To Make an Impact in a World of Brutality and Strife, a Funder Embraces Systems Thinking

Nine year-old Humanity United (HU) is one of a handful of entities bankrolled by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, and his wife Pam. The foundation prides itself on tackling global human rights problems that many consider entrenched and intractable—human trafficking, clandestine slavery and war-profiteering in Africa, to name just three. Omidyar’s “archipelago” of initiatives can seem disjointed and confusing to outsiders. HU is one of the couple's edgier ventures, and it has implied at times that it possesses a unique grantmaking and post-action evaluation strategy that makes it a distinctive brand—and quite possibly a trend-setter.

Making that case publicly seems to be an important impetus behind HU’s release in early June of an unusual paper, entitled Performance Report: Systems Thinking.” Based on four years of internal review and reflection among HU program staff and some of its key stakeholders, the document seems intent on demonstrating that HU has evolved a coherent approach to identifying its strategy and funding priorities and assessing their impact based on systems thinking.

“Performance Report” is a remarkable document. This is not a performance report in the conventional sense of measuring the impact of a charity’s program work in the field. HU produces such reports annually in each of its funding areas. Here, the focus is more on HU’s internal thought process and development as a grant-making organization, including its assumptions about the world, its strategy for impacting change, and its ability to evolve over time. How well are HU and its grantees targeting their resources? How can their interventions be made more effective?

Systems thinking, according to HU, has two important dimensions. One is the establishment of a new paradigm that understands global issues as inherently complex, multi-dimensional, conflictive and open to outside influence and intervention. A problem like slavery, for example, may seem intractable because of the economic interests it serves; in fact, the institutional and organizational linkages—the supply chains—that comprise slavery’s power structure are vulnerable. The first step in system thinking is to map those linkages to better understand how they fit together and pinpoint their likely weak points. The next step is to devise a strategy that combines public advocacy, coalition building, insider lobbying, and investigative journalism to target those linkages, forcing those implicated in slavery, wittingly or unwittingly, to reform, and weakening the larger circuit of power over time.

Systems thinking is also a highly iterative process, HU argues. That’s because it is not always known at the outset how a system actually works, or what the implications of one phase of intervention by HU grantees might be. Some interventions don’t go as well as planned; others open up unforeseen possibilities. It's important to assess impact and re-assess strategy along the way. And HU doesn’t just support its grantees. As an organization with its own advocacy capacity, the foundation can intervene independently to amplify or complement its grantees’ work.

IP has previously reported on one organization’s work that reflects HUs systems thinking—the atrocity prevention activities of the Enough Project and its affiliate, The Sentry. The two groups have utilized the same multi-leveled, investigation-driven, public advocacy and private pressure model outlined by HU to expose—and partially neutralize—the financial linkages that sustain war profiteering in countries like the Congo. Now they’re going after some of the leading war profiteers to hold them personally accountable for human rights abuses. At each new step, and with each news success, the field of affected stakeholders and sources of pressure expands—and so does the prospective impact.

HU didn’t come to system thinking easily—or without confronting internal resistance to change. As the report notes:

The adoption of the systems thinking approach required us to master a new vocabulary to talk about and understand the systems we wanted to address. The process challenged us to revisit many of the deeply held beliefs that had served as the foundation of our thinking for years. We had always viewed strategy development through a systemic lens, but developing an organization-wide systems practice presented the opportunity to identify which of our existing assumptions held promise for creating measurable impact and which required reframing to uncover new approaches. In short, the process required us to be humble in the face of our work.

Systems thinking itself is not new; other philanthropies have applied a version of this same model. But among groups operating in the areas of security and human rights, HU may well be pioneering an in-depth organizational learning process that allows global donors and grantees a new way to assess the quality of their work and its impact in a world where many problems can seem overwhelming. Focusing less on quantifying outputs or counting dollars spent, systems thinking focuses on the ability to expose and neutralize the institutional linkages that sustain an oppressive power structure. In the short term, it’s an approach that can save lives and ease the burden of abuse. Over time, it can create a cascade of incremental changes that eventually reaches a tipping point. Ultimately, according to HU, systems thinking is about creating long-lasting systemic change.

That’s a high bar to set for philanthropic efforts anywhere. But if it catches on, as HU clearly hopes, it could one day make this up-and-coming niche charity a global pioneer.

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