This series covers how to shape your foundation’s strategy for more transformational impact by prioritizing equity and justice. That strategy can show up in strategic planning (whether it’s a weekend retreat or 9-month facilitated process), continuous strategy refinement, or development of programs and initiatives.

So far, I’ve covered seven strategy traps that limit philanthropy’s impact, why a better approach is necessary, the approach’s five principles, and a deeper dive on Principle One: Lead with equity and justice (it’s not just a lens).

My last post on Principle Two: Recognize the Big Problem to Solve, argued the importance of understanding what causes disparities, how, and why, i.e., the root causes. It described (a) how systems drive disparities by maintaining inequities and injustice and (b) what keeps them functioning the way they do.

So let’s dive into Principle Three: Prioritize What Makes Change Happen

“Programmatic solutions can help people beat the odds, which is fundamentally necessary. Changing systems can help change the odds.” – Jillian Rosen, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation

“When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The big problem has been in place a long time, and so have efforts to address it. Considering that a relative handful of incentives and other forces keep systems in place, there are only so many ways to change them. Several approaches have been powerful enough to do so throughout history.

The change levers outlined in the table below offer the best odds of success. Success in systems change, in turn, holds the highest potential for moving the needle in most issue areas by advancing equity and justice.

Change Lever
Example in Philanthropy
Community Engagement and Power Strengthen community capacity, connections, and influence to shape systems policy, practice, and budget decisions The Central Valley Community Foundation is supporting neighborhood-based organizations and resident leaders who are mobilizing and organizing community members and is developing a strategy to strengthen citywide community engagement, civic infrastructure, and resident leadership within the region’s economic development initiative (Fresno, CA)
Policy Advocacy Advocate for improved policies and their implementation, driven by community priorities The Colorado Trust is investing in grassroots and state-level organizations to accelerate community organizing and leadership, center community priorities in the policy advocacy process, and strengthen the statewide infrastructure underlying this work (State of Colorado)
Systems Decision Points Target systems decisions and power leverage points with greatest influence The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation focuses on municipal and county decision-making bodies (county Board of Commissioners, Commission on Aging, city planning department) as part of its systems change strategy for aging justice (Washtenaw County, MI)
Policy & Practice Models and Data Lift a bold vision and transformative opportunities for reinventing systems, backed by models and data The W.K. Kellogg Foundation convened a national Community of Practice of organizations promoting models for economic equity, including employee ownership and others that shift the employer-employee relationship and significantly improve job quality
Messaging & Narrative Spread messaging to shape the narrative, shift mindsets around disadvantaged communities, and build public and political will The Schenectady Foundation is coordinating the One Schenectady initiative to strengthen cross-sector collaboration around transformative, systemic change, including messaging that community members are assets and the engine for that change

An important note: the change levers are central and adaptable to any program area or social issue. However, they should be driven by community priorities and are not isolated silver bullet solutions to take on piecemeal or superficially. In your foundation’s strategic planning, consider how much to prioritize each one and how they connect. This prioritization will primarily affect grantmaking decisions and how your foundation approaches its other roles, practices, and partnerships—more on that under Principle Four below.

The change levers also provide essential context for common philanthropic focus areas such as capacity-building, scaling of direct services and programs, collaboration, leadership development, data, innovation, research, technology, etc. Foundations invest significant resources in these areas. Aligning them with the change levers can increase impact by helping define the overarching purpose, intended results, and design.

Work on these areas provides real value for a range of needs and challenges (who would argue against more capacity, collaboration, or leadership?). AND, I see much of this work emphasize a particular solution or process details over what needs to be achieved and why, i.e., process over purpose. Here’s a fun pattern: We need to build nonprofit capacity in XYZ areas we need them to have. Let’s fund a capacity-building program. The program looks like this. Who can make use of this program? Let’s run a rigorous selection process. Announce the winners. Congratulations. Find a way to show it’s effective.

Several years ago, in one real-life example, I participated in a convening of national intermediaries taking on racial equity. Over two full days, more than 30 organizational representatives discussed streamlining their conferences, newsletters, meetings, and other activities. What was not addressed: how to strategically align their roles around systems change and alleviate local confusion around who was doing what (local stakeholders referred to the acronyms of the national organizations cycling through each city as “alphabet soup”).

Other real-life examples: the capacity-building program whose foundation sponsor blocked the nonprofit participants from discussing any systemic issues beyond the primary topic of service quality; the hours I spent with a group of peer consultants documenting the nuanced differences between social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

The above real-life scenarios missed the context and strategy around what to achieve and why as related to advancing equity and justice.

Examples of a Strategic Approach to Capacity-Building
The Colorado Trust identified organizations addressing the Community Power and Policy Advocacy change levers, and is providing flexible capacity-building support to address their needs as they define them. Many grantees became a staffed organization for the first time and would not have made it into most capacity-building programs I’ve seen to date.
The Central Valley Community Foundation is approaching capacity-building, leadership development, and coordination as part of a cohesive strategy to build local civic infrastructure and strengthen Community Power and Policy Advocacy for improving economic development systems in Fresno, CA.

If your foundation is ready to take on systems change, there are strategic approaches to do so. If your foundation focuses on narrower problems through targeted grantmaking, programs or initiatives, understanding the big problem as the context has significant implications for undertaking them more effectively.

Stay tuned for the next post on Principle Four: Prioritize Understand the Universe and Philanthropy’s Place in it. In the meantime, please refer to this white paper for more detail, colorful pictures and fancy diagrams, and next steps that your foundation can start making today.

Let’s do some good work together.