Finding the middle ground between form and function for community philanthropy in Nigeria


Ese Emerhi and Chinedu Nwagu


In Nigeria, the realities on the ground don’t always match up with the way funders operate. What would it look like if there was a system that supported small and local groups doing direct action?

In 2021, a frontline gender rights activist in Nigeria reached out for support. A young woman had been sexually abused in one of the local communities and had gone to the local group closest to the community for refuge. They needed N50,000 (roughly about USD$100) for immediate medical care. The activist hoped that a joint donor-advised fund established to provide rapid response for at-risk persons in Nigeria could help. Sadly, the case, though urgent and compelling, was outside its scope. But there were a few other technical problems with accessing that fund for this purpose. First, the community group requesting the money was not registered and would hardly tick the boxes of requirements needed to access external funding. Second, though the amount requested was small, the process of verifying the case and getting the support across to the survivor through a third party would have taken longer and cost more administratively. Third, the more established Sexual Assault Referral Centers in Nigeria, with access to donor funding are in the city centres, are some distance from rural communities. Though the survivor had reached out to a local group in her community that she knew and trusted, they were not resourced or structured enough to access the needed help. 

This raised the question for us if the idea of ‘form follows function’ applies, or rather undermines, community philanthropy in Nigeria – or is there a middle ground? Traditional donors dictate some standard requirements for groups to access funding, which can be too stringent and onerous for local groups functioning in rural spaces. For these local groups to access external funding, there are often questions around the integrity of their work, their accountability, how impact can be measured, and more importantly, the structure and capacity of these organisations (including boards, audited annual reports, and incorporation status).

We may not be able to completely do away with traditional models and forms in development, but it is important to recognize that there are community groups doing incredible work that fill other critical roles in society. And for these groups, providing help should not be complicated.

According to Oyebisi Oluseyi, Executive Director of the Nigerian Network of NGOs, 95 per cent of non-profits in the country are small organizations that operate on funds largely donated by the founder. These organizations are what he calls the ‘engine room’ of the non-profit sector in Nigeria. They are the real drivers of local giving, or what is increasingly being described as the emerging field of community philanthropy. A small percentage of their funding comes from community resources and other in-kind donations, typically less than 10 per cent.

As you move away from centres of government and economic activities in the cities and go towards rural communities, you will find that what constitutes as safety nets for many people are the everyday work of small non-profits (and some religious-based organisations) who have stepped into the gap left by government, larger non-profits, donors, and INGOs. These groups vary in size and function, ranging from orphanages and community funds to psycho-socioeconomic support groups for SGBV survivors and other vulnerable persons. The work they do is critical to strengthening community capacity and voice, building trust, and most importantly, taps into and builds on local resources, which when pooled together, builds and sustains a strong community. These organizations are often unseen and struggle to get funding from international donors or INGOs, and function on the fringes of development, deepening relationships built over time, solidifying community assets (trust, people, knowledge, capacities), and problem-solving their own challenges.

And yet, from the lens of traditional funding models, getting these small organisations to be more accountable in their work, especially to the donors rather than the communities they serve, seems a challenge. Accountability and transparency, at least according to traditional development notions with international donors, begins with some sort of annual report of activities of the organisation’s work. For local groups, their function, and sometimes a good part of their revenue, are often dependent on the goodwill of well-to-do members of the community and religious bodies. These groups enjoy deep levels of trust with the communities they serve and fill critical gaps in those places often neglected by the government. For these organisations, transparency and accountability do not come in audited or glossy end-of-year reports; it is found in the continued relationships with the communities they serve and the underlying trust invested by those communities in the organisations. They see a need and they meet the need. These local groups are often managed by leaders who have high trust levels with communities, but less formal structures as required by the state and donors. 

In terms of improving the structure and traditional models for CSOs in Nigeria, efforts to ensure compliance with extant laws and promote self-regulation have resulted in a compliance framework and platform. The idea is that if CSOs are better self-regulated, they might position themselves for better funding from donors and development partners, and reduce the chances of more intrusions and overbearing oversight by the State. In Nigeria, 87 per cent of non-profit organisations are reported as ‘inactive’ on the Corporate Affairs Commission database. An inactive status of an organisation means that they have failed to file their annual reports with the Commission with the assumption that they no longer exist. In reality, however, an inactive status by the Commission does not mean that an organisation no longer exists. Sometimes, they are very much ‘active’ doing and meeting the needs of the communities they serve, and complicated paperwork is the last thing on their minds. 

If the work these groups do are not always recognized by traditional institutions and donors, then there is a strong argument that ‘form does not meet function’, and that a more radical structural change is needed, i.e., a more locally led approach that places value on community assets rather than ones imposed by INGOs and donors. In Measuring What Matters (a report published in 2020 by Candid, the Global Fund for Community Foundations, and Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace), there is a clear measurement mismatch between what local groups consider as important and necessary, and what external donors often look out for. This framework suggests that for local groups focused on providing basic shelter and relief services, it is more suitable to simply measure their inputs and outputs. This offers a clearer representation of their intrinsic value to their host communities, than the standard theory of change, outcomes and impact lenses. Their utility is therefore not in their form or compliance with traditional models, but in their function and value-add to the communities.

We may not be able to completely do away with traditional models and forms in development, but it is important to recognize that there are community groups doing incredible work that fill other critical roles in society. And for these groups, providing help should not be complicated. Community groups will probably not always fill that traditional funding model, and should not be forced to either. This does not take away from their utility. As an alternative to the traditional humanitarian sector, community philanthropy can be a force to recognize and elevate the work of community groups, to build support systems around it, and to create models that amplify their impact.

Ese Emerhi is the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Representative for Alliance magazine and Global Network Weaver at the Global Fund for Community Foundations. Chinedu Nwagu is a philanthropy advisor and development consultant.

Tagged in: Regional representatives

Comments (3)

Tom Carter

This piece draws attention to both a physical and sociological void in the roles played by donors. As noted, many small communities lack the ability to comply with donor (and often their own governments') requirements. But more important is the role successful community activities play in building social capital, the fundamental building block of a healthy polity. I would draw attention to the work of WorldConnect, a US NGO that has played and plays a critical role in filling the void and demonstrating that small incentives to communities to pursue their own opportunities and deal with their own challenges can have lasting benefit to the community and strengthen social capital.


Thanks for the great insight, so revealing; I am greatly inspired, rethinking the concept of philanthropy from what I used to know.


Good read! Very relatable on the Zambian front. Seen first hand how small NGOs or community groups in the rural areas especially struggle with funding and all because of the bureaucracy that comes with it and yet are doing a commendable job in the community with the little they have. There’s really need to strike a balance between the traditional model and meeting the “community management” of meeting social needs or solving problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *