#SystemsChange part 3: Our Role as Needle and Thread

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
6 min readFeb 28, 2022

written by

, Director — Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Our work at Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies has been to first acknowledge the interconnected nature of our most pressing societal challenges and then to support ideas, individuals and organisations seeking to influence lasting change in complex systems. We are inspired by the learning that systemic change is possible when we believe in collective power. To create lasting change, however, we alone will never be enough. We seek to catalyse systemic change through our grantmaking by supporting a portfolio of organisations that share a commitment to emergence and are unified in intent but not uniform in their approaches. We believe that systemic change is possible when we dare to look at the world differently and take on ambitious challenges with humility and curiosity.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir

In thinking about intervening, we constantly reexamine how things are done: not to take anything for granted or repeat things merely because they have worked in the past. Our approach and process are designed to respond to the constantly changing environment and its people. Our work has evolved alongside our grantee partners over the last decade, and through these shared journeys, we have discovered new pathways for systems change. We support the creation of the conditions necessary for change to emerge by widely distributing agency and change-making. Rather than seeking answers and solutions for single point questions or holding our partners accountable to fixed outcomes, we partner in long-term change. We remain open and curious instead of certain and learn from the processes we help facilitate with our partners. Our work is guided deeply by the idea that we have to embrace change, accept failure, and learn from it. We believe that we can create lasting systemic change through this iterative process of exploration and learning. We aspire to be a catalytic funder — one that helps grantees find their voice, amplifies their impact and connects them.

Rather than seeking answers and solutions for single point questions or holding our partners accountable to fixed outcomes, we partner in long-term change. We remain open and curious instead of certain and learn from the processes we help facilitate with our partners.

Systemic social change cannot be driven by top-down, organisational and large scale processes; current paradigms and assumptions are changing, and newer ways of thinking are throwing up social innovations and emergent ideas. Local communities and passionate individuals worldwide have brought creativity and care to change and change-making. Networks of individuals and communities of practice often lead to transformational systems change; different people come together towards common causes and outcomes and, in working towards them, build incremental and disruptive changes. These emergent networks form systems of influence that impact practices, values, norms. Our work is to help nurture the conditions for this and look to the third horizon where a regenerative culture that can learn and transform to adapt to change emerges.

Philanthropy has a unique role in systemic social change by connecting different actors, providing resources and support, and amplifying the impact of grassroots work. The challenges we face today — climate change, income inequality, access to education and health care — are not separate problems that can be solved in isolation; they are interconnected.

We see our work as needle and thread and our role as creating containers to honour and amplify human connection, shared interests, belonging and agency. We believe that systemic shifts and shared infrastructure are the outcomes of such interactions and understanding.

We see our work as needle and thread and our role as creating containers to honour and amplify human connection, shared interests, belonging and agency.

As we look at the social landscape and work with and within ecosystems, we recognise that challenges at the systemic level are interconnected, and through collective power, change occurs. At the centre of seeking transformative change is to remember that systems are made up of people and that the relationships between people and communities are essential for collective impact. This approach is at the heart of our theory of change and how we work with grantees. We are constantly learning and adapting because systemic change is not a one-time event but a continuous journey. The world is in constant flux, and so too must our work be. We believe that lasting change is only possible through iteration and evolution.

The primary role we aspire to be is that of system conveners — to recognise that different actors create change in particular work areas, and supporting coordination and collaboration between the often messy diversity of relationships is essential.

The primary role we aspire to be is that of system conveners — to recognise that different actors create change in particular work areas, and supporting coordination and collaboration between the often messy diversity of relationships is essential. We are learning of the value of this role from organisations we support: Agami, Socratus, India Climate Collaborative, Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, among others. Through these engagements, we foster interconnections between our partners to build communities of practice. Without a top-down approach to change, we catalyse networks, creating connections for learning and collaboration between people working on the ground. In identifying networks and building alliances between different people working towards similar outcomes, we can create a supportive infrastructure for change-making by creating collaborations and coalitions and offering tools and knowledge and technology. This work is done with the acknowledgement that we will make mistakes and that it is through these mistakes that we learn and grow. We embrace constant change as part of our work, knowing that it is central to iteration.

When doing this, we keep our eye on the complexity of challenges: what are the sorts of expertise and knowledge required to address the challenges at hand, and who can offer the expertise and support necessary to supplement action? Who are the people that will engage around the problem, and how can we facilitate their engagement? Who are the people who need to be involved in innovating around these actions, and who are the people that need to participate? We facilitate by scaffolding these collaborations and leading with trust. Our first task is to create containers for positive-sum coalitions that can strengthen the necessary actions. These coalitions can be game-changers when it comes to social movements and the ability of philanthropy to support them.

These processes of building alliances are iterative and require tenacity. We recognise that systems are made up of individuals who need to communicate, reflect and build relationships. An essential aspect of this is nurturing these connections: humility, reciprocity, generosity, and empathy. What are the outcomes we seek, and what values, principles, and visions undergird our actions? We look for honest, reflective participation and empathise with contexts and situations. Within this process of building relational trust, we ensure we listen to all voices in the room. The operation can transform power dynamics to create generative net-positive sum outcomes.

To create systemic change, grantmakers need to support a portfolio of organisations working on related issues. This allows for collaboration and learning between organisations and building bridges, relationships and trust among different actors. By creating a network of organisations, philanthropy can provide a supportive infrastructure for change-making. This is the heart of our work as system conveners — to constantly assess, recalibrate and reflect on what works and what doesn’t to iterate and evolve. It’s an ongoing journey that never ends, but it’s one that we’re committed to. Our work is to hold the relationships between the individual, organisation and system. All of us who work to create collective impact must begin by working on our relationships with one another and ourselves.

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