Transcending Business as Usual By Funding Collaborative Processes

By Eleni Sotos

From the vantage point of October 2020, it feels almost cliché to say that the need for systems change has never been more urgent. Among the many devastating emergencies we face, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed society’s systemic fragility due in part to the interconnections between many of the core issues we face, such as securing access to health care, quality education, food security, economic security, and responsible governance. The past seven months have indeed made it painfully clear that there is no such thing as a discrete issue. The pandemic also shows that those who are disproportionately impacted are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — laying bare the systemic racism that unjustly benefits the socioeconomic interests of predominantly white and well-off people, at the expense of everyone else.

How might philanthropy adapt to more effectively address the systemic nature of these problems? One promising opportunity we see at the Garfield Foundation is for funders to invest in systems-based collaborative processes that support a more equitable distribution of power and resources, and build new systems with the integrity and resilience necessary for sustained transformation in a complex world.

This approach goes against common practice in environmental sustainability funding, the program area where the Garfield Foundation has historically made grants. Funders commonly maintain a laser focus on specific projects that aim to yield measurable outcomes within a short period of time. This practice prioritizes reporting predetermined outcomes to foundation boards to assure them that their investments are producing immediate results. This approach is problematic when addressing complex problems because foundations typically propose their own theory of change and rarely analyze or align their strategies with other foundations working on the same issues. Going deep to analyze, understand, and address troubled systems can’t happen within the confines of a one-year grant cycle, one organization, or one strategy.

We count ourselves among the grantmakers who have been willing to experiment with new systemic approaches. What we’ve learned over the past two decades is that creating the new relationships, structures, and systems needed to build a better future for all is a long game. We have seen, working with many networks, that the work demands collective systems analysis of the problems and continuous learning and adapting in deep collaboration with other funders and grantees, and over many years, to have meaningful, sustainable impacts.

One of our greatest sources of learning has been our involvement in building collaborative networks using systems change practices. The processes that power these networks build from one to another. The whole process begins with connecting a core group of people committed to addressing a particular problem to build trust and alignment around a shared purpose, followed by inviting other stakeholders to map the issue system and identify key stakeholders. Through a participatory process, the group works together to identify interdependent leverage points, or interventions in the system, and organizes working groups around them. This strategic, shared analysis then informs the design of a network structure that will best support and coordinate the working groups, and ongoing reflection, evaluation, and strategic realignment. These are the practices required for creating the outcomes funders want to see and for delivering the systems change both advocates and funders seek.

RE-AMP Network members gather at the “Clean Energy as a Human Right Summit” prior to COVID-19’s arrival.

And yet network leaders tell us that it’s precisely this work — the collaborative “process” of stakeholder engagement, systemic alignment, and network building — that is most challenging to secure funding for. Why? For one, these processes and activities rarely fit neatly into one-year grant cycles with the type of measurable outcomes funders recognize. Funders are also often reluctant to provide grants for regular convenings (where essential trust building and strategy refinement happen) or for experimentation with different systems frameworks and tools, because these activities are misunderstood as not being directly related (enough) to taking action on the issues at hand.

Supporting this type of work — collaborative approaches to systems change — requires funders to be more flexible and to adapt in the same way network members must adapt to the ever-changing dynamics within the systems they seek to transform. Consider the following examples of what investing in core network activities makes possible:

  • Enables diverse stakeholders from different parts of the system to come together to discuss how they might accelerate the change they want through strategic collaboration. The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFE) enabled participants from the domains of public health, scientific research, the private sector, labor, disproportionately impacted communities, and policy advocacy to collectively focus a major organizing project on a particularly harmful class of “forever chemicals” known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in all kinds of products in everyday use.
  • Rapidly mobilizes collective action and response to crises. CFE and the RE-AMP Network were able to move emergency response funds within a few weeks of COVID-19’s outbreak to support their member organizations in most need. Existing network infrastructure for information-sharing and decision-making, on top of their experience with resource distribution within their networks, helped streamline the process. (See recent interviews with the leadership of RE-AMP and CFE here and here to get the full story.)
  • Provides a platform for multiple working groups and action teams to mobilize network members and partners across different sectors in simultaneous collective actions. Instead of every organization creating its own media and messaging strategy, advocate for a particular policy, bring attention to bad actors and actions, train new organizers and the like, the network platform supports simultaneous collective efforts that benefit all members.
  • Offers a way to support diverse engagement and spread resources more broadly. Resources that pass through both CFE and RE-AMP fund collaborative projects or campaigns under an agreement that no one participating organization becomes programmatically dominant.
  • Ensures the participation of smaller and/or community-based organizations that might otherwise be excluded from decision-making tables or other activities. Mechanisms inside collaborative networks such as pooled and re-grant funds have helped to ensure funding for grassroots and community-based organizations who have essential perspectives to contribute, but are often overlooked or under-resourced to participate in collaborative processes.
  • Provides opportunities for capacity building that reach a more diverse social change audience. RE-AMP’s Organizing Hub collects data on campaign best practices, provides a how-to guide, and trains members in Campaign Excellence workshops so that all participating organizations benefit from this “shared asset.“

When the Garfield Foundation set out in the early 2000s to explore what a “systems-informed approach” to philanthropy might look like, we knew of no other funders experimenting explicitly with the combination of systems thinking concepts and collaborative networks. In recent years, more and more grantmakers are demonstrating interest in better understanding how to apply systems change practices to address complex problems. This is encouraging! What’s needed now is to elevate these practices to more effectively address the complex nature of the challenges we face. These practices aren’t all technical. In fact, our experience has shown us that prioritizing meaningful relationships and trust building, creating safe spaces for collaborative sense-making, and investing in capacity building on longer time horizons are more important than the analytical and technical methods necessary for this work.

If grantmakers have a genuine desire to achieve lasting transformative change, we must be willing to reexamine and shift our own mindsets and assumptions, recognize and mitigate privilege, embrace complexity in a collaborative spirit, and experiment with new funding approaches. Our experience suggests that funding collaborative processes is one necessary adaptation that is urgently needed. Our hope is that these practices become the new “norm” in philanthropy.

Eleni Sotos is a Senior Program Officer 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.