Last year, I interviewed the CEOs of nearly two dozen leading U.S. foundations to understand how their thinking about philanthropic strategy has evolved over the past several years. The most consistent theme I heard was the shift toward a “systems change” approach. (My colleagues found a similar perspective interviewing European foundation CEOs.) Only recently, however, did I realize just how relevant systems change thinking is to the extraordinary challenges of pursuing social progress in the United States under the Trump presidency.
Foundations have often relied on government as an ally to scale up and sustain the programs they pilot. But what happens when government does not respect hard facts, scientific proof, or democratic principles? Or when the vision of a just and equitable society is replaced by the false belief that pursuit of prosperity depends on the eradication of compassion?
What I came to realize is that systems change can be an especially powerful approach in today’s political climate when the challenge is to co-create a new future for our deeply polarized country.
Much has been written lately about systems change in philanthropy and, of course, systems change itself has long been studied in academia and practiced by community leaders and agents of social change. But what exactly do foundations do when they take a systems change approach?
In conversations with Darren Walker, Sally Osberg, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Matt Bannick, and many others, 5 practices in particular emerged:
- Working both inside and outside the nonprofit sector by engaging all actors that affect a problem, including major corporations and government agencies
- Forging cross-sector coalitions
- Changing the narrative that shapes the public response to social issues
- Elevating those with lived experience to help shape the solutions
- Reshaping the foundation to focus on multifaceted problems in place of separate program areas; to confront issues of racial equity in staffing and operations, and to take on more proactive leadership roles for their boards and CEOs.
You can read more in the following article from Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Systems Change in a Polarized Country.”
FSG is focused on systems change as an essential approach to large-scale social impact, with recent publications on systems thinking tools and systems leadership. We find ourselves working with some of the largest foundations to figure out how to implement a systems change approach. And as described by Jeffrey Walker’s current article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, we increasingly find ourselves acting as “systems entrepreneurs,” incubating systems change initiatives on specific issues around the world, launching and coaching dozens of collective impact efforts, and bringing together multiple clients across philanthropic, government, and corporate sectors to embrace systems change at scale.
We are also eager to learn more. Post a comment or send me an email if you know of good systems change efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world that we and others can learn from or join. Together, we can continue to defend our values and pursue social progress despite the setbacks coming from Washington, DC.