What Does Systems Change Mean? Greatest Hits from the 2017 Conference on Scaling Impact

In reflecting on the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, organized in partnership with Morgan Stanley, several recurring themes emerged throughout the event: collaboration; innovation; and new ways to harness capital for good. The most striking takeaway of the gathering for me was how important it is for philanthropic change-makers to come together in a safe space and exchange best practices, lessons learned, and new ideas to foster positive social impact. All of these themes fall under the umbrella of how philanthropists can shift mindsets and strategies to create systems-level change. But what does it really mean to achieve systems change? Here are some inspirations that hit home for me and my role in the sector:

On the question of how to scale positive change, several suggestions were presented:

  • Move from courage to expectation. Shift from pioneering a brave idea to mainstreaming it as an expectation.
  • Know and show data. Be informed and fluent in relevant research and quantifiable analysis. Let data drive decision making. Demonstrate results and strategic priorities anchored by data.
  • Finding, adopting, and adapting the right strategies for scale means lots of iterations. Be willing to experiment, fail, pivot, and innovate.
  • Learn to question the goal of scale for its own sake. It doesn’t always make sense to continue taking an initiative to scale; it may compromise integrity, capacity, outcomes, and impact.

On the question of how to optimize philanthropic impact: Collaborate! This means:

  • Seek to learn from each other, take risks, walk humbly together.
  • Approach collaboration as artful, inclusive, cross-sector funder and learning collectives.
  • Identify and focus on shared values for inclusive, community-led work.
  • Share and cultivate thought leadership. Leverage philanthropic power as a collaborative partnership broker and impartial convening authority.

On the question of how to harness capital for good:

  • We need the whole economy to revolutionize capital for good, mobilizing all assets, not just minimum grant-making.
  • To increase philanthropic capital and accelerate good, we need to align endowment, impact investing, mission/program-related investing, and grant-making. The ways we measure and deploy assets matters. As Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation said, “Accounting equals destiny!”
  • Heron Foundation leadership asserts that fiduciary responsibility includes more than merely protecting capital. Mission obedience is also part of fiduciary responsibility.
  • To improve investment performance, we need to integrate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into financial analysis.  This yields better results and helps close the culture gap between money and meaning.
  • We need to recognize the potential of impact investing, not as an asset class, but rather as an approach across all asset classes.
  • Effective, long-term philanthropy should: build capacity; support intermediary and independent organizations; incorporate grantee input; and prioritize multi-year, unrestricted grants.

Finally, as David Peter Stroh, principal at Bridgeway Partners, emphasized during his presentation at the SIE conference, good intentions alone are not enough for systems-level change. This requires a mindset shift from charity to systems impact. To make positive, systems-level change, we have to recognize that systems have a life of their own; it’s our job as philanthropic change-makers to work with these forces.

Diana Ayton-Shenker is CEO of philanthropy and social innovation firm Global Momenta, and the Global Catalyst Senior Fellow at The New School. She is author of three books and is completing her fourth: A New Global Agenda: Priorities, Practices, and Pathways of the International Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).