Sweeping change in icebergs

Sweeping Change and Moments of Opportunity

Forward-thinking philanthropists aren’t the kind of people to set up a scholarship fund and call it a day. 

The funders that we work with are interested in driving lasting progress by changing systems, and that often means changing policy. 

Right now, we are heading into what may be the most open window for major policy change that I’ve seen in my 20+ year career.

A once-a-century pandemic has shone a spotlight on structural gaps in our health care, education, and childcare systems, as well as weaknesses in our economy

Elevated consciousness around race and social justice has catalyzed a wide-scale reimagining of what public safety, housing, and more can look like. 

And, regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum, we are poised to experience major shifts during the upcoming election cycle nationally and in many municipalities around the country. 

These kinds of dynamics open the door to sweeping policy changes. The question for forward-thinking philanthropists is how to seize this moment and leverage the opportunity for good.


First, set big goals. 

The scale and nature of this moment create an opportunity to set sweeping goals.

Take education, for example. A year ago, if you were advocating for moving away from traditional school models toward customized digital solutions, you might have started with a small pilot.

Today, cracking the code on engaging students from all backgrounds in personalized digital learning is in such demand, and acceptance of nontraditional models is so much wider, that savvy change agents aren’t stopping at programmatic pilots—they are setting their sights on policy changes that will outlast the pandemic. 

Whatever your goal, now is the moment to think big and to develop clear and crisp policy goals to drive your action.


Second, craft a plan that is rooted in your landscape. 

To capitalize on moments like these, funders need an actionable plan that is rooted in the landscape. There is no “Plug and Play” strategy for policy change that works everywhere. 

What nuanced policy change is needed, who has agency over those changes, and what opposition or support those changes will face differs dramatically by issue and by community. 

Where one issue might require a broad-based public campaign, another might need a laser-focused “insider” effort. A change agent in Providence might need to pursue action at the state level, while in Nashville, the best course lies with a local board. 

Those who critically examine the landscape as it relates to their issue and then build a plan that leverages strengths, accounts for opposition, maximizes talent and resources, and recognizes the cultural mores that shape communities will achieve the most during this window of opportunity.


Third, collaborate.

Don’t go it alone. Advancing an agenda to achieve sweeping change requires a coalition of like-minded folks willing to work for the issue at hand.

When choosing who to join forces with, don’t write off groups that would be valuable allies just because it might take time to build a relationship. Creating sweeping change is a long-term—and ongoing—effort. 

Take the time to really understand other individuals’ and organizations’ motivations and agendas, even outside of your common interests. Engage them as partners. Including diverse coalition members only to disregard their input will not serve your purpose. 

As you build your coalition, allow your plan to evolve to reflect the shared energy and capacity of the members as well as the dynamism in the landscape.


Don’t miss this opportunity to advance your mission

When dramatic change happens, it’s because advocates for that change have taken advantage of an open window. The window coming over the next eighteen months is a big one, perhaps the biggest of our generation. Change will happen during that time, driven by those who pursue ambitious goals with a grounded plan in collaboration with partners.

Two years from now, many funders may wake up and realize the policy changes that have occurred have set back the causes they care about, rather than advance them. On the other hand, some will have taken advantage of this unique moment in time and extended their impact in immeasurable ways. 

Which will you be?