Embracing unrestricted funding to drive transformation


Morna Lane


In 2022 we were grateful to become an early recipient of funding from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. This was a huge boost for us because of the generosity ($20 million) but also because it was, unusually for such a large gift, given as unrestricted funds. This meant we could choose where, when, and how to use it.

Restricted funding plays a valuable role in supporting development work, allowing delivery of concentrated impact for specific projects. But for charities, NGOs, partner governments and organisations, and the people they support, coupling it with unrestricted funding allows a particular freedom to make a tangible difference.

Unrestricted funding provides enhanced flexibility to consider different countries and contexts, and use the money where needs are greatest. It can boost projects with funding gaps or extend those which need longer-term support.

It can help expand the volume of projects and provide agility for unexpected challenges. It provides the space for innovation, to pilot ideas before launching full-scale initiatives.

Unrestricted funding also helps with building resource, which forms the foundations of successful initiatives. NGO and charity projects would not have the success they do without people, logistics, equipment.

We use unrestricted funding from a range of donors for all these reasons at Sightsavers, supporting a variety of projects tackling the global theme of inequity. It makes a marked difference and enables us to transform lives.

Tackling the global theme of inequity

The statistics on inequity are staggering, it is an important issue that needs tackling. For example: Women account for more than half of blindness and visual impairment across the world, and we estimate that the global economy is missing out on US$6 trillion dollars from overlooking people with disabilities.

Inequity is ingrained in society and dismantling it will take time. Unrestricted funding provides space for that, and at Sightsavers it often sits alongside restricted funding to boost our efforts. In our work, it is helping remove barriers to work for people with disabilities, improve eye health service access, and make education more inclusive for children with disabilities.

Improving eye health service access

Everyone, including remote communities, women, people with disabilities, should have access to eye care, but more than 85 percent of people with visual impairment live in low to middle income countries. Barriers to access include cost, inaccessible facilities, cultural norms, and discrimination.

Unrestricted funding is contributing to projects that tackle access inequity in countries such as Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan, where there are funding gaps or to top up restricted donations. This includes supporting organisations for people with disabilities to advocate for health rights; health professional training; community-based outreach; facility accessibility audits; disability and gender equity training.

It is also enabling wider change through initiatives such as coordination of state health management teams and advocating for inclusion of people with disabilities and women.

Removing barriers to work

Across the world, only about a third of people with disabilities of working age are in employment. Barriers to employment include stigma and inaccessible workplaces.

Unrestricted funding is helping remove these barriers through projects in countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania. These initiatives are based on projects in other countries funded by restricted income. Unrestricted funding is enabling us to expand and pilot our approach in these extra countries.

The projects include labour market assessments to understand market structures, how they function relative to disability, and which employment sectors could catalyse change.

The funding is helping build the confidence of people with disabilities to engage in employment, and the private sector to be more inclusive. It is strengthening business and disability networks, forming knowledge exchanges between organisations, and influencing regulatory framework.

Making education more inclusive

Children with disabilities are 49 percent more likely to have never attended school than those without disabilities. Every child has the right to education, and support from unrestricted funding is showing that change is possible.

Unrestricted funding has helped us collaborate with governments and education providers to test new ways to embed inclusive education in education systems.

In Malawi, a combination of restricted and unrestricted funding meant we could continue a project when previous funding finished. It helped us train teachers in inclusive education and address misconceptions that children with disabilities cannot attend mainstream schools.

Unrestricted funding in Uganda helped us expand efforts to build teacher capacity to provide inclusive learning. It supported national changes including policy guideline development, continuing professional development materials, training master trainers to deliver inclusive education modules at teaching colleges.

Meretina, who took part in training in Malawi, sees the difference that inclusive education training makes: ‘These trainings enabled me to be able to unite the children with disabilities and those without…We’ve received so many comments from parents…that even when they go to primary school their children are performing well.’

Striking a balance enables change

Charities and NGOs have the impact they do because of collaboration with partners including philanthropists, governments, other organisations. Donations, whether restricted or unrestricted, are an important part of that.

Our reflection is that the value and impact of unrestricted funding is as great as restricted funding. Donors who strike a balance and embrace both will help make the change that is needed. The funding formats can work in tandem to make transformational change and build a healthier, fairer, more equitable society.

Morna Lane is Head of Trusts & Corporate Partnerships at Sightsavers

Tagged in: Funding practice

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