A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Systems Change 101

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While bringing together diverse stakeholders is a necessary step towards ending homelessness, it is not sufficient. Too often people convene to talk, learn best practices, and plan without making necessary changes in their own behavior. Too often they acknowledge that they know what should be done, but then fail to follow through because doing so may compromise immediate self-interests for funding, recognition, and feeling helpful.

Thinking and acting systemically are required to end homelessness.


At the community level, this involves:

  • Engaging key stakeholders;
  • Bridging the gap between reality and vision;
  • Testing for a commitment to change; and 
  • Developing a shared vision.

At the national level, this involves:

  • Educating funders and providers along the continuum of care about a systems approach;
  • Convening stakeholders to mobilize a systems approach; and
  • Running local demonstrations in communities and expanding community models.


How a Systems Approach Benefits Funders

Turbocharge Your Convening Power

Donors have a unique ability to engage stakeholders across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors. Bringing people together with a systems change lens creates a space for people to reconsider their immediate interests in service of the bigger picture. Systems thinking enables people to map the unintended consequences of actions, allows them to take responsibility for the problem, and empowers them to be a part of the solution in more effective ways. They become more motivated to and able to act in service of the whole instead of only their part—ultimately achieving greater impact.

Increase the Impact of Your Grantmaking

Funders faced with the philanthropic challenge of wanting to help people in both the short– and long-term often fail to recognize that quick fixes can hinder their ability to apply sustainable solutions. Because funders address chronic, complex problems, they must adopt a way of thinking to match. For example:


Linear Thinking


Systems Thinking



A problem’s symptoms and underlying causes are directly connected.


System performance is largely determined by interdependencies among system elements that are indirect, circular, and not always obvious.



A policy that achieves short-term success ensures long-term success. 


The unintended and delayed consequences of most quick fixes neutralize or reverse immediate gains over time.



Most problems are caused by external factors beyond our control.


Because actions taken by one group often have delayed negative consequences on its own performance, as well as the behavior of others, each group unwittingly contributes to the very problem it tries to solve. 



To improve the performance of the whole, we must improve the performance of its parts.  Tackle many independent initiatives simultaneously to improve all of the parts. 


To improve the performance of the whole, improve the relationships among the parts.  Identify a few key interdependencies and shift them in a sustained, coordinated way over time. 


Enhance Your Ability to Advocate for Effective Policies

Policymakers similarly confuse linear and systemic thinking. As a result, they can recommend policies that support quick fixes at the expense of long-term solutions. Funders can help education policymakers about a systems approach and thereby advocate for sustainable, system-wide solutions to complex problems like homelessness.

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We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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