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Social problems are like Hydra heads: cut one off, and more appear. This is the frustrating reality that organizations in the philanthropic sector face every day. They try to solve problems to improve people’s lives, but many problems persist despite much effort and expense. Real progress seems elusive. CNN recently reported that “California has spent billions to fight homelessness. The problem has gotten worse.” Massive investments in climate solutions such as carbon markets, CO2 sequestration, and energy alternatives had no material effect on slowing global warming. The UN recently warned that our efforts are insufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change. NGOs scaled solutions to educational problems in India for decades without sufficient reading or math improvement. This led a Harvard researcher to wonder: “India: Massive Expansion in Schooling, Too Little Learning, Now What?” Current philanthropic work—as a leader of a prominent US-based foundation remarked at a recent Stanford PACS conference—leaves people exhausted. How can we break this cycle of endless problem-solving?

Perhaps we should consider increasing our efforts. One option may be to invest in innovation to create more effective solutions. Another approach is to allocate more resources towards expanding current solutions, which could yield impactful results. However, we must also contemplate the idea that there may be a deeper issue with problem-solving that needs to be addressed.

The Problem With Problem-Solving

Solving problems to improve people’s lives has been philanthropy’s raison d’être. However, some criticisms have arisen regarding the approach philanthropies take in problem-solving. Expecting immediate positive results from complex solutions can lead to risk aversion and short-term thinking. Wealthy philanthropic organizations often view issues through the lens of scientific, technological, and financial superiority. This “we know better” attitude exacerbates power imbalances with local implementers. Impoverished individuals are treated as passive recipients of solutions, with no active role in the process. Additionally, the "fail fast" mantra may leave insufficient time for reflection and learning, which can lead to a lack of accountability and transparency. This, in turn, can increase adverse side effects of well-intended solutions. Solving isolated problems can result in fragmented efforts, duplication, and wasted resources.

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These issues may be resolved, but it's unlikely to make problem-solving more effective. One reason for this is that problem-solving approaches often overlook the dynamics of problem supply, the ongoing creation of problems. This is apparent in daily news reports, which indicate that our societies generate both new and old problems at a faster rate than we can ever hope to solve them. Even solutions that “work” can have negative side-effects that then generate new problems. Climate change as an undesirable side-effect of the fantastic innovation of using fossil fuels for energy is an example. The live-saving invention of antibiotics has created mutated bacteria that now resist treatments. Indebted households, violence against poor women, and alcoholism can be the side-effect of providing innovative microfinance solutions that are well intended. These side effects require additional solutions that are often urgent and costly, leading to a never-ending cycle of problems and solutions.

Unfortunately, our blind faith in solutions and the capabilities of new technologies can lead to a careless attitude towards creating problems. We tend to overlook the importance of problems as indicators of deeper issues, instead glorifying the innovators and their solutions. This mindset can be problematic, as it reduces our role as philanthropists to playing catch-up and fails to acknowledge the possibility of fundamental flaws in our approach.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneering systems thinker and organization scholar, famously described the dangers of thinking in terms of problem-solving because “we walk into the future facing the past—we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforeseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.” Ackoff highlights our tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in addressing social problems. What would it take to shift from a reactive, past-oriented solution perspective to a proactive philanthropy oriented towards a healthy future that does not create so many problems?

Medicine 3.0: An Inspiration

In the eyes of medical experts, the future of medicine is to prioritize keeping people healthy for longer periods. For example, the Australian Medical Association’s recent health vision is a departure from a tradition of what they call “sickcare” to a genuine health care.

