For funders seeking to create their own version of system leadership programs, or embrace this approach to change, we want to share a few lessons we’ve learned from this work over the past six years.

Provide patient and flexible capital. In our work as advisors, we have seen many similar experiments cut short because there wasn’t enough funding to achieve network momentum. While the myth of self-organizing is compelling, and many funders want to leverage collective action, they often don’t fund it adequately or allow enough local control to adapt as needed. The truth is, systems-level work doesn’t happen spontaneously; it takes an intentional disruption of how people currently work.

Partner with a neutral backbone organization. In order for a cross-sector, cross-issue network to take hold, it takes a neutral convener or leader — e.g., a backbone organization, facilitation team, or local funder — to carve out the time and space for participants to learn, build trust with one another, and experiment with working in new ways.

Develop a healthy appetite for risk. We’re not going to lie — this work is complex, messy, time-consuming, and hard to manage and measure. It entails investing in people and processes, and then trusting that good things will happen. It’s more about emergence than controlled planning. But that’s not to say it isn’t strategic; in fact, it’s some of the most strategic work we’ve done. We understand that many funders prefer to support more focused programs with easily measurable outcomes. And yet those programs don’t always map to the complex reality of what leaders on the front lines of social change are navigating today. Supporters of this systems approach, whether facilitators, funders, or intermediaries, must be comfortable taking risks and working alongside — and trusting — those on the ground in order for it to succeed.

Maintain an adaptive approach. One of the most important lessons we learned is that there is no easy way to build the capacity of leaders and networks for systems change. At the end of the day there is just “the work” — and that work evolves over time.

Read the full article about supporting system leadership by Heather McLeod Grant at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.