What it Takes: Three Ways Funders Can Support Community-Driven Systems Change

by Clare Nolan

When children have access to high-quality early learning programs during their first five years of life—when their brains and bodies are rapidly developing—they have better chances of attaining lifelong health and happiness. We now know more than ever about programs that equip parents, caregivers, and educators with the skills and resources they need to improve outcomes and help children thrive. The challenge, however, has been for communities to bring these high-quality programs to scale so that all children benefit.

As a result, more and more funders are pursuing place-based systems change efforts to support long-term, sustainable improvements and outcomes. These grantmaking approaches require funders and grantees to work together in new ways that involve deeper collaboration, continuous learning and adaptation, and attention to power dynamics.

So, what does it take for funders to partner deeply with communities to support their systems change efforts?

Engage R+D recently served as evaluation partner for two long-term early learning systems change efforts—one in rural New Hampshire and the other across three communities in California. Looking across these communities, we gleaned three key lessons to help funders interested in supporting community-driven systems change.



Lesson One: Funders should hold a clear North Star but let communities figure out the best way to get there.

In 2018, we partnered with Lisa Payne Simon to evaluate the Early Childhood Development (ECD) Initiative in Coös County, an effort supported by the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Since 2007, the fund has invested in Coös—New Hampshire’s largest and most rural and economically disadvantaged county. Through the evaluation, we looked at how community members worked alongside the fund to transform and create an evidence-driven, high-quality, integrated early childhood development system.

We learned that the change in Coös was successful because it was community driven. Leadership of ECD’s efforts remains within the community, while the fund functions as a catalyst, advocate, and trusted partner. Furthermore, ECD is flexible and responsive to community-determined needs. In response to Coös’ struggle with opioid use, for example, ECD was able to increase funding to support young children impacted by substance use and crisis.

A second example of how a foundation can provide flexible support while defining a clear North Star comes out of our evaluation of the first three years of Starting Smart and Strong, a 10-year commitment supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Starting Smart and Strong aims to test and scale solutions that support parents, caregivers, and educators as they prepare children to be healthy and ready for school—in Fresno, East San Jose, and Oakland, California.

Early on, the foundation reviewed various models for supporting multi-sector systems change, and it became clear that the three communities were pursuing very different approaches. Oakland, for example, took a collective impact approach—gathering together a broad cross-section of local stakeholders to decide how to address, execute, and measure the impact of their work. Whereas Fresno, in contrast, started by getting good pilot programs off the ground and aligning with existing multi-sector initiatives as a means of building local momentum.

Ultimately, Packard decided that each community was best positioned to develop its own pathways to change. However, the foundation defined a clear North Star of school readiness and provided an array of resources to support the communities in their systems change efforts.


Lesson Two: Funders should support collaborative infrastructure.

Our evaluation of the ECD Initiative in Coös County also surfaced a second important lesson for funders: the importance of providing flexible resources for collaborative planning and infrastructure. The New Hampshire effort is a great model of how and why a funder should invest deeply in this space.

During the early years of the ECD work, the fund provided support for relationship-building among initiative partners, including biannual, two-day meetings to build trust and momentum. Participants pointed to this time together—spent learning and sharing—as critical to the initiative’s direction and success.

In addition, two infrastructures were created to coordinate and support cross-sector collaboration and practice change and integration of childcare within Coös’ early childhood development system. Both infrastructures—the Coös’ Coalition and the Director Network—support widespread training and adoption of evidence-based practice, capacity building and improvement, linkage across disciplines, and community outreach. By investing in collaborative infrastructure, the fund enabled stronger relationships and better identification of community needs.


Lesson Three: Funders should nurture authentic partnerships.

A third lesson for funders comes from the Starting Smart and Strong work. Our evaluation and the Packard Foundation’s own reflections have highlighted the importance of funders working in a more embedded way with communities. Through this effort, the Packard Foundation partnered with communities in Fresno, East San Jose, and Oakland in a unique and effective way.

Challenging the traditional funder-grantee dynamic, the foundation toggled between the roles of thought partner, trusted confidante, and funder. The complexity of holding multiple roles forced the foundation to become more mindful of the delicate nature of boundaries and power dynamics and how they can shift over time. It also led to a more authentic partnership for supporting community-led change.

As we have seen in both California and New Hampshire, systems grantmaking approaches require more than just money. Funders who listen to and work openly and collaboratively with communities can best support their efforts to drive systems change. This means holding a vision while providing communities with the flexibility to figure out how to get there, learning from communities about what's working and what it takes to do complex work, and being a more embedded partner to support communities along the way.

Through Engage R+D’s evaluation work, we are able to learn from communities and funders seeking to drive community-led systems change. It is our intent to share this knowledge with the field and also to learn from other funders and practitioners investing in this critical work.