Three Ways Funders Can Change Systems And Drive Impact


meeting-2284501“We can’t just put a Band-Aid on this. We need to change the system!” How many times have you heard that statement? It’s true. Most of the issues funders address will ultimately benefit greatly by systems change. But how do funders play a role in that change?

I define systems change as altering entrenched policies and practices in society. Generally, there are three approaches that funders use to engage in systems change work. I think of them as using lenses, frameworks and movements.

1. Using a systems change lens to drive philanthropic mission at individual foundations

As donors and foundations learn and grow, and come to understand why systems change work is important – even critical – for achieving their missions, they may begin to explore the ways in which their investments can interact with systems and identify areas in which they might help create systems change. They begin to look at their activities through a systems change lens.

Depending on the size and focus of the philanthropic investment, this exploration may result in a foundation-wide emphasis on systems change, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s decision to focus on building a culture of health. Or, a systems change lens might focus on a single grantmaking program, such as the Packard Foundation’s seven year investment in summer learning.

There are many examples of how grantmakers define and apply a systems change lens, and no two approach the work in exactly the same way. A systems change lens isn’t an off-the-shelf program that funders apply, but rather originates from their mission, culture and experience.

2. Using shared systems change frameworks to guide philanthropic shared interest and investment 

While a systems change lens can take many forms and vary specifically from funder to funder, what we define as systems change frameworks are more concrete and replicable from one philanthropy to another or provide a common point of engagement for multiple funders at once. For example:

The Rockefeller, Packard and Walton foundations, along with others, worked with an outside consulting firm to develop a shared systems change framework that guides their collective investments in sustainable fisheries. These foundations participated in the development of a framework that:

  • Took into account their various philosophies, objectives and priorities
  • Helped identify common metrics for success
  • Painted a clear picture of market-based systems change and identified opportunities for philanthropic investment

In developing this framework, the foundations could not only see their own roles with regard to investment, but had a strong understanding of the roles others would need to play for systems change to occur.

3. Supporting systems change movements that engage a number of public and private partners to make broad based change 

Changing systems in our society is complex, difficult and overwhelming work that is practically impossible for a foundation to achieve on its own. The fact that many U.S. foundations work in relative isolation compounds the difficulty of making a meaningful investment in systems change. Fortunately, there are a number of examples of movements that are pushing for systems change in various aspects of our society. Two of these examples include:

  • Cure Violence, which aims to reduce gun violence by treating it as an epidemic disease that can be cured. In particular, they organize communities (social systems) to change norms. Its funders include Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a number of smaller philanthropies.
  • The foster care system, which in recent years has seen the national conversation shift to reflect a growing interest in revamping the nation’s child welfare system to focus more on prevention and less on out-of-home placement. Casey Family Programs has been a lead funder in this effort.

It is important to realize that systems change requires a significant shift in thought processes for some funders. However, when foundations and donors are willing to engage in systems change work, they can play a crucial role in accelerating changes that are critical to their own missions, thereby achieving their own goals and improving the lives of those they serve.

For more insight on how philanthropy and systems change interact with each other, download a free copy of the field scan, The Role of Philanthropy in Systems Change.

This article was originally written for and published by

© 2017 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.


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