3 lessons learned about resourcing civil society in the 21st century

By Yessenia Soto, Community Engagement Officer on Civil Society Resourcing at CIVICUS

In 2019, CIVICUS set out to find ways to better support and resource citizen action in the 21st century. Why? Resourcing challenges are not new to civil society, but in this century we are in the middle of changing political, social and economic dynamics that have made those challenges even more complex

Authoritarian, repressive and anti-rights governments are gaining ground around the world and they are imposing restrictions on the civic space and on the access to both foreign funding and domestic support for citizen action. International donors are withdrawing from middle income countries despite their ingrained social problems, and most funding is focused on service delivery, providing little to nothing for social change, accountability and safeguarding human rights. Grassroots and youth actors have stood out as key changemakers, but their resourcing needs are mostly unmet by the existing modalities of international and domestic funding and support, which usually favor adult-led and more established civil society organisations (CSOs). And let’s not forget how the digital age has transformed civil society’s actions, reach and the threats it faces. 

To help promote an environment that sustains a diverse array of civil society forms and responses in these contested and uncertain times, this year we focused on two priority areas. First, identifying the greatest needs and challenges of individual activists and new generation changemakers who may not work within or associate themselves with established or traditional CSOs; and, second, exploring more meaningful, direct and democratic resourcing avenues for smaller and spontaneous civil society formations. 

We ran two consultations to understand the resourcing landscape of youth-led groups and movements and of grassroots – we emailed, called, and met face-to-face over 50 activists and donors. Using consultations’ findings, design thinking and co-creation methodologies, we identified and sense-checked four potential resourcing mechanisms for grassroots. And, currently, a team of nine young diverse activists from the Global South is co-creating an innovative mechanism for resourcing youth.

We also brought together a diverse range of entities that provide rapid response funds and support activists and a few back-donors to coordinate actions for enhancing rapid response grant-making across the world and to make it more accessible to the increasing number of attacked and threatened activists and CSOs. Lastly, we published an experimental data-driven analysis that offers evidence about the barriers that CSOs in Latin America face to access resources, which has fueled important debates between civil society and donors in the region. 

This work will continue during 2020. We will roll out the youth co-designed resourcing mechanism, called Youth Action Lab 2020, explore ideas of pilot activities based on the four resourcing prototypes and support a grassroots-led advocacy initiative aimed at influencing funder’s behavior. Moreover, we will mobilise the CIVICUS alliance to advocate for changes that could lead to more accessible and meaningful resources for civil society.

As we prepare for these next steps, we would like to share three key lessons we’ve learned so far about resourcing citizen action in the 21st century: 

  1. Youth-led organisations, groups and movements have specific resourcing needs and it is time to address and prioritise them

Our engagement with youth activists has been a truly eye-opening and transformational part of this workstream. For years, youth leaders around the world have been tackling important social problems, leading political and environmental protest and providing innovative solutions to development issues, however, resources specifically available to support them directly remain minimal. We realised that barriers to accessing resources not only limit the impact and sustainability of their work, but make them feel undermined, misunderstood and even disconnected from the development sector, other CSOs and donors. Young people request and should get now more financial resources but also more acknowledgment, spaces and connections with funders, CSOs and other stakeholders based on empathy, understanding and respect.

  1. More co-creation and collective work is needed

These activities emphasised the importance of co-creation, participatory decision-making and collective approaches in the development, testing and rollout of effective resourcing modalities. Different views, voices, lived experiences and contexts of civil society groups, donors and other actors, who may benefit or be affected in any way by proposed actions, should be included in these processes. However, we also learned that co-creating and being truly inclusive and diverse requires a significant investment of time, efforts, coordination and plenty of dedicated resources. 

  1. Civil society-donor relationships must improve

We are not speaking here about the transactional relationships between donors and civil society actors (which have their own set of challenges). After several workshops and dialogues between youth, grassroots and donors, we realised that there are tensions, frustrations, communication barriers and even lack of trust between them. It is not rare to hear civil society actors saying that “donors don’t listen, don’t reply to emails, have very different values.” On the other side, donors share frustrations of being under-resourced, overworked, and of the language gaps between donors-youth/grassroots. We learned that facilitating safe spaces and moments where donors and civil society actors can meet, speak and connect beyond that transactional dimension of grant-giving was highly valued by both groups, and this is a stepping stone towards improving some operating challenges that limit access and quality of resources for civil society groups.

This year of listening, experimenting and learning would not have been possible without the support of all CIVICUS members and partners who believed in the importance of finding new and better ways of resourcing civil society groups on the frontline of change. We would like to specially thank the support of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) who dared investing in innovative approaches to strengthen 21st century citizen action and is blazing new trails towards more effective development aid.