When I moved into my new house a few months ago, I received a beautiful plant as a housewarming gift. I wanted this plant to thrive. But I didn’t pay enough attention to its proper care — what type of soil did it need, what type of pot accommodated its roots or how frequently should it be in direct sunlight? Last week, I was reminded of this at a learning session with a couple of the Kresge Foundation’s Human Services grantees, discussing opportunities to change systems across the country.
StriveTogether joined the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and MDC at the Kresge offices to generate ideas and share learning on helping people, especially children and families of color, move out of poverty. As we exchanged thoughts about our approaches to centering racial equity, engaging those most impacted by decisions and getting to outcomes that really matter, one thing became clear: You have to get the soil right before you plant the seeds. Organizations and initiatives across the country are quickly adopting visions to tackle social and economic mobility, but this is no small feat. Systems have perpetuated negative outcomes for hundreds of years — can they really turn around in a single grant cycle?
The answer, of course, is no. Economic mobility is rooted in systems, and systems are built by people with mental models that exist far below the visible surface. Changing these systems requires groundwork and cultivation. This is a marathon, not a sprint. But the exciting part is that it’s possible — and we’re on a path to get there. We lifted up a few key themes that can serve as mile markers along the marathon that is systems change.
Communicate what we do effectively. The idea of radical social change can feel riveting, but when you start peeling back the layers of how to get there, it can seem exhaustingly complex. Part of what inhibits our ability to mobilize effectively around change is that we can’t clearly articulate who we are, what we do or how we know if we’re making progress. It’s imperative to reach people where they are by speaking to their heads and hearts.
Encourage urgency — with patience. In my mind, I have no doubt about the importance of supporting more equitable outcomes in communities. Philanthropy and investors provide invaluable resources to help good organizations fulfill that mission. But sometimes — and this comes as no surprise to any grantee — philanthropy has an unrealistic view of the timeline needed to realize systems-level impact. This is because philanthropy may not always be as close to the work happening on the ground. Innovative funders can help their peers embrace the mindset that activities on the path to change are critical (and it’s OK to hold folks accountable to those) and that population-level change takes time.
Incentivize innovation. Have you ever asked yourself “is the risk worth the reward?” When we perceive resources to be finite or limited, we naturally feel more risk averse. To achieve our results, system leaders need to find strategies to incentivize innovation. I’ll be honest — we didn’t crack the nut on how to do that in a four-hour learning session, but we identified that this must be a priority if we seek to sustain the behavior change needed for systems change.
Stop assuming we know other people’s goals. One of my biggest insights from the day was realizing how paternalistic our systems and organizations can be, even when we don’t intend to act that way. We often easily assume we know what a child or family wants or needs. Our frameworks or logic models create molds that we stick communities in. But how often do we ask (and really listen to) what community members values or what goals they set for themselves? Definitions of success are individual — they may vary by cultural background or neighborhood. There is no “one-size-fits-all” in keeping people at the center of this work, and that’s OK.
So, back to that houseplant. I really wanted that plant to thrive. But I only addressed its needs once it started to look a little rough around the edges. I tried watering it more, only to find out that it needed water only about once a week (after I basically drowned it!). And this is how we often do systems change in the nonprofit sector. We know the end goal but don’t pay enough attention to the groundwork and cultivation it takes to create an environment that will accelerate better results. We can only plant the seeds when we get the soil right.