Five ideas for supporting CSOs to be more relevant, resilient and sustainable

May 24, 2021
A community based organization in Cambodia working on a planning exercise. (Credit: Pact)

Check out Part One of this blog, Approaching civil society through a lens of relevance and resilience, on the USAID Learning Lab.

The notion of civil society sustainability used by international development practitioners over-fixates on issues of civil society organizations' (CSOs’) financial viability and fails to prepare civic actors to be able to weather rapid changes in their operating environment while still staying true to their missions. In a previous blog on the USAID Learning Lab, I discussed how a new approach to sustainability would place the relevance and resilience of civic actors first. 

To take this new approach, those of us who work at a systemic and structural level to make civil society more sustainable around the world, including large institutional donors and international organizations running umbrella civil society strengthening programs, should make a shift in our programs to support civil society actors to increase their relevance and resilience. We should support civic actors in gaining the mindsets, capabilities and tools needed to develop and maintain these key attributes.

Putting this into practice requires inputs from many perspectives and the space for trial and error. Here, I offer five ideas for how to take civil society relevance and resilience seriously in our work:  

Strengthen the capacities needed for upholding downward accountability. 

We can start by supporting civic leaders, whether formal or informal, to gain the tools and skills they need to appropriately identify their constituencies, and to use effective methodologies for gathering the data they require to understand the current needs of these constituencies. We can then provide technical and financial support for systems to do this on a regular basis as part of their core operations, and not just as part of already set project frameworks. This can take many forms, including conducting meetings, research, polling and social media engagement. This is not perfunctory ‘consultations’ to meet pre-defined project requirements (at which point the project is often already baked), but rather the informative foundation on which all projects should be based. This support should be offered to civic leaders in the democracy, rights and governance space where the importance of connecting with constituencies is well-recognized, as well as in other development sectors where constituency-building has historically not been a trend, but where it holds equal importance. 

Strengthen capacity for adaptive design and management. 

We can likewise support leaders to develop mindsets and abilities to analyze the conditions they are working in, and to ensure they are using approaches through their organizations, movements, gatherings, etc. that are best suited to the contexts they work in. Pact recently developed a manual about adaptive management that provides practical tools to analyze and adapt strategies and interventions effectively. This tool and similar guidance developed by other organizations need to be made accessible to the civic actors around the world that are on the front lines of implementation and most urgently need to adapt. 

Provide the space needed for analysis and adaptation. 

Those in donor positions hold the critical role of establishing the necessary conditions for diverse civic actors to shift to prioritizing their organizational relevancy. This means providing the space and financial support for local actors to do the necessary analytical groundwork and process their findings, as a critical part of their project work. Allowing for (and even requiring!) inception and learning periods should be the norm and take place at all levels of implementation. 

Enable access to relevant and resilient sources of funding. 

The political economy of large-scale international development donors is such that they are unlikely to ever align their funding 100% to meet the needs of local civil societies. We should support civic actors to explore and mobilize financial and other support resources from alternative sources such as community philanthropy, private companies and crowdfunding platforms. Where alternative sources of funding do not exist, we should help to establish the platforms and the environment needed for them to start. There is a growing body of research and literature about diverse models for funding CSOs and initiatives, including research conducted by Pact’s team in Ukraine on financial support mechanisms for advocacy-focused organizations

Measure sustainability in terms of relevance and resilience. 

Any measurement of sustainability should include and even emphasize relevance and resilience as key indicators in all contexts. Different donors and organizations will employ their own methodologies and tools for making these measurements. Pact provides one with its Organizational Performance Index, which looks at the outcome-level performance of organizations across multiple key domains, including sustainability, relevance and resilience. We consider each of these to be critical for organizations, and we measure them independently of one another to be able to clearly identify areas of relative strength or weakness. 

Pragmatism in organizational relevance and resilience
Some may view this approach to sustainability as being overly idealistic or even naïve; after all, organized civic activity that bears progressive results requires ample financial resourcing, and thus the long-held emphasis on securing funding to keep CSOs alive and running. There is truth in that perspective, yet the organizations that are most effective in sustaining their work over long periods are those that understand and can articulate the needs and interests of their community with clarity. They take focus and intention in their programming, and they operate in nimble and often creative ways that are well fit to their complex environments.

It is these very attributes that attract donor interest and the commitments of other financial investors. An approach to civil society sustainability that prioritizes relevance and resilience is not naïve. It is pragmatic and necessary for sustaining support for civic interests around the world.