The following is a conversation between Lija Farnham, a Partner at The Bridgespan Group and Co-author of the report “How Philanthropy Can Support Systems-Change Leaders,” and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Lija McHugh Farnham, a Partner at The Bridgespan Group San Francisco Office

Denver: The COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked the inequitable design of many of society’s systems. In fact, there may have been more discussion about systems change in the past year than there’s been in the past decade. But what problems require a systems change approach? Who does the work, and how does that work get funded? These questions were addressed in a recent paper issued by The Bridgespan Group titled “How Philanthropy Can Support Systems-Change Leaders.” And it’s a pleasure to have with us one of its co-authors and a partner at The Bridgespan Group, Lija Farnham

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Lija!

Lija: Thank you for having me.

Denver: A wonderful paper. Let’s start by having you tell us: What is systems change? 

Lija: It’s a great question. At Bridgespan, we are working towards societies characterized by equity and justice, and it is so clear that to get there, we need to acknowledge the huge role that systems, often public systems, play. 

Think about inequities in education, in health, in criminal justice. These are systems comprised of people and policies and organizations and norms and beliefs. And as we’re seeing now more clearly than ever, they are not achieving positive and equitable outcomes. And yet, in my 14 years here at Bridgespan, I have never seen the level of disruption, urgency, and opportunity that we’re seeing now.

 And I just have to start by sharing this quote that I would say I probably say it almost every day right now, from an essay from Arundhati Roy last year at the beginning of the pandemic, where she said, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.” This one is no different. It’s a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smokey skies behind us. Or we can walk through, lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” And that’s what systems change work is about. 

The most successful examples, and really examples where equity was at the core of the work — in particular, the core of the systems change approaches — is work that was led through coalitions doing the work on the ground, in community with each other, trying to get at these huge visions for social change.

Denver: That’s a great quote. My history is probably not up to date, but didn’t the Renaissance follow the Black Plague? Stuff like that happens. It’s a game-changer. Before we get into the insights you uncovered, tell us about the study itself and some of the large-scale change efforts you examined.

Lija: We started this work a few years ago investigating the notion of field-building. This is a term funders, philanthropy had been asking. And frankly, in our work with funders and philanthropic donors, we had heard the same phrase again and again, “I am banging my head against a wall, been scaling up these programs, and we’re just not seeing the needle move.” And so we really wanted to understand: What does it take to get to population-level change? How do we think about coalitions coming together? 

And so we studied over 35, probably now it’s even more, over 40 social change efforts, often these field-building efforts aimed at transforming public systems, aimed at transforming policy. These big changes that would have, again, population-level results. We studied teen pregnancy. We studied palliative care. We studied teens smoking. So some of these efforts from past decades. 

And in that original field-building research that we published last year, one of the conclusions was: This work is really hard. It takes a long time. Funders tend to try to do it a lot themselves and through top-down approaches. And yet, the most successful examples, and really examples where equity was at the core of the work — in particular, at the core of the systems change approaches — this work was led through coalitions doing the work on the ground, in community with each other, trying to get at these huge visions for social change.

And so then it begs the question of: Who is doing that work? Who is behind the scenes? Because it takes a lot to galvanize and mobilize different actors to align and harmonize the work to solve a problem. So that led us to this more recent study published in January where we investigate these behind-the-scenes organizations. And we studied, we interviewed over 20 leaders of these organizations. We interviewed a number of funders who are asking these same questions, and funders who are actually investing in these nerve center organizations, to really understand: What do they do? What does it take, and how do we help? 

Denver: One of the great successes of systems change, which got people to think entirely differently about an issue, was same-sex marriage. And that happened, relatively speaking, Lija, in no time at all. It was incredibly fast. What occurred here? 

Lija: The same-sex marriage story is a fascinating and multifaceted one. And so let me first start by naming that it was indeed successful in winning marriage. It actually is a celebrated example amongst the examples that we investigated. And as we look at that story, the role of Freedom to Marry, this kind of nerve center, behind-the-scenes organization was essential. Freedom to Marry was a convener… I use nerve center as a metaphor to name this behind-the-scenes role, and I use behind-the-scenes a lot as well because often the work is quite invisible. They’re actually bringing folks together, crafting a shared vision, a shared understanding of even: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? 

And so, Freedom to Marry played those critical roles in that effort, and it was indeed, as you noted, successful in a pretty short period of time. Funders also played a critical role in that effort in supporting and funding the work of Freedom to Marry and in galvanizing and kind of mobilizing others alongside in the effort. And yet, there’s another important part to that story as well, which is: the marriage equality effort and movement was one more bounded problem within a broader LGBTQ rights movement. And so some of the critique of that approach and of that effort was that even the goal of marriage was defined by an exclusive view, and there are other issues on the table that could have been explored.

