Moving the Needle on Systems Change in Arts Philanthropy 

Dec 20, 2023Arts & Culture, Feature Story

Moving the Needle on Systems Change in Arts Philanthropy

Lisa Payne Simon, MPH, Stratton Lloyd, MBA, and Karen Ristuben

The field of place-based arts philanthropy is at an inflection point. Place-based foundations are being asked to lead and do more to effect systems change in their communities, but these funders need more knowledge, skill sets, and methodologies to be effective. “While it’s helpful to illustrate the endgame, the process for pursuing systems change remains underarticulated, and as such, we risk rendering systems change an unactionable ideal.” The good news is the field is bearing witness to funders of arts and culture achieving systems change by leveraging frameworks and moving from framework to practice.

“While it’s helpful to illustrate the endgame, the process for pursuing systems change remains underarticulated, and as such, we risk rendering systems change an unactionable ideal.”

— Alison Badgett

Experts offer frameworks like the one presented in The Water of Systems Change that can help practitioners effect change in complex social systems through collective impact or other collaborative means – frameworks that can help practitioners get started. “The beauty of a simple framework for understanding the causes and solutions of complex social problems is that it enables clear, cohesive, and confident day-to-day action, taken in pursuit of long-term strategies.” Frameworks can help guide foundations through strategy, implementation, accountability, or evaluation of systems change work. Place-based funders like Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) in Massachusetts are gaining experience applying systems change frameworks to shape their strategies and actions to address key goals for arts and culture philanthropy (and other regional challenges). Experience illustrates how place-based arts funders can navigate systems change frameworks to become effective changemakers.

From Framework to Practice

In 2018, ECCF adopted the Six Conditions of Systems Change framework from The Waters of Systems Change to inform its strategy for systems philanthropy and community leadership in arts and culture, digital equity, equitable economic recovery and growth, and workforce development in Essex County, Massachusetts. The authors of this report posit that “Foundations involved in systems change can increase their odds for success by focusing on the least explicit but most powerful conditions for change while also turning the lens on themselves.” The framework they offer is an inverted triangle that provides “an actionable model for funders and others interested in creating systems change, particularly those who are working to advance equity.” Illustrated below is the Six Conditions framework applied to ECCF’s Creative County Initiative (CCI) – a ten-year, $4+ million systems change initiative with the vision of building a strong countywide arts and culture ecosystem that is sustainable, equitable, and accessible. CCI is one of five Massachusetts programs funded by the Barr Foundation in 2017 as part of the Creative Commonwealth Initiative, which seeks to build arts-friendly policies, financial strength, and local networks for arts and culture. CCI is Essex County’s response to this long-term, regional capacity-building opportunity for the county’s arts and culture sector.

A Visual Framework of Systems Change through the Creative County Initiative 

ECCF’s CCI experience illustrates how moving from framework to practice guides CCI’s strategy, infuses intentionality into its implementation tactics and resource allocation, ensures accountability, and structures evaluation. Building on the above framework, CCI addresses six conditions of systems change: policies, practices, and resource flows (“structural change”), relationships, connections, and power dynamics (“relational change”), and mental models (“transformative change”). Each condition represents a “lever of change” that ECCF can focus on to ensure work and resources are prioritized effectively to optimize the systemic impact of CCI.

From Practice to Impact

Throughout CCI, ECCF has implemented systems change in tactical ways through collaboration and by starting small. ECCF and its partners applied the Six Conditions framework by first addressing the most actionable levers or areas: practice change, change in resource flows, and new relationships. Impact emerging from these first three areas was soon followed by CCI’s focus on:

  • Influencing municipal policy – to solidify gains achieved through practice change leading to increased funding and integration of arts and culture professionals (creatives) in municipal planning projects.

  • Continued relationship building and creative ecosystem development.

  • Changing power dynamics (through sector leadership development, increased creative sector voice, and role in municipal place-making activity).

  • Change in mental models (new attitudes about the value of arts and culture and the creative sector’s role).

CCI’s results are visible today in all six areas of systems change aimed at achieving (1) structural change, (2) relational change, and (3) transformative change.

