“Systems thinking” and the practice of mapping complex systems increasingly looks like the next big trend in philanthropy. Popping up at conferences and in reports from respected experts and leaders, a systems view has the advantage of recognizing the inherent complexity of the topics that philanthropy often attempts to address.
The Democracy Fund adopted systems thinking when it launched last year and has spent the past year experimenting with a methodology to map the dynamic patterns and causal relationships that shape how systems involved with local journalism, elections, and Congress are influencing the health of our democracy. Our efforts have born significant fruit, but it has certainly not been easy.
In the spirit of collaboration and transparent learning, we thought that it would be useful to share some of the things that we’ve experienced during the process of developing system maps.
In an earlier blog post, I shared a bit about why we chose to adopt a systems approach. Our hope was that this orientation would help the Democracy Fund to avoid the trap of oversimplifying the challenges facing our democracy and provide us with tools to have greater leverage in strengthening it.
We recently published our first systems map focused on the health of local news and participation. As we continue to refine this and other maps, we are beginning to think about what they can tell us about finding leverage to change important incentives that are driving behavior. You can learn more about our approach to systems thinking here.
When we began the process of developing our systems maps, we hired an external evaluator (the wonderful Robin Kane) to travel with us on this journey and help to identify major learning along the way. Robin has so far produced two interim reports to help us check in on how our experience with systems mapping is lining up with what our initial expectations had been when we went into the process.
Several major themes jump out from Robin’s reports:
- Shifts in Perceived Outcomes: As we wait to see other benefits of the process, our team has increasingly seen the value of our mapping exercise in its ability to provide us with a sophisticated means to communicate with our board and external partners about the environment in which we are working. The complexity of the map helps us to explain that there are no easy answers and that responses require multi-pronged approaches. It exposes the underlying logic of our strategies and helps to reveal where there are gaps in our analysis. The maps have also helped us to communicate with potential partners who can see their own work in the maps. We continue to hope that the mapping will help us to more effectively identify potential leverage to create change in the system, but the jury is still out on that front.
- Interrogating a Map: We have been surprised how difficult it is for board members and other advisors to dig into and learn from a map outside of the context of a proposed strategy. Without the outline of a potential strategy, it is hard to know where greater detail or a narrower “zoom” is required because so many subjective choices are made during a mapping process about what to include and what to exclude for communication purposes. As a consequence, we’ve had to rethink the sequencing of our process and how we engage with our board around both the maps and our emerging strategies.
- Confusion and Doubt: Ongoing questions and doubts about whether mapping will yield significant new insights have dogged our systems mapping from the beginning. More art than science, the process requires a faith that the time put in will yield more new insights than other approaches to strategy development. As we have been “building the plane, while we fly it,” we have had to cope with not having a clear road map about how to get to the next phase of our work.
- Progress and Growth: While the process of developing maps has been time consuming and difficult, it has forced each of our program teams to think hard about the problems on which they are working and the solutions that they have pursued. Each team has consulted with dozens of experts and leaders, sharpening our overall understanding of the issues on which we are working. A strong sense of pride on what has been accomplished came across strongly from staff interviews by our evaluator.
In the coming months, we will complete additional maps on Congress, our election system, and other key topics. From each map, we will develop and approve strategies for the Democracy Fund’s work in the coming years. As we do so, our intention is to continue to learn from the process and share our learnings with you as we do.