Now is an opportunity to reimagine systems with community at the core

By: Niall Fay   |   CEO Fay Fuller Foundation

‘Unprecedented circumstances’, ‘health pandemic’ and ‘you’re on mute’: phrases most commonly heard in 2020. Along with these, I think we can include another phrase that is gaining traction, but unlike the others, this one brings with it a sense of optimism and hope – ‘build back stronger’.

But why is that phrase gaining popularity now, what does it mean for philanthropy and how can foundations support this phrase becoming a reality? 

With all of the challenges it has brought, COVID-19 has seeded the conditions for change. An opportunity to reimagine the systems that often as an unintended consequence of their poorly thought out intended purposes, perpetuate inequality and injustice.

Philanthropy’s role in this moment should be to ensure the conditions required for change can take root. That the opportunity to ‘build back stronger’ is coupled with the priority to ‘build back differently’. Philanthropy can play a role in helping to build systems that by design put community at the centre, serve the most vulnerable, fight inequality and hold decision-makers to account.

Foundations should see the ‘build back stronger’ phrase as a natural extension and sharpening of systems thinking that has been a topic of discussion for some time. ‘Build back stronger’ can be used as a catalyst for foundations to act - to convert good discussion into better practice. An opportunity to facilitate and accelerate internal structural change to support system’s thinking and funding as ‘normal’ philanthropic practice.

There are already some fantastic resources and tools foundations can use (and are using) to explore and embed systems thinking into their standard practices like the Philanthropy, systems and change report and toolkit published by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation. These types of plain English guides demystify systems thinking and ensure that emergent best practice is accessible for all foundations regardless of size.

As I reflect on my ten months within philanthropy, a period dominated by unprecedented bushfires and by the COVID-19 health pandemic, I wanted to take myself off mute and share a little of what I have seen and learnt. Five suggested steps foundations can implement to support the process of collectively ‘building back stronger’.   

  1. Take the time now to understand the role your foundation plays in the systems you fund into. Accept by virtue of funding into a system, you affect it. Once you better understand your foundation’s role, you are better placed to make a decision about the role you want to play as part of any build back process.
  2. Invest your time in doing the research to understand what is happening in the systems you fund into. Where you struggle to find reliable information, fund trusted third sector organisations to work with you to fill your knowledge gaps. By building an understanding of the systems you fund into, you will be better placed to understand the work that needs to be done to change it.
  3. Seek out and fund values-aligned organisations and groups whose voices will be critical in reimaging and building back systems stronger. Fund them to do the work. Remove the funding barriers that will limit or take their focus off the work that needs to be done. Fund and trust your partners to put the money where it is needed the most.
  4. Identify peak bodies, advocacy groups or community groups within the systems you fund into. Fund them to understand what impact emergent systems are having on the community. Support them however you can to raise community needs or challenges to decision-makers.
  5. Put your entire foundation to work. Your connections, your balance sheet, your internal capabilities, your granting programs, your power and privilege. They are assets to be leveraged - make them available to those you fund and change-makers as best you can.

There is real work to be done by many groups together to make sure that the phrase ‘build back stronger’ does not become a meaningless 2020 catchphrase. By virtue of its resources, power and privilege, philanthropy has a key role to play. The hope must be, just maybe, if philanthropy plays its role and the tides of change continue - when the building back is underway and stronger is being realised - that the power and privilege of philanthropy is better shared with those it is designed to serve.

Aug. 12, 2020

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