Risk and systems change

Adelaide, Australia
September, 2018

How can funders take, enable and manage risks to achieve greater systemic impact? At our first retreat in Australia, we Brough 10 global funders to meet 10 funders from Australia and New Zealand to find explore this.


Funding systems change initiatives and innovations as a new approach involves new risk. Globally, we have seen more and more foundations adopting a systems approach to their work. Why? For some, they’ve realised that funding individual projects in isolation will not have the desired impact they seek. For other foundations, their grantees advocated for greater freedom and flexibility to fulfil their systems change ambitions and with a proven track record and trusting relationships, foundations are listening.

About the retreat

in September, SIX partnered with the Fay Fuller Foundation to host its first retreat in Australia.  Philanthropic foundations from around Australia and New Zealand met with their peers across the globe, alongside some Australian systems change practitioners, to explore how funders can take more risks and enable and manage risks to achieve greater systemic impact.

We explored:

  • How do funders manage perceived and real tension between accountability and risk taking?
  • What is the role of philanthropy in promoting risk taking within the organisations they fund?
  • What risks can we take to drive systems change and solve the big complex social challenges we face around the world?
  • What does risk look like when you work from a systems change perspective?
Insights and learning

We produced a report highlighting the learning from the retreat. The report is intended to inspire funders who want to be more systemic in their approach and practice. We first provide a background into systems change thinking and the risks involved, highlight the variety of approaches funders are taking in this work, the skills and capabilities needed to engage in systems change, the different roles for funders in this work, considerations to address and key questions to ponder for the future, and end with our plans for the future.

Systems change initiatives move away from prescriptive outputs to working longer-term, in partnership and where the unknowns are less known. Many of these initiatives are the opposite of how many foundations operate, and often involve an element of letting go of control. The real power of philanthropy is in its ability to take the long-term view, support those who create social and systemic change, uphold values and question power and privilege, and influence systems. Taking risks in this work is needed to fully realise this power. This retreat highlighted the different risks that funders face, approaches and roles that funders can play in this work.

Partners and collaborators

We thank the Fay Fuller Foundation for the support and hosting of our first retreat in Australia and the Australian funders steering group who are working to make Australian philanthropy more systemic. They include – Dusseldorp Forum, Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, Cages Foundation, and Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Building on the discussions at the retreat, The Centre for Socngiall Innovation in Australia (TACSI),developed a report sharing perspectives, tools and stories to help funders find their best-fit contribution to change. The full report is available for download here.