Celebrating Our Summer Grantees

With reflection on our approach to grantmaking

By Ruth Rominger with support from the team

At the Garfield Foundation, we think of our communications as an open kitchen, a window into our experiments with philanthropy, systems thinking, and collaborative networks in service of accelerating the transition to a just and sustainable world for all. It’s our hope that by learning out loud we will spark generative discussions that help advance and expand the practice of systems change. In this spirit, with this piece we’d like to shine a light on our most recent grants and share some reflections on our approach to grantmaking. Doing so will not only help weave more closely our collaboration with grantees, partners, and peers into our writing here on Medium, but also allow us to express our respect and enthusiasm for the people and work we have the privilege to support.

We want to begin by acknowledging that we follow many industry customs, and that the general arc of our grantmaking process takes a shape not unlike that of many other funders in the United States. Our small team of program officers uses multiple methods to identify the strategies, projects, leaders, and organizations we consider funding. We conduct research and due diligence before inviting proposals. We craft clear grant agreements, review periodic grant reports, and write up evaluative reports to fulfill our responsibilities as grantmakers. We list our grant awards on the Garfield Foundation website. We also attend funder affinity group conferences, where we often present our grantees’ work and provide workshops for other funders interested in systems change through collaborative networks.

Over the past few years, we have become increasingly intentional about articulating how we aspire to engage with our colleagues, including the grantees, consultants, and fellow funders with whom we interact. Along this journey, we used a systems analysis to reflect on ourselves as individuals, on the contexts in which we live and work, and on the multiple dimensions of our mission and strategy as an organization. We concluded that the heart of our practice is co-creating conditions for change-makers to have greater impacts. There are multiple ways we do this: through grants, technical support, capacity building, and hosting communities of practice. What we’ve observed in our work is that our grantmaking and other practices have become something of a living inquiry, taking us places that we couldn’t have expected.

Our collaborative way of working has required us to fully embrace the complexity of the issues we care about, and to learn and adapt together with our multiple stakeholders. We ground our thinking and action in the following core beliefs:

  • The power of collective intelligence
  • Understanding whole systems offers greater insight for leveraged actions
  • Solutions to complex problems accelerate through thoughtful collaboration
  • Systems change is sustained only when it is inclusive
  • Experimenting, reflecting, and learning informs effective strategies

Twenty years ago the Garfield Foundation established a focus on environmental issues. While our focus remains the same today, we now use systems change frameworks and collaborative network practices to accelerate work in the environmental sustainability movement. We take to heart that the transition toward a healthy environment requires us to change how we work and with whom we work.

As a result, we look for organizations that take a systemic perspective, seeing and sensing connections between their work and the larger system it’s embedded within. We also look for organizations that are poised for authentic partnership, that are connected to diverse stakeholders, and that have a history of collaborative action and participation in networks, coalitions or movements.

Foundational to our grantmaking process is our intention to put resources into cultivating partnerships with and among our grantees and other advocates working on the same or similar issues. One of the ways we invest in partnerships is by co-funding and co-hosting communities of practice for network leaders, systems change facilitators, and capacity builders, as well as funders. We invite, but don’t require, grantees to participate.

We continually experiment with how to make our own learning more transparent in our grantmaking practice, and, critically, more accessible to grantees, consultants, and peer funders. Currently, we are exploring evaluation practices that include multiple stakeholders and build collective intelligence in the field. These practices have an action learning orientation, in which we learn together with grantees through an informal action-reflection cycle. How we put this cycle into practice without burdening already stretched changemakers remains a challenge.

One current experiment includes working with our grantees to explore new forms of grant reporting that would serve multiple beneficial purposes. We invite each grantee to find ways to harvest learning and share it more broadly with their stakeholders and within our communities of practice.

Our board of trustees reviews three dockets per year, which you can learn more about on our website. All of our programs address complex sustainability challenges and most are designed to advance systems-informed collaboration at different degrees. The following reflections on our summer grants are organized by program area.

