Going further together, Nation Builder’s new era of impact

Going further together, Nation’s Builder’s new era of impact | Mergon

When people come together to serve a vision that is bigger than their own, extraordinary things can happen. At Nation Builder, we’ve seen this to be true.

A social development initiative aimed to strengthen South Africa’s social impact, Nation Builder has worked to bridge the gap between the business and non profit sectors for over 16 years. Our philosophy centres on the idea that partnerships have the power to unlock disproportionate impact, echoing the wisdom of the saying, ‘if you want to go further, [you need to] go together’.

More recently, we have put this idea to action, embarking on a new era of impact with NPO and social impact fund manager, Valcare. As of February 1, Valcare has taken on the strategic and operational mandate of Nation Builder and is now operating under its name. This leadership transition marks a new chapter for Nation Builder, one in which the new team (supported by some members of the original Nation Builder board) can leverage their collective strengths to take their reach and impact further.

Why do we believe this leadership transition will further benefit the social impact sector, connecting and strengthening even more organisations nationwide? We spoke to Mergon’s (and former Nation Builder head) Keri-Leigh Paschal to find out more. Drawing insights from a Stanford University review on the essentials of social innovation, Keri highlights five aspects that she sees in this collaboration and believes are critical for fostering collective impact.

1. A common agenda

‘To make collective impact work, everyone needs to share a vision for change,’ Keri shares. ‘This means agreeing on the problem and working together on a common approach through decided actions.’ She explained that both Nation Builder and Valcare over the years have served as ‘bridge builders’ between the business and non-profit sectors – sharing knowledge, fostering understanding, and encouraging collaboration that leads to measurable social impact. ‘Although we bring different strengths to the table, we have the same purpose in mind to strengthen South Africa’s social impact sector. Of all the things to have in common, this is by far the most important.’

2. Shared measurement systems

Referring to the abovementioned Stanford review, Keri notes: ‘Research has found that establishing a shared measurement system is crucial for collective impact. It’s not enough to just agree on common goals; we need to be on the same page about how we measure and report success. Consistently collecting and measuring results across all participating organisations, using a few key indicators at the community level, not only keeps everyone on track but also fosters accountability. This way, we can learn from both successes and failures and continuously improve our collective efforts.’

‘Going forward, what excites us in this new season of Nation Builder is the intended focus on professionalisation and standardisation in the sector. Clearer goal setting and reporting systems will not only foster trust and accountability between the private sector and NPO beneficiaries; it will cultivate investor confidence and a deeper understanding of the on-the-ground realities in South Africa. This excites us and makes us hugely optimistic about the future,’ says Keri.

3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities

‘In successful partnerships, the focus isn’t on everyone doing the same thing,’ says Keri. ‘It’s rather about creating space for each participant to operate in their unique skills and abilities. This diversity brings a richness to the collaboration, where the diversity of strengths is complementary and enriches the outcomes.’

‘In the case of Nation Builder and Valcare,’ she continues, ‘both organisations have had complementary offerings that, when combined, can multiply impact and benefit the sector. Nation Builder provides a diverse, cross-sector community with a nationwide footprint. Valcare has excelled in capacity building, offering a range of resources that effectively equip and connect social investors and NPOs to drive social impact. By combining these strengths, Nation Builder is now able to extend its reach and enrich impact, providing more organisations with the tools and training to strengthen the sector.’

4. Continuous Communication

‘Over these past 15 years at Nation Builder, we’ve recognised the power of dialogue – simply getting all the stakeholders in the room and creating a space where every voice is heard, seen, and valued,’ Keri says. ‘Working in the development sector can often be a lonely and a weight responsibility – so it was important for us to create environments where people could openly share their challenges, be real with one another and engage in collective and constructive learning. As we were never the experts in the room, rather the people that brought the experts around the table, open and ongoing communication was, and still is, at the heart of Nation Builder.’

