AGN – marching on optimistically

Ezra Mbogori

In the world of philanthropy networks, the African Grantmakers Network (AGN) is a very new one. What is its vision and what is needed to realize it? What will it take to make this new association into a network that can really make a difference to philanthropy in Africa? How can it balance the interests of a very diverse and rapidly growing membership?

When it was launched in mid-July 2009, at a meeting in Accra, Ghana, these questions seemed answerable – and despite a number of challenges they still do. Sitting in that room, having only recently joined this group of people committed to Africa’s development, I was intrigued and excited by the enthusiasm and the spirit of camaraderie. There seemingly would be no mountain too high to climb; no challenge too difficult for this new network – so long as we applied our collective energies effectively and maintained a focus on a common purpose. Such was the spirit that generated the vision of AGN – transformed, relevant, vibrant and sustainable African philanthropy.

African grantmakers setting the African agenda
Right from the beginning expectations were high. Until then, the dominant feeling was that the agenda, so far as African philanthropy was concerned, had always been set elsewhere. Now an African voice and agenda could be articulated and communicated widely. Clearly we need to find the resources to support this emerging agenda, and we all recognized this was a major challenge. The goodwill that accompanied this start-up phase, though, suggested that this hurdle would be cleared.

One and a half years after this historic launch, the interim leadership of the AGN held its first biennial assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Few who went to it would deny that it was euphoric. Afterwards, a friend asked me how the leadership of AGN expected to maintain this kind of energy. This question prompted a brief but, for me, extremely instructive conversation about networks and their nature. We did not say anything that is not already known about networks. Rather we speculated on the direction that this new one might take and what lay in store for it. We spoke first about its role in the African philanthropic space. Africans are naturally philanthropic, yet precious little is known about African philanthropy. How can we publicize the facts and use them to deepen the practice of philanthropy on the continent? The research agenda, to take just one pertinent area for members, is therefore extensive.

Need for strong, committed leadership
It was clear to us that to even begin to make a dent in the areas where members wanted to see action, AGN would have to secure strong leadership committed to the agenda of the network. Members were interested in finding venues for peer learning and experience sharing. They wanted to explore partnering with like-minded colleagues to address questions around philanthropy that had received limited attention. They also wanted a clearer understanding of the African philanthropic terrain. In each instance they recognized these as broad questions requiring extensive resources.

Could we secure the resources needed to engage the kind of leadership the network required? The assembly had been relatively well resourced, thanks to the goodwill that the interim leadership had managed to leverage, but could this be repeated for other urgent needs of the network – and how long could it go on? Given that this discussion was happening barely months after the global financial crisis struck, how was the network to become sustainable in such an unstable funding environment? While recognizing these as major challenges, it was also appreciated that collective approaches to solving them would make them more manageable.

Balancing members’ interests in a diverse and expanding network
Other pertinent questions arose at this point. Networks are notorious for unravelling rapidly if individual members feel that their interests are not being addressed satisfactorily. In AGN, the diversity of membership and the stated aim of growing the membership as rapidly as possible means that we have a complex network. It embraces most forms of grantmaker from ‘homegrown/trust’ funds to community foundations to foundations set up by corporate entities as part of their strategy for undertaking social responsibility to endowments set up by high net worth individuals. Building a strong network that will faithfully serve the sometimes diverse interests of this membership will take a great deal of imaginative leadership and balancing. Happily, the spirit of common purpose that has existed in the network membership thus far has demonstrated that both the leadership potential and the commitment to the goals of AGN exist.

As far as I can see, things are starting at a good point. I am heartened by the fact that a good proportion of network members have actively participated in what we have done so far. This includes establishing the operating framework; affirming the vision, mission and values of the network; establishing the priorities for programme activity, and recruiting the initial staff. During this work, one could discern the surfacing of some tension – mostly creative tension, which can be expected in a network of this nature. Questions about inclusiveness and the implications of the choices made have been sensitively handled. We have been lucky so far.

Lack of external funders may be a virtue
The fact that studying, documenting and analysing ways of stimulating African philanthropy constitutes a new area of work is a good thing for AGN. The fact that traditional funding sources are themselves constrained and cannot therefore support this kind of work as generously as in the past has meant that the network has to be creative and at times make sacrifices to ensure the most important results are pursued first. These conditions mean that AGN is well positioned to pursue its agenda with less influence from external sources than most similar networks have been in the past – another good thing, even though a challenge for the network at present. It obviously means that we need to prioritize and ensure broad if not enthusiastic support from members for the work that is undertaken.

Excitement is building in the run-up to the second biennial assembly in October/November 2012. Members have asserted their ownership of this network in many different ways and are looking forward to a really dynamic event.

For me, the key challenge going forward will lie in the extent to which leadership is able to retain a consultative spirit in the face of a rapidly growing membership, without having to descend to the lowest common denominator. I think that the basic building blocks are in place and I have no doubt that the creativity exists within AGN to make it a truly valuable addition to African institutional philanthropy.

Why am I so upbeat? One only needs to listen in on a Skype meeting of the AGN board or be a fly on the wall at an event and hear the freedom with which contentious issues are debated to realize the network’s success so far. Given all we have done to demonstrate our ownership of it and the collective sacrifice it has taken to bring it to where it is, we cannot afford anything less. I have no doubt that if we remain true to that sense of ownership, we will find the resources to do the work that will take us forward. So we march on, optimistically.

Ezra Mbogori
is the executive director of Akiba Uhaki Foundation and a member of the AGN steering committee. Email

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