This shift towards Medicine 3.0 is a break from the past when trillions were spent on developing treatments for numerous health issues. Medicine 2.0 was obsessed with the question: How do we develop better solutions for health problems in the form of advanced drugs or surgeries? At the same time, this costly effort threatens health systems and prices advanced treatments out of the hands of millions. Medicine 3.0 instead prioritizes creating and sustaining health over curing diseases. The goal is to promote lifelong preventive health practices to improve healthspan—the number of disease-free years in a person's life. However, this approach is incompatible with the medical industry's dominant focus on extending lifespan—surviving the cycle of diseases and treatments. Medicine 2.0 is oriented towards the past: moving away from illness. Medicine 3.0 is oriented towards the future: building and maintaining health around a vision of “Zero Disease” as the foundation for a fulfilling life.

Can this vision be applied to philanthropy? A vision of “Zero Problem” could move the sector away from prioritizing the design, innovation, and delivery of solutions to a myriad of social problems. Instead, philanthropies would help orchestrate and shape social contexts that create fewer problems in the first place.

A Sketch of Zero-Problem Philanthropy

Many people are familiar with the saying, "All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get." This may also apply to social context or systems. In fact, it could be said that all social context is perfectly designed to create the problems it does. This means that problems are not unusual and do not need to be fixed as if they are unexpected. Instead, problems are the expected outcomes of a particular social context. To create different outcomes, we need to change the context itself.

While traditional philanthropy aims to solve problems, Zero-Problem Philanthropy invests in developing a healthy context. This investment lays the groundwork for a future where people can thrive rather than having merely some of their problems fixed. Three examples demonstrate the Zero-Problem Philanthropy approach. The first example presents a conceptual vision for redesigning transportation as a zero health-risk sector. The second example illustrates an important intermediary step towards eliminating homelessness from a Zero-Problem Philanthropy vision. The third example emphasizes the opportunity for organizations to create a healthy context where people and the environment can flourish.

Transportation Sector: Vision Zero

A recent proposal for rethinking transportation systems illustrates how the adoption of a zero-problem vision guides operational and portfolio decisions. The transportation sector constitutes a complex problem affecting many aspects of health, including safety, mental health, air quality, and access to services. Researchers recently argued that decades of problem-solving such as aggressive speed limits, seat-belt laws, or measures to reduce alcohol-impaired driving failed to improve many problematic aspects of transportation. US road traffic deaths and injuries remain high and surpass those in most other high-income countries. The authors suggest a paradigm shift towards adopting a radical safe system philosophy, a “Vision Zero.” This vision guides the design of a healthy transportation system that eliminates most safety risks and does not recreate the same old problems. The proposed work would integrate fundamental changes in programs and policies to transform driver education, active and latent safety measures, and the built environment. This approach would also systematically integrate socio-economic issues such as co-locating affordable housing and transit.

Homelessness: Built for Zero

Another inspiration for Zero-Problem Philanthropy is provided by the work of Community Solutions, an NGO based in the US that is committed to ending homelessness through their initiative "Built for Zero." For many years, the organization implemented innovative and large-scale solutions to address the problem of homelessness. It won awards for transforming the Times Square hotel in New York into the nation’s largest affordable housing residency in the early 2000s. This effort's scale exceeded anything deemed feasible at that time. Yet, replicating this transformation in many other hotels in New York did not lower the number of homeless people. In 2010, Community Solutions initiated a nationwide campaign to provide housing for 100,000 homeless people within four years. However, despite achieving their goal, the organization's leaders and employees had to reluctantly admit that they had not made any significant progress in reducing homelessness as a whole.

In 2015, the organization dramatically shifted its focus from problem-solving towards building a healthy context in which sustained homelessness does not occur. Their initiative Built for Zero aligns stakeholders in larger communities and cities to develop sophisticated dashboards enabling real-time knowledge about individuals at risk of homelessness. This awareness is coupled with the ability to immediately house and support any emerging homeless people. According to Community Solutions, more than 70 million people now live in a community where leaders are “building a new reality where homelessness is rare and brief, if it ever occurs.” While Built for Zero cannot yet fully prevent people from becoming homeless, it is designed to eliminate the social problem of sustained and painful homelessness disrupting people’s lives. This result is a major milestone towards a vision of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. The next question is how to reconfigure the education, medical, criminal justice, and corporate systems that are failing too many people and are complicit in the constant inflow of new homelessness. No one wants to become homeless. Imagine using homelessness as a health indicator of society! This vision could align a massive philanthropic effort around a comprehensive redesign of our main social systems and provide a quantifiable measure for our performance.

