Blog / Community Philanthropy

Slow Train Coming: Taking Time for Community-Driven Systems Change

by Sadaf Shallwani
Slow Train Coming: Taking Time for Community-Driven Systems Change
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Most foundations and philanthropists want to fund strategically and have a lasting, positive impact. However, the routes funders take to reach this end vary widely. A new generation of funders is radically challenging how the sector defines and achieves its goals — arguing that shifting power to communities is both more ethical and effective for long-term impact.

Established in California in 1999 to address the needs of children affected by HIV, AIDS, and poverty in eastern and southern Africa, Firelight Foundation, where I work, has always championed the fundamental role of communities and community-based organizations (CBOs).

Since 2017, we’ve gone further to focus on supporting community-driven systems change. In 2020, we completed a three-year process of inquiry, learning, co-creating, and validation with grantee-partner CBOs to understand change at the community level and how funders can support it. Findings are shared in our recent report and highlighted in this article.

We’ve seen and proven how recognizing the leadership and agency of community members — and their work to effect lasting change in the systems and root causes affecting their communities — can really deliver the impact and sustainability that we all want.

Why Community-Driven Systems Change?

Community-driven systems change emphasizes the insight, leadership, and ownership of the people who are living and experiencing issues at the community level. It’s about communities being supported and trusted to create lasting change in the systems and root causes that underlie the critical issues they face.

Listening to and being guided by communities is especially important in the international development space, where Global North funders and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) tend to come into Global South contexts and implement short-term and piecemeal interventions without genuine partnerships with local communities. They often leave behind irrelevant and/or unsustainable programs, and in some cases, lasting damage to existing structures, resilience, and agency. Unsurprisingly, in a recent survey by Rights CoLab, 85% of Global South civil society organizations described their collaborations with INGOs as not mutually beneficial.

“Community-driven systems change emphasizes the insight, leadership, and ownership of the people who are living and experiencing issues at the community level.”

Firelight funds and supports CBOs to catalyze community-driven systems change for children, youth, and families in eastern and southern Africa. But the principles of community-driven systems change are the same regardless of funding focus or geography: By supporting communities to surface and harness their own insights and agency, they can take the lead in defining, determining, and taking action for the changes they want to see — in their systems, structures, norms, and practices. And as community members — rather than outsiders — become the decision-makers and changemakers, they can continue to implement and sustain actions needed to improve conditions for their community over the long term.

Being guided by local stakeholders is especially important when working across different contexts — recognizing that culture, history, policy, civil society, economy, and more vary across countries, and even within countries. For example, in Firelight’s experience, when communities came together to explore their perceptions and understandings of child marriage in Malawi, different communities identified and prioritized different root causes — from poverty to gender norms to access to secondary education. When communities are in the driver’s seat, they can unpack and address the actual root causes that affect their community. This is in contrast to the traditional Global North funder or INGO approach which prefers simple and scalable solutions that can be replicated rapidly across countries.

Getting Started with Community-Driven Systems Change

Getting started in community-driven systems change means shifting — how you envision success, how you think about trust and risk, who holds power over resources, how you engage with the complexity and messiness of the problems and solutions, and how you evaluate and learn.

1. Rethink what success means.

Community-driven systems change is not about quick fixes, solutions that can rapidly scale, or traditional value for money.

Community-driven systems change means recalibrating our vision for success in three key ways: what success looks like, how we think about sustainability, and how we think about reach.

First, community-driven systems change is about doing the long-term work to build community capacity and agency, bolster the resilience and effectiveness of their institutions and leadership, and strengthen mutual accountability mechanisms so that communities can continue to engage effectively with their government and civil society stakeholders to effect positive change over the long-term.

Success is when (communities) are enabled to effectively respond to their own health and development concerns way beyond our organization’s programs and mandate. They can identify priority needs, identify how issues impact children and the weaker members [of a community], mobilize resources, and manage desired change.

– CBO Leader, Community-Driven Systems Change (Firelight report)

Second, true sustainability is about shifting systems for long-term impact — not necessarily continuing to keep a specific program alive. A community that has the knowledge and confidence to hold its government accountable for policy and budget commitments is stronger than one relying on outside funders to pay for teacher training or health care workers. Strengthening community awareness, agency, and action can have ripple effects over decades.

Third, while the development sector has been obsessed with scale and value for money, oftentimes wide reach and bargain cost-effectiveness come with superficial impact. We also need to reach deep, focusing on meaningful changes in systems and root causes that will result in sustained impact over the long term. For example, one can quickly and cheaply reach a large number of people with a feeding program. It takes far more time and resourcing (less reach, more expense) to support communities to research, design, test, and implement their own locally appropriate and resilient food systems.

2. Rethink capacity and risk.

CBOs are uniquely placed to effect lasting systemic change at the grassroots level because they have lived experience of the issues faced, have the trust of the community, and are accountable to the communities in which they live and work.

CBOs are not just “barefoot soldiers” [for funders and INGOs]. Their mandate at the community level is much more complex, more challenging. Just delivering programs and collecting data is easier — this can be done in a short period of time, and the results will also be short-lived.

– Wairimu Mungai, executive director of WEMIHS, a grassroots NGO that mobilizes community-driven action in Kenya, Community-Driven Systems Change (Firelight report)

From the perspective of the traditional global development sector, CBOs are often viewed as lacking capacity and as risky investments. However, through a community lens, it becomes clear that CBOs can actually be more legitimate and reliable than external entities like INGOs, which don’t have a personal stake, aren’t accountable to communities and government, and often do what they want without thinking about the harm they may be causing to local communities.

