Systems change philanthropy demands from philanthropists different ways of thinking, of working and of assessing progress made on any particular issue. What have we learned about this so far in Latin America? In 2018, the Regional Group for Philanthropy in Latin America (Grupo Regional para la Filantropia, or GRF-LatAm) hosted a series of conversations among the region’s philanthropists and development professionals to explore and deepen our understanding of the interstices between the practice of philanthropy and systems change in Latin America. The exchanges threw up valuable insights into social intervention in the region, the challenges faced by local and regional philanthropic actors and their role in tackling complex problems.
Philanthropic actors have a critical role in linking and facilitating work between different sectors. As a result, co-creation has also taken on a central position in their agenda.
Philanthropy has some valuable characteristics when it comes to working on systems change, not least flexibility, patience and adaptability, all of which are needed to effectively address deep-rooted and interconnected problems.
However, systems change work also imposes other demands. For philanthropic actors, and for all other actors involved for that matter, developing a tailored-to-case understanding of systems change represents a complex and usually continuous task. Philanthropic actors have a critical role in linking and facilitating work between different sectors. As a result, co-creation has also taken on a central position in their agenda.
This connecting and facilitating role has meant that philanthropic actors need to define the system in question and gain an in-depth knowledge of it.
Those foundations in Latin America adopting a systems change approach, such as Fundación Caicedo González in Colombia and Fundación San Carlos de Maipo in Chile, amongst others, have had to revise how they think and work, envisioning the intervention cycle as a dynamic, and to a large extent, chaotic process, as opposed to the more traditional project-oriented intervention with short-term defined results.
Philanthropic actors in Latin America also point out the critical role of government and the consequent importance of devising mechanisms to influence policymaking. The public arena is also where the promotion of innovation, and of particular interventions, can influence the way society thinks about a given problem and which, in turn, can lead to longer-term cultural change.
How does an intervention or set of interventions work and how do you know it has worked? Each case is different, but generally speaking, the following are common traits:
First, there are co-governing mechanisms in place for the interventions as well as a means of continuously managing connections between the intervention and the other parts of the system.
Second, the effectiveness of the intervention is measured by the sustainability of the changes, their ability to rewire connections among different actors and elements, and, ultimately, to affect deeply entrenched social patterns.
Yet assessing progress is a dynamic, and often chaotic, process.
Those foundations in Latin America adopting a systems change approach have had to revise how they think and work, envisioning the intervention cycle as a dynamic, and to a large extent, chaotic process.
In all of these elements, co-creation is central to understanding the systems’ boundaries, determining the most appropriate approaches, and developing monitoring and evaluation.
Understanding the richness of the relationship between the practice of philanthropy and systems change in Latin America may be a long process. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that, through forums like GRF-LatAm, we can continue to improve our collective understanding of where radical progress has been made, and where more and better innovation, knowledge and political will are needed to make efforts to address today’s challenges effectively.
The author would like to thank Rodrigo Villar for reviewing an early draft of this article.
Guayana Páez-Acosta is a founding member of the Regional Group for Philanthropy in Latin America and founder and CEO of Athena: Lab for Social Change.