Pull It Together: A Call for a New Model of Social Change and "Systems Philanthropy"



Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 17, 2018.

Is the old model for achieving social change broken? Sometimes, it seems that way. Even as philanthropy expands and new funders make record gifts, entrenched problems fester and grow. Meanwhile, the tidal wave of political disenchantment that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency has also shaken the social sector, putting any number of hard-won gains at risk. Many advocates feel on the defensive, facing government budget cuts that undermine their work and even physical attacks that jeopardize their safety. A surge of donations has boosted some organizations since the 2016 election, but the money has flowed unevenly, and plenty of nonprofits still feel under-supported by funders.  

A new report from Open Impact, "The New Normal: Capacity Building During a Time of Disruption," reckons with a confusing, anxious time and offers ideas for making the best of it. Authors Adene Sacks, Heather McLeod Grant, and Kate Wilkinson write: “We believe this is a moment of reckoning in our sector—a moment of both crisis and opportunity. If this moment of disruption has a silver lining, it’s that we’ve effectively broken the old social-change model and now have an opportunity to invent a new one.

When we spoke to Grant, she characterized the report as a conversation starter rather than a set of definitive recommendations. It's a good moment to be stirring the pot in this way, with the ground beneath philanthropy and the nonprofit world shifting fast. When Open Impact sought input from 21 leaders in the field, many said it’s hard to know how to proceed when traditional strategies no longer seem effective. 

With backing from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Grant and her colleagues went in with the hypothesis that to achieve change, social sector leaders and their funders need to play a new and more complicated game—one that the report describes as 3-D chess. The sector needs to be better at scaling organizations and building capacity, but also nimble and responsive in an era of strong social movements. “It’s a matter of both/and,” Grant said. “If you have movements without organizational effectiveness, they tend to fizzle out. But organizations are also finding that they need to think outside their own boundaries.” 

The leaders that Open Impact consulted reinforced that view. They are, Grant admitted, at the helm of organizations that have been keener than most to embrace advocacy (a full list is available in the report). But that’s part of the trend, she said. After the movement-intensive 1960s and 1970s gave way to a long era of organizational development informed by the business world, the landscape of the social sector is being changed again, and fast, by the resurgence of social movements. Yet the hard work of synthesizing these disparate currents has only just begun.  


Open Impact's report considers how to better knit together the social sector and resolve key tensions within it. Many of the ideas here will be familiar, but are helpfully pulled together in one place. Echoing other commentary we've seen, a key takeaway is that different kinds of approaches and actors need to operate in more fluid concert to create systemic change. 

An especially valuable theme hammered home by this report is that social sector leaders and funders need to embrace the "both/and" mindset that Grant described.

So, for example, the authors argue that we need to stop handwringing over the tension between strategic planning and being responsive. Both are important. And maybe the best way for everyone to be strategic right now, nonprofits and funders alike, is to stay nimble. The authors write, "We heard from social change leaders that they need more flexible strategies, adaptive leadership, unrestricted funding, and short-term feedback loops that enable them to assess whether they are gaining traction against their goals."

Or consider the tension between beavering away at organization building to get all the pieces in place to make change, versus engaging with movements and networks. That kind of linear, sequential thinking is a luxury of the past, say the authors. Everything is mixed up now. Often, organizations are springing up as a result of movements. And existing organizations need to look beyond their carefully designed three-year plans to engage externally with what's happening right now. 

Related to that, the report calls for better melding the goals of thinking systemically and "staying proximate to real needs on the ground." In effect, social sector leaders need to "think and act at different altitudes." They need to have the 30,000-foot analysis of systems, but be able to connect that to what's happening in communities and peoples' lives. This is hardly a new idea, as the authors note: "The best nonprofit leaders have long known how to navigate these elevation changes—being on the dance floor and on the balcony." But it's a become a more urgent imperative in this period of disruptive flux.

Open Impact stresses another point that's getting a lot traction lately: that collaboration across boundaries is a prerequisite for achieving structural change. As one interviewee for the report said, “At every level of our systems, intermediaries, nonprofits, networks and funders are being called to work differently—in collaboration with each other and thinking in terms of systems.” 

Open Impact's specific suggestions for funders include more unrestricted general support and backing for capacity building. Grant told me that grantmakers should take a cue from business investors and invest in whole organizations while building in a budget for risk. Philanthropy may be called "society’s risk capital," but many funders are decidedly risk-averse. Those who’ve been the most willing to offer general support tend to be newer players from business like the Ballmer Group. The Cummings Foundation and the Sobrato Family Foundation, both founded by real estate moguls, have been prioritizing general support for a while, with mostly good results.

Related: This Foundation Has Been Giving General Support for Years. What's It Learned?

General support is a key part of the picture, but Open Impact’s report also stresses the importance of investing in network infrastructure that can advance the kind of collaboration required for systems change. More funders, Grant said, should be “looking at the larger context of social change rather than the nonprofit as a unit of analysis.” Open Impact isn't the only group thinking along these lines. We recently wrote about a study by the TCC Group on why affinity groups and philanthropy-supporting organizations are in ascendence these days. Funders are feeling a greater imperative to collaborate with each other and key nonprofits partners, both to deal with new threats and seize opportunities. 

Navigating all these contending priorities is a tall order, especially for nonprofits with limited time and resources. But grantmakers have more leeway if they choose to exercise it. According to the report, some funders are becoming more open to “systems philanthropy,” in which they “see themselves in the system, not apart, as capital sitting on the sidelines.” Recent experimentation with impact investing, though not the tidal wave some expected it to be, is promising. So are attempts to examine questions of power and equity in a sector where, good intentions aside, we often see privileged funders giving to privileged grantees. NCRP, the Women Donors Network, and the Solidaire Network have been leaders in that regard, among others.

The report cites the Barr Foundation, the Levi Strauss Foundation, the Pisces Foundation and the Whitman Institute as other funders who are leading the charge toward systems philanthropy.

Even if systems-centered philanthropy is gaining ground, nothing is certain, and more talk doesn’t ensure action. But the upside of Trump for philanthropy is that his policies are provoking dialogue that might not otherwise have taken place. As one interviewee put it, “There was a masking effect of supportive federal policy [under the previous administration], which diminished the need to have conversations about supporting leaders in the field and the connections between them.”

If nonprofits and funders start talking more about how to create social change at scale, a new hybrid model may coalesce that incorporates both social movements and organizational strategies. After all, Grant said, “nonprofits are closest to the needs, while funders have a birds-eye view of the wider systems.”