– Los Angeles Environmental Sustainability –

Currently, our Los Angeles Environmental Sustainability Program is focused on projects that help move Los Angeles toward sustainable and equitable water management. More regional and community organizations are on the scene than ever before working to ensure safe, clean water for Los Angeles County residents and to foster healthy waterways and thriving ecosystems throughout the region. LA’s water management affects people well beyond the region, and the practices that NGOs, local governments, and other key stakeholders are developing could transform the city’s place in the bioregional ecosystem. We’ve sought out partners who bring forward the voice and agency of disproportionately impacted communities, and who also work with other funders and environmental organizations with a systems thinking orientation.

TreePeople recently partnered with the City of Huntington Park, CA to distribute 250 fruit trees to the community. Image source: TreePeople

This summer we provided a grant to TreePeople, an organization whose focus has evolved over the last five decades from “reforesting LA” to include other critical environmental issues affecting Los Angeles and its communities, including climate and water resilience, urban and mountain forestry, and fire mitigation and recovery. We admire how TreePeople is very hands-on, engaging youth and community-based organizations in environmental stewardship and conservation, and collaborating with other organizations and stakeholders in the fight for equitable solutions for a resilient and sustainable city for all Angelenos.

This latest grant will provide general support to their interconnected program areas — water, equity, urban greening, fire, education, policy, and research — in which they use nature- and evidence-based methods in pilot programs to test new models and enhance proven programs to scale their impacts.

– Network Support Grants –

Through targeted capacity building grants, we support multi-stakeholder networks in increasing the impact of their collaborative strategies for solving complex social-environmental issues. We partner with networks that aspire to shift complex systems toward more sustainable, resilient and healthy futures for all people. We also look to fund work that could have ripple effects, creating impact beyond what we specifically support.

The networks we’ve supported to date are embracing audacious goals and working across different sectors, geographies, and/or cultures to create greater impact together. In July 2020, we renewed grants to networks whose bold actions and investment in their members are yielding stronger connections and increasing their collaborative capacity.

We think the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) is exemplary of the kind of collaborative action the world needs right now. Its member cities are the vanguard of the climate movement with their commitment to the most aggressive global greenhouse gas reduction targets. CNCA has been thoughtful about how, by working together, its members can serve as both inspiration and example to hundreds of other cities around the world striving to significantly reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

While programmatic funds for climate action are increasingly available from foundations, government programs, and high-road businesses, this is not the case for funding capacity building for the leaders, organizations, or collaborative networks implementing those actions. Our grant will support CNCA in hosting a year-long Transformational Leadership Training (TLT) Program for cities’ sustainability and climate leaders to learn and apply specialized tools, to deepen their collaborative capacity, and to implement more systemic strategies. Through the TLT program, CNCA plans to foster more peer learning and help others mobilize transformative climate actions in cities around the world.

FSNE members gathered at a network meeting prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Image source: www.foodsolutionsne.org

We also respect Food Solutions New England (FSNE) for becoming the connective tissue among food systems stakeholders in New England working to build a healthy, just, and resilient food system that works for everyone. FSNE members are united by a shared purpose — one that centers racial equity — to create a food system that offers equitable access to locally grown and harvested food, supports the livelihoods of farmers and fishers, and creates thriving communities. FSNE offers a strong example of a network responding and adapting to the changing needs of its members, and thereby facilitating the positive evolution of whole systems. For example, FSNE is currently creating opportunities for dialogue and collaboration to address the impacts of COVID-19 on regional food systems and its stakeholders.

It’s noteworthy that FSNE has been deliberate about hosting conversations that expand who and what defines the food system, as well as who the system serves. With this grant, we are supporting FSNE’s efforts to bring diverse stakeholders together to work on four collectively identified priorities: network growth and strength; its narrative story and communications; equity leadership; and regional policy coordination.

– Advancing Systems Change Practice Grants –

Our grants program for Advancing Systems Change Practice (ASCP) emerged as a response to the growing interest in systems change and collaborative networks in the philanthropic and social sectors. This program attracts many natural systems thinkers, who are curious about our experiences, approaches, and frameworks. Through their reflection, we’re understanding an important challenge inherent in all nascent fields of work: that the theories, frameworks, practices, and practitioners are scattered, disconnected, loosely defined, and difficult to track down.