1. Structural Change

Applying the Six Conditions framework, structural systems changes emerging from CCI include the growth of arts and culture programming, growth in infrastructure, including two cohorts of well-trained, well-connected arts and culture leaders, and other changes in policy, practice, and resource flows. Each of the 49 CCI grants introduced new collaborative practices among cross-sector project partners, new arts and culture activities throughout the county, new funding for arts and culture, and the growth of supportive infrastructure at the local level. Many of these projects have also influenced municipal policy by increasing the creative sector’s profile, integration, and role within broader municipal planning activity. Other examples of structural systems change through CCI include:

  • Extensive sector capacity building and technical assistance to improve creative business acumen, practice, and resilience.

  • Greater integration of arts and culture into regional and local municipal planning.

  • Expanded communications to increase CCI’s visibility and public awareness of arts and culture.

  • Changes in resource flows through CCI, including a $4 million investment in CCI grants, programs, and operations. Since 2018, ECCF estimates it has resourced more than 2,000 organizations and reached more than 30,000 individuals through CCI’s funding, activities, and creative ecosystem.

  • CCI funds and resources intentionally flow to new recipients, including artists and communities of color and BIPOC-led arts and culture organizations.

“ECCF and CCI are creating bespoke, impactful, and catalytic interventions, systems of support, and infrastructure that will make arts and creativity sustainable, equitable, and accessible for all in Essex County.”

2. Relational Changes

Changes in relationships and power dynamics through CCI include new relationships emerging from CCI’s cross-sector collaborative grants, the growth of creative sector leadership, and the emergence of a creative ecosystem that connects the arts and culture community and supports CCI. Additional examples include:

  • Intentionally created space for the arts and culture sector to get to know one another, share ideas, and collaborate.

  • Convenings, a new leadership program, capacity-building activities, and other forums that create new opportunities for countywide learning, dialogue, and collaboration amongst the sector and a growing network of participants. Through this vibrant network, CCI is strengthening and diversifying the region’s creative ecosystem.

  • A 25-member steering committee that provides helpful connections and leadership.

“There’s an arts and culture ecosystem now that didn’t exist before CCI. New relationships and collaborations are happening. The arts and culture community is organized and connected.”

3. Transformational Change

Transformative systems change accomplished through CCI includes change in public, municipal, and other stakeholder attitudes about the role of arts and culture in communities, increased perceived value and importance of arts and culture, and increased public awareness of the creative sector and its contributions. There is countywide evidence of increased collaboration, communication, networking, and sharing of ideas across the sector resulting from:

  • Highly visible collaborative projects.

  • The proliferation of municipal activities celebrating arts and culture.

  • Enhanced communications and visibility of arts and culture.

  • The wide range of new behaviors, practices, and new voices emerging from the sector.

“CCI changes the narrative around arts and culture. It’s not about individual artists; it’s not academic; it’s about improving quality of life and community.”

Lessons Learned About Systems Change

Through CCI and its intentional application of a framework to strategy and implementation, ECCF and its partners learned these important lessons about systems change work:

1. Start small to avoid becoming paralyzed by the enormity and complexity of systems change.

Each time that ECCF starts a systems change initiative like CCI, the process begins with learning about the issue landscape (typically, a data study identifies needs, gaps, inequities, and opportunities for systems change). Community stakeholders are gathered to examine the data and the issue, and a collective plan for action emerges, including strategies to tackle the most addressable conditions first. With some early wins and an intact group of committed collaborators, partners can build from there to eventually address all six conditions of system change that may impact the issue area.

2. Don’t be distracted by the lure of funding – stay true to your systems change strategy and framework.

ECCF and partners are, from time to time, tempted to force-fit systems change work into fundable projects. The experience led to the realization that this practice can lead down rabbit holes of project activity that may not advance systems change or may compromise values like trust-based philanthropy, equity-centeredness, and a community-driven approach.

3. Frameworks do not eliminate the need for real-time, intuitive decision-making to swiftly respond to crises, system shocks (like the COVID-19 pandemic), ever-changing conditions, and the non-linearity of systems change.

