Giving Compass' Take:

• Thère du Pont, President of the Longwood Foundation, shares his experience in embracing systems change work through the foundation's philanthropic initiatives. 

• Enacting systems change can look different within the sector. What does systems change mean to you? What models are you following? 

• Learn more about philanthropic systems change work. 

Forward-thinking philanthropy is by nature a gamble. With new ideas continually being tested, new fields discovered and new measurements created, it can be difficult to know when you are succeeding.

We substitute the known to try and bring order. We count the number of people served. We measure the hours of service provided. We substitute scale for impact, believing that a larger grant must catalyze more change. We encourage our grantees to measure outcomes. But often, we don’t fund them enough to explore their achievements beyond the near-term.

We also try to simplify the work. At Longwood, we do this by treating each grant as a unique project. Isolate the work, measure the outcome (or outputs), and evaluate the social return from the financial investment. We make about 60 grants a year, and let them mature for at least 18 months before evaluating the progress.

Is this maximizing the impact of our available dollars? Perhaps not. Partnerships, impact investing, and collective action in service of transformational and systemic impact are all worthy of exploration.

Over the past two years, we’ve moved towards embracing systemic change. We’re starting to rely more on convening and catalyzing intermediaries than on discrete programmatic efforts. We’re working more purposefully with community leaders, government officials, and other funders. We’re seeking larger-scale, longer-term results by eschewing simplicity and embracing the complexity that larger scale change demands.

The road isn’t always easy. Our first foray (trying to get a handful of organizations in a sector to work together to maximize results) fizzled from a combination of strong egos and historically poor personal relationships. We weren’t daunted. A subsequent effort to coordinate veterans’ organizations resulted in new entry points for housing services through coalescing those who were willing.

Read the full article about betting on systems change by Thère du Pont at Exponent Philanthropy.