Key Points

The field of philanthropy is exploring what it takes to achieve impact in complex environments. The terms “adaptive” and “emergent” are beginning to be used, often interchangeably, to describe strategies by which funders can tackle complexity. This article proposes distinguishing between the two and explores more deeply how the research into complexity can inform philanthropic practice.

While approaches like systems mapping, scenario planning, and appreciative inquiry have been put forward as useful approaches to expanding perspectives and seeing whole systems, the field needs a framework for going beyond these planning tools in order to actually create the conditions in which emergence can happen – by expanding agency beyond the walls of the funder, distinguishing between goals and strategies, encouraging experimentation around strategies, and supporting whole-system learning, which requires shorter, faster, more rigorous real-time learning and more cross-pollination among peers.

This article offers Emergent Learning as a framework to support the creation of these conditions and describes how the tools help make thinking visible and support real-time and peer learning. It looks at two organizations that have embraced Emergent Learning to support a more emergent approach to achieving a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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