Local organizations are not inherently more or less risky than larger organizations simply because of their size, location, or leadership. All organizations — small and large — come with risks, and the best way to mitigate these risks is by ensuring that they are accountable to their constituents.

3. Power to the people.

Simply put, community-driven means shifting power from the donor to the community, so that key community stakeholders and their trusted civil society institutions determine:

  • What the challenge or opportunity is.
  • What to do about it.
  • What ‘success’ looks like.
  • How to evaluate success.

In community-driven systems change, the donor’s role is to empower the community to realize its own goals based on the issues and opportunities that they have identified.

4. Embrace the complexity of social change.

Traditional philanthropy often compartmentalizes and narrows its focus — something we’ve seen happen in many popular movements over time. Community-driven systems change takes a long-term and holistic view — open to multiple contributing factors, non-linear and complex patterns and dynamics, and both expected and unexpected outcomes.

Community-driven systems change recognizes that challenges such as child marriage and early pregnancy emerge in systems made up of a myriad of factors such as economics, education, religion, beliefs and norms, climate, and physical environments.

“Community-driven systems change takes a long-term and holistic view — open to multiple contributing factors, non-linear and complex patterns and dynamics, and both expected and unexpected outcomes.”

It’s probably not possible to fund every aspect of a systems change process. But community-driven systems change is about supporting those who are closest to the challenge, so that they have the resources, power, and agency to engage with, influence, and change systems for better, longer-term outcomes.

5. Data is still important.

Data is important — to understand the community’s needs and assets, analyze root causes, map out systems and stakeholders, track progress, and evaluate impact. In community-driven systems change, communities are empowered to decide what data are needed, what indicators to track, and how. Communities are supported to develop adaptive learning mindsets, and effective data systems, so that they can continue to use data to guide their strategies and actions over the long term.

Communities that determine their own indicators can track progress in areas that are important for change in their context. For example, in Firelight’s experience, CBOs and communities working on early childhood development in Malawi and Zambia decided, among other things, that they wanted to track the extent to which their local Village Development Committees were discussing and addressing emerging issues affecting young children in the community. They also wanted to track the degree of coordination between different relevant Ministries around early childhood development. These may not have been the traditional outcomes one would think of for an early childhood development initiative, but these were the changes that communities wanted to see in order to assess if there was actual systemic change that was going to support their children in the long term.

Does it Work?

As donors in the Global North, we are used to setting goals and objectives, and making decisions about strategy and funding. It feels risky to challenge the mandates from our boards and endowments, and instead trust communities to decide the what, why, how, who, and when of the change process.

But it works. Here’s one example:

Beginning in 2015, Firelight partnered with four grassroots organizations in Malawi to develop and implement community-driven approaches to improve adolescent girls’ access to and success in secondary education.

Partner organizations initially assumed that parents didn’t send their daughters to school because of distance. However, discussion and analysis with different community stakeholders identified complex barriers in different systems — family, school, community, and policy. For example, some families couldn’t afford school fees. Some families saw little value in secondary education for their daughters. Schools themselves were not welcoming environments. Furthermore, various local and national policies were also limiting girls’ access to education in the country.

“It feels risky to challenge the mandates from our boards and endowments, and instead trust communities to decide the what, why, how, who, and when of the change process. But it works.”

The four organizations were funded over four years to collaborate with their communities — parents, adolescent girls, traditional leaders, local officials, and community schools (each organization identified four target community schools to work with based on their catchment area and the level of challenge experienced by girls at these schools). Together, they unpacked, understood, and addressed these issues at different levels. And it worked:

  • Girls’ school attendance and performance improved impressively: Re-admission rates went up almost 20-fold. In one community, pregnancy-related drop-outs reduced from 17 to five in one year.

  • Communities transformed their attitudes towards the value of school, created new income for fellow families who had struggled with fees, and enabled girls to access new safe spaces and supports.

  • Partners, schools, government officials, community leaders, and parents jointly developed useable School Improvement Plans – tools to guide school improvement by identifying and prioritizing needs and determining whose responsibility it is to take action. This fostered ownership, collaboration, and accountability, along with an accelerated application of scarce resources.

Moreover, as a result of the collective efforts of the communities, there were important changes at the policy level, with community schools being given more recognition and status, as well as additional funding and infrastructure development (such as mobile science classrooms).

This initiative involved relatively small grassroots organizations and moderately sized grants, but its impact was deep, systemic, and sustained by community and government stakeholders and organizations beyond the timeline of the initiative.

This is the crux and the power of community-driven systems change.

Boarding the Slow Train

Many funders and INGOs want to localize their work. But supporting true community-driven systems change means going further — letting go of our own preconceived outside-in definitions and decisions, really valuing and investing in community-born-and-raised organizations, developing genuinely equal partnerships, enabling communities to have their own agency, and supporting systemic thinking and action — which requires time and sustained support.

For funders who lack the internal capacity to support CBOs directly, or perhaps find it too overwhelming, you may want to fund through an intermediary — a local community foundation or grantmaker, or an international regranting organization (full disclosure: Firelight is one of these). We encourage you to continue to center community power and a systems perspective in your decisions about the intermediary you choose to work with.

To support these shifts, Firelight has developed a comprehensive report with lessons learned from our CBO partners, and a toolkit with guidance around how funders can rebuild their approaches and systems for grantmaking, capacity strengthening, learning, and evaluation to more effectively support community-driven systems change internationally. We encourage you to review our report and tools on our website.

Sadaf Shallwani, Ph.D.
Director of Programs and Learning, Firelight
Sadaf is a facilitator, advocate, leader, practitioner, and researcher, committed to working alongside people and communities to create and use knowledge for social justice.