4 December 2023

Working in ways that meet the complexity of this time

Earlier this year a group of foundations who make up the Foundation 3.0 initiative met in Amsterdam for their yearly Strategic Round Table. It’s an opportunity for peer learning across European foundations who are focussed on systemic change. In 2023 the theme was ‘Adopting cross-cutting perspectives to increase impact’. This article reflects and shares some of the insights from the two days.

Why cross-cutting or transversal perspectives matter

We are living in complex times, with the world facing an unprecedented number of interrelated crises. From a global pandemic that has upended our way of life, to political turmoil, economic uncertainty, wars, climate change, growing inequalities and divisions, it feels like we are being buffeted by ‘crises’ on all fronts. These crises are not occurring in isolation, but are deeply interconnected and mutually reinforcing – characterised by the interdependence of crises, the uncertainty and unpredictability of their impact, and the need for coordinated and collaborative responses at local, national, and global levels.

“We are confronted with way more complex issues and therefore need complex responses. It’s important to analyse in depth the territory that you are working on to find solutions.” – A participant in the round table.

To address this web of challenges other approaches are required. Transversal approaches cut across or intersect different areas, fields, or domains. It implies a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach that integrates different perspectives and knowledge domains. In the context of social change, transversal thinking involves breaking down silos and boundaries between different sectors, disciplines, and stakeholders, and working collaboratively towards shared goals. It can help to generate new ideas, solutions, and approaches that are more holistic, inclusive, and effective. ​​

Cross-cutting can also refer to social issues that intersect with multiple policy areas or to the act of considering multiple viewpoints or perspectives on a given topic or issue. This approach involves taking into account different opinions and viewpoints that may be divergent or even conflicting, in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand.

By embracing cross-cutting perspectives, organisations can gain a more nuanced understanding of complex issues and problems, and may be better equipped to develop solutions that take into account a variety of perspectives. This can be essential to developing effective policies and interventions as well as help build stronger coalitions and partnerships, as people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise come together to work towards common goals.

“We are in need of a helicopter view: it brings new perspectives, approaches and links between themes.” – A participant in the round table.

Decisions for philanthropic organisations

For philanthropic organisations, it means there are strategic choices to be made.

As was introduced in Amsterdam, foundations can learn about different kinds of frameworks that inherently mean through using them you are taking a cross-cutting or transversal approach, to considering the roles that philanthropic organisations can take – where they position themselves and how they conceive of their role is a huge determinant of whether they can do work from a cross-cutting perspective. As illustrated by the opening presentation, different kinds of intelligence and knowledge are designed into philanthropic foundation strategies – from weaving together lived, learned and practice experiences, to bringing the more-than-human world and ‘planetary intelligence’ into decision-making.

“We live in a complicated world. Even if you work on a specific and defined topic, you need to bring a different perspective into the conversation in order to make impactful choices.” – A participant in the round table.

Philanthropic strategies can also be developed with intentionally different kinds of disciplines working together e.g law and climate science, different sectors working together e.g private sector alongside civil society, and lastly, different kinds of thematic areas – e.g where climate and new economy intersect.

“There is only one crisis: all problems are interlinked so that should be reflected in our work. Many stakeholders don’t see the situation that way, they are focused on their own territory.” – A participant in the round table.

Common outcomes of cross-cutting practice

Over the two days of the round table, many insights were shared by the peer learning group, including 4 curated foundation cases from the frontlines of practice. Some of the most common consequences of taking a cross-cutting approach are below.

The need to reorganise internally – All organisations presenting had reorganised themselves in some way to accommodate cross-cutting work. This included switching from a foundation model with multiple programmes across different thematic areas towards reorganising the foundation around systemic challenges or the SDGs. In each of the case studies this required redesigning teams and roles, and exposed where new skills and competencies were needed. In one of the contexts described, staff had been used to being experts in one of four thematic areas now have to adapt to a more generalist mindset and being able to connect the dots between their area of deep expertise and other areas of relevance.

The need to rethink external relationships – Transitioning from an organisational design tailored to siloed thematic challenges to one that centred on systemic challenges also means redesigning relationships with all the different partners, grantees and other funders. In one case study, reorganising meant rethinking the hierarchical structures of management and decision-making, and as they moved to practices of power sharing with their wider partners, they wanted their internal structures to also represent this shift. There have been multiple benefits of this, including staff retainment because there are more opportunities for development and fostering a culture of experimentation and creativity.

The need to rethink roles – Working in a cross-cutting way asks foundations to reconsider their role. In all the presentations we heard it was clear that the work each was doing was always more than just providing funding, and ranged from mobilising other funders, organising partners and grantees, and making other assets like space available for people. In some instances, it was important to conceive of the foundation’s role as being alongside every other organisation and actor in the ecosystem, as a change-maker and as a partner. This not only created a sense of alignment and parity, but also created a highly collaborative and educative environment for staff in the foundation to learn from and with other kinds of expertise.

Presenters shared specific terms that they used to define their new roles – as ‘assemblers’ ‘ambassadors’ and at times ‘orchestrators’ – where their work was ensuring that organisations who shared a logic of systemic change, were able to work more effectively together, and to keep moving forward on this path.

The need to bring others on board – Changing organisational strategy to adopt a more cross-cutting approach requires bringing others on the same journey – whether staff, trustees or partners. The work can feel more complex – with many intersecting parts – and that can be difficult to communicate, especially in a way that means others know how to act. There are tensions in how to do the work of bringing others on the journey – not wanting to impose or direct, because the shift in perspective lasts when people themselves really understand the work.

In conclusion, cross-cutting perspectives are more than a strategy; they are a necessity in navigating the poly crisis of our times. Embracing complexity, fostering collaboration, and dismantling barriers are keys to unlocking transformative change. Foundations embarking on this journey will not only create a positive impact but also inspire systemic transformation on a larger scale.

A summary of 8 considerations to help you develop your own cross-cutting approach can be found here.

With thanks to the Foundation 3.0 partners, without which the above-mentioned Strategic Round Table, upon which this article is based, would not have been possible: Fondation de France, Fondation Bernheim, Gulbenkian Foundation, Fondation Chimay-Wartoise, Nordea-fonden, Fondation Daniel & Nina Carasso, Porticus Foundation, Progressio Stichting, Foundation for Future Generations.


Cassie Robinson
Consultant, Foundation for Future Generations