Philanthropy in a Systems Context

In the eyes of many system based development professionals, intra-system competition for resources becomes disruptive and limiting, evoking a huge personal energy drain to negotiate around these different areas. Amidst the complexity and intra-system competition, social sector and philanthropy professionals are looking for new meaning, new navigation tools. About what in our organization have we reached true clarity?  What are we trying to be? What’s possible for us now?

Where are the places to intervene in a system in order to create a stronger platform for philanthropy and what must leaders do? First, it seems we must come to understand that, through our attitudes and our choices, we each have a role in the system’s continuance.  Recognizing that some may always have more power and latitude to act, each person has an individual role in the system. In the aggregate, systems are constantly seeking stability through fluctuations, resistance, and adjustments that involve the system and its larger environment. Systems generate feedback that can trigger changes in behavior, and understanding the feedback and its relationship to the deep structure of the system is an important ingredient in successful leadership.[1]

Reinforcing loops - Finding the right place to intervene in the system
Reinforcing loops - Finding the right place to intervene in the system. Illustration by Ken Hubbell

“The challenge, the hope, and the imperative are to maintain the “we” proposition, so a win for one is a win for the entire organization.” Optimal leverage is possible precisely at the juncture of two systems loops (creating shared identity/cultural coherence) combined with higher levels of trust. This is the pure domain of collective leadership.

A compelling organizational vision has the power to attract philanthropy and, once coupled, together they have the power to change the conversation of what is possible for systems. Environmental factors and competitive forces often create a tendency for system leaders to stay locked into the top (negative) feedback loop, whereas development folks have to live in the positive reinforcing loop for their success. If we can harness the volunteer’s interest and liberate people and build community around that, it creates the gravitational pull for charitable giving, which changes the nature and impact of philanthropy.

So, we concluded that, despite all the apparent “noise” and “chaos” from systems, development efforts are strongest when emanating from a coherent organization, one with a strong sense of “we” and a widely shared identity. Arguably, the greatest opportunity for change within systems is also the hardest to achieve—changing the hearts and minds of players within the system.

The question of “Who is my first team” becomes a powerful lever for individual leadership decision making and action. Even in the most dysfunctional organizations, issues often foster introspective questions. “So, what can I do? What one action can I take that affects this set of issues? With whom will I start having a different kind of conversation in my organization?” If everyone on your first team is equally committed to the relationship, there may be an opening for a very different type of a conversation organizationally. This new type of conversation may be the kind to produce greater alignment of hearts and minds.


This is an excerpt from the upcoming monograph I’ve edited, In Search of New Meaning: Philanthropy, Community, and Society. It is a synthesis of essays and conversation from social sector and philanthropy leaders who participated in our think tank, Conversation 2009.

[1] Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson, (1997). System Thinking Basics. Pegasus Communications, Inc.

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