Restrictive legislation, targeted attempts to surveil or hack, threats to physical safety: these are only some of the constraints facing activists and organisations, mainly imposed by government and private sector actors, restricting or shrinking civic space. The global pandemic is presenting further challenges to civic freedoms for organisations, collectives, and individuals.
Unfortunately, these experiences are all too familiar for many NGOs, activists, and funders pursuing more open, inclusive, and accountable societies around the world. The pandemic has made even more visible the pressing security, safety, and wellbeing challenges (some new and others long-standing) facing civic actors. But how can global funders respond to the diverse localised and community-specific implications of these worrying trends for civil society?
In a July 2020 learning conversation hosted by funder collaborative Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI), several global funders shared their efforts to support grantee partner safety and wellbeing needs. For instance, TAI member Luminate is providing financial and non-financial support to partners’ resilience and wellbeing through its new Partner Support program. Mama Cash is piloting an initiative to learn with and from its grantee-partners about their efforts to resist closing civic space and build longer-term resilience through partner-designed plans. And the Economic Justice Program at Open Society Foundations, also a TAI member, completed a first-time initiative on holistic security to support several partners to identify and address civic space challenges affecting their work.
These experiences offer inspiration and emerging practices for others seeking to think holistically about partner safety and wellbeing. Here are three areas of practice for global funders to consider in getting this work started.
1. Start with the experience and evidence of peers and partners
Listening is a critical beyond-the-dollar funder practice for building trust and illuminating grantee partners’ wisdom and needs. During the pandemic, TAI found that many funders are engaging in listening activities and exchange of knowledge and expertise with partners and funder peers.
In the context of shrinking space for civil society, centring grantee voices through targeted listening is critical. This can lift up the experience of specific populations or groups that might otherwise be overlooked and help build a trusting funder-partner relationship. Funders can listen through conversation, proactively creating safe spaces for partners to discuss the threats they might be experiencing, and also through research. For example, Mama Cash produced this research with partners to lift up the gendered aspects of shrinking civic space. TAI published survey results and analysis with a sectoral lens on the experience of groups pursuing transparency and accountable governance outcomes.
In addition to, and perhaps even before, embarking on a listening and research initiative with partners, funders can explore the emerging evidence base on wellbeing and resilience. The ongoing series, Centered Self, and research from the Wellbeing Project offer various perspectives and evidence on the linkage between individual wellbeing and positive social change. Funders can also explore and share responses to specific challenges faced by grantee partners, safety and wellbeing resources for activists, or guidance for NGOs on building healthy workplaces.
2. Words matter: Begin to build a shared language with partners
Global funders face the challenge of working with partners across diverse contexts where there may not be a shared language to address holistic security, safety, and wellbeing. This poses a risk for funders, practitioner allies, and advocates of getting stuck in rhetoric – or worse, causing harm – rather than identifying healing solutions. Funders might start with their own values to convey the intentionality of their interest and offers to support partner wellbeing. In addition, funders can seek inspiration from trust-based values or principles of peers. Whatever the starting point, funders should be prepared for partners’ experiences and voices to redefine resilience.
Operational and programmatic contexts are built around different languages, cultures, and people. Funders need to prepare for tailored discussions of safety and wellbeing needs with partners and the vulnerabilities or traumas that may be exposed (for both parties). But difficult conversations are often the ones most worth having and can inform smarter grantmaking for funders and their partners. Funders can approach this dialogue as an invitation to build a shared understanding with and for partners. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, found that diversity, equity, and inclusion grants allowed partners to create space internally to explore these issues.
3. Funding type and amount can offer permission and power for partners to prioritise wellbeing
Many funders, particularly progressive and private foundations, have increased attention and supplemental funding for organisational health and effectiveness and wellbeing and resilience. Yet, there are still various factors that can make it difficult for grantee organisations to access or allocate such resources for wellbeing needs. This is often the case for smaller or under-resourced groups, or more generally shortfalls in funding for the true cost of nonprofit work. Or fund seekers may simply perceive that they are risking future funding prospects by exposing these needs.
In addition to this supplemental funding, there is great value and benefit for grantee partners (and funders) in providing flexible multiyear core funding support. This type of funding offers many benefits to grantee partners’ organisational health and also places trust and agency in their hands to allocate resources where needed.
Global funders and their partners are likely to continue facing challenges given the systemic and often deeply rooted nature of the problems they work to address. Activists’ wellbeing is a key component of healthy social movements and civic organisations and requires sustained financial and emotional investment. So now is the time for funders to examine factors (external to their institutions and within) that may be hindering or helping the safety and wellbeing of their partners.
There is much promising evidence and practice that points to redefining traditional qualities of the funder-grantee partner relationship. Holding space for funders to share experience and listen – with peers and partners – is a critical step towards informed funder action, learning, and adaptation.
Alison Miranda works with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, Vanina Serra works with Mama Cash, and Wedad Bseiso works with the Open Society Foundations.