What can philanthropy do to stimulate deep systems change? Colleen Magner.Reos Partners. IPASA Newsletter. December 2021.

What can philanthropy do to stimulate deep systems change?

Colleen Magner, Reos Partners

This article explores how philanthropy organisations can better collaborate, listen to the emerging needs they seek to address, and more clearly understand their role in the ecosystems in which they work. Colleen Magner of Reos Partners explains how to use Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP), stretch collaboration, radical experimentation, stepping into the game, and identifying invisible middles, to stimulate deep systems change.



In the extraordinary times that we’ve been living through, we have observed how Covid-19 has disrupted social-purpose organisations, and by association, philanthropists. We now know that one of the immediate impacts of Covid-19 was that existing inequality was highlighted and exacerbated, particularly when it came to food, jobs, healthcare, and reliable information. Many organisations have been forced to rethink their business models and even their purpose, how they interact with others, and how important relationships[1] are.

The importance of spending time in the future

Covid-19 made us aware that things must change, and change fast – but how can we make this change happen? How do we look at complex problems and extract a new insight from it? Or even better, how do we collectively look at something and extract the same productive insight?

For philanthropy organisations, moving from passive anticipation to active influencing of coordinated efforts requires spending time in the future. In these conditions it often helps to spend time thinking together about the future, which unlocks a type of imagination that can be both connecting and empowering for those involved.

Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) is a process in which stakeholders across a sector come together in person, or online, to create scenarios about what could happen up to a point in time, e.g. 2030. This process enables insights in how complex interactions between various factors, certainties and uncertainties found within and beyond the boundaries of the system will influence the work that needs to be done. It also emphasises that participants need to understand the system better.  The ability to understand the system better can be a distinguishing differentiator between a measured response and an ill-considered reaction in a fight for survival. (See Steps for Spending Time in the Future in the text box below).

Stretch collaboration requires connection and conflict

In our experience, the best timing for ‘stretch collaboration [2][3] is when levels of frustration are high across different centres of power, and yet there is an equal sense of what’s possible. The sentiment of change in South Africa today, together with high levels of frustration about the current situation are good ingredients for a working together across differences.

In South Africa, this collaborative act of embracing conflict and connection plays out frequently when we’re talking about race. In our work with addressing increasing inequality and its manifestations, my colleagues and I are often confronted with the dynamics of race, particularly in groups. How do we talk about and acknowledge the realities and perceptions about race and privilege? The aggregate economic and social power of white people in South Africa is still pervasively dominant.  Without surfacing these dynamics in a group, the exercise of working with a complex problem, will always be flawed. The discussion will be based on the naïve assumption that the starting point is a level playing field. So how do you create a ‘safe space’ to have a conversation about race and inequality within the contexts we’re trying to change? We’ve learnt that it’s important to create spaces for sharing stories that reveal the conflict, and perhaps also therefore reveal possible traction.  If we start telling and listening to one another’s stories, we cross a threshold.

The common thread across our experiences is that the work of collaboration is not about transcending the past so that we see the world in the same way, but about the willingness to commit to the issues and to staying in relationship with each other, even when we don’t want to because it seems to be the more difficult option.  I have experienced that it requires us to acknowledge that people need to hold multiple roles at the same time – as a person, as a representative of an organisation, and as an activist trying to find a way through the compromised world in which we live.  In the continuous pursuit of reinventing these relationships, conflict is sometimes inevitable and necessary. The learning required is how to be in both conflict and relationship. It’s not a choice between the two, it’s the dual nature that’s required of this work.

We need to practice radical experimentation

One of the reasons why philanthropy organisations sometimes work in silos could be because they may have different ideas about what to do. What is important is that this process is not about people getting along, or about consensus or peacemaking. It is about collaborating across interests.

For many, the experience of addressing often contradictory symptoms of South Africa’s systemic problems leads to despair.  It might be because a person sees the goal of social equality slipping further in the wrong direction, or because despite our best efforts, South Africa isn’t in the place we had hoped.  So, what is the balance between disillusionment and leadership? How do we live with the daily grind of what’s ineffective and still change things? Understanding the role of hope can be useful. Hope isn’t a fixed idea of what should happen, based on past experience. Hope is a vague but strong pull to believe that something could be different. The process of convening a Social Lab is about firstly constituting a group of people who work across differences but have a shared issue to address. The second step is to share perspectives and experiences and allow for a bigger ‘system view’ of the issue to emerge.

When the solution is not clear, one way to navigate through muddy waters is to work on multiple levels of the challenge simultaneously, the micro and the macro. It means knowing that it’s ok that your effort might not fall into a neat linear strategy.  It’s about identifying ‘energy’ (an openness to act), moving towards it, and exercising leadership from that position. When we do not have a best practice to fall back on, we tap into a design and systems thinking approach and start learning through experimentation. (See Steps for Radical Experimentation in the text box below).

There have been times on projects involving people from different organisations and sectors we’ve worked on over time where change has been frustratingly slow. Initiatives that seemed ripe for impact fizzled out. Change doesn’t happen in a single workshop.  Inspiration certainly happens, particularly in those moments of insight or connection. But longer-term change happens with the constant chipping away at the problem and experimenting our way forward.

Step into the game

We have found in our work that it is useful to challenge preconceived notions by providing opportunities to our clients to explore issues from new angles. For example, it is possible to gain an understanding about doing business in Africa, by learning how business communities from other African countries operate in South Africa, instead of undertaking a study tour to other African countries.

