An Invitation to Explore Systems Grantmaking

Jamaica Maxwell, David and Lucile Packard Foundationby Jamaica Maxwell

Program Officer, Organizational Effectiveness
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation


We are excited to share this resource guide, which consolidates and describes a set of tools, frameworks and processes that analyze and make sense of systems.

Like many funders and nonprofits, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is continually evolving as we explore new ways to make lasting and effective contributions in the areas we care about most: improving the lives of children, enabling the creative pursuit of science, advancing reproductive health, and conserving and restoring the earth’s natural systems. Thinking big is part of how we do our work, and so systems thinking is an important part of our approach.

At the Packard Foundation, we are interested in resources that provide a greater understanding of the fields in which we work and can help identify catalytic opportunities to change complex systems. For example, our Western Pacific team hopes to understand what set of investments will help build the local, provincial and national capacity in Indonesia to sustainably manage fishery resources. In our Organizational Effectiveness program, we work to strengthen not only the leadership, management and operations of our core grantee partners but also the networks and fields in which they operate.

Through the resources in this guide, we hope to answer questions including the following:

  • Who is in a system, and how do these players influence each other?
  • How does change happen in a given system?
  • What is the capacity of a system to change?
  • Where and how do I use my limited resources to spark this change?
  • How will I know in real time if change is occurring in a system?
  • How can I learn and quickly adjust my strategy as a result of these changes?

In 2014, we created an internal learning group to explore various forms of assessment and how they may be used to inform grantmaking. We learned that there was limited information available on systems resources. With this need in mind, the foundation partnered with Management Assistance Group and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to create an interactive and accessible resource guide for grantmakers and nonprofits working at the system or field level. Through research, interviews and experimentation, we have assembled a selection of systems resources for the social sector.

These topics are not new. The social sector has been curious about systems resources for more than 25 years. Ongoing conversations on these topics continue at The Aspen Institute and American Evaluation Association, among other venues. What is presented here intends to be additive and supportive of this dialogue, and to provide an accessible entry point to those new to this work.

We hope these resources support the social sector in our collective aim for increased impact on the issues and in the communities at the heart of our work. Please experiment with this information and apply it to the challenges you are facing. Then, share your experiences with the growing community of systems thinkers.

Together, we will strengthen our practices.

More about this resource guide  Take the self-assessment  Explore the resources