Comic Relief goes direct

In July this year, the Comic Relief Trustees approved two grants of £2 million and £1,560,000 to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and African Women’s Development Fund respectively. This is the first time that the organization has made grants direct to African organizations. Previously Comic Relief has always made grants to UK agencies, which in turn support local African agencies. 

Why has Comic Relief not engaged in direct funding before? The issue was first raised by Trustees several years ago. As a public organization, Comic Relief has to ensure that the risks involved in its grantmaking are of an acceptable level and, historically, funding work in Africa through UK agencies provided such a level.

Over the last few years, however, it has become evident that there are a number of potential grantee organizations on the continent that could demonstrate a solid track record and pose few risks as partners. A review of Comic Relief’s grantmaking by McKinsey Management Consultants highlighted new grantmaking models that could be adopted.

Direct funding potentially offers African organizations a greater sense of control in their work and better alignment with their own organizational priorities. Three ways in which direct funding could be delivered were identified and discussed by McKinsey, including establishing a Comic Relief presence in Africa, providing support to local organizations direct, and supporting African grantmakers.

Of these it was agreed, after two years of consideration, that the last option was the most viable. Our Trustees had to consider Comic Relief’s pledge that, of every £1 raised from the British public, £1 goes to support poor and disadvantaged people across Africa and the UK. We cover all our costs from the interest made on money raised – hence all of the capital goes to support organizations and target beneficiaries. The cost of setting up in Africa ourselves, therefore, would have involved a breach of this pledge.

A research exercise carried out by Allavida between December 2005 and January 2006 identified 70 established grantmakers across Africa, producing a ‘long shortlist’ of six organizations.

Why African grantmakers?

Comic Relief wanted to fund African grantmakers to support local non-governmental and community-based organizations working directly with poor people. In addition, we wanted to reach civil society organizations on the ground who aren’t receiving support from international agencies. We wanted African organizations to set their own development agendas and we wanted to provide a funding stream where an increased portion of funding is allocated as near to proposed work as possible. We also believe that African grantmakers are well placed to support work that responds to identified needs and priorities at a local level.

Comic Relief’s funding for the two grantmakers is supporting work under specific programmes of each, which allows for the monitoring and evaluation of impact upon defined groups of beneficiaries. In addition, it is supporting the grantmakers to make larger grants than they would usually make for work over a three-year period. This provides both a level of security and, Comic Relief believes, greater sustainability of impact.

Comic Relief was set up in response to the famine in the Horn of Africa in 1984 and has funded development work in some of the world’s poorest countries, especially in Africa, as well as in the UK. Its biggest events are Red Nose Day and Sport Relief, which have raised over £400 million for poor and disadvantaged people. Currently, it disburses around £40 million a year for work internationally.

Pontso Mafethe is International Grants Officer at Comic Relief. Email

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