An emergency hospital bedside and a using a help bell

It’s time to stop talking theory of change and start implementing a practice of change

May 1, 2020

When Giuseppe Conte began making announcements in early March that would rapidly lead to the entire country being shut down, all I could think about from here at the epicenter of the Italian outbreak was Guatemala. I began reaching out to local leaders and grassroots organizations that I knew were engaged with supporting the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized communities to talk about how they were preparing, what they were seeing and how they could respond. And most importantly to find out – how can I help?

When the WHO declared a global health pandemic on March 11 my heart sank. Those of us who work in development knew then what the world is quickly realizing: developing countries already struggling with weak governance, fragile health systems and highly vulnerable populations would be crippled. How do we even begin to fight COVID-19 when people don’t even have access to soap and water?

Not only did existing conditions make it difficult enough, but these vulnerable communities quickly found themselves left alone as large development organizations around the world evacuated their international aid workers back to their home countries and closed down offices. Even the United States Peace Corps took the unprecedented step of evacuating all of their volunteers worldwide.

This was once more a confirmation of the work I have been supporting and advocating for for years: investing in local leaders and community-led strategies. The COVID-19 crisis makes it all the more apparent why this is so important. Deeply entrenched in the communities they serve, local leaders are better equipped to respond with flexibility and agility to rapidly-changing or unexpected shifts in the ecosystem (like a global pandemic). They have a deep knowledge of the systems that they are a part of and are better positioned to change and influence those systems. And perhaps most importantly of all, when the going gets tough, they aren’t going anywhere. Local leaders don’t just have skin-in-the-game, they have their lives on the line.

Since March, I have been working to help get much-needed funding to local leaders on the ground in Central America, Africa and Asia and I am frustrated and disappointed at the results. Despite much rhetoric that has emerged during this crisis about the importance of funding local leaders, the need for funders to be more responsive, and how important it is to support marginalized and vulnerable communities I have seen very little evidence of this happening on the ground.

In early April as part of the Skoll World Forum I attended a virtual panel on funding systems change. The panel was based on a recently released report entitled Embracing Complexity, the result of a cooperation between Ashoka, McKinsey & Company, Catalyst 2030, Co-Impact, Echoing Green, Schwab, Skoll and SystemIQ. The report – as acknowledged by the panel moderator Odin Mühlenbein from Ashoka – tells us nothing we don’t already know: that funders need to support social change leaders, embrace a systems mindset, provide flexible funding, and commit to long-term engagement. Presenter Kappie Farrington, Associate Director of Programs from Co-Impact commented that “COVID-19 is a systems crisis” and that funders must “support actors who have a deep knowledge of existing systems”, further noting that “local organizations are best positioned to do this work.”

Yes, they are! But we do not need another research paper and report to tell us what we already know. In fact, the conversation that the likes of Skoll and Ashoka are having around funding systems change are the same conversations happening in the Trust-Based Philanthropy space. We’ve had enough conversations. While we are talking, people are dying. COVID-19 has made that clear. What we need is action. It is time for funders and Foundations to stop talking Theory of Change and start implementing a Theory of Practice. Because despite all of this talk and all of the evidence, change is not happening where it is needed most.

Yesterday I spent a few hours working with one of the organizations I am supporting to help them fit their holistic, community-led strategy into a typical grant application asking for a detailed outline of the activities, deliverables and milestones for the project for the next 12 months. This is both unrealistic and unhelpful. If national governments cannot even tell us what strategies they plan to implement in the next months, and the World Health Organization does not know what the seasonal impact of COVID-19 will be, how can we expect these organizations who are working so hard to respond to the needs as their arise to make these kinds of predictions? How about instead of 2 pages of logframe, grantees can simply write “we will do whatever it takes to keep our communities safe and healthy during this crisis, and we will let you know what we are doing as we work it out.”

I was heartened a few weeks back by a Call to Action led by the U.S. Philanthropy sector to “act with fierce urgency to support our nonprofit partners as well as the people and communities hit hardest by the impacts of COVID-19.” I trawled through the list of over 700 organizations to find those that were working in the developing countries where the organizations that I am supporting are located only to find that more than 80% of the applicable Foundations fund by invitation only. Given that social psychology tells us that we tend to build networks with people who look and think like us, I am always suspicious of these invitation-only setups.

So what’s the solution? As I already mentioned it’s time to stop talking and start doing, starting with these three simple steps:

  1. Proactively seek out local leaders
    First of all recognize that if you are truly committed to funding local leaders and organizations, then they are unlikely to be contacts on your LinkedIn profile or reading the latest McKinsey report on funding systems change. And if somehow they do manage to find you, it’s hard for them to get through the door. Most of the local leaders that I work with don’t speak much English and certainly don’t have extensive networks in the kinds of social circles that funders and foundation staff move in. You need to find ways to find and identify these leaders. And if you get stuck, I have a few suggestions 😉
  2. Get fast, flexible funding to the frontlines
    Many of the folks I am working with – such as a group working with refugees on the Thai-Burma border or an African EdTECH startup that’s making sure that kids keep getting educated despite school closure – have rapidly pivoted their activities to respond to the emerging needs of the communities they serve in the face of the pandemic. They don’t need a huge amount of funding – $25,000/$50,000/$75,000 – but they need it now. What can you do?
  3. Begin implementing longer-term changes
    The global uncertainty caused by COVID-19 will be with us for many years to come. This means we cannot fund like we used to but must be ready to respond with long-term, flexible funding based on trusting partnerships with local leaders. If the previously mentioned reports were not enough, then this series of case studies developed by the Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Bridgespan Group present a convincing argument as to why philanthropy must shift from strategic to adaptive, and this review from Global Giving shows how locally-led strategies are vital for shifting the nexus of power and creating long-term systems change.

If COVID-19 really is an example of massive systems failure then we cannot afford to wait. We must act now.

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