Multiple Societal Problems: Organizing for a Healthy Context

Ibrahim Abouleish was frustrated with the growing number of problems and the suffering of people in his home country, Egypt, in the 1970s. Because he did not know how to solve these problems, he wanted to build a parallel world to Egypt’s reality, a healthy context that would not create most of Egypt’s problems by design. He left his senior management position in Austria and purchased desert land North of Cairo where he and his family relocated. Abouleish envisioned transforming the desert into healthy land that promotes principles of sustainability and where people can peacefully coexist with each other and the natural environment. He named his initiative Sekem and created a conglomerate of organizations that today enable a broad range of economic, social, educational, and cultural activities in a beautiful and safe environment.

These characteristics of Sekem have created a healthy local context that is strikingly different from the surrounding context where people suffer from Egypt’s many problems. Sekem stands as an inspiring showcase for the ideas of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. This example illustrates how even one determined visionary can successfully engage with building a healthy context. Already in 2003, Sekem was awarded the Right Livelihoods Award in recognition of being a blueprint for a healthy corporation in the 21st century.

Developing Healthy Context

Having a set of criteria to evaluate the healthiness of a context would be extremely beneficial. Luckily, there are philosophers who have offered helpful guidance in this area.

Amartya Sen suggested we should measure social context based on its ability to give individuals and communities the freedom and capability to pursue the things they value in life. Drawing from the ideas of Sen and others, Martha Nussbaum created a more explicit and prescriptive template for evaluating healthy context. She asked: What are the central human capabilities that any social context ought to provide to enable people to live self-determined and dignified lives? Nussbaum identified 10 central capabilities that must be provided beyond a minimum threshold. The capabilities refer to various aspects of life, such as the ability to live a complete and satisfying life into old age. Other capabilities refer to bodily health and integrity, such as the capability to use and nurture senses, imagination, thought, and emotions including affection and expression of justified anger. Living with dignity also involves being able to reason practically, socialize and affiliate with others, and enjoy the beauty of the natural environment. Having opportunities to play and laugh is as essential as being able to participate in political and religious life, own property, and engage in work.

Nussbaum’s framework is not a flawless template. Nevertheless, it remains an excellent starting point for considering healthy contexts and provides practical guidance for developing Zero-Problem Philanthropy practices. The 10 capabilities highlight important areas of learning about how to contextualize and prioritize individual capabilities and how to engage the people who constitute and shape the local social context. This perspective reminds us that we must take individuals seriously, even when working towards a healthy context.

Developing Healthy Individuals

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes individuals and communities thrive.”—International Positive Psychology Association

When focusing on a healthy context, there is a risk of falling into naïve holism, an ineffective mindset commonly seen in system perspectives. For effective Zero-Problem Philanthropy, aligning macro and contextual perspectives with micro and individual perspectives is necessary. This is because the assumption of system perspectives that only relations matter and not parts is not helpful for social systems. Purely structural perspectives (focusing on relations) overlook the importance of agency and how a continuous stream of human decision-making drives unpredictable variance in relations.

How does a Zero-Problem Philanthropy perspective on individuals differ from traditional philanthropic work? Philanthropy often sees disadvantaged individuals as problems that need to be fixed. However, recent psychology research promotes a less deficit-oriented approach. Proponents of this positive psychology movement argue that poor people should not be “completely defined by their poverty, nor can they be fully understood in its terms alone.” Zero-Problem Philanthropy, like positive psychology, starts from the assumption that poor people have many positive traits such as wisdom, honesty, courage, and persistence. Assuming positive traits and emotions like joy, love, intimacy, and hope provide an opportunity to build constructive thoughts and ideas about the future. This approach is similar to the shift in psychology from older therapies that focus on eliminating negative emotions and internal conflicts of the past to a future-oriented focus on those factors that form the strongest basis for building a fulfilling life and setting new goals. Several organizations have adopted strengths-based or assets-based practices ranging from community development in the Solomon Islands to working with homeless and disadvantaged people in the UK.

