Listening to local communities

Greg Erasmus

The Social Change Assistance Trust (Scat) provides support to Local Development Agencies (LDAs) in rural communities in South Africa. This article reflects on various aspects of Scat that shape its identity as a learning organization, which in turn have enabled it to navigate the changing social, economic and political environment and remain true to its mission of supporting poor rural communities seeking to improve their quality of life.

These include measures that have been implemented to enhance its capacity to listen to the LDAs it supports; to actively engage with its donors and share its experiences with the LDAs; and to interpret and proactively respond to signals in the external environment.

The very origins of Scat lie in learning from the communities it was set up to serve. It was formed in 1984 as an intermediary for Norwegian donors wanting to focus on para-legal defence work in Black communities. Yet the communities themselves wanted not just advice offices but amenities that supported civic movements. So, over time, many of the offices became community centres – meeting places for activists and providers of services and space.

Learning from the LDAs

Scat has supported many of these centres for many years, so a learning environment has been created through trust and the responsiveness of Scat to local communities. It continues to work very closely with its grantees through its fieldwork programme, and through frequent training events and seminars. Fieldworkers spend a large part of their time visiting communities and Scat’s mission is constantly challenged by this close engagement. This ability to work closely with rural communities is the key to how Scat operates and why it has been able to adapt and survive.

In 2001, for example, LDAs asked Scat to help them to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in their communities. Scat wasn’t keen on theme-based funding but recognized the LDAs’ need and decided that it did fall within its mission. It therefore introduced an HIV/AIDS programme which was based on the same principles of grantmaking and capacity-building as its core programme. It remains one of Scat’s most successfully funded projects and has recently been supported financially by the National Department of Health.

Learning about the LDAs

Scat views a good flow of information from its fieldwork to all levels of the organization, including trustees, as essential. The quality of fieldworker engagement with the LDAs is influenced by several factors: the status of the relationship between Scat and the LDA at that time; the level of competency of the fieldworker and the quality of the relationship with the LDA; and the organizational status of the LDA itself. These things change, and the changes influence the perception of Scat by an LDA and vice versa. The process of feedback within Scat is designed to ensure that all these various facets are considered when evaluating the relationship with the LDA.

Like many organizations, Scat has a formal system of written reports and meetings to share information. It also encourages the informal sharing of information. Fieldworkers and trustees often exchange information by email about particular LDAs, and the most powerful insights are often based on observations made by fieldworkers in the course of their visits. Scat has developed a culture wherein fieldworkers openly share their personal concerns and observations. This is achieved through mechanisms like peer support groups and a style of reporting that enables these issues to surface.

Understanding the value of good information

Scat benefits in a number of ways from the insight that all staff and trustees have into the work of the organization with LDAs. It supports strategic decision-making if all the required information is available to everyone involved. It also supports the decisions that are required from time to time about Scat’s relationship with an LDA. The relevant information is shared with all staff and trustees as they are all affected by the decision in one way or another.

The sharing of information is also crucial to another very significant part of the organization’s strategy – managing its public persona and stakeholder relationships. Unless all parts of the organization are up to date with the status of the relationship with each community, it could easily lead to problems. Staff and trustees are very active in various spheres of public life and insight into Scat’s work helps them deal with any issues or questions that may arise about its relationship with a particular community.

The same applies to funding and other stakeholder relationships. If staff and trustees all have a good insight into the current state of affairs, they can use opportunities for meeting donors to make an impression, which could lead to a partnership. Through our engagement with the external environment we have become more conscious of the types of information that need to be presented to the outside world if the true value of Scat’s beliefs, strategy and impact are to be effectively communicated.

Responding to change

As Hyatt and Kaplan suggest, an organization’s ability to respond to changed circumstances is intimately related to the clarity of its mission. Scat’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment originates from its clear organizational purpose and its ability to remain focused on that purpose. This does not mean that the validity of that purpose and the beliefs underlying it are not frequently questioned and challenged, but by keeping its mission in sight, Scat has managed to respond consistently and coherently to the changing needs of its grantees and to challenges in the external environment.