Over the past five years, we’ve put energy into developing the connections between people working toward systems change and applying collaborative network practices. Through this effort, we are finding other pioneers and emerging leaders who are eager to work together to advance the practice of systems change. Together we are now supporting capacity building in applied systems thinking and analysis through curriculum development, workshops, and training opportunities that will both increase access to the field of systems-informed collaboration and contribute to building more coherence within it. This work is now its own program area through which we made the following grants this summer.

The Illuminate Network is a project of practitioners and foundations from the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and across Europe who are invested in meeting the rapidly growing demand for quality resources and training opportunities in systems change and network practices. Together, we launched Illuminate in 2019 with the intention to discover who else does this type of work around the world, to learn who seeks access to the different frameworks and applications currently in use, and to explore how we might develop a connected ecosystem of people offering and accessing learning opportunities focused on systems change and network practices.

To support Illuminate’s growth, this summer we provided a grant to Carold Institute/CKX to join us in setting up some infrastructure to govern the network’s development and advance Illuminate’s work to the next phase. The Garfield Foundation’s collaborative network model and the networks we support are inspiring this growing initiative.

Also in this program area is the work of the Institute for Strategic Clarity, which we’ve supported in different ways over the years. The systems mapping and integrated analytics methods they developed a few decades ago remain the most robust we’ve ever found. We originally worked with these methods in the early days of launching the RE-AMP Network and the Cancer Free Economy Network, and we’ve subsequently explored some of their new tools around creating agreements and nurturing abundance mindsets.

Our recent grant is for the development of introductory digital workbooks focused on their systems mapping, analytics, and assessment methods. Together we are working to publish these step-by-step workbooks, thereby making the field-tested methods more accessible to grantees, practitioners, facilitators, and funders who seek to increase their impact on complex issues through multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Next, we connected with Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute when co-hosting a convening of systems change capacity builders from First Nations, the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and across Europe to talk about their practices in and perspectives on the emergent field of systems change. ESII arose from the work of adrienne maree brown, author of the book Emergent Strategy, and is growing into a hub of facilitators and trainers who build systems thinking and movement capacity for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color working in frontline communities to create a more just and equitable world.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, we were able to provide ESII with resources to pivot their trainings, coaching, and curricular tools to online formats and explore sustainable, cooperative business models to meet the needs of the changing social landscape. We are excited about our developing relationship with ESII and look forward to learning more about their work over the coming year.

Finally, we are also very excited to collaborate with The Funders Network (TFN) to engage a cohort of their members interested in increasing their knowledge of systems change tools and frameworks. This is the first major environmental philanthropy-serving organization that is eager to formally embrace systems learning and practices, willing to experiment with various approaches, and eager to step into their commitment to support learning among a diverse group of funders.

Our grant to TFN will go toward the design and launch of an experiential learning program aimed at building a community of practice around systems change and collaborative networks that will help break down issue silos, build cross-sector collaboration, and advance collective impact. The series will include sessions facilitated by several leading systems change practitioners and will be collaboratively designed. We’re eager to learn from this experience of designing and facilitating a funder learning series, and we plan to use what we learn to design more offerings for funders based on growing interest in this area.

In sharing these reflections on our grantmaking approach and summer grants, we are paving the way to further exploring and sharing what we’re learning from and with our colleagues. It’s our firm hope that doing so will contribute to building collective intelligence in the field of systems change, and, to that end, we would greatly appreciate your guidance: What questions are you sitting with now? What would you value reading more about at this time? We welcome and encourage your questions and comments below.

Please be aware that the Garfield Foundation does not accept unsolicited grant proposals.

Ruth Rominger is the Collaborative Networks Program Director with the Garfield Foundation.

We support changemakers in creating greater impact through systems-based collaborative networks. This is the space where we’re sharing our learning.