From silos to systems

Individually and collectively, philanthropies will need a shared approach and a systems outlook to maximise their impact in the development sector

For more than a decade now, the approach of funding organisations the world over has been dominated by unidimensional theories of change and magic-bullet approaches. A well-justified restlessness to demonstrate the impact of investments made for social good has also meant that solutions are designed to focus on symptoms rather than root causes. 

Many of us in the social sector have understood that complex problems cannot be solved by linear ideas of how change happens. Increasingly, there is a heartening shift in the philanthropy and social good space. Fundamentally, we must grapple with the question of whether social outcomes can be specified, commissioned and delivered through a programme or an intervention focus.

Aparna Uppaluri

Aparna Uppaluri, chief operating officer at the Tata Trusts, trained as an epidemiologist and her global work includes nurturing philanthropic collaboratives, intergovernmental partnerships and strategic field building across thematic areas.

A root-cause approach to addressing intractable development issues such as malnutrition, increasing income inequality or low educational attainment will mean that we can no longer afford to concentrate only on strengthening last-mile delivery of services.

This will also mean that we need to look beyond funding programmes and institutions to making deeper investments in comprehending the conditions of change, encouraging place-based approaches, measuring collective impact, amplifying marginalised voices, and building the skills and capacities of those closest to where change is needed.

While it is commonly acknowledged that social change is complex, the approach of our philanthropic infrastructure and the pathways to resource and facilitate change remain siloed while operating in a top-down fashion.

India is seeing unprecedented growth in the number of family philanthropies and foundations, and the pool of flexible and patient capital is growing. This presents a unique opportunity for the social development sector to take on larger and hard-to-change issues through collective action and collaboration.

To act together, philanthropies, individually and collectively, will need a shared approach to diagnose what has to change and how to make that change happen. Increasingly, the philanthropy sector globally is turning to a systems approach to frame their impact pathways. As philosophy and framework, this approach can help us reposition and recalibrate the development sector’s approach to problem-solving for complexity.

What we require is a shared understanding of why supporting larger transformations in systems and power structures — rather than stand-alone programmes or intervention models that drive us to count beneficiaries — holds the promise of greater and more sustained change.  

As we shift away from siloed approaches towards less tactical and more strategic interventions, our goals can focus on transforming the structures, norms and policies that produce the social, environmental, and economic problems that we confront today. 

A screening camp for noncommunicable diseases in Dabbakupalli village in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district; applying systems thinking creates the conditions to improve community health and, thereby, the overall health system

Portfolios over projects

It is clear that donors will have to prepare for long-term engagement by working together, providing support to those who lead systemic change, and being patient and realistic about the time it takes to achieve such change. Donors have a critical role in crafting pathways of systems change by funding systems portfolios with equitable and inclusive goals, rather than only projects. 

There is a lacuna in funding for learning and capability building/bridging and encouraging collaboration among systems change leaders, which will need immediate resources to foster co-learning and co-creation of systems change models of collaboration.

We have today a range of tools to assess, map and measure how systems work and how they can change. Systems thinking can also foster a culture of innovation and an environment for collaboration within organisations.

A recent study in a healthcare organisation using systems thinking tools such as causal loop diagrams demonstrated that “applying systems thinking creates preconditions for local health practitioners to innovate in their local hospital unit, having the wider effect of improving community health and thus the overall health system”1. The study revealed that fostering innovation to solve complex problems in health systems required more than leadership that encouraged an innovative culture. 

Using systems thinking tools helped unpack where there were blocks in organisational structures, as also what needed to change in the organisational culture. For instance, while it is widely acknowledged that there is a need for technology innovation in addressing the care gaps in primary healthcare, identifying where the innovations are critical, where adaptation might be a challenge, and how to innovate for the context is what systems thinking can help us with. 

At the Tata Trusts, there has been a legacy of thinking about systems in an implicit way. For example, the Trusts have historically funded individual scholarships, fundamental scientific research and institutions that advance research. JRD Tata had famously asked: “Do we give sufficient thought to the nurture of the young investigator, to providing the right atmosphere and conditions of work and full opportunity for development? It is these things that foster invention and discovery.” 

As the ideas of institutions and networks evolve in an increasingly digital world, we are presented with yet another opportunity to rethink the role of philanthropy. Where are institutions headed? What is their role in systems? What would a portfolio approach nested in systems thinking look like for a donor seeking to address a complex development issue? What could a pool of funds do if donors come together to listen to those embedded in systems? Do donors see themselves as part of the systems they hope to transform? How would that shape their role in the system? 

A sector apart

Philanthropies are in a position to make choices and explore different modes of working in a system, such as building and sustaining institutions, growing grassroots resilience, providing catalytic capital and fostering innovation. Few other sectors can unlock innovative ideas and meaningful resources in these ways. 

More recently, implementation research is gaining credence for examining complexity, helping examine interventions in the ‘real world’ to understand what works but also how and why it works. Social innovation, in all its complexity, demands that we move away from reductionist approaches that take apart complex problems to deal with the components separately, failing to account for their interaction with one another.

As the knowledge and tools to understand and address complexity grow, the time to respond and engage is upon us. 

1Using systems thinking to increase understanding of the innovation system of healthcare organisations. Linneusson et al, Journal of Health Organization and Management, 2022.