Reflections on power sharing and systems change in the non-profit and philanthropic sectors

The recent article Partner Andrew Hawkins published with American evaluation theorist and evaluator Ralph Renger, states:

“Many prominent evaluators recognize the importance of accounting for contex­tual factors beyond the logic model boundaries that affect program success… If an evaluator wants to understand a constellation of interconnecting factors influencing an outcome, then a systems approach…will likely be better suited to provide meaningful information to help decision makers improve system efficiency and effectiveness” [1]

It would appear many prominent philanthropists also recognise the importance of looking beyond the boundaries of the ‘program’ being funded, to the systems beyond. I’ve recently encountered some great articles on philanthropic organisations leading systems change from the inside out.

One of these organisations is well known social enterprise Thankyou (who sell personal care items with a percentage of profits going to end extreme poverty). Thankyou was lauded for providing tracker codes to allow consumers to see the project their purchase funded, however they have recently stopped doing so because of concerns this model was more about the donor than the success of the program.

Thankyou have recognised a key issue in the non-profit sector: that organisations can be constrained by funder and donor expectations, meaning projects are not necessarily about creating the best possible change, but about how they make a donor feel. According to an article in ProBono Australia [2], Thankyou have moved to a more trust-based philanthropy approach, and are collecting data based on their funded organisations’ own metrics of impact, rather than activities. They cite systems thinking in their funding approach, stating their partners must be “clear about the role they play in addressing micro, meso and macro-level systems change and build equivalent frameworks to assess the outcomes they are trying to achieve.” [6]

The second is UK philanthropic Foundation, Lankelly Chase, whose article ‘Transforming Lankelly Chase’s governance’ steps through their process of unpacking the extent to which their work reproduced systemic problems such as inequality, racial injustice and climate breakdown. They too noted the key issue that Thankyou recognised: “To survive as a charity, you have to play by rules that sustain established power and wealth.” [3]

Examining these organisations with a standard outcomes measurement approach, without an examination of systems and power, could support the conclusion these organisations were ‘doing good’. However, each has chosen to ‘rip up the carpet’ so to speak and examine the societal structures and interacting systems beneath what they do. They’ve scrutinised the assumptions handed to them by the systems we live in and questioned how these are acting as barriers or enabling the impact they exist to create. This has empowered both organisations to make radical changes to their structure and operations.

Iniquitous systems live in all of us, and they form a tightly woven web that leaves very little room for manoeuvre. Messing with systems of privilege, power, and wealth is a sure-fire way of putting yourself [charities] out of business… [3]

Focusing their grants program around a Theory of Change helped Lankelly Chase to inquire into the kind of system “that would be effective in responding to the complexity of severe and multiple disadvantage,”[3] informed by the organisations they were funding. Their response to highly complex situations was to examine systemic disadvantage, and to move away from traditional funding mechanisms to become an ‘action inquiry organisation’. Lankelly Chase’s new approach rests on five assumptions about the nature of systems and identifies “core behaviours that help systems function better for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage…these behaviours are about perspective, power and participation.” [4]

Thinking about shifting seemingly intractable power hierarchies between funders and funded organisations and the non-profit to ‘beneficiary’ relationship also dovetails with empowerment concepts discussed in Kelly Ann McKercher’s Beyond Sticky Notes: Co-Design for Real.

“When differences in power are unacknowledged and unaddressed, the people with the most power have the most influence over decisions, regardless of the quality of their knowledge or ideas. To change that, we must share power in research, decision-making, design, delivery and evaluation.”

It’s essential that those who hold positions of power, such as philanthropic bodies with enough capital that their “business model doesn’t collapse the moment we stop playing the game” [3] use their privilege to search out new ways of seeing, and new ways to manoeuvre within them.

There was a fantastic conference plenary I attended a few years ago, which I think ties a lot of these concepts together at a level that can be felt: in their impacts on the individual, and how an individual impacted by iniquitous systems approaches changing those systems. Watch Katy Grenier share her personal story about the iniquitous systems that live within us all, the impacts on an individual when power goes unacknowledged in program design, delivery and evaluation, and radical responsibility for systems change.

For more discussions of power sharing, co-design and Government in Jade’s blog from October 2020.

For more on disrupting power dynamics, go here.






[5] Kelly Ann McKercher. 2020. Beyond Sticky Notes.

[6] Thankyou grant criteria –

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