The term sustainability is being used maybe more than ever by civil society organisations (CSOs) in Latin America and the Caribbean, as they are feeling increasingly challenged by constant changes in the funding architecture that supports the region. First, the global financial crisis that engulfed the world a decade ago significantly reduced international aid - the main source of funds for most of the sector. Then, the new realities of their developing economies have also taken a toll on the amount and type of funds CSOs can access. Last, but not least, the rise of populism in many countries is further threatening funding. Under these circumstances, more and more CSOs wonder if they will be able to secure a future.
“We regularly consult our members about their needs, and most of the answers we received in the last years highlight that they worried about financial sustainability,” says Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG, a multisectoral network of 36 NGOs in the Dominican Republic that is member of the CIVICUS alliance. “More than worried, some even feel threatened by this funding landscape,” she added.
To address these concerns, Alianza joined a pilot initiative launched in 2018 by the AGNA network – a group of national and regional civil society networks hosted and coordinated by CIVICUS– with the aim of bringing attention and paving the way for domestic resource mobilisation (DRM) as a funding alternative for civil society. AGNA is supporting national civil society networks to establish and develop multi-stakeholder national dialogues where CSOs work together with government representatives, philanthropy organisations, the private sector and other stakeholders to strengthen the “infrastructure” that enables the environment for civil society’s domestic resources mobilisation.
Addys Then Marte spoke with CIVICUS about their experience as the first AGNA member toimplement a national dialogue (the West African Institute of Civil Society is working on one in Ghana), their findings and the next actions planned to improve the financial sustainability of CSOs in the Dominican Republic.
What do you think triggered that deep concern about financial sustainability in the civil society groups in the Dominican Republic?
Our economy has improved in recent years – we have advanced in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and of the human development index – and as a consequence, international cooperation stopped being our main funding partner. At the same time, 30% of our population live under the poverty line and inequality is increasing. So, we still need resources but now they are less available – it is harder to find and attract them. The problem is that most of us were not prepared to face this change and deal with new funding modalities that demand becoming more specialised and competitive. Our members don’t feel so confident about the future under these new circumstances.
What are these new funding modalities?
A key part of the work we did thanks to the AGNA DRM initiative was identifying our new funding partners and the different funding modalities we’ve seen in the Dominican Republic. We mapped four main sources of funding: the first one is our own service delivery function; the international aid is now the second one; the third one is the State, which is allocating public funding to civil society mainly through national subsidies and open tenders; and then we have the private sector, which has always been a source of philanthropic giving but now offers funding through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, their own foundations and other alliances.
Do you think that this diversification of the funding landscape in the country could be positive for achieving a more enabling environment for civil society’s domestic resources mobilisation?
That is what we analysed during the national dialogue. We invited more than 80 actors from civil society and other sectors to discuss preliminary findings of analysis about this funding landscape. This really helped broaden our vision. Together we were able to identify the opportunities and challenges of this context and what improvements are needed in and outside of our sector to enable this environment. At the end, we see a strong case for promoting civil society sustainability through DRM, but we have to close many gaps and do a lot of work to achieve it.
What are the main challenges that must be met?
We found many, but we noted some areas of work that are central to start advancing civil society’s DRM in our country: build capacity within the civil society, increase the transparency between sectors, and have better incentive frameworks to promote support for CSOs.
Did you identify what should be done or improved in each area?
We need important investments in capacity building because most of CSOs don’t feel prepared, strong and competitive to navigate this new funding landscape. For example, applying for public funding requires certain knowledge, organisational structure and skills that some organisations don’t have. To work with the private sector, we must be able to create strategies and proposals that are make our causes attractive to them, to their CSR programs and even to their markets. And if we want to explore crowdfunding opportunities, we enter another world that requires another set of skills.
Speaking about transparency, there are two important aspects that must improve. Our organisations should have in place strong accountability mechanisms to report on how we are using or will use funds, and these should be relevant to the different donors. This is especially important as we are now constantly approaching new donors and partners that don’t know our organisations. On the other hand, we should to be able to trust the donors, so they also must be clearer and more transparent about how funds are allocated. Through this dialogue we found that often there is not enough clarity about the requirements to access grants, contracts, tenders and other funds; sometimes there are no straight answers about why one actor received the funds and others didn’t, and other times the opportunities are not even published publicly, so they are not accessible to everybody.
Lastly, we have to be better at promoting the existing incentive frameworks that benefit our organisations, while also asking the government to improve them and create new ones. For example, in our country private companies can claim a 5% deduction against their income tax when they make donations to non-profit and charitable organisations, but many of companies we interviewed said that they didn’t know this. And a good number of the companies that knew about this law told us that the paperwork to apply is too complicated, while some people explained how other sectors offer more attractive incentives – like the tax incentives for supporting the national film industry, which come with the added value of brand exposure.
After the national dialogue, what are the next steps for Alianza as part of this process?
We are developing a 2020 strategy for domestic resourcing mobilisation that will include realistic activities for each priority area. This strategy will be promoted by Alianza and several actors that participated in the national dialogue as we recognized that it will only advance through multisectoral alliances and cooperation. We can’t do this alone! We know that breaking these funding barriers will take time and more political conversations and political will, but this is an important step ahead in addressing the sustainability of the civil society in our country.