Imagine the following scenario: as a donor you come across an informal community group with a great idea that would substantially benefit the community. Downside? It’s an informal group, a loose network of activists, with no prior experience but with an excellent reputation in the community. Sounds familiar?
It is a scenario that often occurs in the development world. Coming from civil society, I often hear the complaint from CIVICUS’ civil society organisation (CSO) members that funding requirements from foreign donors often involve the mandatory registration of the organisation and proof of existence for at least three years.
The first requirement can be complicated in contexts where registration procedures are used in politicised ways against vocal civil society groups. When it comes to the second, seeking local resources for the first three years of a CSO’s life in an environment where the philanthropic culture is nascent and where government funding is non-existed or limited is a daunting challenge. This has led to a situation in many countries where a small number of established CSOs are the recipient of the majority of donor funding.
A session at the Global Summit for Community Foundations, dedicated to grantmaking and effective interventions, presented participants with three – familiar – scenarios, as the one described above, that grantmakers are often confronted with. Some suggested principles for grantmaking foundations that came out of this session, and that could help to answer the summit’s call to #shiftthepower are:
- The flexibility of grants is key;
- Sustainability should be a guiding principle;
- Think broader than only financial resources;
- Build capacity based on needs;
- Promote local ownership: take a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down approach, and support the objectives of groups and CSOs;
- Create relationships based on trust, which can grow over time;
- Mutually agree the parameters of the partnership: the relationship should be one of a joint journey, with the timeframe, size of the grant and type of reporting mutually agreed upon;
- Trust the local agency of the local partner and listen to your partners;
- Support networking.
The most important question that was asked by participants during the session was: are foundations bold enough? Are they taking enough risks? Some foundations are working on innovative approaches to grantmaking. The Azeem Premji Foundation, Raith Foundation, Arab Human Rights Fund and others have understood the challenges with a top-down approach to grantmaking and are trying putting the above principles in practice.
Above all, there is a need to experiment. Social change is not, and never has been, a linear process. If you believe in change, you need to accept that the process often involves taking two steps forward and one step back. Now is the time for grantmaking to grow bolder.
Ine Van Severen is the policy and research officer at CIVICUS.