She continues, ‘This dedication to fostering dialogue continues under new leadership. Going forward, one of the primary focuses is ‘building capacity through collaborations’ – combining knowledge and resources to achieve more within the sector. Trust-based, on-the-ground engagements will be central to realising this goal.’

5. Backbone Support Organisations

‘One thing we’ve seen over the years is that good collaboration takes time – and time is a precious commodity in the development world,’ Keri says. ‘Being able to come alongside sector stakeholders and support them with a backbone infrastructure, one with dedicated staff and resources, has proven incredibly valuable. With a bird’s eye view on the sector, we have been able to serve as a knowledge transfer, bridging the gap between the business and NPO worlds, and leveraging perspectives that incorporate every stakeholder’s view and respective needs. From there, Nation Builder has been able to leverage these insights and create sector resources that directly address these needs and add value to the process.’

Keri concludes, ‘Serving Nation Builder for the past 15 years through Mergon has been one of life’s greatest privileges. It’s been inspiring working alongside such passionate and dedicated individuals, deeply committed and devoted to seeing South Africa’s social fabric strengthened. We are confident that this next season of Nation Builder will bring with it, even greater impact, collaboration, and positive change for South Africa’s social development sector.

This article was written as tribute to the rich 15-year history of Nation Builder under Mergon’s leadership. Stay updated with the latest developments in this new season by visiting the new website or reaching out to the team at [email protected].

A renewed focus on partnership and collaboration

With the haze of COVID-19 gradually lifting, early 2022 was an opportune time to pause and reflect on Nation Builder’s contribution and how best to position it to offer even greater support to the development sector in the season ahead.

A host of social stressors had been added to South Africa’s landscape over the past few years, due to the effects of COVID-19, riots, floods, loadshedding, rising unemployment and more. For South Africa’s social development sector and the country at large to cope with these massive challenges, it was clear to practitioners and grassroots leaders alike that greater collaboration was needed.

With this in mind, the Nation Builder community turned to the pressing question at hand: how could we adjust our approach and work together more effectively to see our impact go further?

The current landscape

Key people from the Nation Builder community were invited to gather regionally to discuss the current development landscape and envision a new season of impact for Nation Builder. A blend of social investors, NPOs and consultants, all of whom had walked a close road with Nation Builder over the years, reflected on the value of Nation Builder’s contribution to the social investment sector thus far, and then took time to consider what would most support the sector in 2023 and beyond.

Emily Wilkes, community manager at Nation Builder commented, ‘We knew that we needed to find ways to multiply impact. Trialogue had reported in its Business in Society Handbook 2022  that total CSI expenditure was R10.9 billion which represented a 6% nominal and an almost zero percent real change from the previous year’s spend. Going forward, ‘more would need to be achieved with less’ – greater collective impact would be required throughout the sector.’

In KwaZulu-Natal, as detailed in the Nation Builder blog post entitled Partnering in Crisis – The KwaZulu-Natal story, corporates, individuals and NPOs had pulled together to capitalise on shared resources, skills and experience, during the civil unrest in 2021. This is such a beautiful example of how collaboration and partnership can result in multiplied impact to address challenges too large to tackle alone.  

It is therefore clear that collaboration and partnership are essential in the season ahead, where our challenges may feel like Goliath at times.

Building a vision

With this context in mind, we asked: what needs to shift in our current season that will facilitate growth and greater community participation in the next? The overwhelming consensus was that we needed to focus on increased community ownership, mobilisation, and decentralised working groups

As a result, the work of Nation Builder will become more regionally focused in 2023, with each regional community taking ownership of driving context specific initiatives and bringing local organisations together in their area, whilst retaining the benefits of having a national footprint.

“Nation Builder has always prioritised stimulating constructive engagement between for-profit and non-profit entities, as opposed to the traditional siloed approach to problem solving, and we realised that formalising local ecosystems would allow us to bring all the role players around the table. Here, we could work towards ” said Wilkes.

