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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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Systems Change in a Polarized Country
Mark R. Kramer - Stanford Social Innovation Review

April, 2017

A growing number of US foundations are adopting practices based on systems change to achieve their goals in the current political environment.


More than one year ago, well before the November US Presidential election, I set out to interview the CEOs of nearly two dozen leading US foundations to understand how their thinking about philanthropic strategy had changed compared to five or ten years ago.1 What I heard, again and again, was an emphasis on “systems change” as their approach to large scale social impact.2 Only recently, however, did I realize just how relevant systems change thinking is to the extraordinary challenges of pursuing social progress under the Trump presidency.3

Foundations have often relied on government as an ally to scale up and sustain the programs they pilot. The Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund was built on precisely this model. Yet even before the election, many systems change-oriented foundations had moved away from a strategy based on government funding to achieve scale. “Certain assumptions have been clearly disproven and invalidated,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, “such as the very quaint idea that we simply need to invest in an intervention, accompanied by a randomized control trial, and if it works, it will be translated into policy and scaled by government.”

The problem goes beyond the government not adopting proven programs. It’s that too often we don’t pay attention to the system itself. “Foundation-funded interventions are demonstrated using special money under special circumstances outside the normal government contracting and procurement system. Even when they work, you need to solve a whole set of system problems to implement them at scale—and a bad system always trumps a good program,” says Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The challenge today is not merely that we have dysfunctional systems nor that we lack innovative solutions to our society’s problems. Instead, it’s that our country has no unifying narrative that binds us all to a common fate. Too many factions separated by race, gender, wealth, religion, education, politics, geography and more are working toward fundamentally incompatible goals in the false belief that their success is unaffected by the failure of others. The vision of a just and equitable society with opportunity for all is being undermined by the poisonous myth that the pursuit of prosperity depends on the eradication of compassion.

Even the most basic assumptions that many of us hold can no longer be counted on: that government will act on hard facts, respect scientific proof and democratic principles, or respond to humanitarian and environmental concerns. No mere programmatic intervention can overcome these obstacles. Instead, we need to find ways to change attitudes and relationships throughout every level of society in order to co-create a new future across our perceived differences.


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