Running water in Australian farm with sunset in background.

Shifting to locally-led development starts with how we transform ourselves

Locally-led development has shot back up the international development communities’ agenda, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

I have long since held a desire to see a more equitable, and just development and aid system that truly centres people. A system built on principles that enable locally-led change. Many paths have converged to our present moment; with spotlights shone on colonialism, white dominant culture, and philanthropy elitism. Yet it is now well recognised that power, privilege, trust, relationships, agency and voice are all significant factors in our understanding of how to be community-led. And the Bond community is actively seeking to take collective action on catalysing locally-led development.

First, some self-reflection. I carry biases, of course, from my experiences of leading a ‘different type’ of international development organisation. Things about me include the following: I am a white, cisgender female, in my late 30s; British, university educated, and a senior leader in a philanthropy organisation where most staff are based in the UK or US. I share this to contextualise my writing, but also to model an important behaviour: the transformation of a system starts with personal, authentic, and transparent acknowledgement about the power we each hold.

This post lays out how GlobalGiving, the organisation where I work, seeks to accelerate community led change. It forms an introduction to GlobalGiving’s guiding philosophy as well as why we believe we need to constantly evolve, and adapt as the world changes. We have put time and resources into inquiring about what it means to be locally-led. Over the course of a series of up-coming blogs, we intend to share what we have learned so far and what we plan to do about it.

More than crowdfunding

What is GlobalGiving? A different kind of development organisation? A crowdfunding platform? An intermediary? Perhaps it is all of these. GlobalGiving offers online fundraising tools for civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide— that means digital giving, fundraising campaigns, matched gifts, and regular donations. Larger sums from companies, foundations and individuals given ‘off platform’ have enabled us to design and facilitate grants to CSOs that lead social or environmental initiatives, and to respond to communities in crisis. In 2020, our community of givers gave $105M to 8,688 initiatives in 169 countries.

With that said, our mission, and the way we work ‘behind the scenes’, speaks to more than fundraising; we seek to transform aid and philanthropy, and to accelerate community-led change. Centring locally-led development— or community-led change as we call it— is our hypothesis for a renewed, more equitable development and aid system. One that puts the needs, wants, desires, assets, strengths, and ideas of people in communities at its heart.

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How does this manifest in GlobalGiving’s current approach?

  • We offer the space and tools for CSOs, working in communities, to define what is needed and tell their own stories of change
  • We facilitate connections between CSOs and people (and entities) with resources
  • We practice, and iterate on, community-led granting approaches
  • We broker relationships between donors and CSOs in a way that honours both, and especially protects CSOs so that they can continue to be led by their communities

Power exists everywhere; it’s how you use it that matters

Despite all of this, there are inherent power dynamics within GlobalGiving’s model, much like INGOs. Critical questions remain: where are our staff based? Who needs to be heard and when? How do we balance bias, equity, and inclusiveness? How is decision-making informed? How much do we control the way funding flows? How do we design our offerings? How do we avoid unhelpful power dynamics in partnerships? What effect does our language have? We must invite deep inquiry and commit to real (often more than likely uncomfortable) change for dynamics to truly shift.

The central question now is: what should we do differently? How do we go about reimagining our role in aid and philanthropy so that we don’t perpetuate the current, harmful system dynamics? So the operative word is ‘how.’ And that’s where this starts: how we inquire, learn, unlearn, design and create future operating models and practices.

In 2020, GlobalGiving partnered with the Global Fund for Community Foundations and community leaders in six countries—India, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Vietnam, and Zambia. The aim was twofold: to co-design a process for identifying and understanding the impact of community-led approaches; and to learn how funders’ and practices promote or inhibit locally-led change. We’ve shared what we learned, and this year, we’ve pulled these insights into a co-creation process, bringing stakeholders from across our system to help us design and answer the following question. How do we transform ourselves to become ever more community-led?

The question for those thinking about locally-led development, then, is not why. It’s how. In our next article, we’ll explore the key insights from our initial research and how it led to our conviction that for systematic shifts towards locally-led development to happen, we must start by transforming ourselves.