31 January 2024

Complex challenges require a collaborative response

As humanity evolves and develops, the world is becoming more interconnected. There is an interlinked set of trends that governs our shared reality. From population growth and urbanisation to climate change and environmental degradation, these complexities predict and influence one another, sometimes even blending into each other. They are not only intersecting across issues but also geographies – pulling everyone closer together.

In research published recently by Philea it’s exciting to see that the philanthropic sector is acutely aware of these trends. More importantly, it also shows how they are prioritised by philanthropists in Europe and beyond. John Naisbitt said, “Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.” So, as philanthropists engaged in driving change, our understanding of these trends must influence what we fund as much as who and how we fund.

Upon reviewing the results, I was intrigued by two key concerns that came out of the survey when participants were asked about the biggest internal risks to philanthropy. First, siloed thinking – a worry that the sector focuses on a narrow selection of mainstream trends rather than the interwoven network of uncertainties we face today. Second, a lack of collaboration among funders.

Taking on a specific issue allows philanthropy to focus resources and show progress often against clearly defined metrics. It is a rational approach to simplifying what we know is the complex path to social change. But philanthropy can do more.  Instead of creating pockets of impact that compensate for what’s not working, we can work with and through systems so that they become more inclusive, effective, and just, for all people. To do so, we must look beyond established ways of doing philanthropy, beyond the established model of the single foundation that zeros in on a single-issue area in a given national context. In today’s world, it is not strategic to tackle climate change without looking at confounding factors such as increasing concentration of wealth and power, global fragmentation, and urbanisation.

So, how can we harness these sentiments and address the scale of arising challenges? The answer lies in building global communities of philanthropists, foundations, and organisations with proximate and representational leadership, as interlinked as the trends that create our reality today.

Moving away from siloed thinking

Let us look at an example to break it down a little further. Migration features in several different iterations across the critical societal issues that survey participants highlighted. Our program partners, Jan Sahas, Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), and Foundation for Ecological Security are all examples of how to address the interlinkages of shifting urban-rural trends, agriculture and natural resource management, and how these are further affected by underlying issues of climate and gender.

In India, migration remains one of the primary ways of seeking better economic opportunities, especially for those coming from rural communities. There are up to 200 million migrant workers in India. Migration is spurred by other cross-cutting trends such as a heavy reliance on agriculture, ongoing ecological degradation, and economic uncertainty often worsened by marginalisation due to gender or caste.

  • Jan Sahas’s Migrant Resilience Collaborative is building on existing systems to support migrant workers to access the social security they are entitled to directly through their employers. This will improve the lives of 10 million migrant households and build the foundation for actual social mobility for decades to come. Working within existing systems and strengthening the delivery of services in partnership with relevant government agencies is key to sustainable change.

At the same time, our partners, PRADAN and Foundation for Ecological Security, are working on the management of water resources and with the groups that depend on the commons for their existence and livelihoods. Lack or reduced access to these resources is a key driver behind migration.

  • PRADAN’s Access to Water for Rejuvenating Rural Economy is strengthening female leadership in local water governance structures and programs, as lack of access is one of the key factors preventing the improvement of socioeconomic outcomes in rural communities. Considerations of climate change, economic opportunity and gender equality all feature throughout their work.
  • The Foundation for Ecological Security’s Promise of Commons, on the other hand, seeks to actualise the neglected collective potential of local communities, particularly tribal populations, forest dwellers, within which women are further affected, in the governance of the Commons – collectively owned forests, pastures and water bodies. In India, over 350 million rural citizens rely on these areas for their livelihoods.

Together, these initiatives address different drivers of the migration megatrend. A gender lens runs through all of their work, showing an understanding of the importance of cross-cutting trends.

Building a collaborative community

Seeing the widespread understanding of interlinked trends across the philanthropic sector is encouraging and I’m grateful for the community of funding partners and program partners at Co-Impact who are at the forefront of many of those discussions. The corresponding increase in collaborative funds and focus on trust-based philanthropy across the sector also gives me hope.  But to realise philanthropy’s full potential we must make collaboration, long-term thinking and flexible, trusting support the norm. Only then can we drive more change across a wider set of issues and geographies.


Anna-Marie Harling
Managing Director, Philanthropic Collaboration, Co-Impact