Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Let's Change the System, Not the Symptoms

Let's Change the System, Not the Symptoms

Philanthropy is constantly trying to reinvent and justify itself. "Systems change" and "systemic change philanthropy" are among the latest buzzwords. In 2016, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors launched their Scaling Solutions for Systems Change project; the "collaborative philanthropy" Co-Impact Initiative is obsessed with systems change; and Lankelly Chase Foundation has put systems change at its core and even organized a "systems retreat" for funders. But what "system" are they all referring to?

Indicators as diverse as global GDP growth, loss of biodiversity, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, foreign direct investment, inequality, or the number of undernourished people in the world all share the same feature: an exponential and annually increasing rise over the last fifty years. The wicked problems of our times are deeply interwoven with today's global political economy. How can we tackle, say, homelessness, if we don't look at migration (many homeless people are migrants), climate change (as a migration push factor), and an overheated growth- and profit-obsessed global trade system based on extractive capitalism (which provokes climate change)?

This intertwined economic, social, political, and environmental crisis has not come about by chance. It is the result of a political economy that favors the concentration of profits and privileges of a few over the well-being of the vast majority of the planet's life forms. That is the "system" that systemic change philanthropy has to change.

How can we change the system?

To transform ourselves into agents of systemic change we need to understand what alternatives there are to an extractivist capitalist political economy.

They include Buen Vivir, feminist thinking, de-growth and heterodox economics, the Rights of Nature approach, or The Commons — all open alternative ways to the management of goods, wealth and power — and many more.

All of these visions can provide answers flowing from the analysis above and translate it into new practices. Many organizations, including foundations, are already applying and experimenting with them. The European Climate Foundation, for example, long a proponent of a "green growth" agenda, calls for "economic systems change" and a "radical transition." Similarly, a range of funders, from the Chorus Foundation to Oak, embrace (to varying degrees) the concept of a just transition to a non-extractive economy.

Funder trainings and events focused on systemic change, such as EDGE's Global Engagement Lab (a peer learning program for funders from around the world) are blossoming to meet the increasing demand for funders who are ready to begin practicing philanthropy in a different way.

Where do I start?

Systemic change philanthropy requires three tiers of transformation — of ourselves, our organizations, and our field.

At EDGE and the Indie Philanthropy Initiative, we believe that meaningful change starts with self-analysis. We should begin by asking ourselves a number of fundamental, often uncomfortable, questions: Where do we actually contribute to perpetuating the systemic crises we are in? Where do our investments go? Do we have organizational climate impact policies, or don't we care how much climate gas emissions we emit through our charity jet-set lives? How do we deal with gender, sexuality, religion, diversity, power, and privilege in our organizations? Whose voices get heard and whose are silenced? Who decides which grants to make, and why? And where does all this philanthropic money actually come from in the first place?

Only when we've answered these questions can we look outward and offer spaces for other funders to initiate similar inquiries.

So what is systemic change philanthropy?

Systemic change philanthropy is a living thing. If we chart it out, canonize it, and offer it up to the philanthropic buzzword laboratory we risk losing its possibilities, its nimbleness, its strength. But we also know that we need guides, frameworks, and ways to report to each other in order to unlock the billions of dollars needed to change the systems we're talking about.

So, we leave you with an evolving list of characteristics, based on our own experiences and the examples we see from funders who are already beginning to practice in this way. We hope you'll continue to refine this list with us, and with each other.

Systemic change philanthropy:

  • acknowledges the interconnected, systemic character of the multiple crises we face;
  • requires that funders see themselves as a part of the system, and thus part of the problem, as well as the solution;
  •  incorporates and adds to social justice philanthropy by addressing root causes of injustice and systemic crises through a de-siloed, participatory, and trust-based funding model;
  • makes grants that address underlying systems feeding the crises, such as extraction, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, plutocracy, neo-liberal capitalism, etc.;
  • must address healing. To change the systems, we have to recognize past injustices – for philanthropy that means funders, activists, movement leaders, grantees, etc. sitting at the same table, creating safe and brave spaces, and being willing to undergo the discomfort of transformation.

Systemic change philanthropy is uncomfortable. It's cumbersome. It's complex and also simple. Building it is a never-ending process. A utopia that, as Eduardo Galeano said, will always be at the horizon. With every step we take, it shifts a step further away. But it keeps us moving.

Arianne Shaffer ( is director of the Indie Philanthropy Initiative. Tobias Troll ( is European director of the EDGE Funders Alliance.