6 December 2022

Reclaiming resilience: Building in redundancy, complexity and diversity for systems change

Reframing resilience in the context of harmful systems

What if we conceived resilience in terms of thriving, rather than merely surviving? Philanthropy is well-placed to help lift the ambitions of actors to see resilience as the necessary force for cultural shifts and new thinking, self-determined futures, agency, and purpose; to become a catalyst for positive change within and against systems that are designed to maintain the current conditions; and to support resilience more meaningfully, in particular by unpacking concepts like redundancy, complexity and diversity.

During the PEX Forum 2022, I co-hosted a discussion on “Building Resilience in Philanthropy and Development”, together with Chandrika Sahai from Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP), and Maria Chertok from the Charitable Foundation for Philanthropy Development. The format was inspired by the methodology of the warm data lab, a group process which highlights the interdependency, relationality and systemic patterns which are woven into the complex fabric of the issues we are working on.

Three key concepts informed our discussion on resilience: looking at redundancy, connectivity, complexity, and diversity as healthy components of resilient systems; naming the ways that relationships create buffers and support for resilient behaviours; and framing resilience not as individual behaviours devoid of strategic, disruptive and transformational potential, but as a force for imagination and change inside broader systems of injustice.

The central question on our panel was “resilience at what cost?” The author and speaker, Prof. E.J. Ramos David says of marginalised communities that dominant systems have learned to “take our resilience as permission for our continued oppression”.[1] Given how much has already been written on the romanticism of resilience, the panel came together to explore how to stop resilience becoming “a way of life (even when it seems there is no hope of positive change)”[2], and to inquire critically about how resilience discourse has been used to let “power structures off the hook”, putting the onus on the person to endure and accept hardship and “to fix things that should be a priority of the state…”.[3]

Corrupt and dysfunctional systems are resilient too, and philanthropy is a byproduct of one of the most enduring and arguably harmful systems that exist today: capitalism. But the intention of this article is not to argue how to make these systems redundant[4] (in the sense of extinct or entirely transformed[5]), nor to remove resilience from current discourse. But rather to reclaim it.

Applying redundancy to resilience building work

The idea of redundancy or “backup systems” was first described in the field of mechanical engineering by Jon von Neumann in 1956. In the years to follow, redundancy would become an essential concept in designing complex systems. As John Downer notes[6], redundancy is “invisibly implicated in the calculations that regulators and manufacturers pass down to the public and policy makers.” In systems theory, as in biology and engineering, redundancy is seen as useful, if not vital. Likewise, risk is not negative, but simply unavoidable in a system that is open and complex.

Redundancy can take the form of buffers, backup systems or the psychological and organisational functions of slack, and is in fact useful for risk management. But in philanthropy, both redundancy and risk are held with suspicion, mistaken to mean duplication and inefficiency. As an OECD Policy Paper reports, “r​isk management is too often construed as a means of maintaining the leanest possible operations in the name of efficiency, and consequently, reducing redundancy to zero. Without redundancy, there is much greater vulnerability and little or no ability to absorb shocks, which in turn can quickly turn into failures.”[7]

The importance of diversity for redundancy and resilient systems

But resilient systems, like people, also get tired. So to avoid duplication, inefficiency or even fatigue, redundancy can be built into parts of a system that face high demand by keeping resources aside and creating more diverse connections. As Carmen et al. (2022) point out, “redundancy is about having multiple resource bases to meet the same need… The less diversity and the less redundancy, the more vulnerable a system becomes.”[8]

In science fiction stories, like the Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler[9], resilience is demonstrated by having hidden stores of food and other life-saving resources that can be used when primary sources are no longer accessible. For communities and organisations to be responsive and creative in volatile times, they need to have extra capacity, a strong ecosystem of diverse actors and deep relationships. But how does this translate to philanthropy’s work in building resilience?

How can philanthropy support resilient systems using redundancy?