 And now as we kind of look at the progress over the years, some of those issues have come to bear, and the movement is growing, but there is always this question of: Who’s at the table? What role are funders playing? And how do these nerve centers help create more inclusive, equitable, expansive tables to solve these big problems?

Funders do not see, find, or fund this work. And that’s because philanthropic practices favor short-term projects and clear, measurable results…  We need a new paradigm in philanthropy that does help funders to see, understand, find, and fund this important work.

Denver: And picking up on what you said about behind-the-scenes, having an ego and putting it aside almost seems to be a critical element of having these nerve centers be successful. 

So this is where I’m a little confused. Despite the critical role that Freedom to Marry and others play in meaningful social change, and everybody agrees with that, you say they are routinely underfunded. Why is that the case? 

Lija: Funders do not see, find, or fund this work. And that’s because philanthropic practices favor short-term projects and clear, measurable results. And I’ll bet nonprofit leaders in your audience are thinking, “Yes. Those are the last 10 grants that I wrote.” 

Denver: And the next 10 grants I’m going to write. 

Lija: One of the leaders of a nerve center we spoke with said, “Fundraising for this emergent work is just not straightforward. By the time you package it, it’s already iterated and changed, and that’s what makes the work effective. It makes fundraising such a challenge.” And another leader actually said, “We don’t care about the spotlight. We actually have a long name on purpose so folks aren’t remembering us, but our partners can shine.” But then the outcome of that is funders don’t see your work. And so, we need a new paradigm in philanthropy that does help funders to see, understand, find, and fund this important work.

Denver: In this research, in speaking to these system-change leaders, did you find that any of them had to adapt their approach in order to secure some funding? 

Lija: We did find that, and we heard a couple of things along those lines. One, that it was easier to fundraise for more direct service or bounded programmatic aspects of the work. And so some of these nerve centers actually created programmatic components to package their work and get funding, some of which could hopefully do the nerve center things they were doing off the sides of their desks. 

And some actually just were just grappling, trying to figure out: How do I actually explain how important this type of convening is to our funders? And that convening is actually expensive and a lot of work and a lot of capacity. And yet, we can’t get grants for that or can’t get grants for building trusting relationships… all of my work every day, picking up the phone and calling other folks doing this work. 

And so, these organizations are really trying to find bridges into the current philanthropic paradigm. That’s where we’re saying, “It’s one thing to ask these organizations to change, it’s another to ask philanthropy to shift as well.” 

Denver: Radical idea, isn’t it?  At the heart of your report, Lija, is that if funders continue to employ traditional due diligence designed to assess these short-term direct service programs, nothing is really going to change. They’re never going to get funded. So what you do, and your co-authors, is you propose a different approach, and you take it from two perspectives: first, what to look for as a funder; and second, how to assess it. 

So let’s take “What to look for,” and you have broken this down into four components. I think you called them “superpowers.” And maybe you can walk us through each and give us an example. Why don’t we start with “A deep understanding of the problem and the ecosystem.” Why don’t you speak about that and how community change would be emblematic of that superpower.

Lija: Wonderful. Yes, we have four superpowers that we’ve highlighted. And let me just first start by naming these assets, these superpowers are the kinds of things that are invisible in general in philanthropy. You can’t count them up or measure them in a certain way. So starting with this deep understanding of the problem and ecosystem.

And thank you for surfacing Community Solutions as an example. We’ve learned a lot from Roseanne Haggerty’s work in New York City where she began. When Roseanne started the work, her first project was to transform the Times Square Hotel into this affordable housing initiative. It was successful, and yet she looked around, and homelessness in New York City continued to rise. And so she gathered folks. She talked with other groups working on homelessness, and they basically realized the system is not designed to end homelessness. We’re each funded to do our individual things, and yet there’s no big picture strategy here. And that’s a huge problem. 

And so, when she started Community Solutions, this work to actually understand the problem and everyone who was working on it with data, with insights from lived experience. Roseanne talks about her most important teacher in the work is an 80-year-old woman living on the streets of Times Square. So that deep understanding with a multifaceted view from all of these myriad actors is that first superpower.

Denver: It’s funny when you look at that, too, when you have a homeless shelter, and it is almost 100% full… that’s very successful. And then you stop and think about it, “No. That’s a failure.” So you always have to redefine success. It’s not to get them in a shelter; it’s to get them in a home.

Second thing is “Vision for equitable and durable population-level change,” and Movement for Black Lives is a good illustration of that, correct?

