As grantmakers, we know the programs and projects we support are often by themselves insufficient to create the level of substantive change we hope for in the communities and issues we care about.
Yes, a well-run tutoring program can indeed change the lives of children. There are so many factors, though, that go into improving high school graduation rates—to use one common measure of systemic educational outcomes—that no one tutoring program alone can drive systems change.
Building the management capacity of local food banks, as another example, is likely to result in more efficient distribution of food, more effective use of volunteers, and better coordination between multiple providers. Again, though, the best-run agencies alone cannot shift fundamental systems change—in this case, ending hunger.
We highlight this reality not to suggest that supporting effective programs is futile, nor to dissuade funders from developing and sustaining a focus in their giving. Rather, we raise these issues as a reminder to explore how at least part of our grantmaking can be channeled to help us and our grantees better understand and influence the civic systems that shape the quality of life in our communities.
Philanthropy should support efforts that help stakeholders understand the performance of key civic systems
How are we as local and regional communities doing in improving education, encouraging better public health outcomes, strengthening our workforce, and protecting our environment?
A private foundation in Ohio, for example, provides grants to organizations that encourage schoolchildren to consider careers in essential, growing industries such as manufacturing. At the same time, this foundation supports the capacity to measure and communicate the performance of the overall workforce development system in the community. This kind of capacity is critical in helping agencies, funders, residents, and companies understand what industries are growing, which ones are shrinking, and which agencies and educators are preparing talent for those careers.
More important, the capacity to assess systems performance helps us better understand which of our “effective programs” are truly having the most impact on our community.
In a large Midwest city, there has been a long tradition of support for K–12 educational programs in the urban core by foundations and corporations—literacy, college access, arts education, and so on. Whereas this healthy tradition continues, a group of foundations, nonprofit organizations, and civic leaders created an intermediary organization to assess, monitor, and communicate successes and challenges of the larger educational picture in the community.
Similar to our workforce development example, philanthropic support in creating the capacity to assess systems performance also provides informed understanding about what is working in schools on the ground.
The civic systems that shape our communities’ quality of life are made up of diverse organizations from multiple sectors—public, private, and nonprofit. Although each stakeholder in the system may care about the outcomes of the overall system, none is responsible for those outcomes. Therefore, no one measures the system’s performance.
Grantmakers are well-positioned to insist upon and support the creation of such systemic capacity. Measuring systems performance doesn’t guarantee that the outcomes will improve, but it is a required first step to building the shared understanding among stakeholders that is the basis for all effective collaborations.
If we know that our programs are not sufficient to achieve the change we desire, then we should take that first step to devote sufficient resources to catalyze the systemic change that can.