Fostering Systems Change

Five simple rules for foundations seeking to create lasting social change.

Systems change in the social sector seems like an idea whose time has come. Several major foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation have recently realigned their strategic visions and priorities, choosing systemic change (defined, for the purpose of this article, as a fundamental change in policies, processes, relationships, and power structures, as well as deeply held values and norms) as the pathway to achieve their goals and make positive social gains sustainable at scale, whether it’s around increasing equity, improving health, or reducing poverty. Foundations are increasingly using language around “big bets,” as a new SSIR article highlights. 

We’re concerned, however, that there remains a gap in philanthropy’s understanding of what a systems-change approach means for various aspects of a foundation’s work. To gain that understanding, we believe that foundations should pay close attention to five simple rules. (We have purposefully borrowed the term “simple rules” from the field of complexity science. Whereas bureaucratic rules tend to have lots of dos and don’ts, these rules are less explicit recipes, and more guidelines to adapt based on context and need.)

1. Build on existing trends and momentum in the system.

To create change in the system, foundations first need to be acutely aware of current trends. They need to know where momentum and energy lie, and they need to know what the arc of long-term change has looked like. These include not only trends and momentum closely related to the topic at hand, but also those related to adjacent social issues and the broader society. When foundations do not explicitly surface and respond to these dynamics, they miss opportunities to accelerate progress by amplifying supporting trends and dampening ones that could impede their efforts.

Adopting this rule means putting “sensing” mechanisms in place to generate this sort of information on a regular basis. These mechanisms might include inviting external stakeholders (including beneficiaries) in to share their views, and employing trend-mapping and landscape analysis tools.

2. Pay greater attention to connections and interdependence.

Systems change needs contributions from a multitude of actors who are connected to (or disconnected from) each other in a myriad of ways. The traditional “go-it-alone” foundation approach, often driven by a board’s need for attribution, conflicts with what is truly needed to move systems. To be effective, foundations need to pay close attention to other organizations and agencies working in the space. They need to know how their efforts are connected (or not), and they need to be able to spot potential synergies, redundancies, and opportunities. They need to become matchmakers and collaborators, not just grantmakers.

Adopting this rule means intentionally looking for connections (or lack thereof) through tools such as system mapping and social network analysis, widening the lens on who needs to be around the table, and facilitating connections between actors who can move the system forward.

3. Employ rigor after the strategy has been developed.

Over the past two decades, we have seen foundations increasingly embrace the idea of  “strategic philanthropy,” chiefly by creating detailed strategic plans. However (as we and others have written about) working amidst complexity demands a different view of strategy, one that is less about being “perfect” upon creation, and more about being “good enough” to set the course. The real rigor needs to happen after the strategy has been developed, through intentional feedback loops that help surface information, reexamine assumptions, and course correct strategy.

Adopting this rule means redefining the role of learning and evaluation from post-hoc to real-time, and creating an intentional “compass” by developing and using a set of learning questions and feedback mechanisms (for example, research, monitoring, evaluation, beneficiary feedback).

4. Be systematic about measuring systems change.

While foundations currently spend energy and resources on measuring activities and population-level outcomes, they seem to pay little attention to what has often been called the “black box” in the middle—the set of system and behavior changes that precede population-level outcomes. These could be shifts in funding flows, changes in policies, inter-disciplinary collaborations, and improvements in professional practices. To effect lasting systemic change, it’s critical to understand the factors that are combining to achieve the population outcomes at scale.

Adopting this rule means more explicitly articulating desired systems change outcomes and indicators, incorporating more qualitative data, shifting mindsets about what constitutes valuable evidence, and being increasingly comfortable with contribution rather than attribution.

5. “Be the change” by building internal adaptive capacity.

Lastly, no foundation can accomplish any of the above without undergoing at least some sort of internal transformation. Systems change is not possible without shifts in individual and collective “habits of mind” that have been entrenched in the way foundations operate, such as valuing content expertise over traits such as systems thinking. Adaptive capacity—in other words, the ability to seek new information, see connections, and make ongoing changes—needs to be built at three levels: the individual, the team, and the organization.

Adopting this rule means helping foundation leaders and staff build self-awareness (of existing strengths and limitations) and breadth of perspective, creating flexible and agile teams that learn, and changing organizational structures, processes, and systems so that they support an adaptive way of working.

