Since 2021, the RINGO Funder Action Pod has been meeting to discuss how we can bring more equity to the global civil society system. We’ve been looking at how to shift resources and power to local actors and reflecting on the role of the INGO in this process.

RINGO has inspired a number of prototypes to demonstrate innovative ways of working on everything from accountability to new approaches to managing risk, participatory grant-making to changing our lexicon. The learnings have been shared with the members of our Funder Action Pod, who have been thinking about how each of these innovations might be brought to life in different grant-making contexts.

But throughout the past few years, a question that raises itself is: how does it all add up? How can we move from interesting experiments to seeing a wholesale change in the system? In spite of some of the best intentions – like the USAID pledge, supported by multiple philanthropic donors – change can seem slow. So we asked ourselves: if we were to look ahead to 2030, what would have to happen to transform the system?  HOW did change occur?

What do we mean by systems change?

For Rakesh Rajani, President of JustSystems (a recent start-up that follows on the heels of his work at Co-Impact), the first step is clarity in understanding just what we mean by ‘systems change’. As a phrase, it is widely bounced about, often with little meaning:

As different actors use and interpret ‘systems change’ differently, it means everything and nothing.” Rakesh Rajani

Rajani joined us at a recent Funder Action Pod meeting and asked two interrelated clarifying questions:

  • what system are you trying to change (most often it’s government);
  • and how will the change translate into concrete changes in people’s lives?

He argues that scale is key to systems change, and that politics (defined as how power is deployed) informs what is possible.

For the RINGO Project, our intention is about bringing more equity in funding and voice in the international civil society system, and governments are indeed an integral part of that.

Real systems change in this space will only happen at that intersection of government, funders and the non-profit actors.” Rakesh Rajani

He suggests that the inclusion of as many actors as possible is critical to any systems change as it builds understanding, genuine conversations and trust. In order to build and maintain a working system, investing in the capability (capacity) of the system and in the relationship between and among the different actors is key. That’s what moves things. For funders, this means that investing in growing a working system is very important if we want to achieve systems change at scale.

Funders need to redefine their agenda and goals

Mahmood Sonday, the Managing Director of Reos Partners in Africa and an expert in systems change, suggests that funders should redefine their agenda and goals. Leadership engagement and endorsement, for example, will be central to any systems change efforts. Driving the changes, he acknowledges, will be complex and difficult, requiring investment and determination.

Anticipate resistance and snap back and be prepared to adapt. Intentional convening and a compelling invitation are required for engaging with dissidents and skeptics. A coherent framework and approach can ensure progress despite the obstacles.” Mahmood Sonday

This seems prescient – all too often funders are frustrated that change isn’t occurring fast enough. How much do we invest in processes and leadership for change as an outcome in itself? The RINGO Funder Action Pod members are starting to recognise that, and hope to engage their leadership in more collaborative approaches where silos and brands are broken down. Sharing learning remains both a barrier and an opportunity. We need better systems to enable this, rather than the ad hoc learning that prevails. 

And taking a prompt from Rakesh Rajani, where RINGO probably hasn’t engaged enough is in the role of government:

Understand that we are the government and the government is us. Choose innovations that require government participation if you really want to change the civil society system.” Rakesh Rajani

Wise words and a useful call to action.

Change will come from the demand side

We see the Funder Action Pod and other areas of RINGO’s work, like our INGO Board Action Pod, as being part of the overall equation to bring about systems change. However, both of the experts agreed that change won’t come from the power holders:

Strengthen demand from civil society. Increase pressure on private philanthropy and government to fund in the majority world with a focus on the CSOs that follow what communities want.” Rakesh Rajani

Funders are well-versed in funding advocacy towards government on a range of policy arenas. But are they prepared to fund advocacy towards themselves?

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash