Philanthropy, Systems & Change

Philanthropy, Systems & Change: stories and tools for the future

At a recent global fundraisers’ retreat in Australia, there was a moment when the participants came to the agreed realisation that philanthropy’s moment for boldness had arrived.

Funders retreat

The realisation was built on the understanding that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Our economy is restructuring, technology is disrupting the way we live and work, our population is ageing and the disparity between the haves and have-nots is growing. We have an opportunity to determine what that future looks like, but the window is closing. There has never been a more important time for philanthropy to make bold moves towards changing the world for the better.

During the retreat - hosted by The Fay Fuller Foundation in South Australia and facilitated by the Global Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) - a small breakout group explored the nuances for philanthropy in this changing landscape. There was a sense that some were stable and committed in their primary role as funders, while others were starting to assume additional roles to support change in systems. What quickly emerged was a spectrum of roles, all valid, important and different.

This work, taken forward by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, Perpetual, Dusseldorp Forum and the Paul Ramsay Foundation, seeks to build on that conversation. It is not a “how-to” guide for systems change, it is a starting point for foundations who are interested in exploring how their own internal conditions align with their ambitions to create the big changes needed across many aspects of our society.

Whilst this work was centred around the role of Philanthropy, Carolyn Curtis, CEO at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation believes the themes are relevant to all people with an aspiration to operate in more systemic ways. 

“The challenges we face are too great to ignore the power structures, mental models and mindsets that hold problems in place. As institutions, practitioners and funders we are all a part of the story that needs to change,’’ she says.

Teya Dusseldop, CEO of The Dusseldorp Forum believes: “The term ‘systems change’ has become a catch all and rather meaningless. With this work we are aiming to cut through the rhetoric and demystify the term while providing tools that are actionable for foundations and their boards.”

The strongest message in the report is the need for foundations to work on themselves in order to maximise their impact in systems. Cat Fay, General Manager, Community and Social Investment at Perpetual, which manages over 1,000 charitable trusts and endowments on behalf of its clients, states: “What’s clear is that there is enormous opportunity to consider the value brought by bringing a diversity of voices and experiences into how requests for funding are assessed and considered by philanthropy”.

“There’s a great opportunity for us to do more by reaching into communities of diverse experience to assist our clients with advice, to re-think who qualifies as ‘an expert’ and to ensure that we as an organisation are doing all we can to listen more closely to the voices of communities we are trying to support”.

Perhaps one of the more challenging conclusions is that many of the current norms of traditional philanthropy, such as short-term, discreet investments and a board of experienced professionals, tend towards sustaining existing systems rather than transforming them to something new.

Throughout the report there are stories from across the world of how foundations are evolving their giving strategies, deepening their relationships, taking on new roles and innovating their operating models in order to grow their impact.

Jo Taylor, Chief Capability Officer, of the Paul Ramsay Foundation observes: “As a relatively new foundation, we have found it immensely helpful to look over the shoulders of other philanthropic organisations. The report helpfully highlights how those old and new have been challenged to keep redefining their roles, what it means to be innovative, and to play roles that others are unwilling or unable to play to create and sustain change”.

The tools contained within the report provide an opportunity for foundations to have reflective conversations with their teams, boards and grantees about four potential “contributions” they can make in supporting systems change.

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