How philanthropy can help to reimagine a better world rooted in justice, solidarity, and community


Nina Blackwell


Over the past 18 months, many funders (philanthropic and otherwise) – struck by the realization that so many of our global development gains were tenuous and reliant upon outside INGO actors – have increasingly sought to work with community organizations in order to reach the most vulnerable.

We applaud this transition. True community-based organizations (CBOs) are those that are born of community action and collaboration. They are made up of people from the community who have lived experience, and who have deep connections with others – their family and friends – who live there. True CBOs have special superpowers that enable them to effect and support lasting change in ways that other organizations and structures cannot.

But while we say we want to do more work with community-based organizations, our current well-meaning but deeply neo-colonial tendencies and systems of global development ignore or patronize locally rooted expertise, voices, realities and agency and the funding and decision-making structures which underpin these systems often undermine, frustrate and sometimes harm the CBOs and very things that make CBOs uniquely effective.

Findings from our recently published research on Community-Driven Systems Change – the power of grassroots-led change for long-term impact and how funders can nurture it call on us to do everything we can to acknowledge, honor and fund the reality and the extraordinary power and capacity of the people we want to support. But in doing so, we need to hear, believe and support what local communities want to do and how they want to do it rather than deciding what we want them to do and how we want them to do it. And we need to open up our processes and practices so that we truly support local action and agency and honoring them as more important to long-term change than our own internal needs.

It is simply not enough to say we want to work with communities – we have to change our philanthropic and grantmaking practices to make our commitment real.

Firelight’s research highlights three key actions for philanthropic funders to take if they are serious about shifting power and truly supporting civil society, community-based organizations and community-driven systems change.

1. Think differently about success, impact and sustainability

If we hope to achieve all that we set out to do, we need to change our perspectives and assumptions, starting with refreshed definitions of what we consider ‘effectiveness’ ‘impact’ and ‘sustainability’. We cannot begin to incorporate communities at all levels, or begin to address the harms we cause, until we are ready to abandon outdated definitions that limit our perspective and keep us locked into old habits, structures and paradigms.

Traditional funding paradigms tend to prioritize reach, scale or cost-effectiveness, assuming that it is better to reach more people at a single point in time for less money and that a singular solution can, and should, be implemented widely in multiple contexts.

In contrast the CBOs who participated in the research prioritize impact as ‘empowered communities’ and self-determination. Impact and effect happens because communities themselves carry out actions that are relevant and meaningful to them and are more likely to be sustained in the long-term. For CBOs, it’s not just about reaching as many people as possible, but about supporting meaningful improvement in people’s lives that can be sustained.

2. Think differently about what makes for an effective organization

A community-driven systems change approach is about recognizing, supporting, and liberating communities’ leadership, analysis, and action for long-term change. We need to recognize, re-value, and reconceptualize the role of CBOs and communities in facilitating and effecting lasting change in root causes and systems.

CBOs involved in the research focus value on characteristics that make an organization credible and trustworthy to its community – including organizational ethics and culture. They conceptualize effectiveness primarily around the ways in which they understand and engage with others within, and who shape the lives of, their community. This is deeply in service of community-driven action that brings lasting change beyond the end of a program and tangible improvements to community members’ lives. 

3. Stop using community-based CBOs as tools for our own objectives

All of the CBO respondents to our survey consistently and clearly identified funding and organizational resources as the biggest constraints to effectiveness. But this was not because they need “fundraising training” or “capacity building” – it is because of a pervasive culture of restrictive, didactic grants in philanthropy and the projectization of social change that wholly controlled by people far away from these communities, often on the other side of the world. Funding for projects or programs that follow pre-and externally-determined problem-action-solution paradigm may achieve the goals of the international funder or the INGO, but it ignores locally rooted expertise and agency and leaves CBOs and communities exposed, fragile and dependent.

A community-driven systems change approach requires significant changes in funders’ (and INGOs’) perspectives and practices as they engage with, support, trust, and shift power to community leaders and institutions such as CBOs. We cannot claim to be supporting community-based organizations unless we understand that there can be harm in our funding decisions and our actions – no matter how helpful we think we are being. Not just to the CBOs who receive our funding but also to their connection and responsiveness to their communities.

Firelight’s report and accompanying tools show how this can be done without giving up on rigor, accountability or the measurement of results. It is focused on those involved in and supporting global development and aid, but there are parallels across other sectors and we urge everyone in philanthropy to review and engage with these resources and consider what role you can play in reimagining a better world rooted in justice, solidarity, and community.

This article is a follow-up to Community-driven systems change: A practical way to shift power in global development and philanthropy.

Nina Blackwell is the Executive Director at the Firelight Foundation.

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