The ‘Systemic Starfish’.

How Empathy drives all Firetree Trust’s philanthropic initiatives.

Francesco Conrotto Caruso
Firetree Philanthropy
4 min readOct 10, 2020


When I describe what Firetree does, I am always eager to talk about both of our philanthropic programs: Starfish Education and Firetree Philanthropy. In doing so, I have realized that the two programs can be seen to be based on different — some might say even opposite — mindsets.

Starfish, the program imagined and developed by Dick from 2003 onward, was named after the famous story by Loren Eiseley. The story has been told in very different forms but essentially it epitomizes the mindset of many “doers”, who are prompted by empathy into acting and “making a difference to one person at the time’’.

Firetree Philanthropy is built around the idea that only a truly systemic approach can build long-term change. While this has always been true, it has become even more explicit since Nicky Wilkinson joined Firetree in 2018.

While both approaches have supporters as well as detractors, systems-change nowadays appears to have become one of the current most popular buzz-words in the philanthropy world. However, I doubt many funders of systemic change appreciate it requires patient and unrestricted funding and it involves substantial risk.

I for one do not think that these approaches are antithetical and I believe that there can’t be real change without genuine empathy. Changemakers who forget that communities are made by individuals with their own fears, dreams and identities are genuinely frightening to me.

Likewise, I believe that by helping specific individuals the most genuine social entrepreneurs can learn approaches and methodologies that can then be “built to scale” and shared publicly, and thus transform into systemic solutions.

Ultimately, it boils down to the personal values of the changemakers and consequently to those of their organizations, and not the “label” they (or us) put on their programs.

As it turns out, Starfish Education is arguably the most systemic program the Firetree Trust currently runs and supports. Prae Seributra, who leads it, has developed an incredible team that works with the government at various levels, with education institutions, schools and NGOs to fundamentally change the way the Thai government, schools and parents see and deliver education.

Yet, Starfish continues to consider it fundamental to remember that all these stakeholders ultimately serve individual children, not figures and statistics — and to constantly remind them of that.

In our strategic planning discussions, Prae always advocates for Starfish to continue running a small school ourselves, so we always remember what teaching is really all about, with all the challenges and joys that an educator faces when interacting with pupils.

These reminders, Prae insists, are essential when advocating for innovation in education, sharing of best-practices and designing systemic solutions with the government. They also are very important when training educators, because they ensure the Starfish team are seen as peers who show empathy and recognize how hard teaching can be.

The 200+ students who attend Starfish School every year represent the millions of other students Starfish serves with the systemic solutions they develop and to which the organization is ultimately accountable.

Everyone who works with Firetree Philanthropy has extensive experience in starting, growing and managing a non-profit organization — along with other professional skills. This is to me essential to understand how much harder the job of running an NGO is compared to working for/as a Funder. NGO challenges include the constant need to raise funds, fear of not making payroll next month, managing never ending HR issues, pleasing funders, dealing with Boards on top of focusing on programmes — Funders and those working for Funders need to appreciate how much these challenges can affect the potential effectiveness of a NGO (and ask outselves how can we help alleviating them. Easy answer: unrestricted funding…)

There is another reason for which having direct non-profit experience is essential for the Firetree staff: the deep knowledge that what we do affects “people”, who are human beings with names and aspirations and ‘real’ feelings.

Our previous experiences help us all to live by three very essential values: empathy, humility and accountability. Empathy for doers as well as for each member of the communities we interact with, directly or through our partners. Humility, to remember to always challenge our assumptions, listen and learn rather than offering ‘solutions’. Accountability to each single member of the communities we serve as well as to the NGOs we fund (and not only the other way around.)

Given our personal experiences, everyone at Firetree understands that when we immerge in a community facing huge and immediate social issues, while essential to focus on long-term solutions, we must also provide direct and fast support to those in immediate need.

The ability for an organization to constantly shift from direct services to systemic thinking and the other way around is an essential trait of what Firetree Philanthropy seeks in its partners.

Ultimately, what Starfish and Firetree Philanthropy demonstrate is that there is no “magic theoretical approach”. It all boils down to people, genuine values and vision. They are not antithetic programs but rather the perfect exemplification of what Firetree Trust stands for and for we could call the ‘Systemic Starfish’ approach, in which system-change is built on empathy.