Since ECCF embraced a systems philanthropy strategy five years ago, Essex County has experienced repeated crises, including a massive regional gas explosion affecting multiple communities, the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial reckoning. Despite re-occurring challenges, the Six Conditions framework continued to provide a roadmap helping ECCF and CCI partners stay on course with identified strategies and priorities while, at the same time, responding to evolving local needs in the creative sector. In ECCF’s experience, the framework continuously led to new strategies to address immediate challenges and advance systems change. Today, ECCF continues to use the Six Conditions framework to guide CCI, keep itself accountable, stay on course with programmatic decision-making, and as a framework for evaluation.

4. When implementing complex place-based initiatives – a systems approach is increasingly necessary both as a method and outcome. Reasons for this include:

  • Increasingly, collaboration is required to tackle deep issues like economic resilience, arts culture change, and equity.

  • Issues are no longer siloed but are interconnected. A holistic, systemic perspective is required to effectively identify root causes and not be distracted by the symptoms.

  • Complex change requires building community capacity for collaboration. From there, it is possible to organize and win small successes that can lead to bigger/broader successes. Systems change requires and inspires a bold vision to engage and catalyze collaboration among the creative sector, other local stakeholders, communities, and funders.

  • This strategy has the potential to serve more people and achieve lasting institutional change, as well as build long-term community resilience, arts and culture appreciation, and a deeper sense of community belonging.

5. For philanthropy, systems change is a relatively new way of working in and with communities.
In CCI, it has been necessary to consider people, resources, values, and training to align with new processes. Support from ECCF in training and (organizational and leadership) capacity building has been necessary to implement a systems change strategy.

Providing leadership and support for systems change in the arts and culture that also tackles pressing community needs is one way for place-based foundations to become changemakers and differentiate themselves among donors. Many foundations ask, how can such complex work be accomplished? How do we focus efforts and resources? One strategy is the application of systems change frameworks to drive local action intentionally. Frameworks provide place-based arts and culture funders (and funders working in other topic areas) with a compass to navigate the waters of systems change, moving from framework to practice and, ultimately, to impact.


Lisa Payne Simon is Partner at The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a leading philanthropy consulting firm. Lisa has a 25-year track record of designing, implementing, and evaluating high impact philanthropic programs to improve services, systems, organizations, and outcomes. At TPI, Lisa leads a wide range of client consulting projects and field-building initiatives. Her areas of issue expertise include evaluation; the arts; aging and caregiving; health; community foundations; systems change; and early childhood. Lisa has held senior leadership roles at Blue Shield of California Foundation and California HealthCare Foundation. She has a Master’s in Public Health from University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University.  



Stratton Lloyd is Essex County Community Foundation’s COO and Executive Vice-President for Community Leadership. In this role, Stratton manages the Foundation’s strategy, operations and finances, as well as its Community Leadership initiatives. ECCF’s Community Leadership initiatives tackle the biggest challenges facing the County through a systems-based and collaborative approach. This effort has resulted in the deployment of $40m since 2018 to support community driven systems work with hundreds of cross sector partners in the areas of  workforce development, small business resiliency, digital equity, arts/culture, food insecurity and disaster relief. Prior to ECCF, Stratton worked for 18 years in the technology sector. Most recently, he served as Executive Vice President of Strategy, Product Management and Customer Operations at EBSCO Information Services, a fortune 200 Information Services Company, where he worked for 14 years. Stratton was also the founder of First Look, Inc., now known as YouthServe, a nonprofit youth service-education organization that empowers youth through volunteerism and leadership. Stratton holds a BA from Yale University and MBA from Harvard University. He, his wife and three daughters live in Wenham. 


Karen Ristuben joined ECCF in 2017 – after a career that spanned law, arts education and international music production – because she believes in the transformative power of art for everyone in our communities. ECCF’s Creative County Initiative – an innovative effort to increase and sustain the vibrancy of our region through art and culture – has given her the opportunity to help turn that belief into action.

Ristuben has a passion for all the arts. She’s always been inspired by painters, photographers, musicians, writers and so many others with the ability to beautifully translate the world into images, words or music. Over the years, Ristuben has met so many incredible artists – from those she got to know during her 10-year tenure as president of Gloucester’s Rocky Neck Art Colony to the talented individuals she has connected with in the last several years through my work at ECCF.

As an artist, Ristuben loved making sculpture because of its many dimensions, which is kind of a metaphor for my life. When she is not at work, she loves to be on the water – kayaking, rowing, fishing, you name it.