Philanthropy, Systems and Change

COVID-19 has exposed the inequities in systems that are needed to support people and communities. It’s shown they’re not working well enough to reach those with the most need and provided an opportunity to rethink systems and how they can be better structured to strengthen our communities. This is a big opportunity for philanthropy to partner in systems change to achieve the impact they’re aiming for.

The report Philanthropy, Systems & Change authored by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and supported by Dusseldorp Forum, Perpetual and the Paul Ramsay Foundation brings together perspectives, stories and tools, from philanthropists, academics and practitioners, to help funders find their best-fit contribution to change in systems.

“The term ‘systems change’ has become a catch all and rather meaningless. With this report the aim is to cut through the rhetoric, and demystify the term while providing tools that are actionable for foundations and their boards.” Teya Dusseldorp, Dusseldorp Forum

The tools contained within the report provide an opportunity for foundations to have conversations with their teams, boards and grantees about four potential “contributions” they can make in supporting systems change. It provides a starting point for foundations who are interested in exploring how their own goals align with their ambitions to create the big changes needed across many aspects of our society.

The four contributions explored in the report are:


Philanthropists can contribute to change in systems through their funding. Developing ‘systems awareness’ where philanthropists spend time and money to understand the complexity of the systems can result in greater impact. There is also a growing trend of philanthropists who actively choose to invest in either improving systems or transforming them toward a different or better state in the future.


The second contribution philanthropy makes to change in systems is by strengthening their relationships with NFPs; focusing on collaborating and working together and partnering with NFPs to create systems change.

Direct contributions

By having an explicit ‘systems change’ focus philanthropists are able to expand their role from funders to be the instigators of change. They make direct interventions into systems themselves, beyond just supporting their partners.

Internal change

The fourth group of strategies relate to the contribution philanthropy can make to systems by changing their own organisation. In this group of strategies there is a strong and challenging theme of shifting the dynamics of power.

“The challenges we face are too great to ignore the power structures, mental models and mindsets that hold problems in place. As institutions, practitioners and funders, we are all a part of the story that needs to change.” Carolyn Curtis, CEO at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation.

Tips and traps for systems change

In March Emily Tow from the Tow Foundation visited Australia for a series of workshops around the report, sharing the Tow Foundation’s experience with systems change. Teya Dusseldorp and Tessa Boyd-Caine joined her for the Sydney workshop to share their organisations examples of working with systems change. Emily shared some useful tips and traps below:


  • Overthink or overcomplicate
  • Believe you have all the answers
  • Forget to include directly impacted people
  • Dismiss adversaries
  • Underestimate your unique strengths


  • Start small
  • Experiment
  • Approach with curiosity and openness
  • Be flexible and adaptive
  • Put relationships first

“My hope is that our experience will encourage other foundations, no matter the size, to believe that they, too, can have a big impact on a social issue that may appear too daunting to tackle. The opportunity awaits for us all to be bold and use our unique role as philanthropists to spark, and even drive, large-scale social change.” Emily Tow, Tow Foundation.