By Tafadzwa Munyaka and Angela Umoru-David
Across Africa, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) bearing different monikers such as community-based organisations (CBOs), civil society organisations (CSOs) and nonprofits have long borne the duty of designing and implementing developmental interventions to address varying challenges. The World Association of Non-governmental Organizations (WANGO) lists 4912 of such entities operating in the Continent, which is safe to say is only a fraction of the true number since many may not be registered on that platform. These non-state actors often rely on the goodwill of volunteers, individual donors, local grant-making bodies, international philanthropy and humanitarian aid to fund and facilitate their operations. As lofty as their mission or magnanimous as their benefactors might be, the sheer number begs the question of how sustainable their funding methods truly are.
As practitioners in the African development space, we have observed over the years that the longstanding methods of fundraising by African NGOs are shaped by unique challenges, often rooted in economic, political, and cultural factors as well as vestiges of colonialism. These factors breed an over-reliance on funding from outside the continent, mainly from Western donor countries and international development organizations.
Overview of the Current Funding Landscape
Philanthropy and humanitarian aid from the Global North constitute a large chunk of the funding that African NGOs depend on each year. More often than not, such funding comes with ‘strings attached’ like specifying the issues that the local organizations should focus on, the proportion of the funding that should go to areas of concern and rigorous reporting demands. It is quite common for funding to be unceremoniously withdrawn when an organization is termed non-compliant to donor requirements. “The global flow of aid resources hinders the effectiveness and sustainability of local NGOs, as well as their ability to scale and build capacity”, writes Carlos Mureithi, Kenyan journalist.
In addition, funding is usually routed through larger international non-profits while local ones only serve as ‘implementing partners’. With such intermediaries in the picture, local NGOs are forced to work within the confines of their funding partner’s stipulations. While there have been recent calls for localization and shifting agency to Africa-based organizations, the reverberations are yet to be felt across the NGO landscape in Africa. Similarly, smaller nonprofit organizations are completely cut off from international funding because they lack the social credibility and popularity. This creates a cycle where only the most ‘visible’ local non-profits continually receive funding. The ‘invisible’ nonprofits are inadvertently dependent on local grant-making bodies (which are often implementing partners of international funders), individual donors in the communities they serve, self-funding and crowdfunding platforms.
A classic scenario is a case in the South-Eastern part of Zimbabwe. A particular district had been grappling with pervasive issues of child marriages, an alarming rate of teen pregnancies, and school dropouts. In 2019, this plight of vulnerable youths caught the attention of a UN agency who reached out to offer a helping hand. However, there were differences of opinion on what the agency was willing to support and what the District termed to be the true need. Historically, the District had been marked by severe economic challenges stemming from periods of political instability and other socio-economic issues. These challenges had created poverty and youth restiveness that left communities to grapple with the effects presenting themselves as students dropping out, child marriages and teen pregnancies exacerbated by inadequacies in healthcare and poor education systems. To the District leadership, tackling these effects was most urgent but the international donor agency wanted to fund birth registrations instead, which according to District records, were already at a 95% coverage and success rate. While birth registration is crucial, the highlighted issues called for a more comprehensive and holistic approach. Therefore, local needs, while pressing, may be overshadowed by the specific preferences and guidelines set by external funders.
Why the Existing Fundraising Model is not Sustainable
1 – Agenda-setting: The landscape of international funding for community development is often a double-edged sword. While financial support from international donors can be a lifeline for communities facing various drawbacks, the attached conditions for such funding sometimes lead to clashes of values. This poses a significant problem to the existing model of fundraising, as communities may find themselves at a crossroads between meeting immediate needs through the funding provided and adhering to their core values and principles. The model also perpetuates an imbalance of power between international donors and local communities. The power dynamics can hinder genuine, bi-lateral collaboration and may result in decisions that prioritize the donor’s interests over the community’s needs. The Big Brother syndrome is real. Furthermore, like in the story above, international donors may have specific agendas driven by global concerns, political leanings or their organizational mandates. These may not always align with the grassroots objectives of communities. For example, a donor might prioritize teaching people their rights, while the community seeks expansion of its immunization program.
2 – Poverty: The fundraising status quo does little to transform systems, creates an over-dependence on foreign aid and perpetuates a cycle of poverty. On the flipside, small NGOs who are not on the radar of foreign donors rely on individual giving or are self-funded and this means that the resources only trickle in. This limits the impact of projects and forces the staff to live on the barest minimum. In Nigeria, an ongoing jab at development workers is that the NGO staff’s standard of living is so below par that they should also be beneficiaries of their own projects (especially in livelihood and economic empowerment projects). This is due to the high poverty and unemployment rates in most African cities. Even though the Continent has a long and rich history of local organizing, most community members simply cannot afford to spare the little they have for altruistic purposes. In the same vein, the high poverty levels breeds discontent towards the government and does not inspire many Africans to support the initiatives of local NGOs. It is a widespread notion that the citizens are already doing too much by spearheading the provision of basic amenities like electricity, pipe-borne water and roads. Therefore, the questions are, “Why should we keep doing so much? Why are NGOs forced to do the work that the government should be doing?” This high poverty rate and disillusionment often stops people from donating to NGOs around them.
How Can We Improve Fundraising in Africa?
Nonprofit fundraising in Africa has been marred by economic disparities, external dependencies, and changing political landscapes. In the pursuit of sustainable development, we propose a shift that makes us look inwards at diaspora investments, local organizing, and planned giving (including endowments) to provide African NGOs with the tools to navigate the historical challenges while securing long-term financial stability.
1 – Planned giving: Also known as legacy or deferred giving, it is a unique and strategic approach to fundraising that focuses on securing long-term financial support for NGOs. It comprises several key components including bequests, charitable gift annuities, life insurance, or retirement plans. Unlike traditional donations, planned giving involves arrangements made during a donor’s lifetime that will take effect at a future date. This form of philanthropy allows individuals to leave a lasting legacy, ensuring that their contributions continue to support a cause dear to their hearts even beyond their lifetime.