A Tool for Systems Change that Supports Learning in Foundations

Published: July 2022

Type: Publication

Julia Coffman, Headshot
A black and white headshot of Jane Reisman. A light-skinned woman, with medium-length hair, smiling.
Tanya Beer

Foundations are systems. They have their own cultures and related assumptions, norms, standards, and practices. All of these personal, social, and structural factors affect our ability to learn.

This tool is to help foundations take stock of their learning needs and opportunities with a dispassionate (evaluative) look at themselves as systems and how people work within them.

The tool is based on the work of systems theorist Donella Meadows. Her work resonates because it recognizes both systemic constraints and possible leverage points for addressing them. Meadows identifies a series of leverage points for changing a system, ordered from least to most powerful. We adapted her work to show how each lever can reinforce learning in an organization or system.

Use the tool to examine the list of 12 leverage points, ordered in terms of their power for shifting a system to support learning, from weakest (1) to strongest (12). Higher leverage points produce stronger, broader, more durable change.

According to Meadows, we often are disappointed in the results of systems change efforts because we tend to tweak the least powerful levers in the system — such as skill building or the flow of resources or information. We find this can be true with learning in philanthropy, where many foundations support learning with tools and training alone.

Which leverage points are you currently using to support learning in philanthropy? Where else can you push to make that support stronger?