Grantee learning cohorts have gained popularity in the philanthropic field, as a way for foundations to go beyond individual grantmaking to broader learning, reflection, and collaboration with their grantees. As we were debriefing a two-year project in which FSG supported a cohort of Missouri Foundation for Health grantees, they asked—how might the foundation better engage a cohort of grantees in service of systems change?

It’s worth stating the obvious: the outcomes you can expect from a cohort experience really depend on the intentionality with which you set it up. While any of these purposes could be helpful in supporting systems change, we realized we could bring even more intention to planning, by understanding and agreeing on an overarching strategy or theory of change about how the group could effect systems change.

Cohort activities could also help the group understand system dynamics—the flows, blockages, and momentum in the system. The group could expand the system map they’ve created to identify areas of opportunity or challenge and discuss among the group why these challenges exist. The Water of Systems Change paper is quite helpful in thinking through the various challenges holding problems in place. Another helpful activity is to hear directly from people who are experiencing negative outcomes, or for whom the system isn’t really working. Their voices are vital to include, to help the group to have a fuller perspective and understanding of the system. These voices may come from within the cohort, or by inviting folks from outside the cohort to join. In both situations, care must be taken to avoid extractive experiences for participants.

Read the full article about systems change strategy by Joelle Cook and David Claps at FSG.