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‘System change’ takes time, risk-tolerance

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Increasingly, U.S. foundations are looking not only to alleviate the symptoms of societal problems, but also to have an impact on the underlying problems themselves.

To aid in their efforts to affect such “system change,” the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California has published a new report.

The paper examines what system change means for foundations, and explores strategies and tactics institutional funders can employ to create lasting change.

While public policy is one avenue of influencing long-term change, the paper says, other avenues can be fruitful, including influencing professional standards and business practices.

However, to have a system-level perspective, foundations also must be willing to consider longer-term commitments, fund riskier projects, and join their peers in tackling problems together.

“Foundations that are interested in systems change will need to collaborate, be flexible in their approaches and make commitments over the longer period of time needed to achieve system change,” James Ferris, director of the center, says in a statement.

“Perhaps most importantly, foundations will need a greater tolerance of the risk of failure,” he says. “Foundation boards must be willing to understand that uncertainty comes with efforts to change a system and accept the risk.”

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