While synthesizing the Blackbaud Charitable Giving Report for 2016, we listed three important trends from last year. However, there was one crucial observation that was staring us right in the face, yet somehow flew under the radar.

This is the increasingly terrifying trend of using very complex buzzwords without describing their contextual meaning. It has been plaguing the social sector for years.

At Phil, we believe it’s the message received that really matters. We want professionals in our sector to stop using confusing or empty jargon, and get down to what will truly help organisations.

So, we’re getting on the frontlines by unpacking the practice behind the most recent loaded lexicon.

We’ve been liking three’s lately so today we bring you three of the biggest social-change buzzwords, decoded.

[M]any foundations are taking a more systemic and holistic ‘philanthropic ecosystem’ approach to problem solving. Making big bets that focus on the root causes of problems, as well as the symptoms, is making the role of philanthropy even more critical in driving change.– Vikki Spruill, President and CEO, Council on Foundations

Well this sounds great Vikki and we trust you know what you’re saying…but what the heck does a “systemic and holistic ‘philanthropic ecosystem’ approach to problem solving” look like in practice?

It is an evolution in how organisations come to understand the issues they alleviate and how they see their roles in solving them.

Let’s break it down to get some more clarity.

Systemic: We would love it if societal challenges were linear and easy fixes. Hunger? More food! Housing shortage? More housing! ….obviously it’s never that straightforward.  

In an interconnected society, non-profits and the populations they serve are affected by factors in their immediate and global environments. An organisation is just one intervening body in a complex web of interdependent impacts and outcomes. If the non-profit only aids the apparent issue without critical analysis of how it arises from the system, the cycle continues. The underlying causes go unchallenged and the issue continues or even grows.

Non-profits need a solid understanding in order to see how their solution breaks the vicious cycle. Then, having a sound logical base that supports the intervention strategy can be clearly communicated to donors and stakeholders. Contact Phil to learn more about environmental analysis and systemic problem-solving.

Holistic: No, it’s not preaching that all non-profit workers align their chakras and become gurus. Although, if that would spark non-profit collab, we’d be all for it.

Holistic problem-solving approaches understand the complex mesh of causes and use that knowledge to develop interventions treating the system, not just the symptoms.

Understanding the bigger–and interconnected–picture, a non-profit can strategize targeted solutions that impact the root causes. This requires going through a process of evaluating organisational capacity and then matching it to the place in the cycle where it’s estimated the most positive change will ripple through the system.  

Making a Theory of Change like this one is a great process for undertaking holistic problem-solving. It looks at the inputs, actions and assumptions from an organisation and the measured results and systemic outcomes from those contributions.

A Theory of Change is a practiced, living document that can serve as a foundation for internal cohesion and strong external communication.

Philanthropic ecosystem: Joining forces and forming alliances with other organisations. Partnerships, collaboration, and collective impact.

Cooperation needs to be top of mind. No organisation is an island. With a strong brand and clear strategies, non-profits can communicate their organisation to others working to alleviate similar challenges and make significant progress towards their impact goals. Ask us how to catalyze symbiotic partnerships.


Now that you are introduced to these key terms, start conversations about them. Use them in context to communicate the evolving needs of the sector!

Vikki is definitely correct that we need a more systemic and holistic ‘philanthropic ecosystem’ approach to problem solving. Clearly, the sector needs to wake-up to its power in numbers and resilience in joining forces. But, this is only a very brief introduction to the meaning behind these three concepts. More work is needed to grasp these problem-solving approaches.

If you have any questions about how Phil is working to lead sector strength, drop us a line or give us a call. We would love to hear how your organization wants to be smarter about making change.