I was walking with a young leader of an Indian civic engagement organisation last week, when he shared a perspective that stayed with me. He said, “Sometimes, society believes its role is solely to resist deep-rooted power structures. But what if we, as citizens, fundamentally reconstructed these power structures?”
The triad of markets, states, and society often determines change in the world. Society can highlight problems in holding power accountable, an increasingly complex role in today’s polarised world. However, these approaches are intertwined. They are two sides of the same coin, underpinned by the drive for change and societal betterment.
An example of such change is the Akshara Foundation’s Ganitha Kalika Andolana program. This education initiative in Karnataka, India, actively involves the community in the learning process and has bridged the gap between schools and their communities, fostering mutual development and responsibility. Centered around math contests, this initiative sparked excitement throughout various public spaces – schools, community buildings, and temples. However, the initiative’s reach extended far beyond the students — the program aimed to involve parents, heightening their awareness of their children’s numerical abilities.
Along with student participation, the community’s involvement, reflected in the local contributions of resources and donations, was a crucial part of the program’s achievement. By facilitating a unique connection between schools and communities, the Akshara Foundation’s Ganitha Kalika Andolana program reframed the ‘us versus them’ paradigm, creating an interconnected, mutually beneficial network of stakeholders who are united in enhancing educational outcomes.
The Kshetra Foundation for Dialogue also exemplifies this approach through its construction of ‘dialogic spaces.’ They use the Dialogic Method to support individuals, organisations, and communities to deal with conflict, create spaces for dialogue, and build cultures and systems that foster dialogue as a default way of doing things. The true power of these spaces lies in the attitudinal shifts they engender. Individuals leave these spaces with a sense of trust, new perspectives and insights that foster systemic change over time.
Another initiative, Reap Benefit, based in Bangalore, India, employs this unique method. Reap Benefit primarily aims to build civic muscle in young people to solve local issues through their network of ‘Solve Ninjas’. A tool called ‘Samaja’ further enhances this initiative. It empowers any young person or community to leverage technology in resolving their local problems. Reap Benefit’s goal is not to expand its own organisation, but to ignite a movement that enables communities to become problem solvers.
The imperative of trust reshapes societal engagement in systems change. It serves as both glue and lubricant in the social change machinery, promoting cohesion and facilitating dynamic transitions in an ever-changing world.
A prime example is Prasanna, an 8th grader who noticed the absence of a suitable place to read in his village. Through his efforts, he successfully advocated restoring an unused library. His journey from being a Solve Ninja to a civic leader embodies the transformational power of engagement.
While these examples demonstrate positive engagement, resistance still serves as a necessary check on power. However, when resistance becomes the default mode of engagement, it can inadvertently reinforce narratives of antagonism, potentially eroding the fragile ecosystems of trust vital to a thriving society.
Trust-based philanthropy acts as a catalyst, embedding trust, intentionality, and transparency in relationships with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). This foundational trust significantly influences the community’s broader interactions and relationships, fostering openness and commitment to shared values between CSOs and communities.
Rather than simply recipients, CSOs are transformed into carriers and multipliers of trust. By ‘paying forward’ the trust received from philanthropists, CSOs create a ripple effect of trust and collaboration throughout the civic network. This trust fortifies each interaction, contributing to a resilient civic engagement framework capable of navigating social complexities with cooperation and mutual respect. In turn, trust-based philanthropy becomes pivotal in transforming civil society’s engagement strategies and championing collaborative approaches to social change.
The imperative of trust reshapes societal engagement in systems change. It serves as both glue and lubricant in the social change machinery, promoting cohesion and facilitating dynamic transitions in an ever-changing world. This deep infusion of trust into philanthropic efforts ensures participation extends beyond mere involvement to encompass influence and co-creation towards meaningful change. With the trust imperative active, the participation narrative shifts from token inclusion to empowered engagement, where societal actors can collaborate and influence, driving resilient systems change and embodying transformative, trust-based philanthropy.
Within our current Overton window – the range of policies and ideas considered acceptable in public discourse – pure oppositional tactics may have limited impact. A transformation of systems through active participation may yield better results than opposition alone. Society can construct more equitable power structures aligned with our shared values by shaping narratives, building trust, and widening the Overton window from within.
Civil society’s engagement with power structures isn’t a binary choice between resistance and participation. It is a spectrum of various approaches that include these strategies, part of a broader repertoire of civic engagement, which also encompasses collaboration, negotiation, innovation, and more.
Realising a just society also necessitates systemic changes in our economic, political, and social structures. Recognising these complexities showcases our capacity for self-reflection, dedication to progress, and aspiration to contribute to an equitable society.
Trust-based philanthropy plays a significant part in this transformation. It promotes a more egalitarian, inclusive model, challenging the power imbalances of the traditional top-down approach. It recognises the need to redistribute power, reduce bureaucratic hurdles, and foster a more responsive, adaptive, and impactful philanthropic sector.
Substantial trust-based realignments in our societal structures require a change to take root within us first. This internal shift readies the ground for an external transformation, enabling society to progress from a simple overseer to an active cultivator of trust and change.
However, trust-based philanthropy doesn’t cure all. It functions within larger systems that can still perpetuate inequality and injustice. Realising a just society also necessitates systemic changes in our economic, political, and social structures. Recognising these complexities showcases our capacity for self-reflection, dedication to progress, and aspiration to contribute to an equitable society.
We have the opportunity to transform our society into one rooted in trust, shared responsibility, and mutual understanding. The path ahead is challenging, but trust offers a roadmap to walk together as we listen, understand, and build the social fabric we all depend upon. There is no more critical work than this: to realise a society rooted in trust, where responsibility is mutual and power balanced. The time for change is now.