This year’s Council on Foundations Family Philanthropy Conference is challenging those of us in family philanthropy to consider how systems thinking applies to our work. At the opening plenary, David Peter Stroh from Bridgeway Partners defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements organized to achieve something.” In a philanthropic context, systems thinking involves rewiring our minds, organizations, and grantmaking practices to address both the obvious and less obvious aspects of the systems in which we and our grantees operate.
For example, consider the life of a young girl. She could live in the United States or another country. She could live in a rural or urban environment. Now consider all of the forces at play determining whether or not that young girl will grow into a happy, healthy, and productive adult.
Yesterday afternoon Victoria Dunning, vice president for programs at The Global Fund for Children, led a lively session, “Investing in Girls and Women: Innovations and Opportunities for Impact,” about how systems thinking applies to investing in women and girls. She took a school backpack, held it in front of her, and slowly unpacked the objects inside. The 10 objects symbolize things every girl should have in her life:
These 10 objects represent some of the forces at play in shaping the lives of young women. They also symbolize the many different ways we as grantmakers can consider investing in women and girls.
Imagine how different the world would look if every girl in the world—the United States included—had tangible access to the resources represented in Victoria’s backpack.
If you don’t (yet) have an explicit investment strategy focused on women and girls, imagine how different the world would look if you took steps to bring an awareness of how your grantmaking—from environmental issues to health issues to economic development issues—directly and indirectly impacts the future for women and girls.
Systems are powerful; they are forged by deep forces. But they are also fragile; if one element is taken away, the whole system changes. The bad news about this paradoxical tension is that an ill-conceived philanthropic investment can bring on an avalanche of negative unintended consequences, sometimes costing livelihoods and lives. The good news is that family philanthropy, at its best and most conscious and informed by diverse perspectives, can also make big differences even with small, well-placed investments.
Here’s to continuing the conversation about the risks and opportunities of systems-level change over the next few days, and the upcoming decades.
Heather Lord is a trustee for the RNR Charitable Foundation.