When we embarked on an ambitious systems change project to reimagine International NGOs (calling the project: RINGO), we had an inkling that some of the systemic issues impacting the behaviour and practice of INGOs would find their source in the funding sector – but we didn’t realise the extent to which funders were at the heart of the changes needed.
The RINGO Social Lab was set up to respond to both external and internal demands for change to this outdated model of civil society. Externally, we have heard cries to shift more power and resources to local civil society for many years, highlighted through the #shiftthepower movement, with the added pull factor of closing civic space. Internally issues around gender discrimination or racial bias came to the fore in the #metoo (later to be referred to in the sector as #aidtoo) and Black Lives Matter movements. INGOs were perceived to be holding too much power and too much resource and at the same time, were a key blockage for change, holding onto power and protecting their coveted positions in the international system.
Our hypothesis about the role of funders in all of this proved to be true: our initial core group of 55 participants entered into a deep inquiry phase in 2021 to understand why the system was ‘stuck’ . They found that donors were felt to be driving many of the existing problems. For one, funders (philanthropic and government) perceived INGOs to be a more efficient route for giving, and were less risky or complicated than giving to local CSOs. The regulatory picture, in turn, reinforced that bias: complex reporting and compliance procedures lead to heavy bureaucracies in INGOs, driving up costs and cementing their dominant role in the system.
So its unsurprising that of the eight prototypes that emerged from the RINGO Lab, at least five of these have a direct bearing on funder behaviour and systems. Indeed the prototyping teams – now almost 100 people strong – found that funders were as important as, if not more than, the INGOs themselves.
Some examples include our Risk and Compliance prototype, which is testing out a new way of negotiating compliance procedures on a very practical level. The team is seeking to determine if they can understand what is reasonable and what can be eliminated by convening a conversation with everyone in a donor supply chain, beyond the usual suspects: from a bilateral compliance officer, right through to the local CSO. Can this negotiated process, rather than 38 pages of procedures, become the new normal?
The RINGO prototype, an ‘Alternative Solidarity Model’ turns the usual way of doing business on its head. Instead of INGOs receiving funding for projects and programmes and then go out and seek partnerships to deliver these, this prototype proposes to convene locally to agree on needs, and then issue a ‘reverse call for proposals’ for financial and in-kind resources. This raises big questions about how the funding sector is organised: how can the local CSOs secure funds just to convene; and how is the international sector funded to respond? What skills will they need to do this? Should funders be responding to these calls too, rather than issuing their own, pre-decided calls for proposals?
The RINGO Language and Lexicon prototype seeks to abolish funder and INGO use of neo-colonial and outdated language, as well as enabling people to communicate in their own language, through the use of existing AI technology.
And finally, others are testing out new funding models altogether, like the One World Together fund, which is bypassing funding restrictions across the sector by creating an entirely new system based upon principles of solidarity.
On a broader level, what we learned across all of our prototypes is that systemic change requires more than project funding with a pre-defined set of proposed outcomes. It requires investment in the systems and processes of convening themselves. These are the enabling conditions for better outcomes, not a complicated log frame and theory of change.
We also learned that co-creating solutions brings immense potential. Our mid-way evaluation found that RINGO participants from national or local civil societies felt more aware of the challenges that many INGOs and funders were up against. We had not expected this. But by creating the conditions that enabled honest and equal exchanges, it was important that this was brought to the fore. When you can see the other person’s viewpoint, you are more likely to work together towards solutions. Philanthropy and bilateral funders face immense challenges. Being open and honest about these – even though you feel you’re in a position of power – can really help to co-create interesting solutions that you never thought were imaginable.
It’s important to point out that whilst RINGO aims to shift power, it didn’t set out to obliterate the INGO sector altogether. Research RINGO conducted in 2020 showed that Southern civil society organisations (CSOs) recognize the potential and need for INGOs, but that the active relationships with INGOs are not currently working. Of over 600 organisations we surveyed, 85 per cent acknowledged that existing partnerships with INGOs were not mutually beneficial.
Our ongoing view is that civil societies around the world will still need multilateral action to build shared knowledge, expertise, and momentum towards global change and greater impact on the ground. But we need concerted action from INGOs and funders to change the way they work in order to get there.
You can find out more at the RINGO Learning Festival 31 October – 3 November 3. Days 1 and 2 will explore our individual prototypes. The session ‘What can Funders do?’ takes place on2 November at 12:00 UTC. Register here.
Deborah Doane is Partner at Rights CoLab and Convenor at the RINGO Project.