Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Students protesting gun violence. At times, a grassroots movement spreads like wildfire, and well-targeted funding looks like a good way to add fuel to the flames. But funding thrown blindly can harm rather than help. So how do you fund the grassroots well?
For many funders, including those internationally focused, this question has taken on a sharper sense of urgency since Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election, as well as the closing of civic space in Eastern Europe and beyond. We've all heard the adage "think globally, act locally," but what does that mean for foundation strategies? And how do you avoid a disconnect between elite-level grantmaking institutions and community-based groups on the front lines?
To explore this terrain, the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG), an affinity group of over 60 funders “waging peace,” partnered with Peace Direct, an international nonprofit dedicated to stopping wars. Together, they issued a report based on surveying nearly 40 member organizations of the PSFG and the Human Rights Funders Network.
The report’s key takeaways include well-timed findings for funders working in the U.S. and abroad who want to boost local efforts to make change without squelching the “vital spark" of grassroots work. Beyond that familiar pitfall, funders also face practical challenges in understanding local context and working with organizations that lack administrative capacity. These barriers are especially daunting for foundations focused overseas and explain why grantmakers so often gravitate to larger NGOs.
Yet, one of the report’s key findings was encouraging: 80 percent percent of survey respondents said their organizations have a culture and practice of “funding locally." In the same fashion, respondents recognized the value of funding local organizations, viewing it as one of many viable options.
At the same time, a number of respondents agreed that funding local organizations “has its own limitations and may not always be the best route.” And respondents who did not support local organizations flagged the challenges associated with such giving, including the “difficulty of identifying groups on the ground, lack of financial management capacity, and insufficient bandwidth of grant officers” to provide needed support.
Respondents also repeatedly observed that “communication and collaboration amongst funders is a critical element to successfully funding local organizations.” That's a point we've often heard in reporting on philanthropy's role in global hotspots like Congo, where grantmakers have different relationships with groups on the ground and need to pool their knowledge to fully understand a complex situation.
In an interview with Inside Philanthropy, Sadia Hameed, managing director of the Nexus Fund—which works to avert mass atrocities and has funded community groups in 36 countries—said that "local expertise on how to best maximize the impact of philanthropic resources and create sustainable and durable infrastructure for peace and change is essential, but oftentimes not as highly prioritized."
Hameed stressed the need to “be aware of local nuance," dedicating time and resources to building on-the-ground trust and relationships in individual country contexts. “Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned efforts can create unforeseen risk and harm,” she said.
Echoing a theme of the report, Amy Bisno, program officer for civil and political rights and humanitarian response at the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), said that research shows the value that U.S. philanthropic organizations see in funding local organizations, but “the challenge is how to do it best.”
“The first question we should be asking is what do we mean by ‘supporting local organizations’?" said Bisno. “Does it mean national level organizations in a particular country led by a local civil society leader? Or do we mean community-based groups representing people who do not have easy access to the halls of power?"
Bisno said the question often asked at her organization was whether enough money was going to the right “constellations” of groups to achieve social change. She added that AJWS was asking donors to consider extending funding usually aimed at national-level organizations toward local or grassroots groups “in order to support a diversity of voices.”
These are tricky issues. But Bridget Moix, senior U.S. representative and head of advocacy for Peace Direct, told Inside Philanthropy that more funders understand the need to change how they operate. “The traditional models of donor-driven agendas have not worked, and private philanthropy across the global North is shifting slowly but surely toward more direct support for initiatives that are designed and sustained through local leadership.”
Moix said that institutional and government donors were slower in moving in this direction, but nevertheless were making the shift. She observed that European donors may be ahead of the U.S. in offering more flexibility and core support to local groups. “However, we were pleasantly surprised by the level of commitment to supporting locally led peace-building that we found within the PSFG membership,” Moix said. "We would certainly call these U.S. funders leaders in this trend... I think we are on the cusp of a more significant shift in the way philanthropy and institutional donor funding is structured."
But according to these experts and respondents cited in the report, a lot of changes still need to happen.
Amy Bisno said that funders need to get “more in sync with social movements and providing dynamic levels of support.” Biso, along with many respondents, cited the need for more general support funding to build the capacity of local organizations. She also stressed the need to back long-term partnerships to foster solidarity and alliance building across civil society to make new inroads for grassroots voices within mainstream movements.
Bridget Moix crystallized the bottom line, here: “Ultimately, what we need are fundamental shifts in power and resources so that local communities most directly impacted by conflict and striving to build lasting peace are the ones leading the change in their societies.”