Blog / Community Philanthropy

Increasing Focus on Place-Based Work and Systems Change

by Teri Behrens
Increasing Focus on Place-Based Work and Systems Change
Drawing on our local, national, and international research, tool development, training, and data work, leaders from the Johnson Center have identified 11 key trends that will impact the work of both grantmakers or nonprofit leaders in the months and years to come. In this piece, we explore one of those trends in depth.

Download and read the full report, featuring all 11 trends, here.

Front cover of the “11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2017” reportRecent 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 (Fehler-Cabral, James, Preskill, and Long, 2016).

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 decisions, 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.


Fehler-Cabral, G., James, J., Preskill, H., and Long, M. (2016). The Art and Science of Place-Based Philanthropy: Themes From a National Convening. The Foundation Review (8)2.