When I was asked to write this article, my instructions were to talk about local ‘regranting’ organizations such as the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF). I cringed when I heard the word. My difficulty with the word is not rooted in semantics, but in what I feel is the distortion of the mission, values and legitimacy of organizations that are set up to support philanthropy and development in local communities in very specific ways.
Some words have found their way into everyday usage and we relate to them with ease. At the end of the day, what we think matters is effective communication. We think that if we use certain words which have become the jargon of our trade, we can make ourselves understood easily, and translate our practice effortlessly across cultures and borders.
Well, there are some words I’m not comfortable with. They include regranting, intermediary and middleman. It is only too easy to see where these words have come from. If Organization A wants to provide financial support to Organization B but for certain reasons cannot do so directly, Organization B becomes C and a new B is brought into the picture to do regranting. Hence we have our intermediary or middleman. The identity of the new Organization B then becomes solely dependent on its connections with Organizations A and C. But if the new Organization B is set up to play this role and not assuming it on a temporary basis, when we ascribe the functions of a mere go-between to it, we ignore the unique role it can play in the philanthropic community and development processes as a whole.
In search of some new terms
So, I am sure you are thinking, how do organizations like AWDF prefer to be addressed? I certainly can’t speak on behalf of my colleagues in the field, but I do know that I want my organization to be referred to as a local grantmaker, not a ‘regranter’, ‘intermediary’ or ‘middleman’ (or woman in my case). The fact that we do indeed regrant is not the relevant issue here. The questions we need to be asking are, why do organizations like ours exist? What do we have to offer? Why do people need us, the Organization Bs, and not simply move on to the Organization Cs?
There are many instances where organizations have to assume the role of intermediary when there are no workable alternatives. However, the functions of organizations that are minding their own business and are asked to take on regranting for a while are different from those of organizations which are set up for the almost exclusive purpose of grantmaking. It is not advisable to nudge local organizations to take on grantmaking functions if this was not part of their original mandate. In cases where this is absolutely necessary, it should either be done on a temporary basis or, with time, the grantmaking unit should be supported to evolve into an independent local grantmaker. This has indeed been the experience of some local grantmakers in various parts of the world.
Mobilizing resources for local communities
A local grantmaker is set up to mobilize human, financial and material resources for the communities it claims to serve. The mission, structure, governance, staffing and general operations of a local grantmaker ought to differ from that of a local NGO, even if the constituency remains the same. The NGO is focused on the service delivery or advocacy role it is set up to play, and the skills and experience of its board and staff should reflect this. The main tasks of the local grantmaker, by contrast, will be to raise funds and make grants, and it in turn needs people who can do this.
Local grantmakers bring networks, experience, clarity, credibility and sustainability to the grantmaking experience. They offer external funders an insight into complex grantmaking contexts, while at the same time providing viable opportunities garnered from years of experience and engagement. Local philanthropic organizations usually emerge out of social movements or many years of involvement in local issues. Their values, principles and mission directly reflect the needs of affected communities, so their philanthropic goals are clearer. When they work with external funders, they bring to the table insights and strategies which go beyond day-to-day projects that need funding. They ask for investments in the community which challenge quick-fix approaches to development. They are focused on an agenda for the community and on shared objectives with the funders and grantees; they are not just receiving cheques and divvying them up to an endless list of Organization Cs.
Local grantmakers play a key role in promoting links and good will between governments, the private sector, NGOs and community-based initiatives. These connections can add value to grantmaking. By providing opportunities to address the very structures and systems which breed inequality, poor governance, uneven distribution of resources, and abuses of fundamental human rights, there can be maximum returns on the grantmaking investment.
What about oversight?
There is usually a temptation to throw in the critical issue of oversight as a legitimate reason why local grantmakers are needed. I am not going to do this because I know that many small donors will use this as a way out of international grantmaking, saying: ‘Well, if the only way to fund outside my country is to use an intermediary, I will forget about it. Why do I have to pay a middleman’s costs?’ If due diligence and oversight are the main reasons why ‘intermediaries’ are needed, then there are many other takers for the job, ranging from travel-happy consultants to well-established local organizations.
Willingness to take risks
The role of a local grantmaker goes beyond grant oversight. In order to rebuild fractured communities, promote leadership among the marginalized and give people a voice, we have to be willing to take risks. These risks do not necessarily have to be money disappearing from a bank account or a project director running off with the grant-purchased Pajero. The risks here are about being willing to work with uncertainty, build relationships and make long-term commitments. Local grantmakers can work in partnership with external funders on this journey, and as the process unfolds, it becomes clear that life in communities is not about grant proposals or what you can tick off in a box: it is about fulfilling dreams and ambitions and creating the right kind of human and social capital to make this happen. By listening to and working with the right people, we collectively minimize risks and maximize potential.
Achieving organizational relevance
Local grantmakers usually see their role as not only providing grants to their partners but also working with them on capacity-building and technical assistance issues. The degree to which this happens varies. Some actually set up significant capacity-building programmes and work directly with grantee partners. Others facilitate access to grants, training and management assistance. Whatever the strategy, local grantmakers usually see this as an integral part of their grantmaking. For northern donors, capacity-building has almost become the politically correct add-on to grantmaking. Working in partnership with local grantmakers, who usually have well-thought-out ideas as to how this should happen, therefore becomes very important. Local grantmakers do not think only in terms of ‘organizational effectiveness’, which some donors assume is the ultimate objective of capacity-building, but also in terms of organizational relevance to the community as a whole.
Encouraging local philanthropy
Many local grantmakers have to mobilize resources within and outside their communities. This labour-intensive work requires them to develop unique messages, both to share within their own communities in order to encourage an organized culture of philanthropy and to educate others outside their communities about the issues that grants are needed to address. This enables the stories, achievements and aspirations of grantee partners to be heard. Providing a voice for people who would otherwise not have had one goes a long way in addressing issues of structural change.
For local communities to know that there is an organization in their midst that is willing (if not always able) to advocate for resources on their behalf and share these resources as transparently as possible is very empowering. People feel that they matter. At AWDF, we recently opened a letter which brought tears to our eyes. It read, ‘I am so proud and happy, I wish I had a lot of money to give you but I don’t. Here is 5,000 Cedis.’ It was touching to sense the deep pride in this woman’s message and it in turn left us with a tremendous sense of responsibility. 5,000 Cedis is less than one dollar, but what this woman was telling us was that she felt that our existence made her important, and we in turn knew that what mattered was not just the modest grants we can award but the fact that we are available to do so.
As many more donors tentatively make their first grants abroad, the pros and cons of using regranting organizations will continue to be debated. It is up to each donor to decide what strategy works best for them. I would like to suggest that using local grantmakers founded specifically to make grants in their communities is a responsible and cost-effective approach, and one of the most sustainable development strategies a donor can adopt. So the challenge to Organization/Individual As is – invest in the capacity and sustainability of Organization Bs, the local philanthropic organizations. This should be seen as an increasingly wise option.