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Systems Change and Glaciers: What Do They Have in Common?

Collaborative systems change like a glacier:  It moves slowly, and its progress is sometimes hard to observe, but over time its enormous power completely and permanently transforms the landscape in ways that are dramatic and, at the outset, unimaginable.


I recently was fortunate to attend the annual conference of Philanthropy Northwest, our sector affinity group for the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  The setting this year was Juneau, Alaska.  Arriving the afternoon before the conference, I had the opportunity to visit the Mendenhall Glacier (see my snapshot with this post), and enjoy the spectacular beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, which waits just beyond the edge of the city.

During one of the conference workshops my visit to Mendenhall was made even more meaningful to me.  We were discussing how to promote effective collaborations to stimulate systems change – something many foundations around the nation are doing with efforts to end homelessness – when one Alaskan philanthropist offered the following:  Collaborative systems change like a glacier:  It moves slowly, and its progress is sometimes hard to observe, but over time its enormous power completely and permanently transforms the landscape in ways that are dramatic and, at the outset, unimaginable.

I’m a guy who likes metaphors, and I the more I thought about this one, the more I liked it.  Some of us seek rapid results from our efforts, trying to push our grantees and partners forward in order to get to results quickly.  But stop to think about it.  When dealing with an issue as complex as homelessness, when have the desired results ever come that quickly?  When we rush to results, we may get a big splash at first, but all too often the ripples from that splash fail to promote the fundamental system changes that are needed to actually solve the problem.

For water to change a landscape, it takes time.  The Colorado River took millions of years to create the Grand Canyon.  A glacier is a river of ice.  At a first glance, it may appear that it isn’t moving at all, but glaciers are highly dynamic, remarkably powerful things.  You can, at times, hear the ice cracking as progress is made.  You can see the glacial moraines that provide evidence of the changes to the rock that lies beneath the ice.  At the mouth of the glacier, you can see the silted water flowing out that further confirms the land beneath the ice is evolving as a result of the pressure and movement it experiences.

You get the picture.  If we rush to results, if we think we can truly solve a thorny problem like homelessness quickly, all we’re likely to create is a small splash.   This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything we can for every person who is homeless tonight.  But real solutions take time, and require the patience, perseverance and long-term commitment of water transforming rock.

That’s often hard lesson for our sector.  At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our most recent homelessness systems change efforts are beginning to show indications of real progress – real movement towards solutions – and that’s almost five years after we launched our current initiative.  Real change takes real time to achieve.

David_Wertheimer_2012a.jpgDavid Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.



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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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