The Stew BLOG

In the Midst of National Crises, Stewards are Taking Action Inside Their Own Institutions

Iueh Soh, Associate Director, Stewardship Practice and Bobby Milstein, Director, System Strategy | 09/28/2020

Our institutions are in transition. From hospitals navigating new financial realities during the pandemic to schools re-working their curricula, the established ways are changing. Across the country, stewards are taking advantage of these transitionary times and encouraging our institutions to also advance well-being and equity. This was a major theme in our recent Tracking Poll for Stewards of Well-Being, a bi-monthly survey launched in April to find out how stewards are navigating system change efforts in the midst of national crises around Covid-19, racial injustice, economic recession, and ecological catastrophes.

We are fielding the poll every other month through the end of this year. In August, we heard from 63 leaders working locally and nationally across many areas of practice (health, education, environment, economic renewal, and beyond) and types of organizations (government, business, philanthropy, nonprofits, and more) to drive systems change for equitable well-being. Our findings from this most recent survey are presented below.

Stewards remain cautiously confident that there will be lasting systems change

Similar to respondents to our April and June surveys, the overwhelming majority of August respondents are extremely, somewhat, or slightly confident that there will be lasting systems change (95%). However, there was also an uptick at both ends of the spectrum: more respondents are either extremely confident (rising from 2% to 11%) or not at all confident (rising from 0% to 5%).

Lena Hatchett, from Proviso Partners for Health, was among those who responded that they are “extremely confident.” She attributes her optimism to the fact that structural racism is now at the forefront in the minds of the general public, and she views Covid-19; the impending elections; and failures in our health care, education, and economic systems as drivers of change. “The current system has to fail before people who benefit are willing to change,” she continues.

In August, stewards appeared to be less explicitly focused on developing a shared narrative for change around racial injustice (5%, compared to 24% in June). However, stewards say they are more focused on actions driven by those shared narratives, including:

  1. Addressing structural inequities (25%, compared to 11% in June)
  2. Shifting norms, practices, and incentives of established institutions (22%, similar to 20% in June); and
  3. Pursuing long-term solutions that address multiple problems at once (21%, similar to 20% in June)

Stewards are taking an array of actions to overcome resistance to systems change within their own institutions


Similar to June’s findings, where 91% of respondents said they are leveraging relationships to help their communities thrive, August respondents also are gravitating toward building relationships as they navigate resistance from institutions.

Stewards are focused on building relationships outside of their organization (63%) as well as finding allies inside of their organizations (57%). On the one hand, engaging external relationships (including community residents) provide perspectives that are less vested in the institutional status quo. On the other hand, building internal allies prevents stewards from being isolated or written-off by their organizations as they push for change.

Less common among August respondents are actions that require significant courage and vulnerability due to the potential of these actions to expose stewards to risk. These include:

  • Pushing organizations to act on internal discussions (41%),
  • Creating new spaces internally for experimentation, dialogue, or action (41%); and
  • Protecting and lifting up voices of dissent (24%)

The bi-monthly tracking poll provides valuable, high-level clues about stewards’ experiences. However, we also are exploring their stories in more detail, including identifying the specific actions they are taking, in our virtual meeting series. In September, participating stewards shared the importance of creating a safe environment that can withstand tension and allow space to discuss contradictions between institutional realities and the shared values people in those institutions may hold. When these safe spaces are thoughtfully created, stewards can open greater possibilities to convert dialogue into action and engage non-traditional perspectives, including those representing voices of dissent.

To participate in these rich conversations, please join us in our virtual meeting series.