It’s worth pointing out that changes in the external environment in South Africa have been more radical than in many other places. For the first ten years of its existence, Scat had to work with a hostile government. This has changed completely and government institutions are now much more approachable. We have had to learn how to work in this new context – especially as the situation varies greatly from province to province.

One frequently hears from South African NGOs how hard it is to raise funds from government and private businesses. Too often this results in NGOs not even seriously trying to do so. Scat has learned that one needs to actively engage with stakeholders in order to understand the points of difference. This is particularly true with our decision to engage government and corporate donors.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Scat post 1994 was the perception that intermediary donors were no longer required because funds would now be transferred directly to local communities. This was particularly true of local South African donors and some foreign donor agencies with local offices. Scat is sometimes hamstrung by donors who look to it as a classic intermediary donor and who initially question the value of its intensive fieldwork with LDAs. We, however, believe this is our very strength and we manage to convince most enlightened donors of this.

We have also recognized that we need to get out of the ‘intermediary donor’ box and profile ourselves in relation to our value and impact. This has opened up a number of opportunities to engage with donors and other stakeholders who were previously not on the radar.

Compromising with donors

As the guest editors suggest, there are situations in which an intermediary grantmaker like Scat has to compromise with its back donors. However, this need not be as negative as their article suggests if the compromises are tactical rather than strategic. In this case, the organization does not inadvertently suffer ‘mission drift’ but seeks to gain something specific from the engagement. Compromises are also not unique to intermediary grantmakers: the same would hold true for any NGO or CBO that deals with donors. Compromise is in fact the basis upon which the new South Africa is built, and Scat has adopted the approach of engagement and negotiation rather than avoidance.

Working with donors who do not necessarily align with one’s approach may sometimes bring unexpected benefits. Scat recently decided to implement a programme that involved working with local municipalities in rural areas, rather than LDAs. In the process we realized that we were learning about the challenges faced by rural municipalities in responding to the demands made by local communities. This provided the fieldworkers with valuable insights into how to assist the LDAs to engage more effectively with the local municipality for access to services. The agreement with the donor is fixed term, but the insights gained will be with us for much longer.

Involving the donors in learning

Scat and a number of other NGOs are collaborating in a learning process with two donor agencies through which we aim to jointly develop a mutually acceptable understanding of the concepts of ‘impact’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘learning’. The donors involved are subjecting themselves to the same process of evaluation and engagement as their local partners and are open to revealing the weaknesses of their own learning and monitoring systems. The aim is to teach all the parties how to more effectively understand and respond to each other’s requirements.

Encouraging grantee learning

This article has talked mostly about how Scat learns rather than how it encourages its grantees to learn, but grantees are in fact given a lot of space to identify their own needs and how to meet them. They put together the ‘argument’ for obtaining funds for training and development support, rather than Scat determining what may be useful for them.

As part of our capacity-building programme for LDAs, we have a Fundraising Incentive Scheme to encourage local fundraising in rural communities. This programme has provided a valuable learning opportunity for the LDAs, but it has also shown Scat that it could adapt its grantmaking model by guaranteeing less core funding and providing greater incentives. This has allowed Scat to reduce core funding to a number of organizations that have successfully raised funds locally.

Dealing with donors in a confident and assertive way is one of the pillars of our skills development with LDAs and our own fundraising activities are a source of learning that we share with them. As an intermediary donor, lessons in fundraising are often a two-way exchange. In several instances, LDAs have successfully raised funds from donors with whom we have had no success, and we are happy to learn from their experience and share it with other LDAs.

Greg Erasmus is former Executive Director and a current member of the Board of Trustees of Scat. Email

Social Change Assistance Trust (Scat)

Scat was established in 1984 as an intermediary grantmaker to community-based organizations operating in the areas of human rights and community development, with the funds coming from Norwegian donors. In 1992, a strategic decision was made to focus exclusively on rural communities. Scat now supports Local Development Agencies (LDAs) in 60 rural communities across five provinces both through grantmaking and through fieldwork and training programmes. Since 2003, the percentage of local donor income has increased from 4 per cent to a projected 43 per cent in 2006. Local donor funds comprise national and provincial government, corporate donors and local institutional donor agencies such as the Umsobomvu Youth Fund.


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