By Gioel Gioacchino, research consultant with CIVICUS
As a keynote speaker at a global gathering of a thousand activists and NGO workers in Belgrade in April, the host of a popular Serbian television spoof news show, Zoran Kesic performed 24 minutes of brilliant (and cathartic) satire.
He took aim at a range of subjects, including politics in his country and region. And he did not spare his hosts either.
During Kesic’s piece, the image of a red stapler flashed on a screen behind him. “Say you need a stapler”, he started, “you might think of going to the store and buying one”.
Kesic offered instructions that he thought this crowd might need for such a purchase:
"Make sure you put in the budget a tender for the purchase of the stapler. Include the cost of transporting the stapler from the store to the office, and don’t forget to add extra costs for purchasing a little table where we will keep the stapler. And, of course, the carpet on which the table will stand.
“The worst thing of all,” he concluded, “is you will then keep the receipt of the stapler for months.”
I burst into laughter, but I also thought that starting the conference, International Civil Society Week, by poking fun at each other was an invitation to address the structural problems that we are facing as a civil society ‘sect’, as Zoran Kesic called our field. He joked that civil society organizations have to budget for every little thing and picked on the way the sect(or) is overall failing to question the status quo and instead replicates the same structural absurdities of our society.
For the last four and a half years I have worked with youth-led civil society groups, researching how they resource themselves (or struggle to do so), and ways of understanding and achieving social transformation. I have learned that many young people experience a tension between the vitality and fluidity that emerges in their work and the rigid modus operandi required to budget for Kesic’s red stapler.
But the problem is not only that there are many powerful youth-led groups and movements and comparatively little funding to sustain their work. Neither is it that the type of funding available often comes with tedious requirements and is mostly allocated to deliver narrow projects, without investments in the organizational strengthening necessary for the organisation to keep up the work.
I have learned that behind their struggle is a mismatch in values between donors and youth-led groups and a lack of meaningful understanding of each other.
For the last five months, as part of trend analysis on resourcing youth-led groups in Latin America and Africa conducted by global civil society alliance, CIVIUCS, I have asked more than 20 youth activists to think back to the most positive relationship they had with a donor. What did they do to make the relationship positive? What did the donor do?
I organized the feedback in a mind map and found myself in front of what looked like a list of tips on effective dating. The best relationships are ones in which the non-profit was able to communicate openly and transparently, nourish a close connection, and ask for help when faced with challenges or complex decisions. ‘Good donors’ are relatable, flexible, enthusiastic, present, mindful of the operational context, and non-judgemental. As one of my interviewees put it, the relationship works when both parties can say “We enjoy each other’s company and have real conversations”.
In other words, the collaboration can flourish when donors and grantees are able to listen to each other. Seems like common sense but the problem is that listening can be extremely difficult, given the way donor-grantee relationships unfold. One challenge, for example, is that communication is mediated by jargon. And the jargon can feel imposed, it can be misunderstood and misused, especially when translated across different cultural context.
This issue became evident recently as I facilitated a day-long dialogue between donors and representatives of youth-led groups. The discussions were attended by a group of 20 people who rarely get the chance to share the same space. Imagine a room with social entrepreneurs, activists, NGO directors, representatives of informal movements from Ghana to Brazil, with a range of conservative and progressive institutions.
In designing the workshop, I wanted to make sure to prevent people from getting into a space of formality and serial buzz-wording. My strategy was to loosen things up and get to the heart of the communication issue. I brought a series of paintings and asked participants, arranged in groups of three, to sit back-to-back with one acting as observer. One partner was asked to describe the painting to the other, who had to re-create it. To make things more interesting, the painter was not allowed to ask questions at first. The observers were also given a shot at painting.
During the debrief of the exercise, I asked participants how the exercise related to their work experiences. The conversation cracked open like an egg: they shared how challenging it was to use clear language and to communicate without being able to see each other or ask questions. The activists talked about the way the pace of communication constrained their work, the challenge of asking the right questions and how language can be so easily misinterpreted.
This reflection naturally led to a discussion on donor relations. When a donor puts out a request for grant proposals, youth-led groups often feel they are applying without a clear understanding of the call or being able to read between the lines of the call. Plus, as many of the interviewees stressed, applications often feel akin to throwing a football in the dark. The only feedback some donors give is that the application was unsuccessful, without saying why or where it fell short. Others won’t respond at all.
One interviewee likened a grant application to going on a first date and then having your date ghost you – just vanish without any explanation why.
When I shared grantee organisations’ frustration with the lack of meaningful feedback on grant applications, donors explained they are also under-resourced and have the constraints of limited staff time.
In fact, this conflict is superficial. To understand resourcing patterns, we need to look at a much broader ecosystem of actors interacting dynamically with each other. To visualize this, I facilitated a presencing theatre exercise.
The image we created by embodying different actors and forces present in our ecosystem was a messy knot of powerful actors such as private companies, government and INGOS, in contact with each other. One side of the knot was surrounded by a range of grassroots actors, standing disconnected from each other. Young people were not even represented in this scene until I pointed it out. It seemed to reflect the often-tokenistic nature of youth engagement. The message here was that resourcing of youth-led work won’t happen if young people aren’t meaningfully included in the picture.
What emerged also was that the agents of social transformation are very fragmented. Why? One answer is structural – competition for resources. Civil society organizations compete for the same resources – a twisted dynamic that diminishes the transformative power of each actor.
In my experience, people working at the grassroots level are more likely to allow their whole self into their work – this leaves more space for authenticity but also more room for bruised egos and for differences to be amplified. Or maybe we simply lack a common vision?
In any case, we also realized that youth-led groups and movements are not effectively listening to each other. Plus, civil society groups often strive for independence. Yet resourcing connects or separates groups - the need for resourcing is a constant reminder of our interdependence.
What does this all mean? Like many of the groups I interviewed, I’m still trying to figure that out.
Maybe we need to find new geometries of collaborating that doesn’t look like the awkward funding chains we are used to.
And yet, working together in an open way requires relationships that feel more genuine and real. We need to support each other to grow the skills for nourishing relationships across differences that might feel messy and sticky and require us accepting each other more fully and letting emotions flow.
Gioel Gioacchino is a civil society practitioner and an action researcher. Currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for Development Studies, her research explores how different funding models affect organisational culture as well as the quality of social organisations’ internal and external relationships. She is a research consultant at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
Listen to the summary of her research and some case studies here.
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