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Acting in complex systems – a conversation with Dr John Healy

As a funder and impact partner seeking to support system change, how can we avoid ‘planting seeds on concrete’? Last November Dr John Healy, Deputy Executive Director of Genio and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity Business School, shared some of his experience and learning with Small Foundation at our bi-annual internal meetings in Portmarnock.

Through his current roles and previous professional experience including at the Atlantic Philanthropies, John has deep experience of navigating complexity. Without capturing the fullness of wisdom John brought to the conversation, here are some gems that resonated with me and my experience of Small Foundation’s work:

  • Start small. As funders and impact actors with huge ambitions, we should work diligently to better know the systems in which we are operating and start modestly to keep learning and understanding system dynamics. With more information, over time funders are better placed to develop bigger partnerships.

In Small Foundation’s case our move to a more intentional systems approach led us to identify system entry points and constantly challenge ourselves around where we can be additional in systems, as well as have the capability to act.

  • Talk to people. If we want to be effective in supporting sustainable and effective changes, we need to understand the lived experience of the people in the systems we are seeking to impact. Interview people and focus on listening.

With the return of widespread global travel in 2022, Small Foundation has focused on meeting our partners in-person. These meetings, as well as our ongoing conversations with partners, provide rich opportunities for connection and listening, and we want to find more ways to learn from with the lived experience of our partners and the communities that they serve.

  • Understand motivation. System change will not happen unless people work together to bring about change.

Small Foundation’s work with Converge to develop our impact network practice has taught us that acknowledging and articulating self-interest is essential to fuel the evolution of impact networks. The key is for network coordinators to ensure that self-interest is aligned with common purpose to achieve the collective ambitions of the network. This is no easy task and takes ongoing and dynamic communication and active connection across a network.

  • Be humble and curious. Dr Healy encouraged us to have a relentless commitment to learning and expect to fail as much, if not more, than succeed. This is all part of the iterative journey to tackle complex problems. As he said, ‘If 25% of your approaches works then you are doing well.’

In Small Foundation, we also aspire to these mindsets and behaviours.

Dr Healy’s rich experience is a clarion call for funders and impact partners with system change ambitions to walk their talk. In seeking to be additional and contribute to tackling complex problems, we need to be prepared to seed experiments – many of which will fail, and to talk to people in the system to really understand their needs and motivations. Above all, we should be modest about our own abilities and constantly question and learn to understand dynamics in the systems we seek to change.

– Liz Wilson, Deputy CEO of Small Foundation

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