Democracy Fund’s President, Joe Goldman, recently wrote on our blog about some of the benefits and difficulties our organization has found while integrating a systems lens into our work. He noted how systems thinking, designed to help us grapple with complexity, can at times be awfully complex itself. As a member of the Impact and Learning team, I’ve been helping Democracy Fund make sense of what it means to be systems thinkers, and Joe’s words rang particularly true for me.
Working with the incredible systems and complexity coaches at The Omidyar Group, the Impact and Learning team has been supporting program staff in developing their systems maps, and shepherding their systems-based strategic planning processes. We’ve been alongside the teams grappling with what’s been hard—but we’ve also had a front-row seat to see the wins. Like our evaluator, I’ve seen our teams’ pride in their work, and try everyday to help the teams further recognize how much we’ve learned and how our systems skills have developed.
I had a strong moment of recognition of this progress recently when Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) released their Guide to Systems Grantmaking. This resource is designed to provide grantmakers and nonprofits a toolkit of essential systems assessment tools, frameworks, and best practices—and it is yet another piece of evidence of the growing community of philanthropies taking an interest in systems thinking. As it does on other topics, GEO can continue to be a convener for this group, collect our stories, and help us share our lessons learned.
GEO’s Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide suggests, just as we’ve found, that it takes time to understand and internalize a systems mindset. At first glance, I was overwhelmed by the wide variety of tools and practices it recommended. I learned of several new approaches I’m eager to play with in our work, augmenting the causal loop systems mapping we’ve started with. But, after I dug a little deeper, what struck me more was the complementarity and interconnection of these tools. I realized that we’ve already been engaging in many more systems practices than I’d been aware. SAT analysis, leverage points, and systemic action research are already part of our approach, flowing naturally from one another as we mapped systems. Even aspects of our grantmaking approach I had considered distinct from our systems work—our interest in scenario planning, for example—are logically tied to the systems thinking frame.
When introducing new staff to Democracy Fund’s systems practice, I describe it as fundamentally a sense-making process. While systems mapping is a great tool for new learning—particularly when designed, as our process has been, to be deeply participatory—it has also been powerful in helping to bring into sharper focus what we already knew and to align assumptions across our organization and with key partners. GEO’s Guide to Systems Grantmaking, it turns out, served the same purpose for me. It brought to life what has been hard to see in the sometimes tedious day-to-day of map-building: just how strong our systems muscles are becoming.
We’ve got a lot yet to learn to get to “expert” level on GEO’s self assessment, and I know the challenges our evaluator observed will continue into the future. But, armed with new tools and deeper connections to others in the field, I’m all the more confident we’ll get there.