Trend #2: Increasing Focus on Place-Based Work and Systems Change
by Teri Behrens
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in philanthropy’s role in place-based change — that is, working to improve conditions for people in a specific geography. One impetus for this renewed interest is a deepening understanding of how the health, education, safety, employment, and physical infrastructures interact to create outcomes — positive or negative — for people in communities.1 Programs that focus on only one aspect are bound to achieve limited success — or fail outright — if they don’t consider how these systems interact. A hungry or sick child can’t learn. A family without transportation can’t get to work to maintain employment or secure access to healthcare. New tools and frameworks for addressing complexity have emerged, renewing hope that meaningful, lasting change can be achieved at the community level.
These systems-thinking based approaches work to improve lives in our communities. We gather and make data available to guide decision, and help equip those who work in the philanthropic sector — both on the funder and nonprofit side — with the knowledge and tools they need to be effective in their roles. These are powerful tools in changing systems. Some specific examples: the Community Research Institute is the data infrastructure organization for several efforts underway in western Michigan, thereby providing an evidence base for collective action to address systemic issues. The Institute for Foundation and Donor Learning and our Nonprofit Services team educate and advise nonprofits and foundations on ways to work together toward their shared mission. We are in the beginning stages of developing regional groups of foundations to do professional development together, with a goal of fostering local networks that can coordinate and act more systemically.
1Fehler-Cabral, Giannina; James, Jennifer; Preskill, Hallie; and Long, Meg (2016) “The Art and Science of Place-Based Philanthropy: Themes From a National Convening,” The Foundation Review: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 10.
Teresa (Teri) Behrens, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for Foundation and Donor Learning. The Institute for Foundation and Donor Learning provides professional development resources for donors, foundation staff and those who work with them to implement programs. She is also editor in chief for The Foundation Review, published quarterly by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
Learn more about Teri.