Lessons for Funders on Supporting System Leadership

Heather McLeod Grant

This is a challenging time to be involved in social change, whether as a funder, activist, or nonprofit leader. Rural communities are crumbling from a lack of jobs, civil society is more polarized than ever, democracy is under attack, and we continue to struggle with systemic problems such as climate change, failing health and education systems, and the future of work in an era of globalization and artificial intelligence. It is becoming increasingly evident that the social, political, and economic systems we’ve built over the last century are no longer agile or inclusive enough to serve us going forward.

We need new ways to create community, relationships, and systems that work better for everyone, on a more human scale, and with equity in mind. At all levels — local, state, and national — this will take more system leaders: leaders who “are not singular heroic figures but those who facilitate the conditions within which others can make progress toward social change.”

The social sector must be a pioneer in this work, taking more risks and empowering system leaders to navigate change and innovate within existing systems. Despite this imperative, however, most funders continue to adhere to traditional grantmaking: funding narrow programs that align with their issue areas or investing in individual organizations, rather than networks, movements, or cross-sector collaborative leadership and the shared platforms required now. Few funders are willing to support the costs of the collective capacity building needed to change outdated systems.

Based on my colleagues’ and my experience running the New Leadership Network (NLN) in California’s Central Valley for the past six years, we believe that’s a missed opportunity for the sector. In our new workbook, Leading Systems Change, we share everything we’ve learned about creating system leadership across two communities (Fresno and Stanislaus Counties) and empowering local leaders in each to drive greater impact. We have come to believe that investing in local leadership and community capacity building is one of the highest leverage points for funders seeking to help change systems from the bottom up.

When we embarked on this journey, we had the unique opportunity to create a new model of system leadership development and put it into practice. We were inspired by recent articles on the topic, as well as by our own learning about advising social change networks. We also knew from firsthand experience that leaders on the front lines of change today need new skills and approaches to be successful. So we explicitly recruited diverse cross-sector leaders to participate in the program, and we designed the NLN curriculum to focus on teaching these participants new mindsets and skills needed for system leadership, such as network theory, systems thinking, human-centered design, equity, and coaching.

We had no idea if this experiment would work, but it turns out that giving leaders the opportunity to work on their own leadership, build relationships, and innovate and collaborate at the systemic level can create the conditions for transformative community change. Leaders in the counties we’re working in have formed new connections and developed new skills, which they are using to accelerate existing work, build out new approaches, and collaborate across sectors to get more done.

For example, NLN Fresno members initiated more than 80 civic projects, including a kindergarten readiness program for low-income families, a project designed to increase third-grade reading proficiency, and a grant to build a playground in impoverished West Fresno. In Stanislaus County, the group redesigned police training in collaboration with the County Sheriff’s office, worked to help close the achievement gap for first-generation college students, and launched a rebranding campaign for Stanislaus County designed to boost civic pride, retain recent graduates, and engage local residents.

For funders seeking to create their own version of system leadership programs, or embrace this approach to change, we want to share a few lessons we’ve learned from this work over the past six years.

  1. Provide patient and flexible capital. Without the James Irvine Foundation’s multiyear commitment (they spent approximately $3 million over six years) — and their comfort with our learning and adaptation — we don’t think the NLN would have succeeded. In our work as advisors, we have seen many similar experiments cut short because there wasn’t enough funding to achieve network momentum. While the myth of self-organizing is compelling, and many funders want to leverage collective action, they often don’t fund it adequately or allow enough local control to adapt as needed. The truth is, systems-level work doesn’t happen spontaneously; it takes an intentional disruption of how people currently work.
  2. Partner with a neutral backbone organization. In order for a cross-sector, cross-issue network to take hold, it takes a neutral convener or leader — e.g., a backbone organization, facilitation team, or local funder — to carve out the time and space for participants to learn, build trust with one another, and experiment with working in new ways. In our case, we had more success when we partnered with the local Stanislaus Community Foundation as our backbone than when we tried to go it alone in Fresno.
  1. Develop a healthy appetite for risk. We’re not going to lie — this work is complex, messy, time-consuming, and hard to manage and measure. It entails investing in people and processes, and then trusting that good things will happen. It’s more about emergence than controlled planning. But that’s not to say it isn’t strategic; in fact, it’s some of the most strategic work we’ve done. We understand that many funders prefer to support more focused programs with easily measurable outcomes. And yet those programs don’t always map to the complex reality of what leaders on the front lines of social change are navigating today. Supporters of this systems approach, whether facilitators, funders, or intermediaries, must be comfortable taking risks and working alongside — and trusting — those on the ground in order for it to succeed.  
  1. Maintain an adaptive approach. One of the most important lessons we learned is that there is no easy way to build the capacity of leaders and networks for systems change. At the end of the day there is just “the work” — and that work evolves over time. Throughout the program, we measured various levels of impact, surveyed participants, and reflected on what we were learning so that we could adapt the program as we went. We believe this ability to be responsive and adaptive is critical to working effectively in local communities.

As for the team that catalyzed this NLN experiment, we are now running several follow-on experiments. We are working with the First 5 Association — a statewide network of county offices funding early childhood development in California — to develop local system leaders in early childhood development, and we’re running a place-based early-childhood network in Napa County with the local First 5 there. From these two experiments, we are learning a lot about what it takes to adapt this model to other contexts.

Our hope in writing this workbook is that it will inspire others to adapt this model to their own communities and contexts. We are also eager to learn from peers experimenting with other approaches to creating systems-level change. We have been honored to watch leaders we’ve worked with in California’s Central Valley step out of their silos, embrace new approaches, and develop a renewed sense of collective power to change their communities. These leaders show us not only the future of the work, but also a vision of a world in which leaders link their passions, power, and perspectives to form networks committed to advancing the common good.

Heather McLeod Grant is co-founder of Open Impact, a philanthropic advising firm. She is co-author, with Adene Sacks, of Leading Systems Change: A Workbook for Community Practitioners and Funders, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @hmcgrant.

leadership, nonprofit sector, nonprofits
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