Are we defining “success” in systems change philanthropy all wrong?

How are we defining success?

How are we changing how we define success?

  • The shift to using complexity thinking alongside systems thinking. Complexity theory tells us we should look at the whole system, not narrow to a specific, actionable place to focus. Complexity thinking balances the idea that we cannot predict what will happen with the understanding that systems change is not random. It says the future is uncertain, but we can learn from the past pathways by which change has happened and attend to emerging trends.
  • The tough questions about power and role that many philanthropic organizations are asking, questions about just how much a philanthropic institution should be defining strategy, identifying desired outcomes, and finding points of leverage, versus releasing control over strategy and funding in ways that shift power over action and outcomes to those closest to the system and problem.
  • The growing interest in enabling emergent strategies, whether at the philanthropic strategy level or enabling grantees to be more emergent and adaptive in their work.
  • Funding a collection of partners who work systemically, share our values, and use many different tools to advance change.
  • Funding a network of partners, and asking them to come up with experiments to advance toward a shared aim (but not a shared set of outcomes).
  • Convening partners, creating shared learning spaces, building systems thinking skills, and funding our partners to act in new ways together with this new knowledge.
  • Releasing our power by funding partners to do what they do best, recognizing their proximity to the needs in the system positions them to understand how to change the system better than we can.

It’s time to truly redefine success in systems change strategies.

  1. Do no harm (to the vulnerable people, species, ecosystems, etc. that you seek to help)
  2. Do good
  3. Sometimes do great
  • This might mean seeking to make sure we don’t unintentionally destabilize a school system in a way that leads to even lower achievement by underserved students;
  • It might mean taking care that we don’t unintentionally incentivize shifts in government action that increase corruption instead of decreasing it;
  • It might mean being careful not to put such a successful band aid on the problem (protecting against today’s harms without solving the causes of them) that we reinforce the status quo and decrease the will to change the system; or
  • It might simply mean not funding a program that is causing trauma instead of alleviating it.
  • This might mean we fund a leadership program that increases the number of BIPOC leaders in a given community without limiting the topical or systems focus of the leadership development.
  • This might mean we fund secondary education advocates who build stable, lasting relationships with policymakers in multiple policy venues without predefining the policies or types of systems changes we hope they advance.
  • This might mean we fund speculative artists to produce visions of the future that compete with Western ways of understanding future possibilities without defining the content, format, audiences or impact of these new stories.
  • Perhaps most of the BIPOC leaders ultimately focus their attention on issues well outside what we thought their leadership would influence, perhaps even having influence in other geographies.
  • Perhaps the advocates explore upstream drivers and realize that the secondary education work they had prioritized cannot be addressed without a deep focus on poverty.
  • Perhaps the speculative artists inspire a new generation of BIPOC artists to generate more political and visible art, without having visibility themselves in the current futures environment.
  • One of the BIPOC leaders successfully runs for City Council and champions a policy that directs resources to low-income communities, transforming community infrastructure and opportunities;
  • A charismatic leader from the program recruits community members across different backgrounds and beliefs, building an intersectional social movement that becomes a consistent influence on city policies and practices, gradually changing power dynamics within the city.
  • The advocates build relationships within the executive branch so effectively that education policies begin to be implemented in ways that have significant impact on disparities.
  • The advocates’ relationship with a specific policymaker transforms her thinking and she goes on to run for higher office, bringing new values and approaches with her.
  • An indigenous futures story goes viral right as a larger policy dialogue about regulating artificial intelligence gains public attention. That combination — the power of the moment and the power of a good story — come together to trigger a new way of talking about the connection between the environment, people, and technology, contributing to a badly needed narrative shift..

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Jewlya Lynn is a facilitator, advisor, and researcher who works with leaders dedicated to making a difference in the world by solving complex problems.

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Jewlya Lynn

Jewlya Lynn

Jewlya Lynn is a facilitator, advisor, and researcher who works with leaders dedicated to making a difference in the world by solving complex problems.

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