Scaling Funding Solutions for Transformations


Many philanthropic funders are reflecting on how to create more transformational impact. They wonder whether they are putting their resources to best use, and what they could do differently to create more sustainable solutions to the challenges they aim to address. The Scaling Solutions toward Shifting Systems (Scaling Solutions) initiative released its second report addressing this question. Transforming Finance Working Group Steward Heather Grady is a project lead and reports author.

The report builds on an earlier one, which found that funders can help grantees SCALE toward shifting systems by:

  • Streamlining processes for application and reporting
  • Collaborating more effectively
  • Accelerating impact through non-monetary support
  • Learning more about systems change
  • Empowering grantees by intentionally shifting the power dynamics between the givers and receivers of funds

The latest report investigates how and why funders have successfully moved from endorsing approaches such as those above to actually improving their policies and practices around them; and what we can learn from existing funder collaborative models that aim at shifting systems, or as it is more commonly called, systems change.

Findings confirmed what others have found: funder behaviors that undermine grantees’ ability to achieve their missions are norms not grounded in formal policies, tax laws, or governance requirements, but rather practices that have nonetheless become ingrained in the sector. On the positive side, when funders do things differently, the sky doesn’t fall—instead, new possibilities for collaboration are opened, and grantees are buoyed by a pattern of support that enables their solutions and impact to scale.

The second report’s first part describes more than a dozen positive examples of funders at work to:

  1. Release organizations with a track record from the treadmill of fundraising and reporting;
  2. Prioritize practices and mechanisms that value feedback, listening, and responsiveness;
  3. Focus applications and reports on what the grantee is learning and changing, not on activities and outputs;
  4. Build on and share due diligence on potential grantees; and
  5. Allow grantees to determine the best use of funds.

The second part of the report summarizes findings from some 25 funder collaboratives spanning geography, size, age, duration, and form. It illustrates how those aimed at systems change operate, what they are learning, and their achievements and challenges. What unites these funder collaboratives ranges from defined long-term goals to geography to partnering with social movements. Yet across them, seven clear findings emerged that should be helpful to those considering collaboratives as an approach to transformational change.

  1. For funders seeking systems change, collaborations can be more effective and rewarding than going it alone.
  2. Organic growth of the collaborative based on pre-existing relationships provides certain benefits and a stronger growth trajectory.
  3. Identifying and supporting strong leadership is an important foundation for collaborating on long-term systems change. Collaboratives need good leaders who are able accountable to the collaborative’s purpose, and can balance a range of competing institutional and sometimes individual interests. More efforts should be made to identify and support individuals taking on these roles.
  4. Collaboratives united by geography or supporting specific population groups are characterized by thoughtful, responsive practices that can serve as models to be adopted more widely. These collaboratives emphasize community-based dialogue, listening, and deep conversations between funders, grantees, and communities.
  5. Aligning on theory of change (TOC) and embracing the complexity of systems change translate to a higher likelihood that funders can and will successfully pool funds. There may be one overall TOC, or TOCs around specific issues or regions.
  6. Funder collaboratives want to delve more into monitoring and evaluation processes for assessing systems-level progress and results.
  7. Systems change collaboratives frequently experience the same set of obstacles, and resolving these creates a stronger basis for success. Common challenges to be overcome include limitations on length of funding commitments, different appetites for risk, diverse institutional approaches to what should be measured, and heavy reporting and relationship-building responsibilities put on a small number of staff at the center.

The initiative identified two broad areas as next steps. First, funders interested in scaling solutions toward shifting systems must intentionally double down on improving their internal policies and practices with grantees and other funders. Second, a more structured network for learning about funder collaboratives is needed.

This blog is based on the Executive Summary of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ report, written by Heather Grady, Kelly Diggins, Joanne Schneider, and Naamah Paley Rose, with additional support on the case studies from Sarah Gemski, Eva Langfeldt, Melissa Blackerby, Dustin Sposato, and Patrick Briaud. We received input from Scaling Solutions Steering Group members Edwin Ou, Gurpreet Singh, Kim Hogan, Theresa Chen, Kathy Reich, Christy Chin, and Federico Bellone.

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