Systems Change: It Takes Two (or more!)

_72A0412Lessons learned from EDGE Funders Alliance convening in Barcelona, April 2017

By Stephanie Heckman, Philanthropy Advisor, One World Children’s Fund

Something profound is quietly happening within the philanthropic sector. Inside the board rooms and around conference room tables, visionary leaders and progressive philanthropists are changing the way we inspire giving, how we give, and to whom we give. Every day we read about progressive approaches to philanthropy that are based on values such as inclusivity, diversity, democracy, and social justice, as opposed to charity and pity. Partnerships are nurtured to promote understanding and engagement between donors and nonprofit leaders.

When we convened in Barcelona earlier this year for the EDGE Funders conference, Reorganizing Power for Systems Change, hundreds of us committed to the vision of a just economic and environmental society, had the opportunity to learn and grow with one another. We are tasked with developing a strategy to change the system. If we are successful, philanthropy will become a tool for building social and economic justice, not simply a band-aid dealing with the consequences of an unjust system.

It was within this context that our Engagement Lab leader, Maria Amalia Souza of CASA Socio-Environmental Fund in Brazil, had us perform a simple exercise. A group of 30 of us were each asked to select two people from the room, confidentially, and not share with anyone who we had selected in our minds. Then we were asked to stand up and try to remain equidistant between the two people we had selected. As we each followed one another around the room, a smooth, free flowing system emerged, each of us in constant motion. After a few minutes, we were asked to stop.  What had we noticed? What did this tell us about systems? Did anyone notice that Maria had grabbed onto her two people and wouldn’t let them move?

Our answers to these questions offer a few lessons learned that can be applied to the global philanthropic sector, and how we move towards funding social justice work.

  • It’s ‘Business As Usual’ by default: When we were asked to perform this exercise, some of us probably thought it silly or trivial and wondered what the point of the exercise was yet, we played along. Perhaps a few mutters around the room were heard but nothing that stopped us from performing the requested task. If we want to create systems change in philanthropy, we need to do more than question our goals and motives, or critique the flaws in the current system. If we don’t strategically evaluate and plan how things can be different, and then act on those plans,  the system in place will continue on in perpetuity. As members of a society, the majority of us will play by the rules, until the rules are changed.
  • Systems rarely change from one individual action: Margaret Mead’s now famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”, rings especially true for systems change activists. During the exercise, Maria had attempted to disrupt the system by holding onto her two people, however, we barely noticed. Those who did notice, grew frustrated with her. Why did she not have to play by the rules? It bred resentment more than collaboration, and did little to nothing to disrupt the system.
  • Effective community is a catalyst for systems change:  What if she had explained what she was trying to do, and asked us to join her? What if we had asked her what she was doing and why? Understanding motivations and goals, and then fostering collaboration creates a more profound and systemic impact. Worryingly, not doing so, can harbor resentment and breed competition, which rewards isolationism.

EDGE Funders Alliance offers us the opportunity to learn where these lessons are being applied and more importantly, they offer practical ways to get involved. By purposefully putting us in community, we have a framework and shared vision from which to work. I personally, am grateful for the knowledge and experiences that were shared over our few days in Barcelona.

Lastly, as I highlighted that we must do more than critique and discuss, I will conclude with a summary of the three aspects of systems change work that I intend to engage with in the coming months. I encourage you to commit to take action as well. Together, we can create a just society and better world.

  • Educating Donors: Thousand Currents Academy, Indie Philanthropy Initiative, and other philanthropy advisors provide resources, classes, workshops, and more, to educate donors. I will encourage donors seeking evidence for the impact of our work to access these resources.
  • Advocating for Grassroots Philanthropy: One World Children’s Fund, Grassroots International, Global Greengrants, Red Umbrella Fund and others discussed ways in which we can advocate together for more direct funding to communities. We each have the history, skills, relationships, and tools to administer philanthropic funds direct to communities. We need one another’s support to gain the attention of the funding world. Together we can amplify our voices and let philanthropists know that we are ready and able to get funds ‘on the ground’ in an efficient, knowledgeable, and effective way. Funders who want to fund locally run, community driven organizations, and develop deep and strong partnerships, need to know we are here. We can be louder together.
  • New Funding Strategies for a New System:  One World has seen great success by offering crowdfunding technology and fiscal sponsorship to grassroots organizations. These two simple yet practical tools are driving millions of dollars to communities and preventing huge sums of money being swallowed up in bureaucratic process.  Successful pooled funds, in a more institutional format, are also seeing success.  Philanthropists who are committed to building and funding a just society, can pool funds to be a catalyst for systemic change. Movement building now refers to the funder as well as the grantee. We can see the impact of how this can change the system through successes such as the recent Effective Altruist movement coming out of Oxford University that challenges individuals to act in a way that brings about the most good in the world.

Biography: Stephanie Heckman (MA, MSc) is a Philanthropy Adviser on global development issues and current post graduate research student in Philosophy (wellbeing and global development) at the University of Edinburgh. For the last fifteen years, Stephanie has been building effective partnerships to better define and achieve global development goals. She is currently a freelance writer and contributor to Alliance Magazine, and Huffington Post.

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