This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.
The West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) has been tirelessly promoting the sustainability of civil society organisations (CSOs) for the last five years, after seeing valuable CSOs in this region having to close doors due to financial constraints.
CIVICUS spoke with Omolara Balogun, head of the Policy Influencing and Advocacy unit at WACSI, about their efforts to support the resilience of CSOs in West Africa, which include conducting relevant research and establishing collaborations with regional and international actors, including the Affinity Groups of National Associations (AGNA) supported by CIVICUS, to raise awareness, disseminate knowledge, build capacity and advocate together for better conditions that help civil society sustain their work and thrive.
How did WACSI become involved in advancing the sustainability of CSOs in West Africa?
Our interest began in 2014. We noticed a clear change in the aid and development landscape, specifically dwindling funding to the civil society sector by traditional aid givers. Previously, WACSI had enough resources to deliver its services for free (capacity building, advocacy support, research and documentation of civil society’s work, etc.). However, when donor funding started to decrease, that ‘free’ approach was no longer sustainable. We decided to request for a small contributory fee for attending our capacity building trainings, but, to our surprise, many people and organisations could not afford it. We heard recurrent complaints about donors giving less funds, having stricter funding conditions, increasing projectisation of grants, and unwillingness to provide ‘core funding’ to cover organisation’s overheads/administrative costs and staff development. As this trend continued, our interest increased, and we decided to facilitate a sector-wide debate about the sustainability of CSOs in West Africa.
One of your first steps was doing research about the financial situation of CSOs in Ghana. What were the key findings?
The same year, we received seed-funding from STAR-Ghana and commissioned a pilot research on “The State of Civil Society Organisations’ Sustainability in Ghana,” published in 2015. The research engaged different categories of CSOs to identify and understand who was striving, surviving and thriving in terms of financial, operational, intervention and identity sustainability. The results showed that the minority of CSOs were thriving in all areas and these were the ones with sustained access to international traditional funders. The majority were just surviving with enough funds to cover their administration costs and run activities in the present, but unsure of what would happen tomorrow; if they will get new funds or grant to run activities, keep relevance etc. Lastly, a significant amount were striving to even complete implementation of ongoing projects, pay rent or salaries. In fact, we saw partners with an amazing mission and recognized interventions in peace and conflict areas, who had to close doors.
Findings revealed that CSOs suffer sustainability challenges in diverse areas. Some suffer identity crisis, as they’ve dumped their original mission, vision, strategy, partnerships and settled unto another, chasing after money in available areas. At a sector level, the competition over the little funds between CSOs increased, weakening collaboration opportunities and reducing collective impact. Not addressing these dynamics possess a major threat of extinction to many more organisations.
The conversation about sustainability of CSOs has now gained ground in the region. How did WACSI help engage different actors in a positive and proactive agenda?
We developed a comprehensive sustainability programme to engage diverse CSOs in systematic dialogues between our sector, local and international donors, and the government about our sustainability threats, prevailing challenges and opportunities, and to design a robust capacity strengthening programme for all CSOs, especially those surviving and striving. Engagement in the Ghana pilot phase has been positive. The loud feedback is that people want CSOs to stay and thrive, not to shut down. Donors, communities, constituencies, the private sector and even the government recognise the work and value that we bring to the development sector. They are all interested in CSOs’ sustainability.
WACSI received support from the AGNA network to establish national dialogues on domestic resource mobilisation, how has this helped your efforts?
The support from AGNA has been instrumental in engaging CSOs, donors, the private sector and, soon, government authorities to explore what is needed to enable domestic resource mobilisation as an alternative source of income to support CSOs’ financial sustainability.
The dialogues with CSOs allowed us to map their main sources of income, see what options they could explore to diversify their resources, and what skills, knowledge and tools are needed. Promoting more local philanthropy and pursuing the social enterprise model (some CSOs are already trying this) were strong options. However, there are many challenges: most CSOs have operated under charitable models for decades and are frustrated with this change , others highlight the lack of capacity in the sector to explore new avenues, while some advocacy, human rights and policy-centered organisations say that generating their own income goes against their focus, mission and identity.
We spoke with private sector representatives to understand how they define their Corporate Social Responsibility and foundations strategies and how CSOs can access part of those resources. We learned that private entities largely focus on impact investments, therefore, to access private funding, CSOs must build business skills, understand their sector, develop a profit mentality, and find ways to provide visibility when partnerships are established. Furthermore, CSOs must make a stronger case to educate and convince private entities about the role of civil society in facilitating social stability, justice, peaceful and enabling environment that allows companies to do business without impediments.
We also had honest conversations with “traditional” donors (bilaterals, multilaterals, embassies) about their funding cuts, changing priorities and stricter conditions, and expressed the sectors’ concerns about the increasing use of intermediaries (such as northern consulting firms) that pushes local CSOs to play secondary roles as subgrantees and represents waste of money for CSOs. In feedback, the represented donors explained that these changes are government decisions aligned with the foreign policy agendas of the home countries. It was also mentioned that the majority of CSOs are unable to access available funding due to lack of capacity to absorb or push for innovative ideas in the proposals. Thus, civil society must invest in strengthening its capacity and accountability systems to improve their chances to access traditional and new funds.
What will be the focus of the dialogues with the Government?
We’ll speak mostly about legislative frameworks needed to enable the environment for domestic resource mobilisation. First, to remove laws that are repressive and against the operational and financial sustainability of CSOs and, second, to advocate for a comprehensive legislation that allows them to diversify their income base without legal contradictions or bottlenecks. It’s important to have a legislation for social entrepreneurship adapted to CSOs because, with the prevailing law, CSOs would lose their non-for-profit status and registration if they engage in profitmaking services or mobilise certain funds, or can be requested to register social enterprises as profitable companies and pay taxes on profit before rechanneling to charity. We also need tax incentives to promote local philanthropy for CSOs. Finally, we have to discuss how the government can directly provide more resources to CSOs and stop competing against us for traditional funding, as donors sometimes prefer giving money to governments than to CSOs because they get more visibility.
Social entrepreneurship is becoming trendy, but can it really be an alternative for most CSOs?
This possibility is more suitable for organisations focused on service delivery. It is harder for CSOs working in policy influencing, advocacy and human rights to sell services, and they are the most worried about compromising their mission and values by generating income. This is a challenge we must address collectively - these organisations are the ones promoting critical social changes and should be sustained.
What are the key next steps to advance the sustainability agenda?
Fixing the conflictive legislation about social enterprise, creating tax incentives and promoting resources (like seed capital) so that CSOs can venture into social entrepreneurship are key steps. For CSOs, the priority is to build knowledge and capacity in social enterprise, innovation, impact investment, and corporate partnerships, and change the charitable mindset to start working viable plans for income diversification. Additionally, to mobilise local resources and support, we must focus on building relationships with the constituencies that we represent – most of which have been neglected after years of prioritizing the donor agenda. People will find it difficult to support civil society if they cannot connect with our mission, vision, work and the value that we bring to improving the living conditions of citizens.
WACSI is walking the talk too. Please, tell us about your efforts to generate alternative resources.
WACSI has adopted an asset-based approach to help us cut costs and generate income. For example, we’ve been renting our conference rooms and interpretation equipment to other organisations at subsidised rates, and we are saving thousands of dollars in translations in the last 3-years thanks to a partnership with the Ghana Institute of Languages, through which their students participate in a one-month immersion programme with WACSI to gain work experience while help us with translations and interpretations. These initiatives are not enough to stop WACSI from seeking external support, but it is a bold step in the right direction.