Philanthropy can help community organisations to invest in systems that have more redundancy built into internal systems which are also sufficiently complex and diverse. This could mean helping them (often with MYGOD[10] and overhead costs[11]) to: create diverse portfolios of work, income streams and teams; store their data in multiple places; build CRM systems and bigger or flexible enough teams to ensure relationships and information are held by multiple systems and people; and develop strong, diverse senior leadership with complementary and overlapping roles and backgrounds. Philanthropy helping to develop skills, support and slack in leadership helps in particular to create the “space not just to survive but to strategise for a better future”[12]; to take inspiration and rest; to find effective ways to support each other and their own teams to excel in design and delivery; and to think and plan ahead.

Resilience means supporting leadership and relationships

Leaders on the frontlines are often looking for three things: more time, connections, and resources. Philanthropy supporting them to do this can in turn increase their creativity and capacity to respond to uncertain and challenging times. Vu Le from Nonprofit AF has examples of funders prioritising non-profit leaders’ rest and healing[13], and a member of the SIX Funders Node recently did just that by funding a pilot programme for experienced social impact leaders across Asia who are in a key transition phase and who want to explore and test a new idea or a different approach to solving a social problem.

While increasing connections and relationships in organisations is not philanthropy’s role, offering to take on the burdens of risk and pressure is. Philanthropy can start to build the enabling conditions for resilience to move from a survival instinct to a flourishing one. This means first working with community organisations to come up with self-determined definitions of resilience, across individual, organisational and systemic levels, and even identifying where resilience has moved into passive or harmful territory across these levels too. Then philanthropy can map out and assess how to increase connectivity, diversity, and redundancy, better decision-making processes, active participation and learning as key components of resilience.[14]

In conclusion, if communities are to use what resilience they have to imagine and create the change they want to see ‒ rather than adjusting to changes that are forced upon them ‒ then philanthropy is needed, first, to change the narratives around resilience, and then, to fund the enabling conditions in which riskier, more emergent, anticipatory and preventative work can take place.

To quote Joanna Macy, the great environmental activist, author, and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, “living systems are built on redundancy, which means that while it is essential that you do what you do, it is also true that there are many others doing similar things… We are interwoven in a much vaster response… our part of it is just one strand in a moving, flowing tapestry of response.”[15]

[1] https://twitter.com/ejrdavid/status/1327300249988186112?lang=en

[2] http://www.psjp.org/romanticising-resilience/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/health/resilience-overrated.html

[4] For the purposes of this article, I use a positive definition of redundancy, taken from the sciences, to mean a byproduct of complexity and diversity, which enables a system to sustain itself or flourish.

[5] I have written elsewhere in support of how philanthropy perpetuates the inequalities of a system to which it owes its own existence; and how it can reverse these systemic harms through wealth redistribution, for instance through trade unions, fair wages and taxes, giving shares, land assets and deeds, not just grants, and using more spend down and out models.

[6] http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/36537/1/Disspaper53.pdf


[8] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-021-01678-9

[9] Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, kept an emergency survival kit containing back up stores of food, seeds, matches, bandages, and notebooks before the inevitable time came to flee. This is no doubt common practice in many communities around the world under threat of forced migration.

[10] The acronym, MYGOD!, for MultiYear, General Operating Dollars was too good not to use. Thank you Vu Le for your multiple blog posts on this!

[11] Recent research suggests that non-profits may need to create up to one third of overhead, another form of “redundant” resource or “reserves”, to thrive (see https://theconversation.com/nonprofits-may-need-to-spend-about-one-third-of-their-budget-on-overhead-to-thrive-contradicting-a-rule-of-thumb-for-donors-188792)

[12] http://www.psjp.org/the-inherent-political-nature-of-resilience-why-resilience-is-a-key-strategy-for-systemic-change/


[14] https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-applying-a-systems-approach-to-resilience-building-99231

[15] https://www.transitionculture.org/2008/04/21/exclusive-to-transition-culture-an-interview-with-joanna-macy/


Josiane Smith
Key Programmes Lead - Philanthropy, Social Innovation Exchange