why do we strengthen CBO systems thinking capacity?

Each organization will have its own definition of program success and thus have different needs in order to achieve that success.  Regardless of size, they all want to be effective organizations whose work positively impacts their communities. Drawing on the expertise of our own Program Officers and Lead Partners, as well as best-in-class technical consultants and experts from across the continent and the globe, we strengthen our grantees’ systems thinking approaches so they can have deeper impact while actively engaging their communities in every step of the process. 

Systems thinking is an approach to social change that recognizes that we all live and operate within and as part of complex social systems. A systems approach compels us to consider the context, map out different components/actors in the system and the relationships and interactions between them, collaborate with key stakeholders, pay attention to and understand dynamics and patterns, and continuously learn and adapt along the way.

The story of Malawian Firelight CBO grantee-partner Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) illustrates the power of this systems thinking approach:


Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) was born in 1996 out of a community need to address the HIV pandemic that was devastating the Malawian district of Namwera, where the HIV prevalence rate was over 17% at the time. Village leaders and community members came together out of a desire to save lives and strengthen community resilience, focusing on three key areas: home-based care for people living with HIV, care for vulnerable children and youth in HIV-affected families, and behavior change programs to limit the spread of HIV.

In 2004, Firelight began funding NACC to launch its youth vocational training program and a goat pass-on program to boost economic livelihoods for community members. Over the course of its long-term partnership with Firelight, NACC began to focus more and more on education – realizing that even when children were provided with school fees, uniforms, and learning materials to be able to continue primary or secondary education, the schools they were attending were still suffering from low quality. NACC understood that in order to address cross-cutting community issues affecting vulnerable children and community members, it was essential to look at the whole system. Firelight supported NACC along this journey of systems thinking.

“Systems thinking means looking at community issues in their totality. For example, for the issues we are seeing, we need to see what the root causes and contexts of such issues are and how they affect the entire community, as well as individual members of a family. At NACC, we use a comprehensive community scorecard to both engage ‘duty bearers’ and ‘service users’ in coming up with solutions.” Saeed Wame, NACC Executive Director 

NACC developed a comprehensive community scorecard that is used to engage community members, children, parents, teachers, local authorities, and village leaders in order to both identify problems and to work towards solutions. Under Firelight’s girls’ secondary education initiative, NACC used their community scorecard to first identify government standards for quality at secondary schools and then to determine whether local Community Day Secondary Schools were actually meeting these standards. Through this process, NACC was able to document the low pass rates for girls in secondary school, high student-to-teacher ratios, lack of textbooks and learning materials, and long distances that students were walking to school – none of which met government standards.

Then, they brought together all stakeholders – students, parents, school committees, teachers, village leaders, and local authorities to discuss each of these domains from their perspectives. These discussions provided fuel for generative conversations about how each stakeholder group could do their part to improve quality. For example, the lack of teaching and learning materials – including desks and chairs – was identified by all stakeholders as a key issue limiting education quality. Working together with NACC, community members realized that this was an issue they could address even without government intervention. As a result, they mobilized community resources to procure furniture for the local struggling secondary schools. NACC also uses this same process for its child protection and early childhood development programs.

Beginning in only four villages in Namwera, NACC has vastly scaled its programs to hundreds of villages through the good will of community members who have volunteered their time and given their resources to NACC’s programs – and has grown in strength as a result of funding and capacity building from Firelight, who did not shy away from partnering with a small organization with potential to make a big impact on the systems that affect children.

“When we were a very small organization, Firelight was the only donor who really wanted to work with community-based organizations. Firelight supported us and believed in us – providing us with training in organizational management, resource mobilization, program development, and ability to think about shifting entire systems. Firelight saw potential in us when others did not. Little by little, we grew, and today, the government recognizes our efforts, and we sit on national technical working groups for secondary education, early childhood development, and child protection.” - Saeed Wame, NACC Executive Director