In recent years, many in the philanthropic field have realized that even concrete, system-level outcomes are insufficient to produce systems change. True systems change requires solutions to be embedded deeply enough that they can self-perpetuate. After all, a policy win might be progress, but to truly change a system requires embedding into the system itself the capacity to enforce and implement this policy. Achieving population-level impacts like reductions in maternal mortality rates or racial disparities will not be enough without a shift in, for example, the delivery structures that can make those achievements sustainable. A market innovation like creating a sustainable seafood market is unlikely to create enduring systems change without building strong relationships with civil society.

The problem for philanthropists, in short, is that while targeted, programmatic investments can secure system-level outcomes, something more and distinct is required to sustain these outcomes. To change systems, therefore, funders need to invest in systems capacity.

Drawing from evaluation data, anecdotes, and conversations with a diverse group of philanthropies focused on a broad spectrum of issues, places, and systems, we’ve found that funders have strong similarities in their approaches to systems change, including:

  • Viewing capacity of the system as an outcome in itself that is required to sustain all other outcomes.
  • Combining being responsive with being strategic, rather than seeing these approaches as opposing polarities.
  • Building broad buy-in within institutions.

1. Systems capacity is an outcome in itself. Many funders have found, through experience, that the capacities that organizations and movements have, as well as the conditions in which they operate, are as important as the outcomes they produce. Success is, therefore, building a strong system, rather than any programmatic outcome that those in the system are striving toward. A strong system accelerates progress in opportune moments, deepens implementation of wins, and better protects gains when they are under threat.

2. Combine responsiveness with a strategic approach. In philanthropy, “responsive” and “strategic” approaches are often understood to be at odds, even mutually exclusive. Systems grantmakers have struggled between narrowly investing to target specific levers of change and stretching resources across multiple priorities to holistically respond to complex issues and grantee feedback. The funders we learned from, however, have realized that successful approaches to achieving systems change embrace both, at once. They not only listen deeply to those most impacted, dynamically evolve their approaches based on what they learn, and involve grantees in decision-making about strategy and learning, they also, at the same time, think strategically about targeting specific leverage points at different levels of a system that are critical to systems change.

3. Build broad buy-in across institutions through shared learning and leadership. Embedding change into a system means philanthropic staff, trustees, organizational divisions, and funder collaborative members must buy into the process. Sometimes an executive transition or a new generation of trustees might prompt strategic planning processes that change the institution’s outcomes and frameworks. Other times, staff members may change their approach as a result of learning from, for example, trainings on systems change, engaging with grantees that are most impacted by systemic inequities, or digesting evaluation data that demonstrate that investing in capacity strengthening goes hand in hand with systems change.

Read the full article about systems change by Susan Misra and Marissa Guerrero at Stanford Social Innovation Review.