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Pursuing solutions for sustainable change

‘Beneath a culture’s surface lies much that shapes it, often unspoken perspectives and mindsets that influence our behaviour. There is an art to understanding how these underlying dynamics give meaning and direction to our lives.’

Charmaine Smith (Mergon Foundation forum member and founding director of Infundo Consulting) spoke to this idea during last month’s gathering with a handful of global peer foundations. Sharing from their own career and ministry experiences, she and others explored the unique nuances of funding within the African context. Charmaine specifically spoke to the value of systems thinking, explaining:

‘I see myself as a generalist working between things, rather than an expert who works within things, which has prompted me to adopt a lifelong learning approach that often asks the question, ‘Why do people think and act the way they do?’’ When we omit to consider the factors that shape behaviour we will assume our strategies will work, only to discover later that nothing has changed or we have created resistance through ineffective management of our intervention.’

‘The understanding of intergenerational trauma transfer and the study of epigenetics sheds light on the difficulties of bringing change when the past shapes not just culture, and perspective, but even the DNA which connects past generations to how people experience life and behave. In the context of Africa with 1500 different languages and with an average age of 19 the considerations of working in Africa must take this all into account.’

In her journey, she discovered systems thinking as a comprehensive and robust way of understanding human behaviour. Systems thinking, she explained, offers a wider range of choices when working with people, because it takes the interdependency of our actions into account: ‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when thinking systemically, because the choices we make will have an impact on the whole system, through its people. We can rather think of our decisions as a set of iterative decision-making points. As systems are impacted and shift through our presence and action, decisions need to be attuned to this shift and adjust accordingly.’

‘Dr Wayne Dyer said, ‘When you change the way you look at things; the things you look at, change.’’

‘What I have come to believe,’ Charmaine continued, ‘is that if we want to develop true partnerships with lasting social impact, we will need to think systemically, going beyond our cultural biases and assumptions to embrace a more holistic perspective on the problems we seek to solve and people we seek to understand.’

Embracing complexity

She referenced author Michael Goodman, emphasising that the discipline of systems thinking is more than just a set of diagnostic tools and methodologies – it is an underlying philosophy:

‘Systems thinking’, writes Goodman, ‘is a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.’

Charmaine explained that when we think in systems, we are comfortable to work at the pace of the system, embracing the complexity that goes hand in hand with growing healthy communities. ‘We think more broadly around our solutions,’ she said, ‘considering the long-term impact of our decisions and the inherent causalities of the events that have gone before us.’

‘When it comes to social impact, this holistic approach enables us to move away from top-down funding models that sustain donor dependence and overlook the intrinsic value and dignity of the communities they serve. Instead, we consider how to learn from one another, and thus reshape the traditional paradigm into a relationship of equal value and partnership,’ said Charmaine.

Working consciously with power dynamics

Charmaine noted that when a community’s system operates differently than ours, the (often unconscious) temptation is to perceive it as dysfunctional. ‘However,’ she shared, ‘I’ve always found that when you stop to consider the system, there is no dysfunction; all systems are in flow.’

‘Through my experience, I’ve learned that coming into a new community requires humility. It’s important not to presume we have all the answers or are starting something brand new. God has been working in that community long before our arrival. As community builders, our role is to figure out where He’s been working and to get behind it. This takes humility – a kind of ruthless curiosity to listen, learn – and un-learn old ways.’

‘When we enter the room, we need to ask ourselves, what comes with us? Do we come with a humble attitude, or do we feel burdened to have all the answers? Do we talk first, or do we speak last? What is most important to us – the relationships or the project deliverables?  How could some of our perspectives be at odds with the system we are working in? How does our entry into the system impact in ways which may not be overtly obvious to us; and what do we need to do, to give up, or shift in us, in order to find a new flow within this system?’

‘As funders and stewards of capital, it’s important to recognise the position of perceived power we inevitably carry – and we need to intentionally posture ourselves for relationship to re-balance these power dynamics.’ She added, ‘In my experience, I’ve found that vulnerability goes far – being honest about my own setbacks and disappointments has often invited others to be real about theirs, which then allows us to address the realities and challenges on the ground with honest and more effective solutions.’

Going deep before going wide

Building authentic relationships takes time, a commodity often scarce in the fast-paced world of funding and project implementation. Charmaine noted, however, that relational integrity is the most critical aspect of any systems thinking worldview: ‘The complexity of people working together on a project, across different sectors and organisations, can be as complex as working with the community itself,’ she said. ‘It’s critical, therefore, to have the right people in the right positions, including those who work ‘between’ the elements of the project and act as ‘catalytic nodes’ that influence and collaborate with other stakeholders.’

‘When you take a systems thinking approach to community development, you let the community lead and move at the speed of trust. When the project emphasises depth, characterised by strong relationships and community ownership, it establishes a unique ‘heartbeat’ that can potentially yield significant impact. Only when there is a new flow at depth, can you consider scaling certain projects over time.’

She concluded: ‘Being a systems thinker demands curiosity, compassion and humility. In the world of social impact, where cross-sector collaboration is essential, it asks all of us to adopt a learning posture—listening, asking questions, and discovering solutions we might have otherwise overlooked, only made possible by viewing things through the lens of another culture or community. Africa is beautiful in all its diversity and complexity. May we continue to serve its people with solutions that are as beautiful, diverse, and complex as Africa itself.’

Through Infundo Consulting, Charmaine works extensively with communities and their leaders, corporate partners, government departments and other relevant bodies, focussing on systems thinking for sustainable change. Infundo has been able to position the confluence of social and business impact within their model of change; where through the interconnectedness of seemingly opposing agendas – that of business and social needs – they have created a new status quo of shared value within a system which can sustain both.