Like Nussbaum’s framework for healthy context, researchers have developed comprehensive approaches applicable to individuals. Developmental Assets is acknowledged as one of the most influential frameworks for strengthening positive youth development. The framework specifies 20 external and 20 internal assets, building blocks that have robustly proven to be efficacious for a healthy development that enables young people to thrive. External assets include those related to support (such as that offered by one’s family or a caring neighborhood); empowerment (such as a community’s attitude of valuing youth or creating a feeling of safety); boundaries and expectations (such as clear and explicit school rules or those offered by adult role models); and constructive use of time (including spending time with creative activities, sports, or a religious community). Internal assets include a commitment to learning (such as nurturing sources of motivation and developing positive bonds to one’s school); positive values (such as developing a caring attitude, integrity, and responsibility); social competencies (including skills such as planning and decision-making or cultural competence); and positive identity (such as a belief to be in control of one’s fate, self-esteem, and purpose). Thousands of communities and schools have adopted the framework and researchers argue that it can be “positioned in a city or state or nation as a set of nutrients that matters, developmentally and behaviorally, for all youth regardless of race, ethnicity, family composition, gender, parental education, or geographic location. Hence, the asset model has the potential to create the kind of shared vision that can lessen fractured and siloed approaches that inhibit cooperation and collaboration.” Developmental Assets also reminds us that in Zero-Problem Philanthropy, healthy individuals and healthy context co-develop!

The Way Forward

Have you ever considered the potential impact of philanthropy aimed at creating healthy context, that is, healthy social systems? When colleagues and I asked leaders of major foundations and development organizations if they would consider adopting such system-oriented philanthropy practices within their organizations, many replied that these practices would not fit their current organizational structures and processes, which focus on solving concrete problems.

It's important to acknowledge the significant changes required in assumptions and attitudes, organizational strategies and processes, progress evaluations, and the need for constant reflection, learning, and adaptation. Many philanthropies may struggle to decide which practices to adopt and to avoid making merely tactical changes uninformed by an overarching strategy. At the same time, several philanthropic practices signal real possibility: participatory grantmaking, inclusive philanthropy, and asset-based community development can be important elements of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. These practices provide true agency to neglected and oppressed people and drastically expand the restricted and predefined opportunity set that traditional problem-solving practices make available to them. Zero-Problem Philanthropy grounded in building a healthy context and frameworks such as that proposed by Nussbaum or Developmental Assets can be an effective strategic scaffolding for building a portfolio of practices. Such shared overarching frameworks will be necessary for coordinating work across partners involved in such efforts and agreeing on criteria against which progress can be evaluated. Creating healthy context and operating from a zero-problem vision would be an ambitious approach to heal philanthropy from some of its shortcomings and to help society re-focus on a positive future.

I also want to offer a clear warning. Many people understand we need to enact Medicine 3.0 to counter a persistent global health crisis. Yet, Medicine 3.0 is far from being a reality. The resistance of a treatment- and deficit-oriented medical system is strong. Philanthropy, like medicine, urgently requires a new vision grounded in tackling problem supply, not just offering solutions. We cannot afford to continue with business as usual. The declining state of this planet is a strong reminder that our current path is unsustainable. Unfortunately, the current ambitions around big-bet philanthropy or system change seem only to reinforce our traditional ways. I hope many readers will engage in the difficult but crucial work of figuring out how to realize a vision of Zero-Problem Philanthropy!

Zero-Problem Philanthropy