Containers, Differences and Exchanges Model

Resource Type

Theories and Frameworks

These resources inform the lens through which a grantmaker uses other systems grantmaking resources.

Systems Questions


What is the social network and how can we influence it?


How do we think and learn about the system?

Grantmaking Stages

Develop grantmaking strategy

Resources in this category can help you understand the system, identify outcomes and determine grantmaking interventions.

Identify and select grantees

Resources in this category can help you understand who is in the system, the strength and content of their relationships, who is missing and the power dynamics among them.

Shape and monitor grants

Resources in this category can help you as you implement and refine your grantmaking strategy. Some of the more participatory resources in this category overlap with other grantmaking stages.


Highly participatory


A skilled facilitator


6-12 months

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To create the conditions for people to self-organize in ways that disrupt and change system patterns.

What is it?

A framework for understanding how people interact with and influence systems. There are three parts:

  1. Containers are the boundaries of the system, which can be physical, organizational, behavioral or conceptual.
  2. Significant Differences are those differences among stakeholders (e.g., power, race, gender, values) that most influence patterns in the system.
  3. Transforming Exchanges are interactions among stakeholders that transform the stakeholders and their relationships.

It is one of the frameworks in a larger process, called Adaptive Action, for managing change in complex adaptive systems.

When is it useful?

  • When developing the participants’ capacity to be systems thinkers
  • When you are trying to build social capital among diverse participants
  • When fragmentation, silos or power dynamics impair progress on an issue
  • In systems bounded by a particular issue area or field of work

What are tips and cautions for systems grantmakers and the social sector?

  • This model was created for use inside complex organizations, but it is also useful for larger systems.
  • The model’s authors offer many tools and processes to expand or shrink the system’s boundaries (i.e., containers) and identify the most significant differences to bridge and facilitate interactions (i.e., exchanges) among diverse stakeholders. There are also concrete tips on how to move a system (e.g., use difference to disrupt the status quo).
  • To facilitate transforming exchanges among diverse stakeholders, a facilitator skilled in managing power dynamics is often needed. 
  • The model provides a framework for thinking about grantmaking without being overly prescriptive in terms of defining a process. It can be integrated into other resources in this guide.


Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science

By Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang 
Jossey Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001


Sarita Gupta

Executive Director, Jobs With Justice

Co-Director, Caring Across Generations

Glenda Eoyang, Ph.D.

Human Systems Dynamics Institute