A new report has found that to really achieve positive impact via systems change, foundations first need to work on themselves.

The report Philanthropy, Systems & Change brings together stories and tools from philanthropists, academics and practitioners based in Australia, the United States, Canada, Germany and UK.

The aim is for the report to support foundations in growing the mindsets, behaviours and practice that enable positive systems change.

The report had its genesis at a philanthropic retreat hosted by The Fay Fuller Foundation in South Australia, where 20 foundations from across the globe explored the challenges and opportunities of moving away from a discrete, project-based approach to their philanthropy to a more systemic method for greater impact.

This conversation was taken forward by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, Perpetual, Dusseldorp Forum and the Paul Ramsay Foundation to produce the report.

As Teya Dusseldop, CEO of The Dusseldorp Forum, noted, “the term ‘systems change’ has become a catch all and rather meaningless. With this work we are aiming to cut through the rhetoric, and demystify the term while providing tools that are actionable for foundations and their boards.”

“When we refer to ‘systems’ we mean for example systems of local economic development, systems of education, systems promoting the arts or systems of substance use,” said Australian Centre for Social Innovation CEO Carolyn Curtis. “Change in these systems could include changing policy, practices, relationships, power dynamics and more.”

“We knew that if we continued to fund the work that we were, there would always be people who would require such programs and services— what we wanted to do was look at how to prevent people requiring them and this needed a systems view.” Stacey Thomas, CEO of The Fay Fuller Foundation.

The idea is to move away from trying to fund and fix broken systems that are now plunging us into crisis towards bigger, bolder commitments to make the world a better place.

The report suggest four kinds of contributions philanthropy can make to systems change:

  1. Giving Contributions to change through giving – this involves greater awareness and understanding of the complexity of the specific systems foundations work in.
  2. Relationships Contributions to change through relationships – this involves reshaping relationships with grantees to effect greater change by accepting that the grantees are the experts, by providing back office serves, by funding capability and by establishing true partnerships.
  3. Direct contributions Direct contributions to change in systems by foundations themselves – this involves direct intervention and is not without controversy.
  4. Internal change Contributions made through internal changes to organisations and the outlook of individuals in organisations – this involves examining and shifting the dynamics of power in terms of decision making, decolonising funding and rethinking how a foundation’s corpus is used to reinforce mission.

The report contains conversations with philanthropy about why they are embracing systems change and their views on the four contributions listed above.

The authors of the report have created downloadable tools based on these conversations that will help foundations have the conversations they need to steer their organisations towards greater impact.

The report also includes a list of resources about philanthropy, strategy and systems change to support a deeper exploration of potential changes to mindsets and practices.

Download  the report here.


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