Meyer Conradie, CEO of Mosaic and Wellbi, and a Nation Builder Task Team member, summed up this new vision when saying: ‘This decentralising move to a community-led and regionally-based community will enable higher levels of trust, as people interact and partner locally, and will lead to greater impact at a grassroots level, where challenges desperately need to be addressed.’

The way forward

The Nation Builder community has entered this new year with a real sense of excitement around what the next chapter holds, with local champions having volunteered to lead the work of nation building within each region, and so many people having raised their hands to volunteer their time and expertise to take Nation Builder forward.

There are currently collaborative working groups in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape – with more regional groups being anticipated. Be sure to reach out to us should you want to join an existing group or start a working group in your region.

You don’t want to miss out as these are going to be highly impactful working groups in the year ahead.

Wilkes concluded, ‘We envisage these local ecosystems decreasing resource duplication in a time where every cent counts, and we look forward to them providing an emphasis on the development of community-led programmes, where the needs of the community are prioritised.’

For more information, visit https://proudnationbuilder.co.za/

To find out more about our Collabs, click here.

A Mergon initiative, Nation Builder has actively encouraged a culture of social investment and promoted best-practice in the social development sector for over a decade, motivated by the firm belief that every business can be a powerful vehicle for change.

Nation Builder: a modern day David with a giant to slay

A few months into joining Mergon we decided to start an exceptionally ambitious initiative called Nation Builder. This was to equip and inspire the business community to engage in social change projects in a redemptive manner that would exponentially better the socio-economic landscape in South Africa.

Pieter Faure, CEO of Mergon, walked into our office with a word of encouragement for our tiny team of two, who were tackling the giant of responsible social investment in the most unequal society in the world. I remember the moment so clearly as he recounted the story of David and Goliath, emphasising that a simple shepherd boy had the courage to use the skills he’d gained in other spheres of society to slay a giant that would impact the trajectory of the nation of Israel.

This story has been a source of encouragement and courage throughout my journey at Mergon, where I have found myself in the shoes of David – realising that there is a Goliath to slay that God has given me the courage and conviction to stand against.

We all know this story too well from our children’s church days but have possibly not unpacked the organisational lessons we can learn from it. Here is where I believe we can find our story in this classic tale.


  1. He didn’t fit the mould: David was not a soldier, didn’t have the formal training for battle, was much smaller in physique than Goliath and still a youth. At face value, David was the worst person to send into battle against Goliath and bet the nation’s future on.

How often do we as business leaders feel like the unconventional fit for the Goliath we need to tackle?

  1. He didn’t succumb to the expectations of others: Once David had convinced Saul that Goliath would be no match for him, Saul equipped him as best he knew – with his robe, armour and swords. Grateful for the gesture David tries on the protective gear for the task, however, realises that the armour would hinder more than aid in defeating Goliath, as it was not something he had been trained to wear.

Sound familiar? How often are we tempted to wear other people’s armour – their approaches and tools – to defeat the Goliath’s we are called to slay? David tried on the armour to see the fit, but when it didn’t feel right, he chose to trust in God’s protection rather than the wisdom of man and believe that God had given him the skill needed for the task.

  1. The judgement of others didn’t change his course: A young shepherd with no armour, sword or experience going out to face a giant to determine the future of each solider, their families and the nation of Israel must have seemed like a bad dream. Despite the lack of confidence in his ability from others, he didn’t second guess himself or go back and fetch the armour, but stood firm in his conviction that God would protect him and had given him the skill he required as a shepherd to defeat Goliath.

Probably the toughest part of business is when those closest to you, or who are more experienced than you, are not confident in you being able to defeat Goliath – yet your faith in God’s provision and protection are your bedrock.

  1. All glory could only be given to God: David was such an unlikely victor, that his unconventional victory could only be attributed to God who had prepared him and given him the courage to stand against the giant with a strategy that could defeat him. A highly skilled soldier with superior armour and protection may have beaten Goliath if he had the courage to stand against him, but much of the glory would have gone to his skill rather than the divine plan of God.

