What are the Critical Issues in International Grantmaking Raised at the Grantmakers Without Borders Conference?

This week foundations, international grantmaking institutions, individual donors and global Southern activities have gathered in San Francisco for the Grantmakers Without Borders (Gw/oB) annual conference. As Gw/oB marks its 10th anniversary, its conference participants continue to focus on issues of social justice, gender equity and reproductive rights, agro-ecological production and food security, and human rights. Emerging issues – such as LGBTIQ movements and the ongoing humanitarian and development needs in Haiti – have also generated strong interest.

 

Prior to its formal opening, conference attendees convened for a day-long discussion divided across three geographic areas: Haiti, Africa, and Meso-America. I had the pleasure of attending the Africa meeting, ably facilitated by Jennifer Astone, an international philanthropic consultant and former executive director of the Firelight Foundation. The discussions over the course of the day highlighted several issues that I expect will be echoed throughout the conference:

 

1.  An emerging concern and resistance to microfinance and social entrepreneur approaches.

While funders like the Skoll Foundation were recognized and supported for their unique social entrepreneurship model, a consistent theme emerged in which funders and advocates decried the focus on individuals instead of community organizations. For example, Sarah Hobson, executive director of the New Field Foundation, noted that microfinance funding fails to help women create big businesses and take advantage of significant opportunities. Others questioned the value of “celebrating individuals” through social entrepreneurship funding instead of supporting community organizations.

 

2.  Large funders are not as effective in reaching the grassroots and community levels.

Philanthropic and aid funding in West Africa, for example, comes largely from the European Union, the World Bank, USAID, and large International NGOs such as Oxfam. However, most of these funders focus on the policy arena and do not engage in direct funding of community-based or grassroots organizations. Foundations with smaller grantmaking outlays – such as the Firelight Foundation and New Field Foundation, which both distribute about $2 million in grants per year – have an ongoing opportunity to fund organizations on the local level and become intimately involved in fostering local innovation. The challenge remains in identifying and fostering those organizations. Which leads to the next two issues…

 

3.  The small international grantmakers providing supporting Africa, Haiti, and Meso-America build partnerships not grantee relationships.  

A consistent refrain over the early days of the conference has highlighted how small founders are interested in supporting and building organizations that serve local communities. As such, providing long-term organizational core support instead of project specific grants that grow sustainability becomes a fundamental aspect of their approach. To that end, the small funders also strongly believe that their relationships are partnerships and not the traditional grantor / grantee ones that are plagued by power dynamics. The small funders trust the local expertise of their partners and endeavor to find ways to continue to support them, even to the point of providing support to other community organizations that collaborate with their partners. 

 

4.  Small funders need to better communicate their country-specific work.

An impression has developed that funding community-based organizations does not lead to success. However, the small funders that participated in African regional dialogue highlighted many successes related to issues such as rural women, agriculture, and children’s rights. These funders have excelled in the practice of listening to local organizations and communities in order to identify the best means to channel support to them. Their next challenge will be to continue to educate the philanthropic community and signal larger funders about effective practices and worthwhile organizations.

 

You can follow more posts on the Gw/oB conference on Firelight Foundation’s blog or by tracking the discussion on Twitter using the #gwob10 hashtag. For additional references, I also set up a transcript of the #gwob10 Twitter discussion on What the Hashtag?!.

 

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