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Community Foundations

Systems Philanthropy: A Leadership Opportunity for Community Foundations

By January 8, 2020October 13th, 2021No Comments

This is Part 1 in a series we’re doing on community foundations this year. Stay tuned for Part 2, due out soon!

Through some of our recent work with community foundations, we’ve identified several trends in the field that we think will continue to gain momentum in 2020, including growth in civic leadership roles, innovation in donor partnership and engagement, and leadership through systems philanthropy.

A recent Funders Summit that I attended put on by Philanthropy Massachusetts in partnership with Essex County Community Foundation highlighted the emerging field of systems philanthropy. There is great potential for community foundations to galvanize community impact by playing leadership roles in local systems philanthropy. Below are example strategies that community foundations are implementing to advance systems change. But first…

What is systems philanthropy?

According to one community foundation – Essex County Community Foundation in Essex County, Massachusetts – systems philanthropy is the work of attracting and deploying philanthropic monies to amplify community-based, collaborative initiatives, tackling the root causes of systemic social issues and challenges, resulting in population-level impact.

Alliance Magazine (March 2019) reports: Foundations are well-placed to undertake systems work. Their freedom allows them to make choices about entering and exiting systems, and about the role they wish to adopt in relation to them. They can also adopt many different modes of working in a system, such as fostering innovation and disruption, building consensus, amplifying unheard voices, creating institutions, growing grassroots, investing capital, reframing arguments.1 

Kania et al.’s 2018 report, The Waters of Systems Change, describes systems change as shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place, and outlines six conditions of systems change in three main categories2:

  1. Structural Change: addressing policies, practices, and resource flows
  2. Relational Change: building relationships, connections, and power dynamics
  3. Transformative Change: changing mental models

We’ve seen community foundations working toward systems change often begin with Relational Change – leveraging their position and core competencies by first building trust and connections in communities, fostering relationships, and ultimately changing local power dynamics. Community foundations also work toward Transformative Change by effectively using their influence and resources to change peoples’ ideas about issues that prevail in a community. In addition, community foundations work toward Structural Change by influencing resource flows. Resources for systems change come from community foundations’ discretionary funds and their ability to raise and leverage local donor support. 

Collaborative, systems-focused problem solving isn’t new in philanthropy, but it is innovative within the structure and role of community foundations. Those foundations embracing this strategy are moving beyond traditional grantmaking towards a much larger community role. Community foundations are well-positioned to play this role given their place-based focus, deep local connections and relationships, knowledge of community needs and assets, capacity as funders and conveners, neutrality, and ability to support collaborative infrastructure and take the long view needed to achieve systems change.

What does systems philanthropy look like in practice?

To help illustrate how community foundations can practice systems philanthropy, here are case studies of three community foundations currently engaged in this work.

Essex County Community Foundation

Several years ago, in response to community need, the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) convened a cross-sector coalition and created Impact Essex County – a systems philanthropy approach to reducing income inequality and fostering economic growth in the region. Impact Essex County’s first multi-year initiative – Empowering Economic Opportunity – supports a Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund, vocational-technical training (in partnership with GE Foundation), financial coaching and literacy training, Credit for Prior Learning, and a North Shore Blue Economy initiative. It is a three year, $1.3M initiative.

In September 2018, gas line over-pressurization along 48 miles of pipeline in Essex County’s Merrimack Valley destroyed dozens of homes and shut down gas and home heating services indefinitely, displacing thousands of residents. Nearly 850 businesses were forced to close and hundreds more suffered indirect effects, resulting in widespread job loss and disruption to local businesses. Responding to the crisis, ECCF supported immediate relief needs of the County but didn’t stop there. ECCF worked with many business, non-profit, and government (coalition) partners to align crisis response consistent with Impact Essex County’s goal of strengthening economic resiliency. With $10 million in community reparations from Columbia Gas, ECCF’s Merrimack Valley Business Relief Initiative is targeting support for affected businesses and investing in the broader economy – fostering innovation, job growth, workforce development and opportunity. ECCF provides leadership, partial funding, coalition staffing, and infrastructure support for Impact Essex County.

According to Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s COO and Vice President for Community Leadership, “Through our evolving journey to seek systemic solutions to help all in our County, ECCF is continuously learning, shaping, and sharing gained insights. The work is yielding positive results. We want this approach to be collaborative and sustainable.”

New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

Since 2007, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund – a donor-advised fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation – has invested in early childhood development in Coös County, New Hampshire. Coös is New Hampshire’s largest, most rural and economically disadvantaged county. With the Fund’s support, community providers from a range of disciplines formed strong professional relationships and agreed on common systems-focused goals and evidence-based strategies to improve services for children and families. Community members joined forces with the Fund to create an evidence-driven, high-quality, integrated early childhood development system. The Foundation functions as catalyst, advocate, and trusted partner, providing guidance, technical support, and essential funding focused on a research-based conceptual framework with clear outcomes. This effort has transformed Coös’ early childhood organizations into an integrated, high-quality system for early learning and development where none existed before. Drivers of systems change success in Coös County include Fund staff presence, a dedicated place-based approach, and an intentional framework and work plan. To learn more about Coös County’s systems change, read this recent article in The Foundation Review.

Maine Community Foundation

Maine leads the nation in a groundswell of grassroots activity in the form of age-friendly (“lifelong”) initiatives. Although these initiatives face challenges related to infrastructure and sustainability, they share a common mission: to help older people age in their homes and communities. Maine Community Foundation (MCF) supports lifelong community building at the local level. In addition, in 2017, MCF adopted Frameworks Institute’s strategy for Regional Reframing Initiatives. This strategy included developing and disseminating explanatory communications, building reframing capacity among regional advocates, and guiding and supporting efforts to change public discourse about aging. Reframing how advocates and their organizations talk and write about aging and older adults lends support to Maine’s lifelong movement.

These examples illustrate the powerful, varied roles community foundations can play in systems philanthropy and where they typically engage with greatest impact: organizing, supporting, and catalyzing systems change. This function capitalizes on community foundation strengths as local leaders, connectors, and conveners. Systems philanthropy may not, however, be a fit for all community foundations. It requires patience, staff support, and a direct, hands-on role in community affairs and taking positions that aren’t always universally embraced. As community foundations continue to search for ways to innovate, attract funds, and demonstrate their value, systems philanthropy could be a win-win for foundations willing to take the long view and provide leadership, and for the communities they serve.

If you have insights into the role of community foundations in systems philanthropy or would like to share your foundation’s work, we’d love to hear from you!

Thanks to Stratton Lloyd (Chief Operating Officer and Vice President for Community Leadership, Essex County Community Foundation), Phoebe Backler (Senior Program Officer, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation), and Laura Lee, Ph.D. (Director of Grantmaking, Maine Community Foundation) for their thoughtful contributions and review.



For more than 30 years, TPI has been committed to and actively involved in the community foundation movement. We value the role of community foundations as community leaders and as a powerful force in deepening donors’ engagement in their philanthropic giving and in growing the impact of philanthropy in their communities. Since 2012, TPI has been an operating unit of the Boston Foundation, and continues to support and partner with community foundations around the country and throughout the world.