Making Visible Philanthropy’s Hidden and Conflicting Mental Models for Systems Change

Published: June 2024

Type: Publication

Exploring two systems change mental models in philanthropy

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Julia Coffman, Headshot

This entry summarizes a 2024 article in The Foundation Review, titled “Making Visible Philanthropy’s Hidden and Conflicting Mental Models for Systems Change.”

It is an increasingly shared truth: If we want to tackle society’s worst problems, we must bring a systems lens to our social change efforts. We define “systems change” here as the practice of confronting the causes of social problems rather than treating their symptoms.

Many in philanthropy are taking this stance, and are shaping their portfolios, strategies, evaluation, and grants management approaches to recognize what is required to shift complex and dynamic systems. We support this focus and think it is critical to address the way systems keep problems stuck in place and create inequitable outcomes.*

When we don’t make our mental models visible, we risk undermining our efforts. 

At the same time, we see that philanthropy and those that work in it (including ourselves as longtime systems change strategists and evaluators) have not been making visible our mental models about how and why systems change. By mental models, we mean the deeply held beliefs and assumptions and ways of seeing the world that we use to examine problems and generate solutions.

Our mental models drive how we work and achieve impact. But sometimes the systems change approaches that program staff, strategy consultants, and evaluators use are based on competing mental models or models that are not a good fit for the systems, problems, strategies, or practices they are using. In our experience, this ultimately undermines the work.

We see two mental models about systems change at play in philanthropy.

While many mental models apply to systems change work, we see two dominating the philanthropic sector—the systems dynamics mental model and the systems emergence mental model.**

We do not advocate for one mental model over another. While our article compares the two models and emphasizes how they differ so that their distinctions are clear, we want to avoid binary or either-or thinking about their application. We think that certain systems and problems call for the use of one mental model over the other, but there are also systems and problems where the use of both mental models simultaneously can be useful and appropriate. 

The systems dynamics mental model is more common in philanthropy.

This model is grounded in the work of well-known thought leaders like Donella Meadows and Jay Forrester. The mental model leads to:

  • Strategies that focus on leverage points, or places where focused effort and resources can have an outsized impact on the system. These are often part of feedback loops in the system, where one dynamic feeds into another. Strategies often focus on policy or legal changes, changes in power, narrative change, resource changes, or even changing the field of actors working on an issue. 
  • Grantmaking focused on chosen points of leverage. 
  • Theories of change that predict short- and long-term outcomes, including hypothesized causal relationships. Often these are less linear than a programmatic theory of change, but they still predict how change will happen.
  • Evaluation that focuses on determining whether theorized change processes are playing out as expected. 
  • Use of tools like systems maps, causal loop diagrams, field-building assessments, and social network analyses, and theory-driven methods like contribution analysis and process tracing.

The systems emergence mental model deserves more attention.

This mental model draws on thinking from complexity, critical race, social capital, and ecological systems theories, among others. While terms here are Western in origin, the culturally embedded approaches to systems thinking in Indigenous communities align most closely with this mental model and have significantly informed this way of thinking about how systems change (see, for example, the work of Common Ground, Melanie Goodchild, and Don McIntyre, Geneva Cloutis, & Dan McCarthy). 

This mental model leads to:

  • Strategies that are non-linear and decentralized, where opportunities to influence change are experimented with and discovered, released when no longer relevant, and learned from throughout. Strategies focus on parts of the system that seem ripe for attention (e.g., green shoots of innovation, underutilized or unexplored parts of the system, the most hidden aspects of the system), even when it is not clear what acting in these areas might lead to.
  • Grantmaking that enables time-based experiments and long-term partnerships with like minded, values-aligned organizations. It engages those most affected by the problem and may attempt to change who has leadership over systems and solutions.
  • A line of sight that describes a future worth achieving (what the system could be), but that does not make upfront predictions about a precise chain of outcomes to get there.
  • Hypotheses and other loose storytelling about how change might happen, rather than the defined pathways featured in theories of change.
  • Emergent outcomes, leveraging real-time and deeply embedded learning led by program staff or facilitated by a developmental evaluator.
  • Use of tools like emergent strategy, the Cynefin framework, emergent learning, futures thinking, and participatory systems sensing.

Our mental models need to be fit for purpose. 

Our thesis is that the mental models we use should match the systems being changed and what is known (or not) about those systems. Reasons for using a particular mental model should not be driven solely by what has been tried before in a different system (what is familiar), what tools are already available (what is easily accessed through trusted consultants), or by standardized reporting and accountability requirements that apply across the foundation regardless of strategy approach (what is organizationally normed). 

We see both mental models at play in systems change efforts in philanthropy, and we also see mismatches occurring between mental models and philanthropic practices. In our full article, we offer three case studies–two that illustrate how each mental model plays out in a real-life foundation strategy, and one where mental models were in conflict. 

Read the full article to go deeper.

Systems change thinking and scholarship is heady stuff and often overly intellectualized. We try to avoid this in our article by using metaphors and storytelling and by offering concrete tools to explore your own models. We also explore how these mental models relate to our shared commitments to equity and trust-based philanthropy.

We’re curious to hear from you. What are the mental models you’re using and why? Are you seeing additional models ? What happens when models are aligned or in conflict with systems change strategies or evaluations?

Contact the authors at and


* We also recognize the concept of systems change is controversial as it suggests philanthropy and its partners can shift systems in durable, meaningful ways without causing new, and perhaps worse, harms.

** Both grounded in some of the same core concepts about how systems change.

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