Bild: Louis Maniquet, unsplash

Funding for systems change:  From theory to practice

Emilie Romon, Yuxian Seow, Kata­lin Hausel, Nora Wilhelm

We are confron­ted with an urgent need to find and support trans­for­ma­tive solu­ti­ons at a much faster rate. Along­side efforts to address the symptoms of the current crises we are facing, we must also address the root causes of the inequa­li­ties behind social and envi­ron­men­tal issues.

Howe­ver, accor­ding to a 2020 global report, the majo­rity of funding prac­ti­ces are not adapted to support syste­mic inno­va­tions, as they “often empha­size the finan­cing of well-defi­ned projects that achieve visi­ble results within a short time frame, resul­ting in funding requi­re­ments and time­lines that do not align well with systems change efforts, and also leave systems change leaders without important nonfi­nan­cial support.” (Embra­cing Comple­xity, 2020)

This is what a coll­ec­tive of foun­da­ti­ons and chan­ge­ma­kers in Switz­er­land (see list below), led by Ashoka Switz­er­land and colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica, came toge­ther to tackle. In a one-year co-lear­ning jour­ney, we shared insights and best prac­ti­ces, and deve­lo­ped proto­ty­pes to trans­form exis­ting funding mecha­nisms to better support systems change.


In a previous The Philanthropist article, “Acce­le­ra­ting funding for systems change: A Swiss expe­ri­ence”, we shared our Theory U metho­do­logy, and detailed our first insights – speci­fi­cally  key dimen­si­ons for funding systems change – which we expan­ded upon in the second part of this jour­ney and now share in an updated form here:

  • Change of mind­set: The basis for funding systems change is a change of mind­set in project holders and the diffe­rent actors within foun­da­ti­ons. Without it, any imple­men­ted ‘solu­ti­ons’ are super­fi­cial and unsus­tainable. People working towards systems change need to under­stand the systems they operate in, inclu­ding from the perspec­tive of others. We need to put egos and indi­vi­dual agen­das aside for our coll­ec­tive future.
  • Systems-infor­med stra­te­gies and funding mecha­nisms: regard­less of whether a funder seeks to support systems change, a grasp of systems thin­king is key to under­stand the (often) complex issues they are stri­ving to address and deve­lop stra­te­gies infor­med by this know­ledge. For exam­ple, under­stan­ding the diffe­rent levels of the chall­enge is rele­vant even for funders who provide direct service to a popu­la­tion, as oppo­sed to the struc­tures that are main­tai­ning the problem in place. Simi­larly, funders need to under­stand how their funding mecha­nisms impact the system in which they inter­vene, and how they might inad­ver­t­ently foster results that are not consis­tent with the foundation’s values or inten­ti­ons. For exam­ple, asking project holders to compete for funding is likely to hinder colla­bo­ra­tion between project holders in the same field.
  • Time – long-term hori­zon (no quick fixes): As systems change does not happen over­night, a great deal of pati­ence is requi­red. Funders, simi­lar to inves­tors in early-stage start-ups, invest in a vision and people they are confi­dent can imple­ment it. A failed stra­tegy can be the key to finding the ones that do work. It takes courage to provide long-term funding and to invest in the orga­niza­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment of part­ners, yet it is key to enable systems change work.
  • New impact measu­re­ment and lear­ning frame­works: Support­ing systems change requi­res lear­ning to be a key part of evalua­tion (e.g. with deve­lo­p­ment evolu­tion or a lear­ning ecology approach). Being inten­tio­nal in lear­ning enables to adapt the stra­tegy towards the vision we aim to achieve. Depen­ding on whether projects aim to address roots or symptoms, adapted lear­ning and evalua­tion tools need to be applied. Agree­ments should be tied to lear­ning and impact rather than short-term KPIs, whilst also inclu­ding support and room for fail­ure and learning.
  • Aware­ness of power dyna­mics to enable true colla­bo­ra­tion and trust-buil­ding: The rela­ti­onship between funders and project holders is inher­ently unba­lan­ced due to the finan­cial tran­sac­tion it entails. Other dimen­si­ons can influence the power dyna­mics at play, such as colo­nial history. Addres­sing this ques­tion openly will help build the trust requi­red for true colla­bo­ra­tion. Trust is also key between funders’ staff and boards.
  • Invest­ment in capa­city-buil­ding: Systems change is a cutting-edge field in which we are all lear­ners. Funders need to invest in buil­ding their own capa­city, for their staff and boards, as well as for project holders. This being said, theo­re­ti­cal know­ledge is not suffi­ci­ent. Acting purpo­sefully in comple­xity and foste­ring systems change does not come with fool­proof one size fits all templa­tes or plans – instead it is about values, mind­sets, and a way to engage with the system and its parti­ci­pants, while stay­ing humble and conti­nuing to learn by doing.
  • Colla­bo­ra­tion amongst funders: Systems change work cannot happen in isola­tion, and requi­res exten­sive coor­di­na­tion and colla­bo­ra­tion amongst the diffe­rent actors in a system. Funders can jointly build an under­stan­ding of the system(s) they are a part of and its play­ers, and coor­di­nate their stra­te­gies and inter­ven­tion to maxi­mize impact. By sharing lear­nings around what worked and what did not, simi­lar to what is being recom­men­ded to project holders, the whole system’s lear­ning curve can be increased and we coll­ec­tively get closer to reaching our goals. Further steps of colla­bo­ra­tion, such as pooling funding, have great poten­tial to acce­le­rate this work.

