Taking a Systems Change Approach

The Melville Charitable Trust has been funding in the area of homelessness for nearly 25 years, with a primary focus on Connecticut and on national policy. When its new executive director arrived six years ago, she embarked on a 12-month planning process. The board and three-person staff dove deep into understanding the key trends affecting homelessness by learning from experts, other funders, and grantees. They emerged with consensus to adopt a more focused approach to supporting systems change, which included investing in more work to prevent homelessness, test new strategies, and ensure solutions were delivered effectively. Although the trust would continue to use Connecticut as a geographic locus, it decided to take a more active role in influencing national dialogue.

Staff and board members knew from the start that systems change is complex, takes time, and requires patience and ingenuity.

Staff capacity was an early obstacle. One staff member was spending considerable time stewarding a mixed-use, 120-unit housing development they had funded years earlier. The solution came in the recruitment of a new partner to manage the operation and a refinancing that freed the trust from ownership. In addition, as the board began to recognize the new strategy’s staffing needs, it authorized funds that allowed the hiring of two additional program officers and a communications manager.

The trust is a founding member of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a national funder network, but it knew the new strategy would require even more collaboration across sectors. The staff experimented with different models of collaboration—sometimes funding a lead organization, sometimes taking the lead, and sometimes stepping in to facilitate. Collaboration with other funders has generally worked well by building a structure that allows others to plug in easily. Staff do find they sometimes have to adjust their expectations to accommodate the different pace at which other funders make decisions. Supporting collaboration at the grantee level has not always been easy in the face of differing agendas, as well as intermittent turf issues among partnering agencies. On occasion, trust staff have stepped in to assist agencies in defining common goals and respective roles for moving forward.

As the trust has become more intentional about its strategies—professionalizing its work, hiring more staff and consultants, and developing deep content expertise—it has become harder for the board to engage and fully understand the issues. In response, the trust recently adopted a consent agenda at board meetings, which has freed up time for the board to actively engage in learning and strategy discussions.

Staff and board members knew from the start that systems change is complex, takes time, and requires patience and ingenuity. They are well on their way.