Ask any grassroots movement leader from the Global South and they’ll tell you that finding resourceful ways to sustain their work has become an increasingly difficult challenge.
Many of the factors contributing to this challenge are related not only to the legal, social and political burdens faced by various civil society groups, but are also highly linked to traditional donors operating practices: favoring short-term, measurable and low-risk projects rather than patiently investing in social transformation; imposing high eligibility thresholds and heavy requirements to access resources; and girding relationships by donor-recipient power dynamics.
In recent years, inspiring funders and grassroots movements have experimented with different funding and organising models to better support smaller, local, spontaneous and less formal groups, and to make themselves more accountable to these. Feminist funds and community philanthropy organisations have led this effort and new approaches in resourcing citizen action are becoming integral parts of resourcing strategies of big coalitions such as Greenpeace.
But, there seems to be comparatively less commitment to interrogating what more could be done collectively to ensure that a larger and more diverse range of grassroots are reached ‘where they are’.
In theory, this would entail working together on approaches that enhance the accessibility, responsiveness, quality and relevance of the resources that grassroots can mobilise. However, there seems to be a lack of appropriate platforms and methods to advance new, collective approaches that could bring such a vision into practice.
As an attempt to help moving theory into practice, global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, recently embarked on a consultation to identify, in a participatory way, potential mechanisms to unlock accessible, predictable, flexible funding and other resources for grassroots groups in the Global South, especially in restrictive contexts. Ideally, these would also promote relationships based on trust and solidarity that enable sharing of non-financial assets.
Over five months, we interviewed more than 60 activists, organisers, young leaders and progressive funders from across the globe. We asked about resourcing needs and sense-checked possible solutions based on their lived experiences, bold ideas and deep understanding of grassroots challenges.
Through this rich and lively process, activists explained what conditions improve grassroots access to and mobilisation of key resources: for example, when funders are also activists and offer wide-ranging support to movements (including support to movement-building), or when they are relational, trusting, flexible and prioritise accessibility of diverse, remote and marginalized groups.
Other important elements mentioned include when funders provide support for capacity development and resiliency; when small grants are available; when funds are community-based and -led; and when funding approaches challenge power inequalities.
Interviewees pointed to the need for bolder and more radical funding approaches, building alternative organising models and developing non-financial resourcing mechanisms.
With their valuable input, four high-end concept solutions were identified and further discussed during a series of focus groups with a representative sample of 25 grassroots activists and funders. These concepts included change labs providing physical spaces for cross-pollination, joint organising, collaboration and resource sharing between grassroots, established civil society groups and funders; a non-branded basket fund for frontline groups conceived and governed by civil society; an activist-designed ‘quality trademark’ for funders; and an online resourcing platform designed for and with grassroots.
The different reactions to the concepts revealed mismatches in priorities, views and aspirations, not only between funders and grassroots but also between young and less-young leaders, and across activists from different geographies, rural/urban settings, and struggles. But – across the board – we noted interest and curiosity in the prospect of adapting some of these ideas into their own contexts.
Bringing any of these concepts into reality requires further iterations, consultation and co-design work with more targeted ‘end users’ to make sure that the mechanisms suit the experiences, traditions, political contexts and needs of a particular community or movement.
Yet, we feel that the concepts, or some elements of these, have the potential to make positive contributions to the debate on and practice of resourcing grassroots. Why? Because they point towards some modalities that have been sense-checked collectively as possible pathways. This consultation proved to us that more collective approaches to resourcing grassroots are needed and can only be explored and articulated if there are safe and inclusive spaces to hold meaningful conversations between diverse groups of grassroots, funders and other relevant actors, each one bringing to the table different vantage points and perspectives.
Clara Bosco is senior advisor on civil society resourcing at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.