That is always the cherry on the top of these ‘David moments’ – when there is no shadow of a doubt that God was the orchestrator of the victory and no clever plan or skill of man.

The King

  1. He was either desperate or deeply discerning: Saul must have been ecstatic to hear that someone was asking about the reward to kill Goliath – especially after 40 days of watching his soldiers flee from the battle lines when Goliath spoke. When a youthful, unskilled – yet confident – shepherd walked in to speak about Goliath, his heart must have sunk. Saul’s first observation was that he was too young to fight a skilled worrier like Goliath, yet, after some convincing from David he gave his blessing to a very unconventional candidate to carry the future of the nation with him onto the battlefield.

Saul’s are just as important as David’s in business. If Saul didn’t give his blessing to David, he would not have been able to enter the battlefield to fight Goliath.

  1. He trusted David’s approach: Saul who was esteemed for his knowledge in battle (known as the Warrior-King) offered the best protection and equipment he could to David. David tried it on but declined as he was not used to this approach in fighting lions and bears. Saul didn’t insist on using what he knew to be best for fighting but trusted that David did have the skill to defeat Goliath in a different manner. If Saul had insisted David would most likely have been defeated due to the weight of the armour inhibiting the use of the slingshot and leaving him as a shepherd to try and defeat a skilled warrior with his sword.

 Knowledge and experience are invaluable, however, for some giants the norm is not going to lead to victory and therefore require exceptionally discerning Saul’s that will trust their David’s to use different means in fighting Goliath. 

Our journey at Mergon is a collection of ‘David moments’ where we have done things counter-culturally, backed the unconventional candidate and had a ‘Saul’ to give their blessing to a ‘David’ who goes on to shape the future of Mergon.

We definitely don’t always get this right. But when I look back at the significant moments that have shaped our Mergon story, every single one has a David, a Saul and an unexpected solution that would bring all the glory to God and not man.

I pray that as we grow in skill and stature as an organisation we will not rely on the skill, size and power of our ‘armies’, but to always remain attentive and discerning to the David moments and Saul backing where we trust God for His protection and the perfect provision, over those of the world and spectators, to conquer the Goliaths He has given us courage to slay.

Established in 2008, Nation Builder is a Ziwani ecosystem player that inspires and equips the business community to lead in effective social impact.

Why partnerships are key to Impact Management Reporting

When people join their efforts to accomplish a shared vision, they can go so much further than if they were to go alone. In Mergon we believe in the power of partnerships to unlock the potential for disproportionate impact. Because God’s design for human flourishing requires the participation of all God’s people, the act of taking hands and ‘going together’ is a crucial strategy that underpins everything we do.

Why partnerships are key to impact management reporting

Over the years we have asked ourselves what it means to stand beside others in our efforts to bring about real change. How do we position ourselves as true partners who bring not just our finances, skills, knowledge and networks, but our very selves to the relationship? Likewise, as our partners offer their expertise and very selves to the relationship, how can we keeping learning from their wisdom and experience? These are questions that shape our partnership journey, whether in the Foundation, investment team, or alongside business leaders with whom we partner in South Africa and across the continent.

Within the social impact sector, where Nation Builder serves, social investors and non-profit organisations (NPOs) recognise partnership as the foundational context within which effective and sustainable social impact takes place in South Africa. The following is taken from Nation Builder’s Impact Management Reporting Guideline, and specifically the learnings acquired in fostering healthy, sustainable partnerships between social investors and implementing organisations.

Impact management reporting is a communication vehicle to capture insights and lessons learnt along the partnership journey. It can serve as a powerful tool to foster trust, credibility and transparency while improving future work and decision making between partners in the social impact sector.

