Funders and Closing Space

By Chris Allan

What’s going on here? Internets of funders. Consulting contracts for services. Telling the story of the value of citizen action. Networks with multiple, diverse connections.

Foundations and civil society organizations are finding ways around the ballooning restrictions on what citizens can do. The Funders Initiative on Civil Society counted nearly 60 reports in the last two years on the closing space for civil society, most focused on diagnosing the issues. Citizens from China to the United States are finding themselves legally restricted and harassed, threatened with shut down or violence, and accused of being against development or agents of foreign influence.

What’s a funder to do?

Fortunately, the burgeoning field building social resilience gives us tools to keep operating in the face of shocks and stresses. When governments restrict NGO activity, non-registered, informal organizations step up. When foundations are threatened, they create coalitions with other funders to advocate, and to create pooled funds that change the game. Scott DuPree and I document all this in our recent article in The Foundation Review, and we suggest a simple yet powerful framework for understanding what might help.

Dozens of funders told us how they are responding with:

  1. Varied procedures– rethinking how to support social action
  2. Multiple strategies– opening up to a variety of ways of solving problems
  3. Adaptive environment– improving the conditions that organizations operate in.

In each of these areas, using a resilience lens show how to increase the capacity of organizations to adapt to these changing conditions. Funding organizations are more resilient when they increase their:

  1. Flexibility– The more ability you have to change processes, procedures, and strategies, the more likely you are to continue to support civil society in new ways.
  2. Diversity and redundancy– The ability to fund through multiple channels – directly, through intermediaries, or via pooled funds – allows you to keep support flowing. And supporting different kinds of civil society organizations that vary in strategies, structure, legal status, geographic focus, scale of operations, and styles of working diversifies the ways you work on social issues, and the likelihood that you’ll be able to continue.
  3. Ability to learn and resourcefulness– The ability to monitor changing conditions and adjust operations accordingly, experimenting with new approaches, increases your capacity to be effective in changing circumstances.

So in addition the tactics noted in the opening of this blog, there are a lots of others. Fellowships. New revenue sources like small businesses and rent. Funds for non-registered organizations. Support to triple bottom line businesses. Joint advocacy to protect the right to citizen action.

There is no magic formula to respond to the closing space of civil society. The right approach will vary with local conditions and what you’re trying to do. But learning what makes us resilient, what allows us to weather the changes we encounter in our work, increases our capacity to adapt to whatever happens.

What have you seen that is working to keep support to civil society flowing? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

You can read the full article here.