Like with dating, clearer communication and mutual understanding can improve relationships between youth movements and funders
At a recent global gathering of activists in Belgrade, the host of a popular Serbian spoof news television show used the analogy of an organisation purchasing an item of stationery to satirise an NGO stereotype.
‘Make sure you put in the budget a tender for the purchase of the stapler. Include the cost of transporting the stapler from the store to the office, and don’t forget to add extra costs for purchasing a little table for the stapler. And, of course, the carpet on which the table will stand,’ said Zoran Kesić, to peals of laughter.
The humorous critique was that civil society organisations (CSOs) are focused on budgeting for every little thing while failing to question the status quo, and instead replicating society’s structural absurdities. It struck a chord with me.
I have spent years studying how youth-led civil society groups resource themselves, most recently for a project with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS. I have learned that many young people experience a tension between the vitality and fluidity that emerges in their work and the rigid modus operandi required to budget for Kesić’s stapler.
But the problem is not only that there are many powerful youth movements and comparatively little funding to sustain their work. Or that the type of funding available often comes with tedious requirements and is mostly allocated to deliver narrow projects.
It is also a mismatch in values between donors and such groups and a lack of meaningful mutual understanding.
As part of my research, I asked Latin American and African youth activists to reflect on the most positive relationship they’ve had with a donor. What did they do to make the relationship positive? What did the donor do?
The feedback looked like a list of tips on effective dating. The best relationships are ones in which the non-profit was able to communicate openly and transparently, nourish a close connection, and ask for help when faced with challenges or complex decisions. ‘Good donors’ are relatable, flexible, enthusiastic, present, mindful of the operational context, and non-judgemental. As one respondent put it, the relationship works when both parties can say: ‘We enjoy each other’s company and have real conversations’.
The secret (which of course is no secret) is in really listening to each other. A challenge is jargon, that can feel imposed, it can be misunderstood and misused, especially across different cultural contexts.
During a recent global dialogue between donors and youth activists I facilitated, participants explained how challenging it was to use clear language and to communicate without being able to see each other or ask questions. The activists discussed how the pace of communication constrained their work, the challenge of asking the right questions and how language can be easily misinterpreted.
When responding to requests for grant proposals, youth-led groups often feel they are applying without a clear understanding of the call or being able to read between the lines. And it can feel like a shot in the dark. The only feedback some donors give – if at all – is that the application was unsuccessful, without saying why or where it fell short. One participant likened a grant application to going on a first date then having your date ‘ghost’ you – lose all contact – without explanation. Donors responded that they are also under-resourced with time constraints.
To understand resourcing patterns, we need to look at a much broader ecosystem. Part of the problem is the often-tokenistic nature of youth engagement – that resourcing of youth-focused work won’t happen if young people aren’t meaningfully included in the picture.
What emerged from my research is that agents of social transformation are very fragmented. CSOs compete for the same resources – a dynamic that diminishes the transformative power of each actor.
I also realised that youth-led movements are not effectively listening to each other. CSOs often strive for independence yet resourcing connects or separates groups. The need for resourcing is a constant reminder of our interdependence.
What does this all mean? Like many of the groups I’ve interviewed, I’m still trying to figure that out. Maybe we need to find new collaboration formulas that don’t look like the awkward funding chains we are accustomed to.
And yet, working together in an open way requires relationships that feel more genuine and real. We need to support each other to grow the skills for nourishing relationships across differences that might feel messy and require us accepting each other more fully.
Gioel Gioacchino is a civil society practitioner and an action researcher. She recently completed a PhD at the Institute for Development Studies. Her research explores how different funding models affect organisational culture as well as the quality of social organisations’ internal and external relationships.