Reasonably expecting more from philanthropy


Dumiso Gatsha


There are days when I find myself crying for no reason. I would normally have difficulty breathing, trying to gather my thoughts and calm myself whilst the tears are gushing out my eyes. I can’t ‘reasonably’ articulate why or what the trigger is. It is a wave that comes with no warning or timing. I have no choice in it. This is a reality with many variances for many grassroots activists – particularly those who have survived and/or navigate trauma. It cannot be explicitly written down in a grant application or brought up in a partnership nurturing conversation. It has to be dealt with in the intimacy of feeling alone and unworthy.

Conversations on some of the darkest battles are uncommon – in an African home, in romantic relationships or in professional environments. Some of the issues could emanate from intergenerational trauma, patriarchal systems we have to assimilate to or survive in and even structural systems of supremacy. It is ‘reasonably’ impossible to separate these influences of agency and autonomy. When I think about what a grassroots activist’s day looks like; it includes responding to context-specific emergencies and opportunities, seeking funding, organizing and leading care work at home or within institutionalized impact work. All these cannot be ‘reasonably’ included in a job description, CV, or grant application because the system cannot allow for it. Just as the passive aggression, ideation appropriation and institutionally ableist ways of working that cannot be ‘reasonably’ accounted for.

We have to exist whilst professionalizing our impact work in service of being the individuals we needed when we were younger or experienced trauma. Amidst all this, we have to be steadfast in navigating the politicization of identity struggles in competitive resourcing environments. This can look like the need to separate one’s struggle because the compounded vulnerabilities one experiences do not fit within an M&E framework. It can be the weaponizing of gaslighting our capacity under the guise of eligibility, being infantilised and having to institutionalise. All these are ‘reasonable’ ways of working because activists have to be accountable and articulate in the change they want to achieve.

The system has and continues to over-diagnose the threats to democracy, human rights, and risk. It relies on assessments, alumni networks, knowledge production and proximity to power because it is ‘reasonable’ to understand the world’s challenges through normative means to justify decision making and deployment. Activists have to manage expectations and remain palatable in approach, autonomy and action because these are the pre-conditions to securing and maintaining funding. It is the ‘reasonable’ thing to do because we have to survive. We have to comply and be resilient whilst our existence is consistently threatened and questioned within and beyond safe spaces. It is this ‘reasonableness’ that many radical change-makers across different movements have either been denied space, protection or solidarity. Under the guise of cultural, ideological or strategic ‘fit’ – because it is only ‘reasonable’ that we must speak, engage and organize the same way. That there should be understanding or common ground for scaling impact or extending solidarity.

The system built and benefited from excluding people like me cannot ‘reasonably’ shift power through incrementalism or without incentive.

It is ‘reasonability’ that justifies our subjugation and oppression by governments and those with power. It is also ‘reasonability’ that impedes the critical work that’s needed to counter the politicization, sexualization and weaponization of our identities and vulnerabilities in structures of development and movements. This ‘reasonability’ is anchored on the pretext of proof of concepts and research that never really deemed us equal or of agency historically. This is the reason why accountability is often viewed and demanded downstream and not up because of the flows of resourcing. It is ‘reasonable’ because we are recipients of enablement and means.

My questions then might just be unreasonable. As I ask why beneficiaries of colonial legacies cannot be accountable for the exploitation and extraction of the bodies, labour, dignity and divisions of Africans? I ask myself why I cannot miss a deadline, make mistakes or serve my messy darkness at a decision-making table because it is the result of imperialist and neoliberal saviourism. I question and critique the loopholes of safeguarding that give impunity to gatekeeping and institutional racism that can be dished out by those that look like me. I am ‘reasonably’ expected to be performative and palatable enough to meet others’ expectations and be understood for struggle consumption and inspiration.

There cannot be any ‘reasonableness’ to my healing or triggered self. There cannot be any ‘reasonableness’ to the urgency of the many issues I have to deal with as articulated above, whilst dealing with being criminalized by the state, challenged by the tenets of meritocracy and dealing with the business as usual in the non-profit industrial complex. The system built and benefited from excluding people like me cannot ‘reasonably’ shift power through incrementalism or without incentive. It exists because of ‘reasonable’ expectations of doing good by choice and not having to survive or imagine a better future like I and many others are ‘reasonably’ forced to. I did not ‘reasonably’ exercise agency nor withstand pain, trauma, and violence to ‘reasonably’ exist. My belonging and becoming are not ‘reasonable’ to bible-mongers, tax-efficient donors or educated ‘experts’.  So I am demanding more and better of philanthropy, as I would my government and myself. That the burden be lightened beyond performative allyship and progressive approaches that still do not address my socioeconomic disposition.

Activists remain an unlimited reservoir of inspiration and feedback without structural and equitable means of existence. Activists are like the many pandemic frontline workers that get claps and hashtags without social protections or adequate health safety nets. Except many of us are not salaried or have provisions for medical aid. Competing for a grant against a local chapter of an INGO or long-standing national network can never be equitable. Competitive solicitation opportunities can never harbour movement solidarity or collaboration. Change outcomes can never be structurally realized within a project lifespan or year. These are no longer ‘reasonable’ because inequity, injustice and crises continue to variably reemerge and narratives carry the thematic challenges that existed 5, 10 years ago. They are only more complex, nuanced, digitalized and politically polarized. It is no longer ‘reasonable’ to be apolitical and minimalist under neoliberalist ways of working. We have to be intentional, proactive in lieu of reactive and equity-driven in the face of the climate, health, security, ableist, phobic, supremacist, binary, and patriarchal crises.

Dumiso Gatsha is the Founder of Success Capital Organisation and currently serves as a critical friend for CIVICUS World Alliance’s resourcing workstream. They are also a facilitator of the #ShiftThePower UK Funders’ Collective.

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