A powerful new vision of philanthropy on the African continent took hold at the Indaba hosted by TrustAfrica and Urgent Action Fund–Africa in Naivasha, Kenya earlier this year. We re-imagined modes of philanthropy that are rooted in African agency and solidarity and that provide ample and ongoing resources for feminist and pan-African organizing that are urgently needed.
In the time since we gathered, I’ve been thinking more about ways this new future can be built to last. How can we sustain and grow an African-led resource base over the long term? Our meeting discussions surfaced the need for a philanthropy infrastructure that is accessible, inclusive, equitable, and locally owned and driven. The dream is, for sure, endowed funds – with a goal of a $1 billion fund in ten years’ time. To get there, we need to lay the groundwork. To me, this starts with an ecosystem lens.
In Naivasha we applied an ecosystem lens when we talked about philanthropy’s role in creating enabling environments for movements. Feminist and pan-African movements are all about collective action. This requires a strong ecosystem of movements and groups that can work with each other over time to effect change. The issues we are dealing with are complex and intersectional. No one group – even large organizations – can face these issues alone. They do best when they are connected to one another. Together they have the chance for greater visibility and impact.
But all too often, groups don’t know who else is in the space. Nor are there reliable sources on the continent for finding other like-minded groups. If you don’t know who is out there, how are you going to connect with them? For the most part, the field is unmarked. Funders, many of them based outside Africa, get around this by doing their own research, mapping the field in their areas of interest. They share this data and information with other funders, but not more widely.
Data is an enabler: enabling groups to find each other, to collaborate, to constitute a movement. We need to know where groups are, what issues they work on. Do they do advocacy, deliver services, conduct research? What are their strengths, gaps, challenges? This data is important on an organizational level, but when aggregated across the sector, it can help funders and movement builders identify gaps and work that is critical but under-funded.
Unfortunately, this kind of information does not currently exist. At least not in coherent and easily accessible ways.
Governments who regulate CSOs do not make public the data they collect. And even if they were to do so, the data is often dated, inconsistent and in many cases still in paper form. Funders, who also collect data on CSOs through grant application processes and mapping exercises rarely publish the data they collect. While there are several databases of African CSOs, some of which include thousands of organisations, the majority provide basic, directory-like information.
Another ecosystem priority is institutional strengthening. Often what limits or undermines groups’ impact are organisational weaknesses or challenges. It’s related to money of course, and as discussed at the gathering, flexible and core funding are critical. But if governance and financial sustainability are ignored, donors may default to funding better established or larger organizations, even when others are better situated. This is especially important in the case of building movements, which are often powered by smaller groups that are vitally connected to people and grassroots communities.
The fact is that we actuallyknow little about what makes an organisation stable and sustainable. We need narratives of groups that have had institution-building success. One example is AMREF, a healthcare non-profit based in Nairobi. We need to document success stories of groups of all sizes and types. Such data could inform a set of benchmarks to help guide others to organisational sustainability.
As we advance a new vision of feminist and pan-African philanthropies, we must ask ourselves: what do movements and groups need to tackle the huge agendas before them? Steady funding and solidarity, to be sure. But things that may seem more prosaic, like data provision and institutional capacity building, can help ensure that what gets built, is built to last.
Rose Maruru is the co-founder of the Dakar-based EPIC-Africa, which seeks to enhance philanthropic impact by filling critical data and capacity gaps in the CSO/philanthropy sector in Africa.