“We want to get to the root of the problem, not just fund the symptoms.”

“We should go upstream and prevent these things from happening.”

I often hear these kinds of sentiments from donors and foundation leaders. Someone else usually responds, “But that seems complicated and risky, and we don’t have much money.”

They’re discussing their role in systems change—altering how policies, practices, resources, relationships, and mindsets hold a problem in place. At a 2022 National Forum on Family Philanthropy session, speakers Chloe CockburnPiyush Tantia, and Kimberly Dasher Tripp made systems change easier to navigate. I took away three important lessons.

Stay aware of the impact of systems

It’s easy to underestimate how much systems affect a person’s decisions and behaviors because the components of the system are often hard to see. For example, governmental regulations can influence the quality of the community in which a person was raised. The regulations might make it difficult to develop housing affordable for teachers and public safety works or allow toxic dumps to be located nearby. Or, ever-changing school and university funding formulas can alter the quality of education an individual and their children can obtain.

Piyush Tantia, chief innovation officer at the nonprofit ideas42, said, “Systems are made of interconnected agents—people, organizations, policies, social norms, infrastructure, data, and more. You’re part of the system if you’re trying to change it.”

None of us can escape the impact of the systems around us. And, no matter your philanthropic goals or the size of resources you’re committing, you have a role to play in systems change.

Because systems contain many components, you don’t have to try to tackle the entire system at once. Instead, you can find a leverage point that aligns with your philanthropic goals and resources.

Chloe Cockburn, Founder and CEO of Just Impact, has specialized in finding those leverage points. Inspired by the nonprofit Ayni Institute’s work on movement ecology, she described five leverage points in a system:

  • Personal transformation—what we can change within ourselves or others to think and act differently. For example, we could have dinners with ex-offenders and their families to understand problems in the legal and prison systems. And, we could fund mentorship, leadership development, mental health, and healing programs for those ex-offenders and their families.
  • Alternatives—new visions of a better world and new approaches to achieve those visions. We can donate to pilot programs that challenge the status quo. Or we can model new practices, such as sharing decision-making authority over grants with people most affected by a problem.
  • The inside game—the formal leaders, rule makers, and power brokers in the system. We could use our connections to influence a mayor, school board, or CEO of a local bank. Or we could work with lobbyists, litigators, and administrators who know how to change policies and practices behind the scenes.
  • Structure organizing—people collectively making demands of decision-makers through organizations such as unions, neighborhood associations, and interfaith coalitions. We can donate money and free meeting space, stand beside them publicly, and introduce them to others who share their beliefs.
  • Mass mobilization—movements and media work that reshape what the public thinks about what’s right and wrong in a system. Some movements are more loosely organized, while others are incorporated and well-staffed. We can fund strategic communications and public opinion research or donate to the operations of movements. We can also volunteer and amplify those movements’ messages.

Read the full article about systems change by Tony Macklin at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.