Have a look at the below diagram which unpacks the partnership process, followed by a description of each critical phase:

  1. Internal strategic planning

In this original phase, investors start by defining their purpose, requirements and impact objectives. What exactly is the problem they want to address and what steps need to be taken to address this problem? What will the solution look like along with the strategies, outcomes, outputs, and activities to see this vision come to life? This will require not only robust research to help guide a responsive strategy – it will require investors to define their ‘why’ which in turn defines their ‘who’ within the context of partnership.

  1. Define and design

Along with the initial planning phase, this early define and design phase is where organisations and businesses determine ‘who they are’ and what they stand for. Like in marriage, the idea that two halves make a whole doesn’t really work. You want partners who have clarity about their identity, coming together to work into an area where there is synergy and alignment. By defining a clear purpose and mandate, both social investors and implementing organisations set the stage for more efficient and targeted sourcing, screening and assessment down the line.

  1. Sourcing, screening and assessment

In this phase investors implement a partner sourcing strategy – either through referral, existing relationships, public disclosure or applications. Communicating your selection criteria clearly and publically is vital during this phase – prospective partners should be able to easily access and understand your conditions for eligibility. For example, depending on the sourcing strategy, this information could be made available on your website, along with application documentation and guidelines. Screening and assessment phases may include multiple stages in order to determine whether this relationship would be a ‘good fit’.

  1. Negotiation and formalisation process

It’s important that both parties bring their concerns, questions and expectations to the table in this formalising phase of the partnership. Both sides must feel comfortable to consider, negotiate and clarify their needs, so that they can confidently agree to all terms and conditions and how they will be practically implemented. It’s recommended to compile an ‘expectation checklist’ (see the Guideline’s example), so that courageous conversations can be had in the effort to lay strong relational foundations.

  1. Implementation, progress tracking and reporting

Having parameters and expectations clearly defined and funding allocations confirmed, this is the stage where partners ‘get to work’ – implementing the vision and seeing it come to life. Monitoring and tracking (data collection, analysis, insight development and reporting) happens continually, which in a healthy trust-based relationship allows for honest assessment and adaptive learning along the way. This phase will typically end with a close-out or summative assessment report to reflect the overall results achieved across the life of the partnership and its implementation. The final Impact Report will play a critical part in informing decisions during the partnership review and evaluation.

  1. Partnership, review and evaluation

This phase gives both parties an opportunity to reflect on how they have experienced the partnership to date. Were the goals, objectives and targets met, for example? If not, then why not, and what can we do differently into the future? Are the needs and context still the same, and are activities aligned and mutually beneficial? The answers to these questions will help determine the longevity of this partnership.

Are you interested to know more about impact reporting within the context of funding partnerships? Download your free copy of the Impact Management Reporting Guideline here.

Amongst other case stories included, you’ll learn about the Mergon Foundation’s strong relational approach to ministry partnerships, which lays the foundation for authentic relationships and sustainable social impact.

Want to know more about Nation Builder and how we inspire and equip South Africa’s business community to lead in effective social impact? Visit https://proudnationbuilder.co.za/.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

Finding light in the chaos – why SA’s future is bright

‘The one thing all of South Africa’s greatest business leaders have in common is that they navigate the noise,’ said host of The Money Show on 702 and Cape Talk, Bruce Whitfield, in his opening address to the Nation Builder In Good Company Conference last year. By taking us down the hallways of recent history, Whitfield gives us substantiated reasons to see South Africa’s future through the lens of ‘opportunity and optimism’.

Finding light in the chaos – why SA’s future is bright


‘Why is it that so many people feel so negative about the future of South Africa?’ asked Bruce in his opening remarks. His view: ‘because we have lost faith in the ability of South Africa to ever resurrect itself.’

‘South Africa is not a binary story – it isn’t just a one-track corruption tale. The country is far more nuanced and complicated than that,’ said Bruce, ‘but nobody is telling a holistic story – nobody is telling a story about opportunity and opportunism in South Africa.’

