About the Resources

There is an ever-increasing number of systems grantmaking resources. With a systems mindset, almost any grantmaking tool, process or framework can be repurposed to support systems grantmaking efforts. Thus, the tools, processes and frameworks featured in this resource guide are not a comprehensive representation of those that grantmakers could use for systems grantmaking.

Here you will find a set of commonly practiced and promising resources. To identify these, Management Assistance Group conducted more than 30 interviews with systems experts and philanthropic leaders reviewed more than 175 websites, articles, books and videos.

You may be familiar with some of the resources that have long been used in the field for systems grantmaking, such as Landscape Scans. Other resources, such as the Social Movement Capacities Framework or Rapid Realist Review, may not be as familiar. Yet others, such as Developmental Evaluation or Collective Impact, may be familiar due to their use in other parts of the social sector. We’ve included these because they are either being repurposed for systems work or they inherently embrace a system grantmaking approach.

We provide brief descriptions of this promising set of resources in the table on the Tools & Resources page. You can filter and sort the table to find the resources most useful to you. These brief descriptions are intended to give you a sense of the tool so that you might determine if it will be useful to your work. We’ve provided additional reading in case you would like to learn more and give the tool a try.

We also profile eleven of the resources in greater depth. We chose these to represent the range of systems grantmaking resources included in the guide. Each of these in-depth profiles includes a brief overview of the resource and its purpose, information about when it is useful for systems grantmaking, an example of how it has been used in the field, and some considerations for grantmakers and other social sector actors using the resource.

As you find more resources that are useful for systems grantmaking, we invite you to share these with us.

Key Considerations

Many people are throwing systems mapping at very complex issues in an abbreviated form. We’ve seen a lot of these efforts ending without any real transformation in participants’ mindsets about how to move forward. Something we’re learning is that the discussions and collective learning among stakeholders is where the value lies. It’s what develops our skills to work with complexity in planning, actions, network design, and governance. Systems mapping isn’t a technical fix, which a lot of people want it to be. It is really shifting the way we 1) look at complex social issues and the key dynamics involved and 2) engage a more diverse set of actors that are intentionally connected and aligned to have broader impact. 
— Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation

The following points are true about all of the resources included here: 

  • A systems mindset is essential for using these resources successfully. Many can be used to help you develop that mindset while others will be more successfully implemented by those experienced in systems grantmaking.
  • Multiple kinds of organizations — grantmakers or other social-sector actors — may use the resources.
  • They have a track record of successful implementation.
  • They require some level of expertise, which could be obtained through trial and error, training or engaging an expert.
  • Usually, the resources are part of a broader systems change or strategy and evaluation process and cannot be reduced to a single meeting or workshop. To this end, it may be helpful to have a facilitator for overall process design who can apply multiple tools, processes and frameworks over time as appropriate. Since systems change invariably involves working across differences in identity and power, such a facilitator should be competent in navigating these issues as well.
  • They are continuously evolving to fit with the latest thinking about systems.
  • They require loosely defining the system’s boundaries upfront. Grantmakers need to be conscious of who and what is excluded by these boundaries and may need to refine the boundaries over time. We have not found any resources that can look at interconnected systems without boundaries.
  • While some of the resources describe the network and power relations among system actors, none are prescriptive about the role actors should take. Grantmakers need to draw their own conclusions about their role in the system.
  • They cannot predict what will happen. They may describe the past or present, but the future may unfold differently.
  • They must be used and reflected on iteratively to capture the dynamic nature of systems, including how the system is changing during and after a grantmaking intervention. We have not found any resources that provide continuous, real-time information.

The grantees shape the grants. We are not experts in the field. Our expertise is in the nature of social change more broadly. We normally get approval in principle from our trustees to begin exploring a long term change strategy in a specific domain. We bring in stakeholders long before we go to the trustees for specific grants. We sometimes spend years determining what is going on in the field — building relationships and mapping the system — and fund a few prototypes. Out of this collaborative design process we determine what we are comfortable supporting and encourage others — i.e., government, foundations, community actors, and private sector — to identify complementary ways of supporting. We do this long before the board approves significant grants or impact investments. 
— John Cawley, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation