Strengthening Organizations – what do African CSOs need and want?

“We tend to talk a lot about the work on the ground, but focus much less on organizational development, even when the sustainability of actions on the ground depend on the strength of an organization…Organizational development is not like planting a bean seed where you will actually see the growth in two months, but instead it’s a process.”
-Representative from an African civil society organization (CSO)

On July 26th we had a unique opportunity to bring together some of Maliasili Initiatives’ and Well Grounded’s partner and client organizations to discuss issues related to funding and financial sustainability, partnerships, human resources and strategy and vision. These African CSOs face a number of common challenges that affect the performance and sustainability of their organizations, yet they are also adopting and designing innovative models and approaches to tackle these issues. Below are some highlights from the discussion:

What they’re doing and what they recommend:

  • Become donor independent: “We have been relying 100% on external funding, but this isn’t sustainable and external funders aren’t always reliable. We wanted to develop a business strategy so we can move away from donor reliance…we are becoming more of a social enterprise organization.”
  • Think creatively about financial sustainability: “The traditional funding model wasn’t working for us – the discrete projects were short-lived. We needed a model that was sustainable. As a team we knew we offered real value that we could market, we just needed to figure out how to do that.”
  • Change perceptions of donors and partners: “The biggest challenge perhaps is changing the perceptions or outlook of traditional donors or organizations to realize that the grassroots organizations are the ones that aren’t going anywhere and so they need to build the capacity of these local organizations that are doing this work.”
  • Build trusting relationships through dialogue: “There is a dialogue to be had with donors to understand what they want, what they need in order to invest in an organization like ours. What do they need to trust grantees more?”
  • Showcase the benefits of social enterprise in the natural resource sector: “Stakeholders are suspicious of a social enterprise model – when you start to apply this social or business enterprise model, some institutions, such as government, may become suspicious of you as an organization…we need more examples of social enterprise in the natural resource sector to help build trust, credibility and interest in this model.”
  • Develop a network to focus on organizational strengthening of African CSOs: “One of the concrete ideas or suggestions from today is to put in place some sort of network of CSOs that specifically focuses on organization development and institutional strengthening – it could be more exchanges like this, or similar spaces to come together and strategize around these issues.”
  • Talk about partnerships and rethink those relationships: “There needs to be an examination of how to manage partnerships between African CSOs and international NGOs.”

The following week these organizations were at the conference, Building Capacity for Conservation and Resource Management in Africa. One participant said, “I think this [conference] is really important to focus on organizational development and to make the link that it is essential to the work on the ground.” Stay tuned….

About the author

Jessie Davie

Jessie Davie leads on communications support for Maliasili Initiatives. She has more than six years of experience working in the natural resource sector in Africa, with most of her work focused on communications. Prior to joining Maliasili Initiatives, Jessie served as the Head of Communications at the Tanzania Natural Resource Forum, and also provided communications and technical support to some of Maliasili Initiatives’ partners based in Tanzania.