Using crisis as a catalyst for change

Amidst the doom and gloom of Covid-19, climate change, riots, inequalities and a plethora of other issues, we need to try and find the opportunities. ‘It’s about taking the crisis and using it as a catalyst for change,’ explained Bruce. ‘That is the great opportunity that South Africa presents and, more often than not, we ignore it because we are so busy focusing on the mess in front of us that we fail to look forward.’

Crisis gives us a great opportunity to really grasp a problem and deal with it. We see increasing levels of revolt, anger and rage all around the world –  this isn’t just a South African phenomenon, Bruce highlighted: ‘Today, there are roughly 50 countries dealing with large-scale protests at various levels. Sure, in South Africa we feel it more personally, but in reality there are many people who feel disassociated and dislocated from the mainstream, who are trying to express themselves. What it really is, is a cry for help,’ said Bruce.

Welcome to the disinformation age

The majority of what we believe is happening in South Africa is because of the conversations that we’re having with family, friends, colleagues or with people online. Whether we like it or not, we are extremely easily influenced and shaped by those around us, as well as the online platforms and groups we hang out in online. ‘Never before have so many people had so much power in their hands to spread disinformation,’ said Bruce. He believes that social media has become a powerful tool of disinformation.

Bruce emphasised that we must be so careful about what we believe – especially if it’s information we got on social media: ‘The truth travels very slowly, unfortunately. Our job is to pay extreme attention, to not take things at face value, and always double-check the facts,’ he said.

Who did this to us vs what did we do wrong?

So much of what happens in the social media world is about ‘Who did this to us? Who can we blame? Who can we hate?’ instead of ‘What have we done wrong?’ But ‘we rarely ask ourselves why, 27 years into a South African democracy, 44% of people of working age cannot get a job? Why is it that 75% of 15- to 34-year-olds don’t ever get launched, meaning they never get that first, basic job opportunity?’ he asked.

A challenge to think differently

The one thing all of South Africa’s greatest business leaders have in common is that they navigate the noise. Many of us are completely transfixed by the noise – it distracts and intimidates us to a point where we become paralysed and stop thinking about the future altogether. ‘That is the pervasive South African story at the moment, and I want to challenge you to think differently,’ said Bruce.

How do we ‘think differently’? In addition to paying attention and double-checking facts, we must force ourselves to take a step back and zoom out just a little bit so that we can see the bigger picture – the picture of opportunity that South Africa presents.

Bruce encouraged delegates to be optimists because, in addition to being able to navigate the noise, optimism is a critical element that people who have built billion-dollar businesses out of South Africa have in common.

What is optimism?

Optimism comes down to whether you think you can influence the future for the better. Optimism is asking yourself if you can create a business, enterprise or solution that will make the future better than the present.

Bruce used Capitec Bank as an example: ‘We see great businesses created in South Africa, businesses we didn’t initially think were necessary. In the year 2000, Capitec had no reason to exist: there were enough big banks and there were millions of people who were considered to be ‘unbankable’ by the existing banks at the time. Nobody would give people without jobs bank accounts, and it wasn’t deemed a necessity.’

‘The founders of Capitec saw the opportunity and today they are the biggest retail bank in South Africa,’ explained Bruce.

The future is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to constantly get overwhelmed by fear and negativity, you will stop thinking for yourself and you will be unable to think about opportunities to better the future. In the words of the great statistician and medical doctor Hans Rosling, ‘You cannot make decisions when your mind is clouded by fear.’

Grabbing the opportunity in a crisis

‘We always think things are worse than they are.’ Bruce used the example of First Rand Group in 1987 to illustrate this point: ‘If you were to ask one of the founders of First Rand Group if 1987 (the year when South Africa defaulted on its debts, the rand dropped significantly and Barclays disinvested) was the hardest year ever, they would probably say no. You would be left baffled, but they would explain that, though it was a hard year, they managed to buy FNB and Southern Life as a package at a fraction of what they should have paid for it because nobody else wanted it. As a result, they have created an extremely valuable, globally relevant business. In the crisis of that moment, smart people looked through the crisis and found the opportunity.’

