The Funders Network is committed to sharing the stories and strategies of our members, partners and others in the philanthropic sector working to create more sustainable, prosperous and equitable communities.

Today, we’re sharing this two-part post from the Garfield Foundation, a TFN member, about systems thinking frameworks and collaborative network practices  — and how this powerful combination can help address the complex, interconnected and systemic problems we face. (TFN’s five-part Systems Transformation Learning Series, which wrapped up this summer, was made possible by support from the Garfield Foundation.)

By Jessica Conrad, Garfield Foundation

What does “systems change” mean to us? It’s a question our team often returns to after having first asked it in the early 2000s. That’s when we began experimenting with different forms of investment and collaboration grounded in systems thinking. Now, as we look back on 2020, it’s no surprise that the tone of the question has changed, gaining gravity and priority.

On the one hand, the relentless tragedies of 2020 revealed in full contrast how inequitable our systems truly are. They also raised people’s awareness about how dire the need for systems change has become on many levels — and about the systemic nature of society’s problems. One of the many stark inequities that emerged last year is the fact that, nationally, COVID-19 cases and deaths of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color exceeded their proportional share of the population. The roaring public discourse about racial injustice has made it easier for more people to connect dots between what’s currently unfolding in the public health system and the consequences of systemic racism in other realms, including the US criminal justice, public education, and economic systems, to name a few. In a word, the current landscape shows just how interconnected our issues are. At the same time, it’s exposing people to the language of system change.

Meanwhile, we are noticing a greater number of organizations in the social sector describing their approach as systemic or in service of systems changeWe see many others who seek to learn about how to apply a systems approach within their work. And we also see more and more practitioners building new relationships, developing shared language, refining and diversifying practices, and sharing their experience of leading projects using systemic approaches. They are purposefully collaborating to build the emerging field of systems change practice. It seems very likely that the events of last year contributed to and accelerated these shifts in language and practice.

Yet as these dynamics unfold, we are also noticing that the terms — systems change, systemic, systems approach, et cetera — aren’t yet well defined in broad use or within the field itself. Very rarely do the words come with an explanation of their underlying assumptions, and when they do, we’ve found that people use them with different meanings in different contexts, leading to confusion.

With the language of systems change now firmly in the zeitgeist of the social sector, and growing in use in the general public, we see an opportunity to help clarify the definition and practice of systems change.

Read the full post, which includes links to the Garfield team’s two-part dialogue exploring systems change, here

Wickerwork with shadow” by unbekannt270 is licensed under CC BY