By Anna Kolotovkina, a civil society resourcing intern at CIVICUS, social volunteer and activist.
I once talked with a woman who has been helping homeless people for many years in Siberia, Russia, where I live. She and other self-organised volunteers prepare and deliver hot dinners, collect and donate clothes and medicine, help them get documents, and find housing and jobs. They really go beyond their means to do this work. When I mentioned the possibility of applying for a grant as a volunteer organisation, she laughed in disbelief and said – “Are we an organisation? We are just people with good hearts.”
Her words struck me. Last summer, volunteers were key to extinguishing the massive forest fires in Siberia, while State officials said that fighting the fires was “economically unprofitable.” The story repeats in Australia, where thousands of volunteer firefighters, individuals, NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs) are leading emergency efforts during the biggest forest fire in Australian history.
Turns out that the “people with good hearts”, including volunteers, activists, community groups and CSOs around the world, are solving social, economic and environmental problems that states don’t address, or do it poorly. They’re also the brave challenging corruption, safeguarding human rights, and standing up for climate justice and for the most vulnerable populations.
These individuals should be considered by themselves and others as important subjects for funding and support. The problem is that, in fact, they do not have access to enough resourcing opportunities and widespread funding practices usually exclude them.
Only 15% of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) provided by states around the world is directed to or channelled through CSOs, and less than 1% is earmarked directly for CSOs in the global south. Too often, the main sources of development and philanthropic funding don’t prioritise grassroots, small groups or civic action challenging the status quo, and tend to favour Northern and larger organisations.
Ironically, some existing resources and donors who do provide this kind of support are just hard to find. The information about them and provided by them is not quite accessible, often for those who need it the most. This became clear to me while mapping and profiling donors during my internship with CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance.
We’ve been building a directory of funders, INGOs and other entities that provide funding and non-financial resources to activists, CSOs and to small, less formal civil society groups, especially those located in the global south. CIVICUS will publish this directory in several languages to make it more accessible to the people struggling to obtain this type of information.
For 4 months, I reviewed around 200 websites of entities that support civil society. I gathered information to create their profiles, contacted them and requested approval to feature them in the directory. This exercise allowed me to experience first-hand some of the obstacles faced by the above-mentioned groups when seeking suitable support and funding.
Let’s start by the language barrier: half of the websites I consulted were available only in English, even when the organisations targeted non-English speaking countries. This clearly limits the accessibility of information and opportunities to a considerable number of activists and CSOs in some countries of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America who do not speak English at all or well enough to navigate websites looking for specific information and to file support applications.
The next barrier I met was a bit unexpected. I was not able to open about five websites because access to users with a Russian IP was limited by those organisations or due to restrictions apparently set by my country. This made me think of the number of people in need based on countries with similar constraints… I overcame this by using a proxy server set up by our IT expert. Would they be able to do the same?
Then I realised that the information provided by the funding/supporting organisations on their websites was not always complete or helpful. On about 50% of the websites I spent 5-7 minutes gathering all the information needed to understand what they do, the type of support offered, target groups, selection criteria, application processes, etc. But on the other half, I devoted 15-20 minutes, sometimes more, and left with big doubts – Were they a fund at all? How/who/when can people actually access the support offered? Many did not even provide basic details, such as phone numbers or e-mail addresses.
Several entities delivering rapid response assistance, funds and other resources to human rights defenders or groups facing emergencies, threats and high-risk situations (like life-threats and wrongful imprisonment) related to their activism, did not specify crucial information like response and turnaround times, duration of the assistance offered or selection criteria.
Lastly, many supporting organisations do not accept unsolicited funding requests, but they do not state it clearly on their websites! This fact, as the selection criteria, should always be included and highlighted in websites to save time, efforts and frustrations to those who seek help and those who provide it.
These barriers may seem small to some, but think about activists and organisation who do not have time to surf the Web for hours or days to find those resources because they are facing urgent situations or are too busy doing fieldwork and don’t have staff dedicated to fundraising of any type. A good number may also lack the skills (language, computer literacy) or tools (software, good Internet access, a contacts database) needed. And many others, like the volunteer woman in my city, don’t even know or believe that they qualify for funding.
There is a long way to go to democratise the access to resources for civil society, but we can start or accelerate that journey by democratising the access to quality and practical information about existing resources and how they are granted.