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Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems: How Funders Can Do Better

September 24, 2018

By Gurpreet Singh - Skoll Foundation

Last year, the Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems initiative—led by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and a Steering Committee of which the Skoll Foundation is a member—reflected on what more funders could do to better meet the moral imperative posed by global threats. Following deep discussion with funders, practitioners, and experts, the initiative released a report that directed funders’ attention toward their own norms and practices.

It synthesized the ways in which funders could ‘get out of the way’ of organizations driving systemic change: Streamlining applications and reporting; Collaborating more effectively; Accelerating impact through non-monetary support; Learning more about systems change; and Empowering grantees by consciously shifting power dynamics (SCALE).

This year, the initiative revisited the funder community’s role in responding to daunting and complex social problems—“pathologies of systems”—in partnership with grantees and with each other. It reviewed how funders are actually improving their policies and practices and—keeping in mind that peer-to-peer influencing is key to driving changes in funder behavior—learned from existing funder collaborative models that aim to change systems. Its many findings are synthesized in a new report, “Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems: Approaches for Impact, Approaches for Learning.”

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Skoll Foundation Scaling Solutions

Big Takeaways

Treating the philanthropy sector as a system itself, the initiative confirmed what others like the Real Cost Project, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations have found. “Funder behaviors that undermine grantees’ ability to achieve their missions are norms not grounded in formal policies, tax laws, or governance requirements, but rather practices that have nonetheless become ingrained in the sector.’

This is understandable, given the challenges documented in the report: finite resources, knowledge siloed by domain or geography, risk aversion, lack of accountability for greater organizational effectiveness, differences between program staff and leadership/Board members, and more. But there are bright spots—the report highlights various funders who are enacting the SCALE recommendations, by:

  • Releasing organizations, with a track record, from the ‘treadmill’ of fundraising and reporting;
  • Prioritizing practices and mechanisms that value feedback, listening, and responsiveness
  • Focusing applications and reports on what grantees are learning and changing, not on activities and outputs
  • Sharing due diligence findings, and building on other funders’ findings; and
  • Allowing grantees to determine the best use of funds.

But the initiative recognizes that what exists today—“a sector filled with smart, dedicated, and conscientious funders, alongside a vast expanse of organizations, social enterprises, and government partners who do remarkable work”—isn’t enough to address the scale of change needed. So, it turned to funder collaboratives that have pooled their funds, knowledge, and influence to support systems change. After studying 25 examples, the initiative found:

  1. For funders seeking systems change, collaborations can be more effective and rewarding than going it alone.
  2. Organic growth of the collaborative based on pre-existing relationships provides certain benefits and a stronger growth trajectory.
  3. Identifying and supporting strong leadership is an important foundation for collaborating on long-term systems change.
  4. Collaboratives united by geography or supporting specific population groups emphasize community-based dialogue, listening, and deep conversations between funders, grantees, and communities—but any collaborative can build these strengths.
  5. Aligning on theory of change (TOC) and embracing the complexity of systems change translate to a higher likelihood that funders can and will successfully pool funds.
  6. Funder collaboratives want to delve more into monitoring and evaluation processes for assessing systems-level progress and results.
  7. Systems change-oriented collaboratives frequently experience the same set of obstacles (e.g. different funding commitment lengths and approaches to measurement) and resolving these creates a stronger basis for success.

RPA Skoll Foundation Scaling Solutions Infographic

After reflecting on everything it has absorbed to date, the initiative also calls on the sector to invest in a “well-resourced, long-term, and objective learning platform” that brings together systems experts with organizations and funders interested in systems change. Indeed, “field-building in and for the philanthropy sector and its partners is an important step toward the transformational change that individual funders are seeking.”

The report—grounded in a variety of case studies and others’ findings—is well worth a read. And, once you’ve read it, please consider: what will you do differently? How will you change your practices to better support systems change?

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