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Face the Truth: Challenges of Building Locally Led NGOs

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Saran Kaba Jones, Founder and President, Face Africa

The 2016 Retreat encouraged funders to be more introspective and consider if they are listening, learning and taking action to maximize the impact of philanthropy on addressing the challenges facing African communities. In her “ted talk” style presentation Saran Kaba Jones, Founder and President of Face Africa shared her perspective on the implications of power imbalances between funders and grantees in working to build a  locally-led NGOs.   Jones was recently named by time.com as a 2016 Next Generation Leader

 Jones shared her personal story of fleeing Liberia during the civil war which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and tore apart the fabric of Liberian society. Twenty years later, in 2008, she left a lucrative career with an international investment management firm to return to her native land as one of a number of young Liberians who wanted to help revitalize their war-torn country.

Jones founded Face Africa to build a sustainable environment where everyone would have access to basic human needs. The programs started out with a goal of fostering education programs. But she soon saw that the lack of sanitation and safe drinking water were overarching issues that were keeping children from getting that education. So in 2009 Face Africa changed directions and began working to bring clean, safe water to Liberian communities.

Donations began to come in from small foundations, but in addition to funding and operational concerns, she was equally worried about long-term sustainability and “not having to bootstrap our way through.” The demands of day-to-day work left no time for strategic investments, and the organization was overly dependent on external sources of funding.”

She identified numerous challenges facing local NGOs to give grantmakers the perspective of life in the trenches of community development. She offered up a few insights of what funders can do to help local NGOs not only survive, but thrive:

  • Much international aid goes through several levels of intermediaries and sub-contractors; relatively little funding winds up in the hands of the NGOs themselves.
  • Many grants come from foundations that have an agenda to see a type of program started but that are not as interested in the mechanics of how the programs are run. There is a need for more independent and locally-led community foundations, grounded in community trust and in solidarity with their communities, who can lead this philanthropy.
  • Funders should trust the instincts of local NGOs who have a better understanding of what does and does not work in a given community. Using the Ebola outbreak as an example, she described how local NGOs are closer to the front lines and are more effective first responders. They have a more organic relationship with people at the community level and can communicate with them in more meaningful ways. They can launch programs more quickly than large organizations can. Their levels of trust within the community are more deep-rooted than those of international agencies whose personnel are “parachuted in” and wonder why they do not get the same level of receptiveness.
  • Indigenous local and national fundraising capabilities must be developed within Africa so NGOs are not as dependent on external funding sources.
  • Funders should recognize that there are numerous models for building sustainable civil societies; not all models work in any given environment. Funders should recognize that capacity-building is a long-term process and make it a higher priority that is integrated into programs.
  • Funders should be encouraged to have honest, open dialogues with grantees that focus not on programs and activities but rather on organizational health. Foundations should routinely ask how strong is the foundation of the organizations they support.
  • Funders often fail to cover the full cost of implementing programs – largely because in the highly competitive funding environment grantees underestimate these costs in hopes that a lower request will stand a better chance of receiving a grant. The NGO is then forced to scramble to find supplementary funding sources. “NGOs need to be more honest about the real costs of doing business,” she said.
  • Resource mobilization is a critical component of strengthening NGOs, but there are continual uncertainties about donor funding. This makes it difficult for NGOs to plan long-term, so they are forced to work only on a project-by-project basis. Such uncertainty forces them to live and think short-term instead of focusing on strategy.

“The importance of empowering and supporting local NGOs cannot be overstated,” she told the audience. “Local NGOs can respond better and can build resilience to meet future crises. It is important for funders to move from a culture of patronage to a culture of partnership.”