Transformational change won’t happen if we don’t work together

Road sign with text "change ahead"

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the OECD report Private Philanthropy for Development in March 2018 and the Cloudera Foundation website. In April 2021, the Cloudera Foundation merged with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.

by Claudia Juech
March 29, 2018

Whether we are talking about improving educational outcomes for girls or the access to clean water in informal urban settlements, we know that these complex challenges are caused by multiple factors. Just solving any single one of them will not solve the overall problem. If we want to go beyond addressing the symptoms and aim for lasting change, we need to take a systems approach. This requires:

  • Defining the boundaries of the system and understanding the problem in its context. For example: Is infant mortality a problem within the health system or does it need to be looked at in the context of urban planning and unhealthy living conditions?
  • Working with many actors that are part of the system, across private, public and civil sectors
  • Identifying the levers that will alter the system, such as policy shifts, changes in public perception, behavioral changes, new data and insights and transformative technologies
  • Using iterative monitoring and learning methods to establish quick feedback loops, instead of operating in a linear fashion

Many foundations are applying a systems change mindset to their way of working. But we could do much more to collectively implement this approach, mainly by changing how and how much we collaborate. As funders we come together but often in a decentralized way – by topic, approach or geography – and in alliances that focus on pooling financial support.

To achieve systems change, foundations could be more effectively brought together according to their expertise in utilizing a specific lever for change as defined by Donella Meadows.

Using the prevention of pandemics as an example, the creation and dissemination of new insights and data on vaccines is supported by established research funders such as the Wellcome Trust, while foundations dedicated to social justice, such as the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundation, support shifting the rules of the system, e.g. by enabling local communities and local governments to define how the poorest of the poor in remote locations could be reached. Foundations experienced in setting up new institutions, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, focus on founding Centers for Disease Control and Disease Surveillance Networks. Venture philanthropy organizations like the Omidyar Network or the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation help create and scale social enterprises to foster new business models and make preventative services and products available to more people. Tech foundations, like or the Cloudera Foundation, can be a partner in identifying and applying transformative technologies, e.g. to integrate live streams of global epidemic intelligence from worldwide infectious disease monitoring systems.

If all of these activities sound familiar it is because they already coexist. However, these and many other activities in support of systems change are often not linked up in a way that would allow them to fully function as a powerful philanthropic value chain. To optimize the ecosystem of change, foundations need to have a clearer understanding of their role in the system, know where their resources and expertise best fit local needs and should not expect their single approach to be sufficient to affect systems change.

Approaching systems change even more collaboratively would not only allow us to make every dollar count at a time where we are facing a $2.5 trillion gap per year to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It would also more effectively draw on other assets that large and small foundations have at their disposal – expertise, in-kind contributions, and the ability to convene across sectors.

Claudia Juech is the Vice President of the Data and Society program.