Can philanthropy disrupt the precarity of work in civil society?


Noha El-Mikawy


Civil society workers collect and communicate needed evidence on social, economic and cultural rights, provide innovative services to vulnerable communities, and advocate for policies that disrupt inequality and injustice. While all of those civil society functions require high expertise and professionalism, those working in civil society often confront untenable levels of informal, casual or precarious contractual relations.

This is an unsettling reality, and it is time we ask ourselves if there is anything philanthropy can do about it.

Lebanon Support is a civil society organisation that has produced a survey showing the casualization of work in CSOs. The survey shows that 50 per cent of respondents say their salary in civil society does not allow them to save or make ends meet. The social protection benefits most frequently enjoyed are official holidays and paid annual leave. The least enjoyed benefits are childcare, pension, and health coverage after retirement. This is not a national problem specific to any one country; it is a global problem.

While the precarity of work in civil society is a structural systemic issue for governments to address, it is also related to funding streams and how they are structured to focus on activities. Activity focus is to the detriment of organisational sustainability of CSOs, an issue that manifests itself in multiple ways including precarious working conditions and lack of social protection packages. Peter Donaldson in the September 2020 issue of Alliance magazine referred to a Bridgespan report of 2013 and an InsideNGO report of 2015 where it is said that 70 per cent of NGOs surveyed named insufficient indirect cost coverage and unrecovered overhead expenses as major challenges.

So, can philanthropy disrupt such precarity of work in civil society?

Readers may react with an adamant ‘no’ and if they do, they are partially right. Philanthropy ‘works with’ civil society towards broad goals for the improvement of the lives of the vulnerable, those discriminated against, or those who are voiceless. Precarity of work in civil society is systemic and is not exceptional to civil society alone; it is experienced by millions of seasonal and informal workers in agriculture and services.

There is an issue of paradigm here. Philanthropy ‘works with’ civil society and gives grants for needed mission related activities. At best, philanthropy may work on civil society as a troubled sector because of laws and regulations that restrict civic space and civic engagement. Peter Donaldson is right to complain about that paradigm which does not see the need to invest in an organisation’s infrastructure, management and governance. In fact, that paradigm limits the impact of philanthropy to projects and neglects the impact of philanthropy on institutions. It also jeopardizes the positive impact of philanthropy on individuals who have the brilliant ideas and who work in institutions.

There are three things that philanthropy can do.:

  1. Increase unrestricted funding or expand the grant funds that cover administrative and operating cost.
  2. Work on an international standard for funders to assess the organisational sustainability of their partners adding social protection coverage of staff to other dimensions that funders currently use such as gender and racial diversity.
  3. Double down on advocacy for the inclusion of civil society workers in national social protection strategies, especially when such strategies begin in phases by focusing on certain sectors be that agriculture, domestic or health care.

While precarity of civil society is a structural issue that requires systemic change to ensure social protection and dignity for all, philanthropy has a role to play. It can help combat the perception that civil society is a casual and precarious sector where a person has to be perpetually putting herself and her family in constant danger of poverty! This is a perception and a prospect that does not befit a sector that we all consider a ‘partner’ in inclusive development.

Noha El-Mikawy is the Regional Director of Ford Foundation, MENA Office.

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