Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Thoughts on Glaciers and Systems Change

October 29, 2013

I recently was fortunate to attend the annual conference of Philanthropy Northwest, an affinity group for foundations in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The setting this year was Juneau, Alaska. Arriving the afternoon before the conference, I had the opportunity to visit the Mendenhall Glacier (see my snapshot with this post), and enjoy the spectacular beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, which waits just beyond the edge of the city.

 Collaborative systems change like glaciers: they move slowly, and their progress is sometimes hard to observe. But over time, their enormous power completely and permanently transforms the landscape in ways that are dramatic and, at the outset, unimaginable.During one of the conference workshops, my visit to Mendenhall was made even more meaningful to me. We were discussing how to promote effective collaborations to stimulate systems change – something many foundations around the nation are doing with efforts to end homelessness – when one Alaskan philanthropist offered the following. Collaborative systems change like glaciers: they move slowly, and their progress is sometimes hard to observe. But over time, their enormous power completely and permanently transforms the landscape in ways that are dramatic and, at the outset, unimaginable.

I’m a guy who likes metaphors, and the more I thought about this one, the more I liked it. Some of us seek rapid results from our efforts, trying to push our grantees and partners forward in order to get to results quickly. But stop to think about it. When dealing with an issue as complex as homelessness, when have the desired results ever come that quickly? When we rush to results, we may get a big splash at first. But all too often, the ripples from that splash fail to promote the fundamental system changes that are needed to actually solve the problem.

For water to change a landscape, it takes time. The Colorado River took millions of years to create the Grand Canyon. A glacier is a river of ice. At a first glance, it may appear that it isn’t moving at all, but glaciers are highly dynamic, remarkably powerful things. You can, at times, hear the ice cracking as progress is made. You can see the glacial moraines that provide evidence of the changes to the rock that lies beneath the ice. At the mouth of the glacier, you can see the silted water flowing out that further confirms the land beneath the ice is evolving as a result of the pressure and movement it experiences.

You get the picture. Even as we remain urgent in our desire for solutions to complex problems, we need to acknowledge that lasting changes take time to develop, implement, and mature. If we rush to results, if we think we can truly solve a thorny problem like homelessness quickly, all we’re likely to create is a small splash. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything we can for every person who is homeless tonight. That is important and essential work, which must be balanced with the patience, perseverance, and long-term commitment of water transforming rock.

That’s often a hard lesson for the philanthropic sector. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our most recent homelessness systems change efforts are beginning to show indications of real progress – real movement towards solutions. It's been almost five years since we launched our current initiative. Real change takes real time to achieve.

 
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