Foundations Should Support Solutions, Not Put Up Barriers To Progress

Long term solutions

“Barriers to progress?  Foundations should support solutions, not put up barriers to progress.  Even foundations who claim to be in the business of tackling big systemic problems insist on funding short-term projects with easily countable results.” I heard this at a recent Organizers Roundtable convened by the Twin Cities Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.

Short-term projects don’t stand much of a chance in solving big problems.  Big problems wouldn’t be called “big problems” if they could be solved with simple short-term project grants.  Solving big problems requires system-change work. But a system doesn’t change with just a few one-off projects; it happens when the just-right sequences necessary to fix a system are put into play.

And system change work isn’t like charity work.  Charity addresses immediate and important needs, but it doesn’t stem the flow of needs or turn deficit-oriented needs into productive assets.

While this might seem obvious, it’s been difficult to sell this kind of systemic or structural view to funders, the lament continues, because funders with boards overstocked with people of privilege find it inconvenient to think systemically.  Instead, funders are said to prefer short, simple projects whose outputs can be easily counted but are, because of their necessary distance from real solutions, largely meaningless, more like tokens of effort than like real currency.  Knowing such proximate outcomes may let us manage a short-term and up-close problem, but it does little to build out enduring solutions.

If it’s true that boards want piecemeal information on piecemeal projects, then boards indeed are barriers to progress; they’d be bringing simplistic, unrealistic thinking to complex problems.  We all deserve better.  It should be part of the board’s business to be helpful.

Big problems get solved only when local leadership is encouraged to organize around the implementation of promising solutions.  Organize is the key word, and organizing is the key activity to promote.  This isn’t as simple as “project management.” Constructive problem-solving doesn’t happen overnight, or without the leadership of skilled institutional and community organizers to push collectively toward real progress and impact.

This is the work of advocacy, organizing, and community leadership, and it needs to happen at all levels, at the grass-tops as well as the grass-roots.  Institutional leadership and organizing is needed at the Chamber of Commerce level, the neighborhood organizing level, and the community foundation level to help create the space and auspices to push out with  creative activity.   This is the collective work that leads to collective impact.

We need to allow and encourage a kind of community-focused R&D that digs up new ways to draw on the local talent to pull together on one of those “needles” everyone’s talking about.  We need a culture that permits solutions to flourish.

“Permitting solutions to flourish” is a mindset that board members of funding institutions, if they tried it, could probably get behind – it should cater to their sense of entrepreneurship and bravado — but it involves a real change in outlook at the board level primarily, and a real change in practice at the staff’s.  And of course, it can’t just be a slogan.

Permitting solutions to flourish requires that a funder value and encourage certain “outcomes” (I prefer to call them “signs of progress”) that they’re not so used to valuing because they don’t sound very objective.  Nevertheless, they count, and we know them when we see them.  Some outcomes or signs of progress resulting from organizing that matter:

Bridges built in the community that increase trust, increase inter-connectedness, decrease isolation, and increase mutually obvious self-interest

The right people interested and motivated to get involved and lend their talents

Commitment and participation gained from influential institutional leadership

Expectations, responsibility, and accountability created

The right people helped to understand what’s at stake, what the options are, what can be done, what roles can be played – and supported in going there

Resources collected, financial and otherwise, to be allocated smartly to different parts of the overall effort

Much more progress would be made if funders explicitly asked for and funded these kinds of outcomes. It would surely remove some key barriers to meaningful productivity in the philanthropic sector, and accelerate progress in addressing big social problems.

Grant applicants should make clear, in an effort to educate their financial partners, that these outcomes are what’s needed and opportune, and that they have the capacity to achieve them.


Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / May 27, 2012 / Lightly edited, June 30, 2020

Originally appeared:

Original date: May 27, 2012

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.