What it Means to Act Systemically

How we support our partners to advance systems change

— By Motaz Attalla, Jennifer Berman, Jessica Conrad, Ruth Rominger, and Eleni Sotos

From the foundation’s earliest years, the Garfield team has held a strong belief in the power of systemic and collaborative approaches for creating greater impact on the social and environmental threats facing society. That is, greater impact than the disconnected, short-term results typically made possible through traditional philanthropy. And far more impact than any one organization, ours included, could ever hope to achieve on its own. This belief is a source of our commitment to experimenting with alternative ways of funding and working. We know that greater impact will come through ongoing partnerships with peer funders, advocates, and practitioners when we work together systemically.

This commitment initially led us to support the RE-AMP Network and the Cancer Free Economy Network, among others, because we saw (and still see) networks as an organizational form that enables systemic and collaborative practices. Through networks, we can invest in relationship building among organizations and individuals with diverse perspectives; democratic governance structures; systemic analysis; working groups that form, set strategy, take action together, and adapt to changing contexts over time; different types of capacity building for participants; and more. Taken together, these various elements enable groups of people to leverage their collective intelligence for wise and impactful action on complex challenges like climate change and human exposure to toxic chemicals.

We also value the natural decentering effect networks create. When networks are functioning at their best, there are no classic hero organizations consistently enjoying outsized attention and influence. Power gets distributed, and decision-making happens as close to where the work is being done as possible. Information flows freely and transparently. People feel empowered. Networks become leader-full.

Over time, this idea of decentering to allow a broader and more equitable distribution of power and resources has become one of the foundation’s core sensibilities. In broad strokes, our efforts to advance the field of systems change focus on connecting and growing an ecosystem of people — funders, advocates, capacity builders, curriculum designers, and more — all working to develop systems change practices and advance meaningful projects. We seek to be a catalyzing force. All of our current programs and activities are designed with this in mind.

The dialog that follows, edited for clarity, is Part Two of a two-part piece that explores what systems change means to us. Here, I speak with a few members of the program team in greater detail about how, through the activities described above and more, we seek to act systemically in our own practice. With this dialogue, we hope to show how acting systemically translates into the structures and programs we create to support our partners and develop the field.

— Jessica

Jessica: We touched briefly in Part One of the series on the idea that we think of systems change as both a process and an outcome. As a team, we often talk about acting systemically to support systems change as a process. I’d love to probe what we mean here and describe some of the activities this includes. How do you think we support the process of systems change to achieve systems change as an outcome?

See reflections from our partner Anna Birney with Forum for the Future on systems change as an outcome and a process here.

Eleni: As a grantmaker, we do this in different ways. We fund what we call our anchor networks — RE-AMP Network and Cancer Free Economy Network (CFE) — to go deep and experiment with participatory processes that might support network members in creating meaningful new connections, for example, or developing a new structure for distributing rapid response funding. All of the activities that RE-AMP and CFE undertake (and that we support) are designed in service of shifting behavioral patterns at multiple levels within the issue systems they address to create new outcomes.

With our Network Support Grants, we support multi-stakeholder collaboratives with more specific projects like creating or updating a systems change strategy, for example, building people’s collaborative capacity, or shifting the collective narrative about an issue. Again any of these activities are ultimately designed to contribute to the networks’ efforts to solve complex social or environmental issues.

We support our partners in acting systemically through our role as grantmaker, and we also do the work internally as an organization. A few years ago, we asked Annabel Membrillo Jimenez with the Institute for Strategic Clarity to take a close look at our interests and help us update our strategy using systems tools. This work helped us adopt new practices that might better position us to achieve the outcomes we seek. We try to walk the talk and act systemically ourselves.

Jen: I agree that it’s also about the way in which we work and strive to work, which is embodied in our practice of bringing people together. We’re building our own capacity to model the kind of collaboration we think is needed and to bring a particular mindset around learning and not having all the answers. I think about processes as ways of working and ways of engaging.

Motaz: One example from our work with Annabel is that we made an explicit decision to integrate the value or attitude of co-hosting into our work. We use the concept to describe how we want to be in relationship to our partners, grantees, and peer funders. The idea has been such a useful and resonant framing.

To me, co-hosting is related to the concept of hospitality, which is the capacity of a host to leverage their privilege. The privilege of being in their own home. The privilege of having access to and agency with the resources that make sustenance possible. As a grantmaker, our privilege is that we have resources that we can make available to others. So for us co-hosting is about leveraging this privilege and it’s about our intention — just like a host at an actual dinner party — to be available to our partners and to make processes comfortable for them.

In practice, this means we try to remove the hassle from our grant application and reporting processes. We design those processes in the hope of serving both our needs and the needs of our grantees. We try to be flexible with grant timelines and deliverables. This is all still a work in progress, but when things come up and the work needs to change, we try to be supportive of that.

