Social change is the focus of a growing number of foundations, which can do a better job trying to understand how to actually fix big problems.

Aiming to put their resources to strategic use to take on the underlying causes of big social and global problems, these foundations want to have a big impact on critical issues rather than simply trying to address them piece by piece.

That approach is critical at a time when the “systems” we depend on – government, the economy, financial services, health care, social services, education, communications—are in rapid flux.

As a new report suggests, however, many of those foundations seem to be confused about how to go about improving and remaking those systems.

“Foundation Strategy for Social Impact,” a report by the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, says that while foundations increasingly are focusing on “system change” to shape social outcomes, “there is not a great deal of clarity among foundations about what exactly system change means nor what it takes to accomplish it.”

Many foundations, for example, can confuse “policy change” with “system change,” the report says.

Policy change, the report says, may be “one tactic in a large system to change strategy” but is not the only option for spurring system change.

Instead of thinking about “system” simply as a metaphor, the report says, foundations should understand the “framework” in which problems exist, including “the actors, the rules of the game and the environmental conditions – and the interactions and dynamics among them.”

Creating a model for system change should focus not on a single player or a particular rule of the game, the report says, but on an “expanded set of intervention points.”

By taking that approach, it says, foundations would be more likely “not only to appreciate the importance of public policy, but the importance of public policies that produce fundamental changes – policies that go beyond merely localized or incremental changes to achieve change that is transformative.”

Changing systems also involves changing “informal rules” such as professional standards or business practices, the report says, as well as creating laws, regulations and rules in the area of policy that help shape the behavior of key players.

Ultimately, the report says, foundations that care about system change need to do a better job working with together, recognize that change takes time, and show a willingness to take risks, while building those approaches into the way they develop their organizations, including their staff and board.

Many foundations rightly see their mission as addressing immediate needs that are the symptoms of big social and global problems.

For those foundations that want to change the systems that lie at the root of those problems, making a difference will require hard work, teamwork and long-term commitment.

imageTodd Cohen, a veteran news reporter and editor, is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. Cohen has taught nonprofit reporting and media relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and regularly speaks on the topics of nonprofit media relations and trends in the charitable world.