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Systems Change

Systems Change

Friday, June 3, 2022

Systems change is messy … uncomfortable… scary.  But also, transformative… liberating… and necessary.

CNJG’s 2022 Virtual Colloquium: A Conversation for the Social Sector – Igniting Equitable Systems Change Together put systems change front and center.

Moderator Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Co-Director and founding Executive Director of Justice Funders opened the discussion by challenging us to consider the roots of philanthropy, and how those roots have influenced grantmaking systems. She also asked the audience to get comfortable with “non-closure” and invited us to be curious. These mindsets are the building blocks of courageous conversations.

The panelists were indeed open to having a thought provoking and courageous conversation.

Tulaine Montgomery, Co-CEO at New Profit, provided a working definition of systems change for us. Building on The Water of Systems Change by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge, she encouraged us to understand and challenge the conditions that “hold a problem in place.” In philanthropy, we have firmly established systems that have created power imbalances in our relationships with nonprofit partners for decades. Systems change, not only focuses on what we can see – policies, practices, and resource flows, but also the hidden, deeply held beliefs and assumptions that keep old systems in place. Transformative change takes place when values shift, genuine relationships are formed, and equity is realized.

For philanthropy to truly make a difference, it must “shift some power that exists in philanthropy to grassroots partners,” as John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education shared during the conversation. Those proximate to the problem offer the best solutions. Investing in grassroots leadership is central to creating systems change.

Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation reflected on what’s at the core of “good giving” – trusting nonprofits to make informed, strategic decisions, as well as a need to constantly review and question your own grantmaking processes to make it as easy as possible to “get funding out the door.”

Following the panel discussion, Jaymie Santiago, President and CEO, New Brunswick Tomorrow, Debra Coyle, Executive Director, New Jersey Work Environment Council, and Christine Newman, Director of Community Outreach and Volunteer Engagement at AARP New Jersey, each shared examples of systems change work in New Jersey. A common thread noted throughout their work was the remarkable power of relationships, engaging local - and often non-traditional leaders, and listening to the community.

It can be difficult to think about what’s practical, and at the same time strategic, when we talk about systems change. Among the ideas that rose to the top from our facilitated discussions were these key takeaways – I offer them to you:

  • Be vigilant and persistent.
  • Invest in and prioritize proximate leadership. 
  • Shift power by shifting resources.
  • Reframe the power dynamic to create more equitable relationships.
  • Be customer-oriented.
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable.
  • Co-opt stakeholders as partners to accelerate systems change.

Whether you agree or not with the presenters, the depth of ideas presented was extraordinary and authentic. And philanthropy is wading in, exploring, adapting, and questioning current structures and long held truisms. Doing Good Better: Deepening Philanthropic and Nonprofit Partnerships in NJ – Doing Good Better for short – a partnership between CNJG and the New Jersey Center for Nonprofits, is a systems change movement that examines and reimagines how nonprofits and philanthropy can collectively work together for a more equitable and resilient New Jersey.

We may just be at a tipping point.

All the best,

Theresa Jacks, Acting President and CEO
Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

The Council of New Jersey Grantmakers is grateful to our sponsors for supporting this event: PSEG, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Campbell Soup Company, FirstEnergy Foundation and Citi.


Colloquium small group discussions generated key insights and takeaways.