All this is to say that we try to embody our values in the way we work, and in the way we show up. This is one of the ways we act systematically.

Ruth: I really like this because acting systemically is multi-dimensional. That’s why it’s systemic. It has to do with how we express our values in our interactions with people — or how we show up — in addition to the frameworks and processes we might use to bring our values to life in the actual activities we do. The thinking, the planning, the execution. Depending on what part of our work you’re looking at, you might see how our individual or collective actions are aligned with our values, or you might see how we work with our partners to apply a particular set of systems tools. But it’s never just about a set of values or a set of tools. Acting systemically is about acting in alignment with a set of values in the application of a framework, tool, or process to advance systemic change at different levels. The work can add up to cultural and structural changes that create new outcomes at the systems level.

Over time, as we’ve developed more relationships with other systems change practitioners, we’ve become more secure in saying that we are learning together through our experiments. We are trying things, and not saying “Oh, we figured it all out, and you all should just do what we do!” The practice of systems change is always different based on the context of the work and the people you’re collaborating with.

So returning to Motaz’s comments, co-hosting is absolutely essential. No one can come into a project and say “This is what needs to happen.” Figuring out a strategy is always a co-creative process with whoever is working together to advance change.

Jessica: There’s a nice opportunity here to ground what we’re talking about in a tangible example. Let’s share one of the ways we’re currently working with our partners and peers in this way.

Ruth: Our communities of practice are good examples. A few years ago, we started connecting with more and more people on the ground who were experimenting with networks and who saw what they were doing as making large-scale systems change. They basically asked us, “Can you introduce us to other people who you run across doing this type of work?” They felt they could learn from one another. So we started hosting a learning community that’s now ongoing. We call it the Network Leaders Community of Practice. We frequently come across network leaders and practitioners who hear about it, who are hungry to connect with others, and who want to share the questions they’re grappling with and the practices they use.

Similarly, when we first began looking for capacity builders (consultants and facilitators) who could support the work, we got to know many amazing people, but the practices and the practitioners themselves were scattered and disconnected. We realized we could play a role in growing and connecting them.

Over time, as we widened our network, we discovered that there were many people approaching the work in different and valuable ways. And we heard from more and more capacity builders about their strong interest in developing relationships with each other to learn, collaborate, and advance their practices.

Jen: Yes, and in response we formed a community of practice for capacity builders who focus on helping others learn and apply practices for systems change, collaboration, and network development. There wasn’t previously a supported space like this. So this is an example of how we try to be responsive with our grantmaking, both to what we see in the field, and also to what people ask for.

The community of practice for curriculum designers followed a similar trajectory. We saw a need among curriculum designers to think with others about how to improve their programs and explore how learning opportunities in the field are, or could better, equip people with the skills and capacities needed to address the increasing complexity and uncertainty we face.

So we try to be responsive to the needs we perceive, and to do so in a way helps us build our individual and collective capacities and practices.

Ruth: Yes, and adding to that, one of the decisions we made when we started our Advancing Systems Change Practice Program was that we would do the work in partnership. We were very explicit that this work wasn’t going to be Garfield-only. We’ve tried to embody this sentiment across all of our work. We want to be in partnership with other funders, networks, capacity builders, and practitioners. We see our practice of connecting people and building partnerships as a systemic approach to field building.

Jen: That point is very important because we’re trying to walk the talk of collaboration. Because of our role and positionality in the field, we have a high-level (although admittedly, not a comprehensive) view of the field. Our aim is to create meaningful connections between different people and disparate pieces of work in the belief that doing so will help elevate the wisdom of the collective and increase our collective impact.

Ruth: It’s really the intention behind the grants we make to our anchor networks and through both our Advancing Practice and Network Support programs. That is to create space for people to come together, connect, and build relationships who wouldn’t otherwise be able to. It’s very hard for people to get funding for connecting and bridge building. So we see our orientation as a real contribution to the field. Something we can do as a small foundation that really helps amplify many of the other investments being made in the fields of sustainability and systems change practice. We see that we can co-host convenings and communities of practice for people in the field who otherwise wouldn’t have the space, community, and resources to come together.

Jessica: And there’s consistency here with the spirit that the foundation brought to our original investments in collaborative networks roughly 15 years ago. Which begs the question: What do we see as the relationship between collaborative networks and systems change, as both a process and an outcome? Why are collaborative networks still at the heart of our grantmaking?

Ruth: Well, a lot of people know us because of the networks we’ve funded and helped develop over the years. But we didn’t set out with the collaborative network model in mind. We actually started with the question: What would it look like to apply a systems approach in philanthropy?

