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Foundations have often relied on government as an ally to scale up and sustain the programs they pilot. The Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund was built on precisely this model. Yet even before the election, many systems change-oriented foundations had moved away from a strategy based on government funding to achieve scale.
More than one year ago, well before the November US Presidential election, I set out to interview the CEOs of nearly two dozen leading US foundations to understand how their thinking about philanthropic strategy had changed compared to five or ten years ago. What I heard, again and again, was an emphasis on “systems change” as their approach to large scale social impact.
The challenge today is not merely that we have dysfunctional systems nor that we lack innovative solutions to our society’s problems. Instead, it’s that our country has no unifying narrative that binds us all to a common fate. Too many factions separated by race, gender, wealth, religion, education, politics, geography and more are working toward fundamentally incompatible goals in the false belief that their success is unaffected by the failure of others.
Each foundation CEO I interviewed emphasized different aspects of systems change, and no single universal model or framework emerged. Yet five specific practices were mentioned frequently, offering pragmatic guidance for other funders that may want to pursue a systems change approach:
First, these funders work both inside and outside the nonprofit sector, leveraging the market forces that drive for-profit companies and making efforts to improve the implementation and outcomes of existing government programs.
Second, they build common ground among key actors by forging cross-sector coalitions.
Third, they recognize the importance of the intangible narrative that underlies the public response to our society’s problems and work actively to change that narrative.
Fourth, they elevate the voice of lived experience in shaping solutions.
Fifth, they reconsider their own staffing, budgeting, and operations to address racial and cultural blind spots, focus on multifaceted problems rather than separate program areas, and develop more active leadership roles for their CEOs and boards.
The foundations that have gravitated toward a systems change approach over the past several years did not do so in anticipation of Donald Trump’s election. And yet, those foundations are finding ways to achieve impact with demonstrated success that may well work even in today’s political environment.