Lija: Absolutely. Movement for Black Lives, which started in 2016 after the police shooting of Michael Brown, Movement for Black Lives shared its vision for justice and liberation for Black people. And they had been developing this vision for months and included a number of Black-led organizations, I believe over 50, to develop that first vision. And The Movement for Black Lives is an incredible example of a nerve center because it’s comprised of over 150 organizations and leaders all speaking into that vision from different community contexts, different vantage points on what’s possible, and back to the systems change piece, on the different systems at play and looking across with a more integrated view at what’s possible, let’s really re-imagine a different future state. 

And I will also say, to your earlier question about adapting over time, The Movement for Black Lives has evolved and adapted that vision as they’ve learned. And more recently, in August, released a multi-part agenda that had reflected the current moments of opportunity and ripeness, which is such an essential part of holding that vision — not having a vision that’s stuck and stagnant, but having a vision that evolves and shifts, given the dynamics of the work. 

These nerve centers are organized, and they’re organizers, and they have this fluid way of learning and evolving as new information comes to bear. They see various roles and assets across a network, myriad different groups and organizers, working on different aspects of the problem.

Denver: The third superpower is “an organizer’s mindset.” And I guess the question here is that: Is there a different set of skills needed for a systems entrepreneur compared to a social entrepreneur? 

Lija: Yes. The organizer’s mindset. We love to say that these nerve centers are organized, and they’re organizers, and they have this fluid way of learning and evolving as new information comes to bear. They see various roles and assets across a network, myriad different groups and organizers working on different aspects of the problem. 

I think you asked a great question, and it actually makes me think of the different origin stories of these nerve centers that we learned about. And I’ll take, as an example, Jordan Kassalow’s work at Vision Spring as a social entrepreneur working on eyeglasses globally, but then having this moment of, “Hmm. There’s a broader system at play that is creating barriers to equitable access to eyeglasses.” And then Jordan and his colleague Liz Smith founded EYElliance, E-Y-E-lliance, and that work is different in nature than Vision Springs’ work. 

So I think the answer to your question is, yes, there’s a different set of skills as you elevate from delivery of a certain programmatic model to: What are the enabling conditions?  And, frankly, the barriers that are in the way of these innovative approaches that many social entrepreneurs and innovators create, innovative approaches that just can’t take root because those enabling conditions aren’t present. 

And so, EYElliance is now working with government actors, community organizations, actually figuring out: How do we solve together these systemic and structural issues that are in the way of equitable eyeglass supply and delivery? 

From a funder perspective, this notion of trusting relationships and the organizer’s mindset, it’s such an exciting opportunity to lean in because it means that the funding that is invested in these organizations is deployed to its greatest and best uses.

Denver: Interesting. And the final superpower, “Trusting relations and credibility with the actors required to achieve change.” And I guess, Lija, like always, it really gets down to the relationships, doesn’t it? 

Lija: Absolutely. In our interviews, and it sounded… it felt like every other interview at times.  Folks said, “This work happens at the speed of relationships, like pick-up-the-phone-and-call-each-other kinds of relationships.” And that’s because… I said coalition multiple times, that you are groups coming at these problems and vision from different roles. And so you’ve got to trust that “I don’t see the thing that you see, but I trust that your work is an important part of the equation to get there, and let’s figure out how we can align and work in complementary ways to support each other.” And also, I would say, from a funder perspective, this notion of trusting relationships and the organizer’s mindset, it’s such an exciting opportunity to lean in because it means that the funding that is invested in these organizations is deployed to its greatest and best uses.

 And with Movement for Black Lives as an example, we heard just this incredible story… and rare, I suspect, where funding was procured in one part of the organization, but then this opportunity arose elsewhere. And because of the trusting relationships, the leaders who had actually procured the funding were like, “Let’s shoot that funding over there so you can seize that opportunity and not take time to fundraise for it, and then the moment is gone.” And so the funding is constantly, fluidly moving and deployed to its greatest and best uses at any point in time. And it’s because these leaders trust each other. It’s through these trusting relationships.

Denver: And they also, it seems, along those same lines, they have an overarching vision of what they’re trying to achieve. And I’ve always looked at it, Lija, is that, when you come into a staff meeting, a department head meeting, are you there with the concern of the organization and the people it serves, or are you there concerned with getting the resources for your department? And if you have that bigger picture, then this fluidity back and forth can occur. And if you’re just thinking turf, it’s not going to. 

So let me take a look at it from here. I am a funder. I have a pretty good idea now what I am looking for, but then I need to understand how to evaluate it, how to assess it, and I have to do that looking through a new lens. What is that new lens, Lija?

