What Does Systems Change Mean to You?

What does systems change mean to you?

By Susan Stehling

Many Minnesota foundations remain ambiguous about the purpose and the importance of systems-change work.

Does reading your foundation’s mission statement arouse a passion for how and why the founders hoped to change the world, the country or the community? If so, your foundation has a change-oriented mission statement, says Emmett Carson, Ph.D., C.E.O. and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in his article “On Foundations and Public Policy: Why the Words Don’t Match the Behavior.”

“At their core, such mission statements assert that the foundation has examined some aspect of society, found it lacking, and believes that by championing change they will make the world a better place. The magnitude of societal change that is envisioned in these change-oriented mission statements cannot be achieved through the support of direct human services. Change-oriented mission statements—by necessity—require a foundation to pursue public policy efforts that attempt to fundamentally change how the system operates.”

Despite Carson’s certainty, many Minnesota foundations remain ambiguous about the purpose and the importance of this systems-change work.

Intentional Approach

Before the national 2016 Funders Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP) conference, held May 23-25 in St. Paul, the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF) surveyed attending members and found that most wanted their organizations to be more intentional in their approach to civic engagement grantmaking.

Some of MCF’s large members are doing this work. When searching Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy on The Foundation Center’s website, Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation are the top Minnesota-based foundations that show up as funding democracy in the last several years.

A Spot at the Table
Smaller players are also contributing. Take, for example, the work of the John and Denise Graves Foundation, a two-year-old family foundation that funds education and child-welfare and firmly believes that those with the most to gain from better schools must be at the table when decisions about education are made.
“The most fundamental way that a citizen can make a difference is by voting for candidates that reflect their values and are most responsive to their concerns,” says Bill Graves, foundation president.

Animating the Race
Especially with the presidential campaigns consuming so much media attention, Graves decided that raising awareness of local down-ballot school board races was imperative in 2016. In Minneapolis alone, four of nine school board seats are up for general election in November. The foundation has taken a unique, non-partisan “animating the race” approach that aims to increase attention on the candidates and the issues.
Graves explains, “We’re looking for a handful of civically engaged individuals with an ability to influence their peers through social media, community newspapers or community radio.”

The foundation has asked their nonpartisan Animate the Race Fellows to spend two to three hours per week writing or talking about the races and answering questions such as: What is a school board? Why do school boards matter? Who is running in your school district? What are the candidates’ visions for education? In return, fellows will each receive a grant of $1,000. It is also providing sponsorships to community news outlets to cover the race and hosting several candidate meet and greets.

Nonpartisan Races
Graves says he believes candidates’ own voices and relationships with the community should be motivating factors behind a vote. “Right now, not enough people know who their school board candidates are or what they stand for,” he says. “We want to change that.”

Minneapolis school board elections are nonpartisan, but the DFL and Green parties do endorse candidates. “The endorsements carry weight in what they signify to the community,” says Graves. “I don’t believe party politics should play an influential role in these nonpartisan races.”

Civic engagement means different things to different people and organizations. At the John and Denise Graves Foundation, civic engagement means educating the electorate about schools and school boards, providing opportunities for candidate interaction, engaging voters who have the most to gain from better schools and ensuring they vote for school board candidates whose positions most closely reflect their own. A fundamental change to how the system operates indeed.

Is your foundation intentional in its approach to civic engagement? Where does its efforts fit?