Doing Good Better - Deepening Philanthropic and Nonprofit Partnerships in NJ

What is Systems Change for Doing Good Better?

There are a wide variety of definitions of the term “systems change,” framed within different cultures and purposes. Doing Good Better embraces systems change as a collaborative process for nonprofits and funders to address complex social problems with collective action centered on equity, mutual respect, and resilience.

Systems change refers to changing the parts and their relationships within a system with the understanding that this change will have ripple effects. [1] In philanthropy, systems change focuses on structures, policies and processes, resources, values, power, mindsets and infrastructure that is illustrated in three iterative phases (See Figure 1). It encourages grantmakers to recognize and value the expertise of nonprofits and communities as equal partners, and to foster a broader climate where nonprofits can deliver on their mission. We hope that the application of this model can further encourage a collaborative mindset among grantmakers and nonprofits, boost collective impact, and foster a more resilient and equitable New Jersey.

The first phase is structural (operational) change, which involves funders adopting new policies, practices, and resource flows. The second phase is characterized by new relationships and connections that emerge from structural change eschewing old power dynamic practices. Finally, the third phase is transformative change, which occurs when change becomes rooted in organizational culture and mores. We cannot underestimate the length of time and learning at each stage. Achieving transformative change can be a long journey, but it is a learning journey. One grantmaker stated, “One change led to another and another, like dominos. I started to see what people meant by systemic change. New energy and excitement surged among us as hope grew and the cloudy vision of what we wanted became clearer and clearer.” 

Although the figure below displays the six developmental stages as linear and distinct, change is unlikely to follow a linear path. Any change in a system will seldom stay fixed at one of these stages but rather will shift back and forth from one stage to another on the path toward the ideal state. We believe just one organization can’t shift the conditions that hold problems in place; we all must share the same perspectives and move the sector together and simultaneously. We call for all of those involved in the sector to work together to build a better and more equitable nonprofit and philanthropy system for all New Jerseyans.


Diagram - Six Conditions of Systems Change
Source: John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter, Senge, The Water of Systems Change (2018).


Doing Good Better, a partnership of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and the New Jersey Center for Nonprofits, is a community of funders and nonprofits taking action against the power imbalances and racial inequities in philanthropy, nonprofits and government.