Optimist, pessimist, realist vs opportunist

As the great Thomas Edison said, ‘opportunity is missed by everyone because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.’

‘This fix is not easy. But the fact that it’s hard means you’ll have less competition in whatever it is that you choose to do as part of the fix – whatever business ideas and solutions you come up with, so use the opportunity, Bruce concluded.’

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

How to get unstuck: unlocking the power of systems thinking

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By Samuel Njenga

Samuel Njenga is the Director of Strategy and Training at Systems Thinking Africa, and co-author of Leading The Way Through CSI. He is also a trusted voice and partner to the Nation Builder community. In this article, he invites us to look at old problems through new lenses and elevate our thinking through a systems approach to problem solving.

So much money and time has been spent on our social sector, aiming to address needs and thereby transform our society. So many initiatives have been launched as part of Corporate Social Investment (CSI), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – but questions are being raised as to the actual impact achieved by these initiatives, and the long term sustainability of the social sector in our country.

How did we get stuck?

I get the feeling that, somehow, we are stuck. We are stuck doing the same things, again and again, hoping to get different results. Arnold Smit and myself published our book Leading The Way Through CSI in 2007, and I’m not sure that enough has changed in the sector since then.

As Kenneth Halstead wrote in his book From Stuck To Unstuck: ‘Stuckness is primarily the result of well-intended, attempted solutions built into the rules and structure of the system – solutions that create life-draining feedback loops.’ Applying this to the South African context, we keep throwing money at the same type of poverty programmes, we keep trying to implement the same solutions. We need to see how our ‘way of thinking’ has been built into the structure of our organisations and our decision-making processes, and has become life-draining, and even has unintended, negative consequences.

We have turned non-profits into beggars through our donor mentality. We’ve also accepted a ‘chequebook philanthropy’ – which means that we only make resources available when business is going well. But what happens to that same gogo in the village when we practice start-stop giving?

Systems thinking creates a new way forward

We need a different way of thinking. Social initiatives should be boardroom topics – they should not be separated from company strategy. What happens ‘out there’ is connected to what happens inside the company. As the pioneering systems scientist, Sir Geoffrey Vickers observed, ‘We are trapped not so much by the external reality, but by our thinking.’ He had been looking at lobster basket traps, and noticed that the lobsters, once inside, failed to find a way out of the trap, even though the size of the hole remained the same.

The point is that these complicated problems cannot be solved. One company cannot ‘solve’ poverty. We need to move away from mechanistic, linear thinking, to what we refer to as systems thinking. In my view, companies, non-profits and government departments involved in the social sector need to move away from thinking ‘this is the problem, and this is the solution’, to building an ecosystem of socioeconomic upliftment. In other words – yes, we are currently trapped inside this lobster basket, but that is not our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is how we think about where we are.

From donor-recipient meetings, to fireplace conversations

Systems thinking is both ‘systemic’ (being holistic, seeing the bigger picture), and ‘systematic’ (remaining grounded, engaging in a practical way). Through a systems thinking approach, we can go beyond meetings between CSI departments and the non-profits they support, to transformative conversations that shape our thinking. For this to happen, we have to start from the premise that there cannot be healthy business without healthy society.

It would do us well to revive the age-old practice of ‘fireplace conversations’ in order to:

1. Recognise and understand the interdependencies in the social sector.

2. Seek out multiple perspectives on the social sector, to have a better picture of reality.

3. Address power issues within the social sector.

Fireplace conversations create connection, and spark creativity and the imagination. We are all in this ‘lobster basket’ together. We simply cannot build an ecosystem of socioeconomic development that will avoid unintended consequences, and bring about meaningful change, without embracing a new way of thinking. We need to be exposed to what different stakeholders are wrestling with, and we need to ensure that when we bring different people into the room, everyone feels that their voice will be heard.

Let’s return to the fireside – a meeting ground of diverse perspectives and cultures and histories – and build from there.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.