Dignity reassessed: From old-school grantmaker to local philanthropy enthusiast

PSJP’s recently published paper on ‘Dignity and Development’ looks at the concept of dignity in development and philanthropy. At the Zambian Governance Foundation for Civil Society (ZGF) this paper provided us with an opportunity to revisit our own journey from a dignity lens. In this blog post we would like to share the practices at ZGF that helped us develop a community-led approach and ensure dignity in our work.

ZGF was initially conceived as a governance ‘basket fund’ that would allow foreign donors to reduce the transactional costs of supporting local civil society organizations in Zambia. Our mandate was to strengthen the capacity of CSOs to engage more effectively in the local and national policy-making process, thereby equipping citizens to know and claim their rights.

Dance to our tune

Over the past 10 years, we have had the opportunity to interact with many funders, both as a recipient of aid and as a funder of local civil society initiatives. In our interaction with CSOs, we have learned a lot about the types of challenges local CSOs are grappling with in pursuit of financing and sustainability, which poses one of the biggest challenges for civil society in Zambia. The debate on civil society funding has seen some interesting concepts introduced over the years, but there are specifically two concepts I would like to focus on.

The first concept is mutual accountability. Mutual accountability, ‘commonly understood as an agreement between parties, under which each can hold the other responsible for delivering on its commitments’,[1] is a principle to be upheld by both funders and recipients. The development narratives of funders are often infused with this principle, and sometimes those of recipients as well. The second concept relates to the human rights based approach. Funders – whether bilateral funders, international NGOs or foundations – consider this approach, which is based on the fundamental belief that human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights, as an underlying principle of the funding they make available to civil society. As a result, the human rights based approach is popular among CSOs as it is commonly used as a rationale for accessing external funding.

There is, however, an astonishing mismatch between theory and practice. The ethos underlying mutual accountability and the human rights based approach is often not reflected in the way donors operate or in the way they build and conduct relationships with the CSOs they support. Donor-recipient relationships commonly continue to be asymmetric, as evidenced by donors using their power to enforce accountability through tight control and even sanctions. Recipients, on the other hand, have no means of enforcing accountability in relation to donor decisions, and any such attempts would potentially sour the relationship. Funders seem to be driven primarily by compliance with their policies and rulebook, manifested in rigid log frames informed by their own development narratives, unrealistic timelines and a lack of flexibility. There is a continued tendency for donors to prescribe thematic themes for funding, based on their own perception of what civil society needs. This not only leads to CSOs having to tweak their mission to meet donor expectations, it also makes them shift their focus to whatever funding streams are available. This contributes to perpetuating a culture of dependence. CSOs are not given the resources to follow their own goals, which would naturally result in higher levels of commitment and better results for their work. Donors’ emphasis on compliance adversely influences their behaviour vis-à-vis beneficiaries. To put it bluntly, donors are aware that those who hold the money can call the tune and this is often reflected in superior and patronizing behaviour vis-à-vis grantees and potential grant seekers. Absolute power over funding decisions can corrupt those with power and diminish the dignity of grantees and grant seekers.

Do not dance to our tune – how we ensure dignity in our philanthropic practice

Our experience of interacting with both funders and recipients has made us realize that, despite having substantial power over funding and disbursement decisions, we should not replicate the behaviour commonly seen in funding organizations. It can be demeaning and infantilizing and it does not produce the desired outcomes of building working relationships based on mutual trust and accountability. From our perspective, the mutual accountability principle should apply to all levels of decision-making and every donor-recipient relationship. Equally, the ethos of the human rights based approach should determine the behaviour of funders as well as being enshrined in the organizational culture and programming of recipient organizations. If mutual accountability is reduced to unilateral accountability of recipient to funder, and if funders reduce the human rights based ethos to merely paying lip service, the dignity of the recipient is violated.

The PSJP paper emphasizes the importance of inclusive framing and strategy development ‘to counter colonial behaviours and practices that undermine the local agency of people’. It identifies the ‘issues of power, voice, control and choice as central to dignity’. We agree with these principles, and they are reflected in our own practice in very specific ways.

