Beyond foreign funding – selling human rights in Africa

The alarm bells started ringing in the 1990s. At that time, donors got frustrated at the slow pace of change despite their significant investments, and started to directly intervene in the work of non-profit organisations. Over the last decade, the global financial crisis has created further problems for such organisations, as developed nations cut down heavily on funding.

African civil society organisations used to receive a high proportion of their funding from foreign sources, which are rapidly waning. This has left rights groups in a lurch, their very survival now in question. Discussions on how rights groups can sustain in such a climate are gaining momentum, within the continent and on global platforms.

Time has come for African rights groups to look for local solutions. The changing international aid architecture is making this a necessity.

Before you thrive, you need to survive

Even though donor funding is reducing, they are more engaged than ever before. Donors are interacting more and asking for more information. They want to know about the results of programmes they support. There is a focus on metrics. They care more about where their money is being invested. The focus is on ‘show me the numbers’, social benefit and the return on investment. It is no longer sustainable and indeed wise to be reliant on a single donor source.

Rights groups need to look at new opportunities for resources to diversify revenue and develop a cost-for-service mentality. Being a rights group does not necessarily mean you do not make money.

Social enterprise models, in this context, provide new funding ideas and alternatives. They provide strong motivation for rights groups to make a paradigm shift towards locally driven revenue solutions.

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Being a rights group does not necessarily mean you do not make money.

Developing a ‘selling’ mindset

Over the past two years, the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) has been working with rights groups in Cote d’Ivoire and Benin, for example, Association des Femmes Juristes de Cote d'Ivoire / Women Lawyers Association (AFJCI)and Reseau pour L’integration des femmes des ONG et Associations (RIFONGA) to strengthen their operations and make them sustainable for the long run.

The work involves developing long-term business plans that include hybrid revenue strategies and a sustainability plan. The sustainability part involves strategies to make the organisations financially and administratively efficient.

Rights groups need to look at new opportunities for resources to diversify revenue and develop a cost-for-service mentality.

A major part of the work is to reinforce a new thinking that will make these groups have a ‘selling’ mindset. Even though these groups do commendable work, they do not often market their results persuasively and widely. Before the inception of the project, they struggled to convince communities of their legitimacy and relevance. This change of mindset has led to significant improvements on this front.

For example, the project helped AFJCI in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, to strengthen their membership dues drive, which led to an increase in their revenue. They intensified communication and marketing activities to promote ownership among association members, and attract new members. All this led to an improvement in their revenue base.

AFJCI also started consultancy services including legal advice, representation and retainer services for non-profits, private sector organisations and public agencies.

The RIFONGA in Cotonou, Benin diversified their membership dues drive, with stronger emphasis on individuals. They had in the past focused on dues from member organisations. This improved their funding portfolio.

They also publish learning resources on women’s engagement in electoral processes and sell these publications at a reasonable fee.

There are a range of options to create funding, so it is imperative rights groups make strategic sales decisions. However, a few things need to be considered beforehand.

Rights groups need to decide which products and services they would be selling. These products and services should be within the boundaries of their mission and abilities. They could, for example, offer administrative services, consultancy services, office space, membership, savings/investment programs, and customised training and job postings. These funds can be used to support administrative and other operational costs.

Rights groups also need to develop pricing strategies. While setting prices, they must make it a point not to shut out the constituencies that mostly need their services.

Moreover, rights groups need to establish partnerships with organisations that will allow it to get the things that it needs, in order to be at the next level. Strategic partnerships could be developed with international NGOs, community organisations, companies, academic institutions and government agencies.

The civil society landscape in Africa is changing and rights groups, especially indigenous organisations, are faced with a real challenge. Civil society leaders face a serious challenge trying to build a sustainable future for their CSOs. Can rights groups survive beyond foreign funding?

I strongly believe so. I am convinced that when rights groups begin to understand how to integrate programmatic and financial goals, they would start to make decisions that lead to their sustainability.