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Sector infrastructure:

Before Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd brought the realities of systemic injustice so starkly to the public arena, we began work with Vancouver Foundation to explore how to shift the power imbalances that keep groups marginalized by systems from getting systems change funding. Two rounds of engagement with community reminded us that the single most important aspect of systems change is purpose. We must ask: systems change towards what ends? That’s led us to rescope our work around the question: what would it look like for a community foundation to make justice its core purpose?



How are community foundations a mechanism not just for charity, but for redistributive and social justice? That’s the question animating our partnership with Vancouver Foundation in 2021. Nine months ago, at the start of our work together, we were asking a different question: How do we strengthen equity and deepen impact within systems change grant-making?

See what we did there? We switched means and ends. Two rounds of research and so many insights later, we see systems change granting as a means to justice, not an end in and of itself. How does a foundation support the redesign of systems for justice?

The meaning and practice of justice in philanthropy is not so self-evident. There’s a plethora of big concepts: redistributive justice based on needs, priority, desert, and equality; there’s justice as recognition; contributive justice, restorative justice, procedural justice, transformative justice, and more. Over the winter of 2021 we’re seeking out lots of different thinkers and practitioners to help us consider different philosophical and cultural underpinnings for justice and to apply that to a community-based philanthropic context.

The discussion will prime Vancouver Foundation’s internal Transformation Team to craft its own theory of justice and get clear on what that means for the structure, function, and practice of the community foundation. We’re focusing, first and foremost, on purpose because purpose is at the centre of all systems change, whether we know our purpose or not.

Starting Points

Five years ago, Vancouver Foundation shifted its attention from social good to systems change, distributing over $50 million to more than 500 projects trying to tackle the root causes of knotty social challenges.

It’s both a substantive investment for one community foundation, and a small sum for reckoning with systems as diverse as health to justice to education to the environment. An independent evaluation concluded that Vancouver Foundation’s system change grants have increased the demand for and supply of systems change work — and also, highlighted an opportunity to more deeply engage smaller, rural, and less established organizations in historically marginalized communities.

That’s where InWithForward entered the picture. In early spring of 2020, we got going with the question: How might we strengthen equity and deepen the impact of Vancouver Foundation’s Systems Change grants?

Six Opportunities

Over March, April and May, we explored how Vancouver Foundation’s system change granting works. Thanks to the openness of foundation staff and leadership, we hosted conversations about values and practices, and observed how applications were scored and decisions were made. Thanks to the willingness of grantees, we spoke with ten organizations to hear their experiences of the pandemic and sense check how they might like to participate in re-imagining granting and setting funding priorities.

From these observations and conversations, alongside desk research on the barriers to equitable grantmaking, we named six opportunity areas: six broad areas for deeper inquiry and active learning.

BetaPhil Insights and Opportunities Report

pdf ⋅ 2 MB



Some of the opportunity areas identified in our first report were big, like re-imagining community participation in decision-making, and some were small, like revising the written application itself.

With the fall Systems Change Grant cycle three months away, we chose to start with a modest piece of the puzzle, but a timely opportunity area: the grant application. The idea was that the application might be a window into dominant logics and biases. By inquiring into what information staff, advisors and community members deem important for determining systemic impact, we might highlight disconnects and redesign the application from the perspectives of equity-denied and equity-seeking communities.

That was the premise under which, in the summer of 2020, we hosted eleven virtual codesign sessions with community organizations, focusing especially on organizations on the sidelines of Vancouver Foundation: those who have never applied, and those who have unsuccessfully applied, particularly newer, smaller, rural, BIPOC and lived experience-led organizations. Sixty-four folks participated in those eleven codesign sessions.

Read what we heard and learned in the report, Tweaks and Twists. An early learning was organizations’ need to see Vancouver Foundation modelling reflection, vulnerability, and mistake-making in the pursuit of equity and justice. Vancouver Foundation agreed. This report is shared in that spirit.

Twists and Turns: Bending the Arc of a System’s Change Grant Towards Justice Report

pdf ⋅ 17 MB


Read about:

  • the process and content of the codesign sessions
  • who engaged, their beliefs and aspirations, their perceived barriers and enablers
  • features of a desired grantmaking process as one attempt to make sense of what we heard from participants into
  • changes that have already been made as a result of the codesign sessions, and 8 dominant logics identified to debunk and flip
  • and how we are re-scoping the work going forward to take on the weighty questions