Working in a post-war context: a response to ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’


Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust

Ambika Satkunanathan

Ambika Satkunanathan

This is the third in our series of responses by contributors to the March issue of Alliance to John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell’s ‘Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World’. We will be publishing these articles throughout this week – starting with Kathleen Cravero’s on Tuesday and Avila Kilmurray’s yesterday. Next week we will publish an article drawing all the threads together. On Monday we published a response from Angela Kail of NPC.

Although until recently I was not aware of the debates on the limitations of strategic philanthropy, and the need to adopt more emergent approaches, I find the discussions are very relevant to the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT), based in Sri Lanka. Since the article by Kania, Kramer and Russell focused only on the global North, and the resulting spirited responses did not include any voices from the global South, I hope this perspective will contribute to our common search to become better at adopting collaborative approaches.

The reality is that foundations working in post-war scenarios or in contexts that continue to be plagued by identity conflicts have no option but to adopt an emergent strategy in order to be effective, and more importantly to ensure organizational survival in a hostile and rapidly changing environment. Even formulating solutions to problems the authors categorize as ‘simple’, such as building a hospital, can become arduous, perilous tasks, depending on the location of the hospital and the population it serves. If communities are divided along ethnic or religious lines, the construction could lead to conflict over resources or allegations that the donor funding the project is conspiring to cause conflict between two different groups by favouring one over the other.

Hence, we see the ‘interplay between multiple independent factors that influence each other in ever-changing ways’ even when tackling these ‘simple’ problems. Adopting an emergent strategy is hence not a choice but compulsory. As Frumkin states, certain parts of the problem may not be immediately actionable, while some factors are entirely outside the control of the foundation.

At NTT, while being faithful to our broad aims, we have had to allow our strategy to evolve to accommodate a volatile socio-political environment. The authors’ assumption that foundations are ‘insulated from financial and political pressures’ does not apply in contexts where the state is repressive or undemocratic. In such a setting all organizations are subject to the vagaries of an unstable and unpredictable political environment. Yet, in is in these very circumstances there is a need to grapple with the root causes of a problem. Doing so requires flexibility – a flexibility that enables the foundation to take calculated risks. Speich’s comment that ‘human interaction is unpredictable’ is nowhere more applicable than in Sri Lanka, which is why ‘sensing the environment’ and ‘sensing and leveraging opportunities’ have to become second nature to organizations working here.

One of the main critiques of strategic philanthropy is that it ignores the voices of non-profits and shifts too much power to donors. This is a valid criticism. We’ve found that many programmes have been donor driven in alignment with the policy agendas of bilateral and multilateral donors, which in repressive environments might also be forced not to support certain programmes, such as those on human rights or provision of psycho-social care, due to government restrictions. In such instances the voices of non-profits, particularly community organizations that are closest to the frontlines, are drowned out. A local foundation such as NTT has learned that listening to the voices of communities enables us to have the most impact, as they are most aware of their needs.

Over the years we have also realized that research and learning play an integral role in enhancing our effectiveness. However, as a small public foundation that has to make every dollar/rupee count, we have had to be creative in making this happen. For instance, graduate students of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University undertook a number of assessments and reviews for NTT as part of their coursework. We’ve also found it useful to weave learning into existing projects, such as the women’s fellowship. This enabled us to fine-tune the strategies being used to strengthen the leadership of women within their communities.

Kania, Kramer and Russell emphasize the importance of improving system fitness, pointing out that we should focus on ‘strengthening the systems and relationships that can generate solutions, rather than on constructing the solutions themselves’. Yet, in our post-war context, although strengthening nascent community groups in conflict-affected areas should be a priority and an integral part of rebuilding social networks, limited energy and resources are dedicated to this. Instead, donors often expect these nascent groups to become professional bodies immediately but without providing adequate support to help strengthen them.

When considerable resources are provided to an organization with limited experience and capacity to manage and absorb it, inevitably it leads to failure; worse, it may tear apart the existing structure and place excessive pressure on institutional and inter-personal relationships. In this regard, our strategy is in line with Katherine Fulton’s call to invest in leaders who work close to the frontlines. This becomes particularly important when systems and processes are weak, because these individuals will be able to continue to function as catalysts for social change.

Ambika Satkunanathan is chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Sri Lanka.

Tagged in: Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust Strategic Philanthropy

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