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A new discourse to transform complex systems

Something exciting is happening in the field of social-system transformation.

Recently, a group of philanthropies – led by Skoll Foundation and including Porticus, Ford, and Draper Richards Kaplan – asked Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors to interview more than two dozen representatives from nonprofit organizations to “learn more about their experiences with funder behavior.”  The results of that effort are contained in a remarkable report, Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems, that deserves close reading by funders and grantees alike.

(Quick disclosure: Deans for Impact is not a current grantee of any of the foundations that supported this report, but we did recently submit a grant application to Draper Richards Kaplan.)

The report begins with a subtle but important acknowledgment of a “shift in the discourse” in the philanthropic community. For many years, “the focus was almost solely on detailed measurement of the work of grantees” on particular projects, and largely in service of “the funders’ aims and needs.” But now a “growing number of funders are looking at how to shift…to supporting more sustained, deeper-level transformations in society.”

Having just returned from a three-day conference for education grantmakers, my sense is that the discourse is indeed shifting along these lines – which is a very good thing. As I’ve argued previously, philanthropic organizations can play key roles in transforming complex systems when they remain committed to sustained change over time. Focusing on short-term, immediately quantifiable results can interfere with the ability to achieve long-term goals.

Or, as the Scaling Solutions report succinctly puts it, organizations who “demonstrate the ability to scale toward shifting systems needed time, trust, and flexibility from their funders.” (My emphasis added.)

So how might these qualities be fostered between philanthropies and grantees? The Scaling Solutions report contains five specific recommendations to funders:

  • Alter power dynamics to ensure that grantees have “space to make decisions, make mistakes, and determine solutions.” For example, “grantees who had a large proportion of unrestricted, multi-year grant support and/or a significant portion of earned revenue were much less affected by typical funder-grantee power dynamics.”
  • Provide non-monetary support to grantees – but only if asked. Foundations can do wonders in opening doors for nonprofit organizations, but “they also need to be aware of whether or not grantees are asking for the help.”
  • Develop more knowledge on shifting systems. Organizations working to transform complex systems “may be doing less direct service work, and therefore aiming for longer-term, less metric-friendly outcomes and impact.”
  • Simplify the diligence and reporting process. “One organization offered a preferred option that all their funders accepted: a regularly updated online reporting mechanism that any funder can view at any time, eliminating the need for individualized reporting altogether.” (Am I jealous of this organization? Why yes, yes I am.)
  • Redesign the grantmaking process to give organizations more “run room.” This includes providing greater unrestricted funding and significantly extending grant periods.

I have very little to add other than: hear, hear. Each of these recommendations strike me as exactly the sorts of shifts that, if broadly adopted, could dramatically improve the likelihood of true transformation across multiple social sectors, nationally and internationally. And I hope funders and grantees take the time to read and share this report – together, we can continue to shift the discourse.


Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director


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