4 Practical Ways to shift power and resources to Grassroots Movements

Civicus, the international network of civil society organizations, has some really interesting work on how donors and INGOs can get their act together in supporting the grassroots. Take your pick from the short summary, the full report (by Jennie Richmond, Matt Jackson & Bethany Eckley of impact works) or a short op-ed. Or just read these excerpts:

The problem:

  • A prevalence of short-term, project-based funding
  • Application processes that are inaccessible, complicated and lengthy
  • Burdensome reporting, compliance and risk management requirements
  • A long-term decline in international funds available, particularly for middle-income countries
  • Southern governments placing more restrictions on civil society
  • Power dynamics that allow funders to set the agenda and define ‘success’ and leave little room for southern CSOs to design their own interventions or respond to their changing contexts

Sound familiar?

Civicus agreed four criteria for developing fixes.They need to:

  • Offer long-term, core or flexible funding with accessible application processes and light-touch reporting requirements
  • Offer funding for more informal, potentially unregistered grassroots movements, particularly those operating in restrictive contexts
  • Build relationships between and among activists, funders and experts (local and international) that enable the reciprocal sharing of non-financial resources
  • Unlock other sources of resource that would reduce reliance on international funding

They then came up with four big ideas (arrived at through an exhaustively described process of consultation and participation):

Finally, they reckon these fit the criteria to varying degrees as shown below.

If you’re interested in this issue, do please read the full paper, which includes lots of examples of where these kinds of initiatives are already happening. What this paper adds is a really smart overall framework for thinking about the issue, born of a genuine discussion with grassroots movements themselves. Kudos.

If I could add one thing, it would be to focus more discussion overtly on how to help CSOs exit from dependence on fickle aid donors, for example by raising more of their funding domestically. That’s implicit in the online resourcing platform, but I think it needs to be more prominent.

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8 Responses to “4 Practical Ways to shift power and resources to Grassroots Movements”
  1. Thank you for this post, and I will certainly read the full paper.
    One aspect however I would like to lowlight:
    Often what is needed is strenghtening civil society. The organisation on the level above the grassroots, that can negotiate with the government and the powers on the higher level. If donors support grassroots community based organisations, their need for organising at a higher level diminishes, what leads to less political leverage.

    • Thanks for bringing attention to this point. In the broad civil society landscape, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups and movements play key and different roles. While CSOs do provide valuable support to grassroots, in our view, all groups on the ground, especially those at the frontlines, should have direct access to meaningful financial and other resources that allow them to drive change (including participating in public influencing at those higher levels that you mention) with or without the intermediation of CSOs. Let’s not forget that CSOs in various contexts have been seen as gatekeepers of power and resources who are more accountable to their donors than to the constituencies they claim to serve. In any case, empowering grassroots is part of strengthening civil society as a whole.

  2. Monalisa Salib

    Are these ideas assuming a generally open space for civil society in the country? Are these ideas relevant in authoritarian / severely closing space contexts? Thanks for any insight!

    • Dear Monalisa,
      Trends about civic space restrictions were definitely considered while co-creating these four proposed funding mechanisms. We had input from a comprehensive literature review and from both grassroots representatives and donors supporting grassroots — while not all of them came from closed civic spaces, a majority of them were from or worked in restricted contexts. Their input was key for understanding which elements of each mechanism could or not be viable in different contexts, but most of them were able to find elements that could work or at least be adapted to their own circumstances. One of the main lessons learned from this work was that any valid tool or solution to support social change has to be grounded in the particular context of a given community or movement.
      To answer your question, bringing any of these concepts into reality would require further iterations, consultation and co-design work with targeted ‘end users’ within a severely closing or authoritarian context.

  3. We’re obsessed with funding and on supporting the ‘grassroots’ (whatever that means). These organisations seem to do well enough without the formal restrictions of ‘partnership’ with formal civil society – they rise in response to a need, act to give energy to an issue and often then collapse, creating space for more relevant? organisations to take on the next battle. They probably could do better than they are now, but the injection of money and ‘access’ usually sound the death knell of good, relevant local formations. Formal civil society either sustains them beyond a useful lifespan (turning them into gatekeepers and power brokers) or collapses them under enormous compliance pressures. Maybe its good enough as is and we should be thinking more about sustaining the civil society ecosystem more generally.

  4. MJ

    I like some of these suggestions, but I would recommend more emphasis on corralling funders, including BINGOs who often act as gatekeepers, to reform their approach. $50k unrestricted grants, however lightweight the application process, still sounds very project-ised to me. The labs could work if they were seen as a key plank that funders need to engage with if they are to be seen as active, credible players on the scene, and the labs then set some ground-rules about what counts as acceptable long-term, core funding. For this to happen the big donors, who tend to provide support through the medium-sized funders and BINGOs, would need to get behind the labs and bully the gatekeepers they use to work with and through the labs.

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