Lija: There are two core shifts that we’re using to characterize the broader lens and new paradigm. The first is moving from funder-driven, often top-down diagnoses of problems of the vision, to a shared understanding that’s shaped and affirmed and built by leaders and organizations doing the work in the field. 

The second shift is what can often manifest as a more transactional or evaluative relationship with grantees to partnering and collaborating. And those two shifts that comprises kind of a broader need for a new paradigm, those may or may not feel distinct or different to funders, but I think as you look at due diligence processes now, they’re quite different. 

Due diligence processes now are very much evaluating data that’s available. And I recall an interview with Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation who really is embracing this new paradigm. He said, “The current approach to philanthropy looks a lot like fantasy baseball where you pick a team by looking at the numbers.” He was saying, “Our approach is actually: We’re like going to the park and playing catch. Like, how do we actually get in community and build relationships? Get proximate,” he said multiple times. 

Know the folks who are doing the work; know who their go-to people are because often that’ll lead you to these nerve centers. So actually, this notion of trusting relationships transcends the superpower that we named just for these nerve centers, and it’s also about the funder-grantee relationship as well. 

Denver: I love that quote because it seemed like it was a move from reports filled with data and information, to actually, conversations where you’re talking to somebody and then going out and to see the work firsthand. And that’s a radical shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Lija: That’s exactly right. And we, in doing this research, developed a due diligence guide to accompany our report with the hopes that it makes these insights more practical and tangible for funders. And as we developed that due diligence guide, in an effort to make it practical, we also provide guidance on how you actually do the due diligence. And it is this notion of being in relationship, but also having conversations with potential nerve center grantees and other folks in the ecosystem– kind of pressure testing what the nerve center is putting forth as the vision, in alignment with what other folks in the ecosystem see. And there’s such an opportunity for funders to just be in listening-and-learning mode.

So again, it’s a move away from this top-down, I-hold-the-answer, to recognizing, while you have the power and privilege to pursue those top-down approaches and hold the answer as a funder… what power is there to listening deeply and being in community with folks doing the work to progress your own understanding of the fullness of the problem and potential solutions to address it. 

Denver: Do you think it’s going to be harder than we may be thinking right now to have these funders relinquish some of their power? Because, really, at the heart of it, what you’re saying is: Give up some of that. Give it to the people who are closer to the action, not to give it all to them, but to have a more shared power dynamic between the two. People talk about that. I think we all conceptually say, “Yes. That makes sense.” Is that going to be as easy as we think? Or is that going to really be a troubling issue in terms of getting people to actually do it?

Lija: I’m not sure anyone actually thinks it’ll be easy.

Denver: Yes, I know. For sure.

Lija: Perhaps, I think it will be a journey. I really love NCRP, the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy. We’ve learned a ton from them in this work… their framework around building, wielding and sharing power. Wielding is part of the framework, and having funders put their power and privilege to use and leveraging it in important ways is an essential part of the equation. 

I think about funders taking the first step to invest in a Black leader who may not be very well-known in philanthropy.  That then creates a new sense of credibility and a sense for that Black leader to be a future leader in the work. And maybe without that first grant, which is, I would say a form of wielding power, other funders might not have seen that work and that leader. 

And so that wielding power is an important part of it. So I don’t want folks to think there isn’t a role. It’s like: give away the money, and then there’s no role for funders in this space. Funders are at tables that none of the rest of us are at. So how do you put that power and privilege to use is the question I would ask. 


Denver: Finally, Lija, what’s the next step? This information is out there. You’ve laid it out beautifully. What would you like to see happen here next, in order to propel this movement forward? 

Lija: For every funder listening, I would say consider this new paradigm and what it might look like. If you’re already investing in a set of grantees, ask them about their go-to sources of information, how their grantee portfolio learns, and see: Are you actually funding a nerve center and you don’t know it? And are you inadvertently funding only their programmatic thing, and not funding all of this off- the-side-of- their-desk work they’re doing to connect and galvanize a group of actors?  Or who are potential nerve centers that could amplify and support your whole portfolios of work? And so, there’s practical advice for funders and I would say go to Look at the report, look at the due diligence guide. 

And we are learning, and we are eager to be supportive and hear from folks more examples, what it really takes, to make this set of shifts. And so, we’d love to be in community with others doing this work and leaning in, and we’d love to learn as others are trying on these approaches.

Denver: And just to reinforce what you said, if people want to learn more about this, we’ve just hit with the highlights, this report is available? 

Lija: It’s available. That’s right.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Lija, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Lija: Thank you for having me.

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