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Civil society organisations in the global South and disruptive change: implications for funders

By Halina Ward and Tom Bigg, International Institute for Environment and Development, 20th December 2016

Why disruptive change in the South needs funders to reflect

Over the last year and a half or so, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has been working to understand how leaders of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the South experience, and engage with, disruptive change that has impacts on their organisations. Now a new report looks at the implications of disruptive change in Southern CSOs for funders.

It’s abundantly clear that CSOs in the middle and low income countries of the global South are today confronting multiple disruptive forces. These range from natural disasters and migration to turbulence in the funding environment and changing regulatory requirements as civil society space contracts across much of the world. Disruptive change is already a daily fact of life for many.

The organisational disruption that can result from these forces doesn’t just hamper the effectiveness of these CSOs now; it can also reduce their ability to address bigger shifts in the development landscape in ways that are themselves disruptive in positive ways. That also means weakened abilities to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals mandate to ensure that ‘no-one is left behind’.

Foundations and other donors should do more to support CSOs in the South to engage with disruptive change; whether the CSOs’ model is being disrupted or whether they are disruptive innovators in their own right.

An important part of the funder response to disruptive change must be increased emphasis on support for organisational skills, systems and capabilities within CSOs. In turn, that means that there’s an even greater premium on scarce flexible funding for organisational development and strategy implementation, plus grant decisions informed by deeper understanding of the on-the-ground operational realities of disruption.

Access to resources is essential for the survival of CSOs in middle and low income countries, but these resources could do more than simply allow organisations to survive. Allocated effectively, funding can enable Southern CSOs to thrive in uncertain times.

Funders could also usefully ask whether their own strategies and practices accelerate, or hinder, the development of ‘disruption-ready’ characteristics within grantees.

Messages for grant-makers

There are at least four key messages for grant-makers:

Fund flexibly: because organisational flexibility is one of the key demands of an effective disruptive change approach.

Explore whether you need new capabilities to become a proactive supporter of ‘disruption-ready’ organisational qualities: because an emphasis on ‘disruption-readiness’ is likely to demand investment in the internal skills and capacities that are needed for funders to make sound judgments about organisations rather than projects or programmes.

Invest in shared learning: because shared learning on internal skills and capacities as well as on emerging best practice is also a key resource for CSOs and funders alike.

Finally, review intermediation: this is the term that’s applied to describe (among other things) the process of getting funds to Southern CSOs via intermediary organisations who are often international NGOs based in the global North. Funders who support international NGOs could begin to reflect on how these grantees support their partners that are experiencing disruptive change. As a start, there’s a case for providing explicit incentives for international NGOs to share any of their budget-lines allocated specifically to learning or organisational development with CSO grantees in middle and low income countries.

Those grant-makers who are distant from on-the-ground realities in the South could also consider the potential for engaging more closely with community foundations in middle or low income countries as re-granting intermediaries. This is an area where there’s also a rapidly evolving community of practice.

A recent gathering of community foundations in Johannesburg brought together representatives from over 60 countries. From hugely diverse contexts, all asserted the benefits from philanthropy that is close to ground level, and seen as an integral part of the community’s efforts to improve its people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. Three insights which resonated strongly with participants also contain important insights for funders who want to support Southern CSOs to get good (or better) at disruption:

  • During the struggle against apartheid, South African activists felt their international funders were ‘in the trenches’ with them – but that solidarity has largely disappeared nowadays.
  • Learning from the humanitarian context, where only 0.2% of funds go directly to Southern organisations. Nationally-pooled funds managed by consortia of local CSOs plus community foundations could give the due diligence and oversight required while also allowing more autonomy and investment in institutional capacity to independent CSOs.
  • ‘Assets’ are much broader than just money. Local foundations can play a crucial trust-building role, often with very small budgets, as institutions that oil the wheels of civil society and bring people together around a shared purpose.

Do get in touch if you’re a funder who’s interested in exchanging ideas on this important issue with Southern CSO leaders; there’s a huge amount to learn along the way.

Halina Ward is a Senior Associate and Tom Bigg is Director of Strategy and Learning at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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  • Ambrose Mwesigye Amanyire says:

    This is noble and charismatic. We must work with enthusiasm and commitment to conserve the environment and humanity. It’s timely and we got to work it out!

  • Festus Kahiigwa says:

    This is excellent, disruption readiness is important for sustainability and legitimacy of CSOs in the South

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