At the time, work in the social sector was so fragmented (and mostly still is). Everyone’s good efforts weren’t adding up to the impact it seemed like they should add up to. The question was, could we meaningfully bring together funders and advocates who were working on different parts of the same problem? Our team hypothesized that if we could engage in systems thinking with a group of funders and advocates and begin to collaborate, our efforts would add up to far greater impact than any of us could achieve on our own.

Our initial experiment was to bring together different actors focused on clean energy in the Upper Midwest. With the support of an experienced systems analyst, the group co-created a map of the energy system. Then the group came up with a deep shared purpose in recognition that the transformation required was far greater than what any current work being done would add up to. The next exciting step was when the group identified some potential high-leverage, complementary interventions. This was how we came into the work.

Then the question became: How might we implement a multi-organizational, multi-strategy collaborative effort, knowing that the system itself is always changing and that the people involved are always changing? How do you do that? Traditional philanthropic practices were basically antithetical to what we had in mind.

So we said, “Well, a network structure seems like it might be the best fit.” As an organizational form built on systems ideas, networks have minimal structure — just enough for information and learning to flow across different organizations. They are flexible and can adapt to changing contexts. Networks had the qualities we were looking for and seemed to be the most appropriate way to support many organizations in working together over time.

So we decided to experiment with investing in building a network of organizations that could grow. We co-created working groups where advocates and funders from different organizations could come together to set strategy and to collaborate on interventions. And we invested in other infrastructure to support people in sharing information, learning, aligning, and adapting their work together.

Over time, as networks became more and more popular as a way of organizing, people started talking about campaigns as networks. Associations as networks. There was also a tendency to see networks as an “end” in and of themselves. In other words, people began to see the purpose of the work as forming a network. Now the field has developed more clarity on different types of networks. There are social networks, information networks, action networks, and others. Some people might call our idea of a network a strategic action network or a systems change network. The distinction for us is that the networks we support are an organizing form in which different actors align and collaborate on complex social and environmental challenges to create systems change. These networks recognize inequity as a persistent root cause of society’s current crises and equity as a necessary condition of successful, resilient systems change. Informed by a participatory systemic analysis, the networks we support work at multiple levels of a system to create change.

Jessica: The Garfield story in broad strokes! Thanks, Ruth. What would anyone else add?

Motaz: Two things are coming to mind for me. The first is that it’s worth reemphasizing “networks as a means,” as opposed to networks as an end. Networks are a means of enabling a particular type of collective thinking, action, and learning. It’s important to name this because there are other modes of collective systems change work, where organizations collaborate without a formal network structure. Operationally, those collaborations may be a little more fluid, more porous. I think there’s a kind of continuum for collaboratives with more or less formalized structure, but within that continuum, some basic things are consistent: alignment around a given objective, shared understanding of the issue, shared understanding of pathways for change and strategies, alignment through the implementation of activities, and shared agreement around how decisions are made, how funding is shared, and so on. We’ve found networks, especially given their more formalized and visible nature, to be a workable means of doing long-term systems change within the constraints of philanthropy.

There’s one other point I’d like to emphasize. Any individual can do a bunch of research, think systemically, do some interviews, produce a systems map, and come up with strategies, right? But, particularly when it comes to issues of inequity — that is, where some social groups are repeatedly experiencing the negative impacts of a system more than other groups — networks offer a structure for convening a microcosm of the people who influence and who are impacted by a given system such that all voices are at the table. This structure facilitates approaches that are not just “expert”, government, or funder driven — which is to say, driven by the people who already have an outsized say in how resources are allocated and used. Networks allow for more voices to define the problem and explore solutions. They support more fair and more accurate participation, which is part of what makes them systemic.

Jessica: A terrific point to end on. Thanks, Motaz. And thanks, everyone, for another rich discussion and providing a window into what systems change means to us as both a concept and a practice, as both a process and an outcome. We spoke predominantly about our communities of practice and our two anchor networks supporting the process of systems change, and for anyone who’d like to see the kind of impact we’d put in the category of systems change outcomes, I’d like to point to these pages on RE-AMP and CFE websites where there is discussion of some of each network’s impacts. We’ve also highlighted a handful of their impacts in earlier blog posts, including Digging Out of Philanthropy’s Entrenched Practices, by Jennie Curtis.

This brings our two-part interview to a close. Our intention has been to help clarify the definition and practice of systems change by sharing what it means to us as individuals and as a team, based on our contributions to the foundation’s activities and our lives at home.

We want to acknowledge again that we’ve offered one reflection on language and practice — but not the only reflection. What examples from your own work shine a light on different ways of acting systemically? We invite you to share your ideas in the comments below.

Garfield Foundation team members who contributed to this piece include:

Motaz Attalla, Program Officer & Technical Advisor
Jen Berman, Partnerships & Training Officer
Jessica Conrad, Strategic Communications Manager
Ruth Rominger, Collaborative Networks Program Director
Eleni Sotos, Senior Program Officer

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