprising political disagreements and lack of predictability. “Lack of predictability”, she says, “is really difficult for people. They are used to routines.” However, she personalizes the fruitless search for predictability by having people reflect on their own life and the unpredictable events that have made it up.

Although there has been strong interest in the Guide, very few funders have fully integrated the “systems grantmaking approach. To further help them along the path, GEO’s 2016 national conference offered a session on the topic, and it was the most attended of the options. Over 100 grantmakers have taken the assessment, which is followed up by individual conversations to help identify easy next steps. A three-month program for further development is organized around specific learning goals such as: How do we engage our Board? How do we evaluate? The program was limited to 45 participants, although 60 wanted to participate. For all of us working for transformational change, it’s a great sign of change!

Meghan adds: We are excited about what this type of progress represents. As more grantmakers adopt a systems grantmaking approach, we’re already seeing how they are providing nonprofits with the support that matters most in helping them create change.

Susan adds: Alongside the guide, grantmakers are developing the mindsets that enable them to influence complex systems – like being mindful of their role and power, engaging the communities most affected, and adapting an experimental or innovation approach.


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