5 ways funding can help local civil society to thrive

14 December 2016
Author: Rose Longhurst

It has been difficult for smaller, locally-owned civil society organisations to gain entry to the current international aid system, despite the valuable contribution they offer, with larger international NGOs still receiving the majority of funding and Southern CSOs struggling to access policy-making fora. 

There is increasing awareness that low levels of direct financial support for CSOs in the so-called ‘Global South’ is unlikely to produce sustainable solutions to development challenges. Vocal critiques of current practices are causing change, INGOs have been scrutinising their approaches, and many international funders are considering new strategies to promote local-ownership.

Bond’s new Future Funding Forum report showcases a number of solutions and opportunities to pursue this agenda, and makes some key recommendations:

1. Be accountable to those whom aid is intended to benefit as a priority

Too often accountability flows “upward”, with funders setting the agenda. True local ownership needs a shift beyond the typical funder-recipient relationship. But a first step to combatting distorted accountability is ensuring that feedback is prioritised and goes beyond mere consultation. The voices of local people should be the driver of adaption in projects.

2. Balance a focus on short-term results with long-term sustainability

Worryingly, a focus on “results” has often meant an emphasis on short-term, measurable project outputs that serve the needs of funders rather than local people. We may assume that it’s a “tough sell” for Trustees and the public, but we can’t give up on advocating for flexible, long-term funding to support lasting change.

3. Invest in the core capacities of Southern CSOs

The current system can instrumentalise CSOs, and the relationship between funder and CSO can end up looking more like that between a contractor and supplier. The limitations of project funding have meant that Southern CSOs are often left under-resourced, and unable to sustainably grow. We need to support institution-building that values local leadership and resilience.

4. Address funding criteria that block Southern ownership

Funding criteria can make it difficult for smaller CSOs by requiring match-funding, only giving large grants or having demanding reporting requirements. If a funder isn’t able to address these barriers, then supporting intermediaries, such as community foundations, can still allow them to support grassroots actors.

5. Funder collaboration can support CSOs on the ground

If funders coordinated with each other to streamline their applications, due diligence or reporting requirements, it would benefit everyone. But the power dynamic and organisational resources needed to negotiate or juggle multiple requests means that often Southern CSOs rely on better-resourced INGOs to manage these relationships. At the moment, it can sometimes feel as though funders care more about attribution (the outcomes they are “buying”) and less about local people.


Currently funders are setting an agenda for international development and humanitarianism which can often work to the disadvantage of smaller CSOs. Funding ought to enhance a thriving local civil society, and funders need to work together to challenge themselves to change. Examples of better ways of working exist: Bond’s new report The future of funding showcases a range of these initiatives.  

About the author

Rose Longhurst

Funding Policy Manager at Bond