Dear Systems Change Funders

by Miriam May 31, 2023

We believe in the power of systems change to address complex community challenges.

Last week, Freya and Sakura had the privilege of attending the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., where they had the opportunity to share our approach to catalyzing positive change with other funders. Our participation at the conference allowed us to connect with like-minded individuals who are curious about adopting a systems change approach in their work and funding.

During the conference, we participated in a networking breakfast session. At our table, which we called "Calling All Funders for Systems Change", we provided a space for funders actively supporting or interested in systems change work to come together and explore collective alignment and acceleration of our practice.

We shared our experiences of investing in place-based systems change work since 2018 and presented our newly published collection of case studies called Stories of Change: How a Systems Change Approach is Transforming a Region.

Sharing our approach with fellow funders at the GEO Learning Conference was a significant opportunity for us. 

As we continue on our journey of systems change, we are committed to bridging the gap between theory and practice, and to providing examples and actionable insights to practitioners and funders in the field.
Rotary Charities convenes a Community of Practice for grantees that are taking a systems change approach to address a complex community problem. At the most recent meeting, we asked participants what they would like other funders to know about systems change work—how funders can help accelerate the work, what practices get in the way, and what mindset shifts are needed for funders to support this work.

We summarized their responses into a document called "Dear Systems Change Funders" and shared several key themes with the funders who sat at our breakfast table:

Lasting Impacts and Transformation: The participants emphasized that systems change work has lasting impacts and transformative effects on communities. They highlighted the importance of funders recognizing the long-term nature of this work and investing in initiatives that promote systems change. They also mentioned the need for funders to understand the broader picture beyond their specific mission and adopt a more holistic and enriched systems perspective. They also mentioned the importance of aligning foundation corpuses with philanthropic values and holding fund managers accountable. 

Long-Term Funding and Flexibility: Participants expressed the need for long-term funding commitments to support the lengthy process of systems change. They mentioned that inflexible budgeting could hinder the work, as conditions and funding needs may change over time. The importance of nimbleness and flexibility in funding was stressed to enable effective response to changing circumstances. 

Funding for Collaboration and Coordination: The respondents expressed the need for funding to support infrastructure for collaboration and coordination. They mentioned that funders often focus on funding programs and services rather than supporting staffing and resources for effective collaboration, which is essential for systems change work. 

Learning and Capacity Building: Respondents highlighted the need for funders to support systems change learning within their own staff and decision-makers, as well as in the community. They emphasized the value of patience, trust, and partnerships aligned with the work of systems change. Capacity building for backbone organizations and staff was also emphasized as crucial. 

Addressing Systemic Racism and Exclusion: Respondents highlighted the importance of addressing systemic racism and exclusion. They emphasized the need for awareness, understanding, and intentional efforts to overcome barriers.

Measurement of Change and Reporting: The respondents discussed the importance of reporting metrics beyond traditional output-focused reporting. They suggested that funders should consider qualitative and heuristic reporting that captures the multifaceted nature of systems change. They also emphasized the need for well-funded gathering and analysis of qualitative data and suggested that funders support trainings in this area. 

Mindset Shift and Leadership Support: The participants recognized that systems change work requires a mindset shift, patience, and time. They suggested that funders support leadership training or consulting to assist organizations in building effective teams and coalitions. 

Communication and Grant Categories: The respondents mentioned the need for easily accessible opportunities to understand and learn about new foundation grant categories and approaches related to systems change. They highlighted examples of foundations that provide light-weight reporting, ongoing support, partnership, and trust as models for other funders to follow. 


We believe that purpose-driven collaboration and aligned efforts have the potential to address the upstream sources of our toughest challenges and create lasting change in an unpredictable world.

We warmly encourage funders who are interested in starting a conversation or learning more about our systems change approach to reach out to us! We are excited to connect, share our experiences, and explore opportunities for collaboration and collective impact.

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