Social impact organizations do tough but vital work in under-resourced spaces — spaces constantly shrinking due to humanitarian emergencies, natural disasters, armed conflict and oppressive governments. The international donor community’s response to this challenging landscape has increasingly shifted toward strengthening local efforts, recognizing that a resilient local civil society is better suited to address challenges than external assistance.
Until now, the reigning paradigm of capacity development has been focused on donor accountability, ensuring grantees are following the (often labyrinthine) systems and processes mandated by their donors. But helping social impact organizations, individually and collectively, develop lasting, impactful capacity requires a break from that paradigm. Instead, capacity development must first and foremost meet the needs of local organizations and systems, allowing local voices to advocate for assistance on their own terms.
When recognizing this agency, the tapestry of local organizations’ capacity needs becomes blindingly clear. Many of these organizations hunger not just for static skills, but also the ability to adapt and learn. They require a network of people, institutions, knowledge and resources – along with the ability to access that network no matter where they are in the world – in order to level up their local outcomes.
How can we, as resource providers in the development and humanitarian assistance spaces, shift our focus from isolated capacity improvements to systemic, cascading change driven by leaders on the frontlines?
This work begins with exploring the current power dynamics in our relationships with local actors, and redefining our role as true partners.
Here are three ways to start this journey:
Embrace the Power of Convening: Create reflective spaces – in-person and virtual – where local actors can come together and set the agenda based on their own needs, ideas and goals.
Global Fund for Children (GFC) brings groups of NGOs together in small gatherings. This is a valuable opportunity for local actors tackling similar problems to build trust and forge new relationships. GFC orients the content of these meetings around the organizations’ needs, which fosters authentic networks that thrive after the convening is over. Philanthropy University applies the same convening power at scale, by using technology to bring local social impact organizations together on its free online learning platform. Organizations curate their own discussions within regional and topic-specific communities, where best practices and networking transcend far beyond local proximity.
Facilitate Cohorts: Curate groups of organizations working on different aspects of specific challenges.
One GFC initiative connects nascent organizations with more experienced NGOs working with migrant youth in Central America, Mexico and the U.S. to share skills, learning and resources. These organizations are now developing cross-border responses and strategies for collective impact far greater than what they would have achieved in isolation. Similarly, Philanthropy University has designed its platform to illuminate local actors as the experts they are – tapping leaders to share their expertise as online course advisors and enabling peer learning, networking and feedback throughout the online experience.
Give Flexible Funding: Money is still important – offer it with as few strings as possible.
GFC offers flexible support that can be used for staff training, organizational development, operations or anything else partners need. GFC also works hard to eliminate unnecessary or inefficient administrative tasks. Philanthropy University also offers unrestricted funding to local leaders through its Transforming Lives Awards, our new turnkey awards program product that pairs an online application process with peer-driven learning.
By incorporating these three pillars, capacity building naturally becomes more accessible, tailored and expansive. As a result, we see local actors approaching their work with a whole new mindset — ready for challenges and confident to lead. Elvis Nshimba, Program Coordinator at Malaika, is living proof of this philosophy. As a Global Fund for Children partner, Malaika receives annual, flexible funding that it has used to support its girls’ education program, strengthen its Monitoring and Evaluation systems, and develop a Theory of Change. GFC also funded training for Elvis and other Malaika staff in psychology and children’s rights to help them more effectively respond to the vulnerable population they serve.
Elvis himself also joined Philanthropy University’s online learning ecosystem. Previously, Elvis said, he just “focused on doing his job well” at Malaika’s girls’ school and community center. But after joining Philanthropy University’s online platform, he realized that he could upskill his staff and ultimately, achieve greater, longer-lasting organizational outcomes. “I started telling stories that I learned in the courses, and I decided to learn more,” he said. “Our staff saw the progress and appreciated it too.” He said that he now has access to adaptive tools and support — from GFC and Philanthropy University — to better advocate for beneficiaries’ needs, both now and in the future.