Many foundations are focused on changing the world, and increasingly they are seeking better tools, resources, and know-how to do it. Some are already adopting the practices we’ve just mentioned. The Colorado Health Foundation, for instance, recently went through an adaptive strategy process that included participatory mapping of existing and planned advocacy-funding strategies across Colorado funders. The McKnight Foundation has adopted an “adaptive action” protocol than involves systematically scanning the external context for key trends and patterns, and examining the implications of those trends for how the foundation deploys its resources. The Consumer Health Foundation now asks grantees to include information in their reports on what other organizations are working in the area and to what extent they are working together.

The five simple rules we’ve laid out here are not rocket science. Nonetheless, they will help foundations be more effective practitioners of systems change in a complex, inter-connected, and fast-changing world. 

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  • BY Rashmir Balasubramaniam

    ON November 22, 2015 11:58 AM

    Excellent article. Systems thinking is much needed in the social and philanthropic sector.

    In addition, to the 5 things mentioned above, I’d add the importance of being willing to take a long term, yet adaptive, view.

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON November 24, 2015 09:27 AM

    Rashmir - Thank you for the kind words. Taking a long-term, yet adaptive view, certainly fits the qualities we talk about in the article. Thanks for making it explicit.

  • This is a great piece, John & Srik.  Two things you focus on, in particular, rigor after the strategy and measuring impact, are the two, critical missing pieces most often missing.  Interestingly, in all of our collective impact work, adaptive change is the most ‘in demand’ training that the people on the ground value.  Having funder competency in that area is really important.  Well done

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON November 24, 2015 03:05 PM

    Thank you, Ben. Appreciate your comments. The capacity for adaptive change is certainly emerging as a key areas for funders, especially if they expect grantees to have that capacity!

  • BY John Selsky

    ON November 25, 2015 12:54 AM

    Glad to see adaptive capacity being promoted at multiple levels (individual, team and the foundation itself). The 4th crucial level is the ecosystem, where, as your article suggests, the foundation is sensitive to and works with the existing dynamics in its field of system-change interest. See my book with Joe McCann Mastering Turbulence (Jossey-Bass 2012).

  • BY Kate Wolford

    ON November 25, 2015 09:59 AM

    Thanks for noting The McKnight Foundation’s embrace of adaptive action and how we put the simple rules into practice.  Just to add to your final point about ‘be the change,’ I would explicitly include the board of directors in the mix.  Our strategic framework is both a product of an adaptive action process and it highlights our use of adaptive action in our work within complex systems. Our board-staff discussions and deliberations have become richer and more engaging using principles and tools of adaptive action. Board members eagerly ask about emergent learning in messy, complex cross-program and cross-sector efforts, and together we make meaning of data, observations, and patterns.

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON November 29, 2015 03:03 PM

    John - Thanks for your comments. Your book seems like an excellent resource to think about the four levels, thanks for pointing it out.

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON November 29, 2015 03:06 PM

    Kate - Great point about including the board of directors in “being the change”. The board plays a critical role in setting the tone for leadership and staff. We are thrilled to hear that you have been able to engender rich discussions within the board and between board and staff that recognize and build on complexity, as opposed to turning a bling eye to it. Bravo!

  • Bob Hill's avatar

    BY Bob Hill

    ON December 2, 2015 11:29 AM

    The sweet spot of rigor and adaptive action, as you note, is essential to achieving impact.  For those who partner is systemic change work (consultants) it is a most important part of “being the change.”
    The elegance of simple rules is powerful!

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON December 2, 2015 12:04 PM

    Bob - Thanks for pointing out that the simple rules are also applicable to consultants who partner in systems change work. In our work, we often highlight the need for the consultant to actively model the very “habits of mind” that we seek to foster

  • BY Abraham Ray

    ON December 2, 2015 12:50 PM

    Great article…identical to the approach we’re taking at transforming the Child Welfare and Runaway and Homeless Youth domains with Oliver ( or

  • BY Len Le Roux

    ON December 2, 2015 09:34 PM

    Great article, and captures the way we approach systems change at Synergos. From experience I cannot over emphasize the first point of following the ‘energy and momentum’. Too often change partners try and force an agenda, without consideration to change energy in a given institution.

  • Srik Gopal's avatar

    BY Srik Gopal

    ON December 3, 2015 09:44 AM

    Abraham and Len - Thanks for your comments and the additional examples

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