Philanthropy is a Leverage Point in the Systems We Seek to Shift

  • By Freya Bradford, March 7, 2023

“If you are not aware of how you are part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” – William Torbert

Philanthropy is deeply committed to addressing the toughest problems societies are faced with today – injustices, poverty, homelessness, childcare shortages, gun violence, declining mental health, climate change and biodiversity loss, to name a few. Despite their differences, these problems all have something in common. Their roots are systemic and interconnected.

It is said our systems are perfectly designed to produce the results that they produce, replicating or repairing harm depending on the systems’ conditions. Philanthropy is beginning to understand that in order to get different results, we must support work to change the systems that are producing inequitable results. But we have been slower to recognize where in those systems we have the greatest leverage: ourselves. We are a part of every problem, every system, we aim to change. The way philanthropy incentivizes and supports changemaking work, how we show up within that work, and how connected we are to each other, has tremendous influence on what can be accomplished.

If organized philanthropy aims to make progress on complex, systemic issues, philanthropy itself must transform.

This was a hard-won and humbling realization when Rotary Charities set out to make more progress on complex regional issues. We hoped to create a new grant category and be on with it. The issues were urgent, and nobody had much tolerance for “more talking.” But the more clearly we saw what was inhibiting the type of long-term transformation we hoped to support, the more we knew we weren’t looking at a strategy shift. We were staring down a paradigm shift.

Leaning into a systems change approach

We recently documented our journey to support systems change work in Stories of Change: How a Systems Change Approach is Transforming a Region. Our story is shared alongside the stories of three initiatives we’ve supported that have made tremendous progress on complex community challenges.

Our story documents a journey of listening and learning, reflection, experimentation, challenges and lessons that led us to a transformation that was formalized in 2018 with a new vision, mission, guiding principles, grant categories, learning opportunities and new strategies for communicating and connecting.

It describes how we came to define the overarching complex problem we aimed to shift: collectively, we were not solving the complex problems that are keeping our region from thriving. It explains how we explored the roots of that overarching problem in partnership with changemakers in our region, and how we found new leverage points for change within our own systems and practices. It shares how we committed to a systems change approach and leaned into the field of systems change for its rich frameworks, deep toolbox and growing network of practitioners and funders. We came to define with changemakers what taking a systems change approach meant in our region:

  • Addressing the upstream causes, rather than the symptoms or consequences, of a complex social or environmental issue that is impacting our region;
  • Deep collaboration, including shared accountability and power, between those working on all areas of an issue and those who have experienced its consequences firsthand;
  • Taking a holistic, or systemic, view of the problem and using a constellation of emerging actions and ongoing learning to transforms the policies, practices, resource flows, relationships and connections, power dynamics, and mental models that underlie the problem.

We produced a short video with Stories of Change that features 14 changemakers from our region and describes more about what the approach means to them.

Changes in our philanthropy that are catalyzing regional systems change

While our ability as a region to work in this way has been influenced by the actions of many, we believe our own transformation has been a vital catalyst. We are excited to be able to share our story, and the stories of those we’ve supported, because we believe that funders of all sizes and structures can be more vital points of leverage in the systems they seek to change.

This has been transformative work in every sense of the word. For us, it took a system to change (our own system) for us to support systems change work in our region. And it very much remains a work in progress, by design. To address the roots of complex issues, we learned we had to shift all the systemic factors* that were underlying our own work before we could adequately support the work of others.

Policies, practices and resource flows shifted from shorter-term, non-renewable funding targeted to single organizations to funding that includes a spectrum of grant opportunities to groups of organizations for different stages of the work to collaboratively address root causes. Focus shifted from grants supporting programs addressing the symptoms or consequences of an issue to grants that are targeted upstream at changing the systemic factors creating the problem*. Systems change initiatives are offered grants in three-year commitments that are renewable. Resources beyond grant dollars are offered, like community-wide learning opportunities around systems change and collaboration, systems change coaching support, and stories of systems change are celebrated and shared with the community.

Relationships and connections shifted from a primarily transactional grant relationship – where all resources are provided up front and reports are delivered at the grant conclusion – to deeper partnerships with grantees where regular check-ins build relationships and trust, surface challenges, and allow for connections to new resources as needed. Resources within each initiative are unlocked through a facilitated, cross-issue Community of Practice that enables new relationships, resource sharing, support and learning. Grantees are connected to the wider field of systems change through a vetted pool of systems change coaches that also periodically connect as a group to build their own practice.

Power is beginning to shift from a paradigm where the board makes all grant decisions and staff design programming to one where the greater community is invited to provide feedback more regularly and changemakers co-design grant opportunities and supports. Six new criteria guide decision making and programming, including an inclusive criteria which incentivizes deep engagement with stakeholders including those who have experienced an issue.

Mindset shifts have underpinned all of these changes, including an overarching shift in belief that where complex problems were concerned, our best role was to help those who were experiencing the consequences of those problems. Today we believe that immediate relief is necessary, but insufficient. Guiding our work today is the mindset that when systems are not working for everyone they must change. And that doing so requires philanthropy to partner more equitably with the communities it serves, listen, and continuously adapt to meet changing needs and circumstances.

Signs of change

Since our biggest shifts in 2018, we have been documenting transformative changes in the way that organizations and initiatives in our region approach complex problems like:

  • Greater and more diverse collaboration and alignment;
  • Inclusion of diverse perspectives, including those with lived experience;
  • Improved information and resource flows across systems;
  • Improved ability to share and leverage new resources;
  • Greater co-creation and experimentation; and
  • Changes in community narratives and mindsets.

Some initiatives, like those featured in Stories of Change, are beginning to report positive impact in the complex problems they are addressing like sharp and sustained increases in the accessibility of healthy food, consistent decreases in frequency of youth homelessness, and fewer barriers to health and health equity.

How might philanthropy work more like a system?

We have been so encouraged by the results we’re seeing we have been turning some attention to the broader field of philanthropy to share our story and connect with more peers. We believe a systems approach holds tremendous potential to transform our most complex problems, especially when it is used as a lens to transform philanthropy’s own structures and practices.

If you are a funder who is actively supporting systems change, or interested in doing so, we would love to connect and learn more about different approaches to this type of work and explore how philanthropy might work more systemically together.

Freya Bradford is the Director of Systems Change and Learning for Rotary Charities of Traverse City, a place-based funder in northwest lower Michigan. You can find more of her writing on systems change in a four-part blog series. She loves to connect with others taking a systems a systems change approach and can be reached at

Stories of Change: How a Systems Change Approach is Transforming a Region was authored by systems change coach and storyteller, Jessica Conrad.

*These factors, and our work broadly, has been influenced by many in the field of systems change that are noted in Stories of Change. These factors are borrowed from FSG’s Water of Systems Change article.

Freya Bradford

Director of Systems Change & Learning

Freya Bradford is the Director of Systems Change & Learning for Rotary Charities of Traverse City. She partners with a diverse cohort of initiatives aimed at tackling the roots of complex problems by facilitating a systems change grant category, community of practice, and a systems change coaching pool. Her career has focused on social change and learning in philanthropy, Native American tribal governments and justice systems, and public health. Her approach is rooted in a systems view that centers curiosity, interconnectedness, and a shared responsibility for the whole. Freya recently completed an 8-month learning program with the UK-based School of Systems Change, Investors in Change.