Key Points

While the need for philanthropy to focus on systems change as a way to scale and sustain impact is now widely accepted, we see the sector largely failing to recognize that there are different mental models for how to change systems. Sometimes the approaches foundations use are based on competing mental models or models that are not a good fit for the systems, problems, strategies, or practices they are using.

We see two mental models for systems change being used in philanthropy: systems dynamics and systems emergence. Strategies that use the systems-dynamics mental model aim at points of high leverage in a system and predict the kinds of changes that will occur. Strategies that use the systems-emergence mental model look for parts of the system that are under-resourced and experiment with ways to disrupt or reinforce them.

Our mental models have implications for our effectiveness. We need to be aware of which models we are using and why, and to build our capacity to match our strategy, grantmaking, and evaluation approaches to the nature of the systems we are working in, the size of the problems we are addressing, and the systems holding them in place.

This article explores these two mental models, provides examples of foundation strategies that use each, and offers tools for aligning mental models with philanthropic practice.

Open Access