Zoe Abrahamson, Juliet Chua and Graham Mackay open our Funding for Development Conference
Zoe Abrahamson, Juliet Chua and Graham Mackay open our Funding for Development Conference

5 takeaways from our Funding for Development Conference 2019

Over 180 people joined us on Monday for our third Funding for Development Conference.

NGOs, donors, government representatives and businesses came together to discuss the latest trends and challenges in institutional funding, public fundraising and partnerships.

Our event was a platform for over thirty speakers, including Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from Power of Nutrition, Sue Wicks from Comic Relief, Juliet Chua from DFID, and Cathy Ferrier from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

Here are some key things we learned.

1. Step outside your comfort zone

Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi and Cathy Ferrier encouraged NGOs to think outside the box and look beyond funding from the British government.

To fill the SDG funding gap, Mavis challenged NGOs to “step outside” of their comfort zone to change the language and narratives used to engage with alternative donors who don’t typically give money to causes. She said NGOs should tap into large diaspora communities around the world and high net-worth individuals and philanthropists from Asia and Africa.

Questioning whether there is really a lack of available money, or whether NGOs are unwilling to adapt, Mavis encouraged NGOs to take more risks. We should learn from local civil society organisation (CSO) partners, working to tap into their regional expertise and networks, as well as cultivating a partnership of equals.

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Cathy explored how to move away from traditional forms of fundraising and donors, urging NGOs to “take a fresh look” at the sources of capital available, such as social enterprise models, impact investing or corporates. NGOs should ensure stakeholders, donors and corporate partners share the same values, referencing the Extinction Rebellion protests taking place just outside Central Hall in Westminster.

2. DFID’s funding future

Juliet Chua, director general for finance and corporate performance at the Department for International Development (DFID), set out the department’s future direction for funding and their commitment to working with civil society.

She emphasised DFID’s commitment to empowering local civil society organisations (CSOs), with DFID beginning to see more direct engagement in funding applications and contract bids from southern organisations.

Talking about post-Brexit United Kingdom, Juliet spoke about the importance of ensuring the UK remains as confident as possible on the world stage and keeping the country on the right track to complete the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

3. Move away from grants, but don’t compromise your mission

Partnering with government and raising money from institutional funders is the norm for many CSOs. Restricted funding means that CSOs focus on donor priorities rather than meeting the needs of the communities that they work in.

In the session on diversifying for financial sustainability, Ubuntu Pathways said it moved away from government funding many years ago, as the resources and time they spent was taking them away from their core mission. Government funding didn’t give them the flexibility to fund their core costs or the opportunity to share learning and take risks.

“Getting paid is a challenge,” as Jilly Healy from Childhope acknowledged, which is building up its South2South consultancy business. “Working as a business is different to working as a CSO”, something which partners took a while to understand, so you may have to have some awkward conversations about charging for services that were formerly free.

In a panel hosted by consultant Jennie Richmond, Sue Wicks from Comic Relief reiterated this by challenging attendees to “look beyond grant funding'” and generate unrestricted income. Comic Relief have found that grantees are increasingly looking to sell their services and are coming to Comic Relief for help and advice on how to do so.

CSOs can’t rely on grant funding forever, but must ensure they don’t compromise their missions when looking to diversify their income.

4. We need more collaboration

“Partnership” and “collaboration” appeared throughout the day. Practical Action talked about how “partnerships are part of Practical Action’s DNA”, referring to the Bond Collaboration Award-winning programme, “we need to talk about poo”. McCann said that when building a partnership with an NGO they are “always selling to the business the value of partnerships”.

Nesta explored collaboration between start-ups and NGOs, discussing some of the barriers to cross-sectoral partnerships for NGOs, including: internal cultural barriers, low risk appetites, lack of top level buy-in and a fear of failure. If NGOs are to successfully innovate and collaborate with start-ups, then they must break down these barriers and change their culture.

Helen Bushell from Oxfam provoked participants to think about opportunities to improve impact measurement and how evidence can provide funding by shifting donor priorities from “what can be measured” to what may be more effective . She argued that this could be achieved by improved programme design that delivers clear results. CSOs should work with donors to demonstrate their impact and value for money of the donor’s funds.

5. Donors need to put communities in the lead

Southern CSOs face huge challenges in accessing key resources to sustain their work. Southern organisations receive less than 1% directly of total official development assistance (ODA). Clara Bosco shared some of CIVICUS’s research, which identified that this is down to traditional donors opting for short-term, measurable and low-risk projects, high eligibility thresholds, heavy requirements to access resources, competition with INGOs, and the relationships guided by donor-recipient power dynamics.

To truly shift power and resources directly to southern organisations, donors should put the communities in the lead so that they make the decisions that work best for them. Donors should also combine traditional decision making on strategies with alternative processes for distributing funds.