When we used this approach in one of our projects, participants were shocked by their preconceived notions of both the place they live in, in South Africa, and the different ways of doing business in Africa – how we collaborate. One of the key principles of systems thinking is that one can’t change a system from the outside. Unless you acknowledge you are part of the problem you can’t change it. In our experience, this acknowledgement of being part of a problem often reveals itself in how participants view the problem at hand. This assessment is often informed by subtler influences of our worldviews, people we interact with, and the mandate of our organisations. Stepping into the game involves understanding the limited perspective you have about the problem at hand because you occupy a particular place in a system and inquiring into a broader understanding of the problem through experiences with others who occupy a different place in that particular system.

Can Philanthropists take up the role of Invisible Middles?

In our work, I have come across many “invisible middles” working across sectors in South Africa, whether it be in organisations working with local government and traditional authorities on land reform, or people working within both corporate boardrooms and stokvels on more inclusive financial products. These individuals and their organisations have the ability to ‘see and assemble actors across a system’, what we in Reos Partners call Convening.

Invisible middles are the people who have stepped into the game. They are typically not in the press, they are not the first line of public scrutiny, and they recognise that they cannot affect change independently. What makes them unique is that they have the purpose and ability to engage both the engine room and those steering the ship. They understand the trade-offs and conflicting interests between different sectors and yet know that there are also places of shared interest and concern.

For South Africans to successfully collaborate across sectors, we need to both acknowledge the spaces we influence and occupy, and seek to understand those we don’t, guided by the invisible middles to address unemployment, land reform, healthcare, energy, sustainable food supply, regional integration, social protection, infrastructure, and other burning issues. This will require unlikely allies to stay committed for a period of time, to debate, share, experiment and implement. How do we ensure the invisible middles continue to connect people, resources, and shared interests?

The invisible middles are critical connectors in South Africa, an environment that so often experiences intractable division. The more philanthropists actively notice opportunities for this role, and practice these capacities, the more spaces will be created for collaboration, and the potential to experience a change in ourselves and our own leadership – how we make sense of our shared challenges, who to work with, and how we choose to act together.


So, the big question is how to discern where the voice of judgment and frustration opens an opportunity into stretch collaboration – when our future in South Africa is uncertain, scary, and full of conflict. What the concepts of collaboration above offer us in particular in South Africa today, is the ability to listen to a different voice. A voice that lives in a democracy, and yet is still disenfranchised. We cannot box that voice of anger and frustration only into “atrocities of the past” – it’s the overwhelming reality of the majority living in one of the most unequal countries in the world, and what that comes with, that is asking to be heard.

We all know the antidote to unfamiliarity isn’t fear. It’s curiosity. Let us use the tools of Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP), stretch collaboration, radical experimentation, stepping into the game, and identifying invisible middles, to listen better, and to different voices, to use the inherent ability of philanthropy to be bold and innovative.



Steps for Spending Time in the Future

The following steps shows how to ‘spend time in the future’, understand it better and respond more strategically. Invite others to think about this alongside you – a diversity of perspectives will enrich your inquiry. Together with colleagues and partners, think about:

  1. What is happening outside of your organisation, in society, which concerns you?
  2. Which of these concerns are you most uncertain about in the future?
  3. Prioritise these “key uncertainties” and tell stories about how these uncertainties might unfold between now and in 5, 10 and 15 years ahead. It is important that these stories about the future are not your personal desired and preferences – they need to be plausible, and also introduce new thinking.
  4. Consider how could your organisation respond more effectively should any of these stories happen?
  5. What opportunities for collaboration and innovation are presented for your organisation in these stories?


Steps for Radical Experimentation

For philanthropy organisations to practice radical experimentation, we suggest including the following steps:

  1. Convene the group that does not necessarily agree on a solution, or even know what it is, but comprises diverse individuals who are equally invested in its outcome.
  2. Ensure that each stakeholder in a group process signs up to a set of collective agreements.
  3. Frame the invite to collaborate in a language where people are willing to step out of their ‘comfort zones’ and experiment. Although people do not agree, if you can help them see that they are collaborating on a shared challenge, they become more inclined to work with opposing opinions.
  4. Build a rough, shared understanding of the problematic situation and its impact on the current reality, allowing for an enhanced understanding of the big picture to emerge.
  5. From this deeper systemic understanding, form smaller teams to experiment with a range of approaches to address the problem where it has highest possible impact and challenge the current norms of how things are done.
  6. Ensure a rapid and open learning process with the larger group to learn from the uptake or not of these ideas.

[1] Sonday, M and Magner, C. 2021. Collaborating through crisis: Building more resilient NGOs. See p 230 of the 2021 Trialogue Business in Society Handbook. https://trialogue.co.za/publications/2021-csi-handbook-download/?eid=mQeZ0oXB%2F3OFf%2BVfVXhZhDPH8CB0IwfzRsnbSU146%2FBXwf1hBbwUaUDcy%2BiFGZrkhDZWnatRewWwzt%2FipZVtjLhFUD%2BMtiMWMfHs2Y0msbVh6eZ4Ng%3D%3D

[2] Magner, C. 2018. What kind of collaboration is needed to move South Africa forward? See p 196 of the 2018 Trialogue Business in Society Handbook. https://trialogue.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/BusinessInSociety2018.pdf

[3] Kahane, Adam 2018. Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With Or Like Or Trust.Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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