Meeting civil society where it is

Our work with local CSOs has helped us to understand the many pitfalls of traditional civil society financing and to design our own way of engaging with civil society, which allows us to experiment and take a much more facilitative approach. We believe that civil society funding should respond to the themes suggested by civil society to countervail CSOs’ inclination to follow sources of funding rather than their own goals. Our grantmaking process is interactive and flexible, allowing prospective grantees to work on the various areas that need improvement and to resubmit grant proposals. Our grants scheme, tailored to CSOs with varying capacity levels, has substantially evolved over time in an effort to adapt to CSOs’ emerging needs. Our capacity development support seeks to respond directly to what we, together with the CSO, have identified as their most pressing capacity needs.

Partnerships, not control

As we gained experience with working with local organizations, we increasingly saw the need to develop a support model that places the partnership principle at the heart of our relationship with our civil society partners. We found that people are more motivated by approaches that focus on achievement, recognition, responsibility and personal development, rather than by tight control and compliance. We firmly believe that to build a relationship that can legitimately foster an organization’s energy for change, we need to behave as a partner.

Our move to embed our partnership approach more firmly in our way of working with civil society was prompted by a new member of staff who attended a training on partnership brokering prior to joining ZGF. We made an effort to explain this approach explicitly in an internal document, ‘The ZGF partnering approach’, which was to guide us in all our interactions with CSOs. The feedback from our civil society partners through regular perception surveys has been largely positive and we attribute the positive feedback to our attempts to foster this new culture of engagement. We believe that we have contributed to making our partners feel more respected and more valued – though we have admittedly never assessed whether our partnering approach has positively influenced our relationship with our partners. Going forward, we see it as important to measure the more intangible outcomes of our engagement with civil society, for instance by including dignity in the indicators, as it captures all the key ingredients for successful partnerships such as fairness, respect, mutual accountability and acknowledgement of needs, to name but a few.

Recognizing assets and power in communities

Zambia has seen a plethora of organizations supporting community-led development in deprived communities across the country. However, the prevalent way of working is that resources are largely mobilized from external foreign donors, often through the assistance of local and international NGOs, with communities not playing a significant role in contributing their resources to projects implemented in their community.

Motivated by our discontent with development practice and how aid is being delivered, over the years we have widened access to financing to smaller, non-formal, community-based organizations and citizen groups based in far-flung areas of Zambia, where government services are largely absent and well-established CSOs not active. The shift towards supporting non-formal civil society has made us more aware of patterns of local giving in the context of community development and of the type of support necessary to help informal citizen groups to become more effective in addressing their community’s concerns. Without realizing, we have started to become immersed in the field of community-led development, which is based on the premise that communities have an important role to play in mobilizing resources for their own development.

In civil society development, there is a notable tendency for outsiders to extract information from local recipient communities to inform their development approaches, coupled with an inability or lack of willingness to feed back findings to recipients. This way of working reduces the communities to mere recipients rather than active participants in their own development. This is typical of established non-profits located in urban centres and with limited ties to communities. There is a growing realization that communities need to be actively involved in initiatives if they are to have a greater impact and if change is to be sustainable. Part of this ownership is not only contributing funds but also being part of the decision-making about how community development should be done. Breaking the dependency syndrome, long rooted in African culture, has to start with recognizing the talents and assets of local communities as well as the potential that should be nurtured through ongoing engagement by support organizations. Actively involving communities in local decision-making processes not only increases their interest but also makes people feel treated in a dignified manner. The local philanthropy movement means shifting power away from funders to communities and helping to restore a sense of dignity.

[1]      Mutual accountability: The key drivers for better results, A background paper, Vietnam 2017, http://www.mfdr.org/rt3/Glance/Documents/MA&P_final.pdf

Barbara Nöst is the chief executive officer of the Zambian Governance Foundation for Civil Society