A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Betting on Systems Change: One Foundation’s Journey

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Forward-thinking philanthropy is by nature a gamble. With new ideas continually being tested, new fields discovered and new measurements created, it can be difficult to know when you are succeeding.

We substitute the known to try and bring order. We count the number of people served. We measure the hours of service provided. We substitute scale for impact, believing that a larger grant must catalyze more change. We encourage our grantees to measure outcomes. But often, we don’t fund them enough to explore their achievements beyond the near-term.

We also try to simplify the work. At Longwood, we do this by treating each grant as a unique project. Isolate the work, measure the outcome (or outputs), and evaluate the social return from the financial investment. We make about 60 grants a year, and let them mature for at least 18 months before evaluating the progress.

Moving to embrace systemic change

Is this maximizing the impact of our available dollars? Perhaps not. Partnerships, impact investing, and collective action in service of transformational and systemic impact are all worthy of exploration.

Over the past two years, we’ve moved towards embracing systemic change. We’re starting to rely more on convening and catalyzing intermediaries than on discrete programmatic efforts. We’re working more purposefully with community leaders, government officials, and other funders. We’re seeking larger-scale, longer-term results by eschewing simplicity and embracing the complexity that larger scale change demands.

The road isn’t always easy. Our first foray (trying to get a handful of organizations in a sector to work together to maximize results) fizzled from a combination of strong egos and historically poor personal relationships. We weren’t daunted. A subsequent effort to coordinate veterans’ organizations resulted in new entry points for housing services through coalescing those who were willing.

Betting on a more complete approach

Currently, we’re piloting two new efforts aimed at tackling truly complex and pressing challenges. The first is a 40-organization alliance in Delaware’s largest city. It was formed from the merger of two historically competitive nonprofits. Together, we’re engaging the city and state governments to transform outcomes in violent crime, bring workforce development efforts to scale and sustainability, and investing in specific neighborhoods. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and we’re hopeful that the amassed impact will be deeper and more sustainable than what a handful of programmatic interventions could produce.

Our second effort is to bring K–12 education into better alignment with the desires of the families it’s intended to serve, as well as the workforce demands of a 21st-century economy. Decades of investment in specific programming, support organizations, and charter schools have yielded only marginal results. We were ready to try a different approach, and engaged other philanthropic investors and Building Impact, an advisory firm that helps philanthropists navigate complex systemic change.

We’ve come to recognize that building grassroots power, a more supportive public narrative, and investing in developing forward-thinking system leaders are prerequisites to driving the deep and lasting changes families deserve.

Early signs suggest the potential for real results. Though, as with any gamble, only time will tell if our evolving orientation toward systems change will yield the results we want. But big changes are worth big bets, and we are excited to go all in.


Thère du Pont has served as President of the Longwood Foundation since 2008.  He is a member of the Board of Directors of the DuPont Company, WSFS Bank, and Burris Logistics. Previously, du Pont served in several key positions at Wawa Inc., including President and Chief Financial Officer as well as Senior Vice President for Operations and Chief Financial Officer for drugstore.com, inc.

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