3 new tools to move from theory to action

With these lear­nings in mind, working groups met regu­larly between Febru­ary and June 2022 to design and test proto­ty­pes that could shift funding mecha­nisms in Switz­er­land towards support­ing syste­mic solu­ti­ons. The groups produ­ced a glos­sary and two crea­tive and inno­va­tive tools for funders to encou­rage self-reflec­tion on their funding practices.

  • Funding Mecha­nisms Spider­web is a visual exer­cise which helps funders reflect on their funding mecha­nisms across 12 diffe­rent dimen­si­ons of the funding cycle. Its main purpose is to make funders more aware of the choices behind exis­ting or poten­tial funding mecha­nisms, so they can better under­stand the impli­ca­ti­ons of those choices, and support the explo­ra­tion of new ideas by broa­de­ning the spec­trum of options.
  • Syste­mic Mind­set: 17 Guiding Ques­ti­ons for Funders is inten­ded to help in the review of stra­te­gies and working methods of foun­da­ti­ons alre­ady working on syste­mic impact. The ques­ti­on­n­aire can be used when laun­ching a stra­te­gic process or as a self-assess­ment exer­cise, at either the level of the foun­da­tion as a whole or of one of its programs. It is split into four cate­go­ries that reflect diffe­rent aspects of funders’ work: vision and impact, part­ner­ships and feed­back, roles and posi­tio­na­lity, and assess­ment and lear­ning. It is available in English, German and French.
  • Funding Systems Change Glos­sary is a foun­da­tio­nal resource which provi­des defi­ni­ti­ons and examp­les of some of the key concepts of funding systems change and in the phil­an­thro­pic sector.

These tools are meant to be used as widely as possi­ble, and to inform foun­da­ti­ons’ work in Switz­er­land and abroad. So please help us spread them!

What we lear­ned from the process

As the jour­ney we went through was expe­ri­men­tal, we felt it was important to docu­ment our lessons lear­ned and share them with the wider ecosys­tem. We traced our insights and shifts through a lear­ning ecology approach and four surveys. Parti­ci­pants repor­ted that:

  • They felt part of a coll­ec­tive, supported and a high degree of trust within the group.
  • They had an increased under­stan­ding of systems change, while also expe­ri­en­cing discom­fort with the comple­xity of the chall­enge (which is a good sign of lear­ning and the needed humi­lity when faced with systems change!)
  • They expe­ri­en­ced a growing sense as to what systems change funding could mean for their organizations,
  • They iden­ti­fied the buil­ding of new perso­nal rela­ti­onships which may be the basis for future collaborations
  • They lear­ned with and from peers and other ecosys­tem actors that were part of the initiative
  • They are inte­res­ted in conti­nuing this work  the impact of this

The time­frame of the jour­ney doesn’t allow us to have a final verdict on the deeper impact of the work on the sector as these effects unfold over longer time­lines, howe­ver the inten­tion of parti­ci­pants to conti­nue this shared process is promi­sing. Over­all, we are proud of the jour­ney we have been on, the insights gathe­red, rela­ti­onships built and results produced.

Our evalua­tion confirms what we alre­ady know about systems change work: it takes time, it is complex, and happens on diffe­rent levels at once. There is momen­tum in this topic, as illus­tra­ted not only by the work we coll­ec­tively did here in Switz­er­land, but inte­rest in colla­bo­ra­ti­ons and disse­mi­na­ting these insights inter­na­tio­nally, for exam­ple toge­ther with Cata­lyst 2030. Where this path to funding systems change takes us cannot be predic­ted, but we are looking forward to what’s next, and we warmly invite you to join us

Have you alre­ady applied the tools we deve­lo­ped to your orga­niza­tion, and would like to share some feed­back? Do you have ques­ti­ons on how to use the tools, or need support in apply­ing them to your work? We would love to hear from you. Cont­act any coali­tion member to tell us about your expe­ri­ence and your needs.

Emilie Romon, Ashoka Switz­er­land: Email

Yuxian Seow, Ashoka Switz­er­land: Email

Kata­lin Hausel, Lear­ning Ecology, Colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica: Email

Nora Wilhelm, Co-Foun­der & Cata­lyst, colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica: Email

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