Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Funding the future of civil society

The role of collective local and global infrastructure in nurturing democracy beyond Covid-19

16 March 2021

CAF’s Global Alliance (our international network of independent and locally-led organisations working at the forefront of philanthropy and civil society) recently held a Global Collaboration Forum, bringing together a wide range of staff to exchange ideas and best practice across CAF. It was fascinating to learn more about different civil society contexts around the word, as well as about the similarities that cut across all of our work.

Discussions centred on current trends in giving and philanthropy and how they link up with wider developments across civil society as a whole. Many of the issues and themes that are at the forefront of people’s mind were already evident before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has accelerated and reshaped them.

Philanthropy’s role in protecting civic space

Across the globe societies are facing increasing restrictions on their civic freedoms. Freedom of expression and assembly, political activism and press freedom are coming under pressure in a range of countries; often under the pretext of measures introduced to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. At the same time, many of the civil society organisations that could be challenging efforts by governments to curtail civil liberties are facing a financial and existential crisis.

In many countries there is an all-encompassing security agenda that has started to creep into civic space and undermine civil society’s freedom to act; sometimes also against the background of implementing international regulation around anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism. In this context it will be of interest to see if recent political changes in the US will do anything to reverse the trend and bring back a renewed focus on fostering the development of civil society globally as part of a wider international policy agenda.

Although there are intrinsic (and sometimes problematic) power dynamics between civil society organisations and their funders, philanthropy is still best understood as part of civil society. Diminishing civic space will inevitably limit the ability of funders to pursue their goals and maximise the full potential of their assets.

CIVICUS reports that in 2020, 43.4 per cent of people now live in countries rated as having repressed civic space. Visit the CIVICUS Monitor homepage

Funders stepping up

Many funders have already stepped up and made large amounts of emergency funding available to civil society during the pandemic. A lot of this funding went to those organisations that provide “frontline” services, but in the course of funders pivoting to new cause areas money has also been made available for issues like social justice, democracy and protecting civic space from government overreach.

There is also a wider potential role for philanthropy to play in protecting civic space, by going beyond the paradigm of grants to civil society organisations dedicated to this work as a specific cause area, and instead seeing the health of civic space as a cross-cutting theme that should be a concern of all philanthropic funders, regardless of their particular mission.

Some funders are taking this kind of principled stance and advocate for protecting civic space (even when they are not active in that space with their own programmes). There are many different gaps in which funders can step in: advocating on behalf of civil society, protecting civic space, and funding an enabling environment. This requires a new narrative that centres on the idea that civil society is a public good, and that strengthening it needs to be an essential part of building back better after the pandemic.

Civicus recently published measures to support and strengthen civil society as part of Covid-19 response and recovery plans, which can be adapted to regional and national contexts. Philanthropy is in good position to enter a dialogue with governments and encourage multi-stakeholder collaboration and discourses that position a vibrant, pluralistic civil society at the heart of broader visions for how society should function as a whole.

Investing in infrastructure to curb new threats to civil society

We know that the infrastructure which underpins civil society is not equally distributed across the world. After an initial flurry of philanthropic investment into infrastructure building in the 1990s and the early 2000s, funding has either been reduced or simply not kept pace with how civil society and giving has developed across the globe. Further support is needed for the global ecosystem of giving and philanthropy, as well as infrastructure that can provide a backbone for local civil society development. With some notable exceptions (like Mott Foundation or Aga Khan Foundation), more big players that introduce game-changing programmes are currently missing.

There are many opportunities for philanthropy and civil society networks to create new joint programmes that could bring broad benefits.  These could, for example, help foster an enabling environment (in terms of laws, regulation and governance) that takes note of the interplay of philanthropy, giving and civil society. 

Or philanthropic investments could be used to promote local mass-engagement with civil society organisations in countries around the world through giving and volunteering, to increase local ownership in the light of a decline in aid. This can function as an important building block for wider efforts to develop more democratic societies.

Likewise, if supporting local giving environments is seen in the wider context of empowering citizens and enabling them to set political and social agendas, then it may contribute to a wider ‘ecosystem of trust’ that can help to address the decline in trust in institutions and governments around the world that we have seen in recent years.
Impact Icon  

Democracy was dealt a major blow in 2020. Almost 70% of countries covered by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index recorded a decline in their overall score, as country after country locked down to protect lives from a novel coronavirus.

Economist Democracy Index 2020

Collective international action under the auspices of the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be helpful here, as they provide a common language to frame efforts in a way that allows for cross-sector cooperation. However, such efforts also require policy coherence from decision-makers. Government interventions during Covid-19 have provided new benchmarks for what can be considered good policy-making that supports civil society and leverages giving and philanthropy in the right way. We need to build on this, and work with governments around the world to develop new narratives and understandings about the role of civil society post-pandemic.

We also need to develop more, and better, infrastructure for funders. This might take the form of ‘temporary collective infrastructure’ - which serves a wider set of organisations across sectors where synergies can justify it. This could help funders to exchange examples of best practice, data and information on key trends, as well as providing opportunities to develop shared agendas for transforming how they operate as grant-makers and investors. This need not only benefit funders either: The practice of grant-making could become more of a two-way street where funding is used to drive positive change across both the funder and the grantee. And infrastructure organisations can play a vital role in enabling this kind of exchange to happen.

sustainable development goals

Funders are increasingly looking to apply a wider range of tools to further their goals; including maximising the full potential of their endowments through mission-related and impact investing, or seeking out new ways to collaborate with public and private sector partners. Infrastructure investment and building up local civil society should be part of these new transformation agendas and conversations. The benefits will be multi-fold and enable different actors to better deal with the impact of Covid-19 for years to come.

Many funders have clearly stepped up during Covid-19: pivoting their work, innovating and playing an instrumental role in keeping their grantees afloat. But civil society as a whole is increasingly under threat in many countries due to government overreach, which has in some cases accelerated as a result of Covid-19. This threatens the very partners that are instrumental to fulfilling their mission – which have been weakened by the crisis and are increasingly lacking the resources to advocate for change. For funders, therefore, mission delivery needs to be seen in tandem with broader investment in protecting civil society and civic space; and the Covid-19 pandemic has made clear just how important this wider perspective on the role of funders really is.

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