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Outside the comfort zone – reflections on funding environmental movements overseas

By Harriet Williams, 7th December 2015

As a funder working to save tropical forests, we’ve always had a focus on cleaning up our own back yard – namely driving deforestation out of the supply chains that suck huge amounts of paper, palm oil and timber out of rainforests (or rather, land that used to be rainforest) and dump the product into stores across Europe.

Campaigns to win over Disney, Mattel, Staples and a bunch of other global brands to zero-deforestation pledges have proven a great success.

They took years of scandalous exposes and thousands of e-petitioners to come good, but as funders we knew exactly what we were getting into – classic markets-based campaigns, delivered by highly professional NGOs upon a well-defined set of large corporations operating within countries whose society and political economy are very familiar to us.

Earlier this decade, when major Indonesian commodity producers started to announce their own policies at the base of the supply chain, there was plenty to celebrate. We could have staged an exit right there, having helped wrest some substantial changes to business-as-usual – at least on the demand side of the equation.

But to quote one NGO director, “a campaign that doesn’t follow through is a campaign that didn’t win”. And with this in mind we embarked on the part that comes next – making policy and market commitments bite in countries that still have forests to chop down.

Partly because this was the direction being taken by some of our grantees, who rolled up their sleeves to work on specifics of in-country reform.

Partly because it seemed necessary to make safe our wins. Recruiting lots of large companies to good-looking CSR policies may serve as an interim goal, but ultimately success means bulldozers pulling out and forests being saved.

And partly because our research told us that the type of opportunistic, flexible grant funding JMG can provide is in short supply in Indonesia, despite the existence of substantial programmes operated by other foundation and statutory donors.

Each of these reasons begs questions of its own, some overarching ones being the extent to which it is practical, desirable or even ethical to start placing grants aimed at supporting outcomes in a society you know little about. (To be fair, most groups that we’ve spoken with welcome additional donors and complaints of “foreign meddling” in matters of Indonesian sovereignty tend to come from agribusiness interests.)

Nonetheless we decided there was a role for JMG funding, and starting in 2013 began to scout for good quality grantees among national and local Indonesian NGOs.

Here are some reflections on what we’ve learnt so far:

Don’t go it alone
Although JMG is not part of any formal funding alliance in Indonesia, we’ve developed a sounding board comprised of donor and NGO staff based in the country. Consulting this panel enables us to identify potential grantees more readily and place funds with greater confidence. Without this mechanism, it would be much harder to make grants direct to those Indonesian organisations which prove more of a challenge to appraise.

Go see 
There’s no substitute for visiting a place to get a sense of what makes it tick. I’d been following events in Indonesia for a good while before making my first trip there earlier this year. In the end I was pleased that I’d waited, at least long enough to frame a set of opinions and questions to be tested on the ground. We deliberately designed an itinerary that involved lots of different NGOs and donors to be sure of taking in a diversity of views and approaches to change.

Test your comfort zone and stay the course
I suspect, though don’t know for sure, that international NGOs absorb the lion’s share of philanthropic funding available to forests work in Indonesia from overseas donors. While such NGOs line up very well to deliver certain grant objectives, local organisations need capacity-building too (not least because they may be left holding the baby after the international community has cleared out). However, the average Indonesian group is not easy to invest in; from application to reporting the whole process can be pretty hit-or-miss. Managing these relationships successfully requires proactive engagement effort from us, and a willingness to appraise and mitigate the associated risks. Grant making overseas is a learning process and takes time. It’s important to commit to significant periods of time and mutual education for the best outcomes.

Adopt an integrated approach
For JMG, it’s been useful to look at our Indonesian grant making though the lens of our broader programme and other grantees. Granting to Indonesian groups that are not stand alone but integrated via an agreed strategy to other actors we work with has helped provide coherence and better transparency.

In summary, Indonesian civil society is an exciting and scary place for funders. The fates of forests, land and people are closely intertwined; community activism is alive and well. Insofar as donors have a shared objective regards the sector’s overall effectiveness it seems to be this: to uphold the vibrancy of the NGO sector while at the same time improving its chaotic processes and planning.

I suspect this outlook is recognisable to donors looking to fund in other overseas countries, particularly developing ones. Broadly it speaks to a need for capacity-building, but at the same time philanthropists need to think carefully about what type of capacity they sow.

For instance, are we seeking to develop a ‘professionalised’ NGO class, more akin to that we’re familiar with back home? Is this appropriate in the context at hand, and will it be effective?

What relationship do we envisage between national and international NGOs? Do we run a risk of stoking resentment between natural allies through insensitive grantmaking (e.g. piling all the money into a ‘safe pair of hands’)?

Is there a need for funders to invest in more systemic types of capacity-building, for instance vocational training for NGO administrators, or crash courses in how to handle relationships with overseas donors?

How much of the ‘can’t find any good NGOs to fund’ issue is down to a failure in our own imagination of how positive change can happen? Do we need revisit our assumptions at all?

I don’t have the answers but want to leave you with the type of questions it can be good to ask.

Harriet joined Goldsmith Family Philanthropy in 2005, and now manages a number of environmental grant programmes. Before that she worked as journalist in the higher education and finance sectors. She has a MSc from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and a first degree in biology. She is a member of the EFN’s committee.

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