3 key considerations for transforming resourcing relationships

During our recent virtual panel ‘Resourcing grassroots activism: Why relationships matter,’ we had a rich discussion around why building a more relational culture between grassroots activists, donors, and enablers is key to nurturing and sustaining locally driven change. The panelists included the member of the Grassroots Changemakers team, Dahlia, Nawa, Naro, Sam, and Tina; Saranel Benjamin, Head of Partnerships, Oxfam GB, and Otto Saki, Global Program Officer at Ford Foundation.  They explored what is failing and what is needed to achieve true partnership and solidarity with grassroots groups and movements. 

Check out the three main takeaways from this conversation:  

1.  What relationships? Activists, donors, and enablers are mostly connected by transactional interactions. 

“There is not anything that we can call a relationship. There are just people who collaborate on activities. That is basically the ‘relationship’ between donors and activists. Beyond the projects, there is nothing attached to those relationships.” Nawa Villy Sitali, Youth4Parliament. 

    • The general perception is that donors are seen just as institutions that have and give resources, while grassroots groups are just those who receive the money and implement projects.  
    • Most of the support and resources provided right now to advance social change are mostly focused on short-term deliverables. This current dynamic does not allow for the care and time necessary to cultivate trust and relationships that truly support grassroots activists and communities.  
    • More intentions and efforts are needed both from the donor/enablers side and the activists’ side to connect beyond projects and build shared visions for change. 


2.  Building authentic relationships requires humanising each other, the processes, and the conversation around resourcing grassroots activism. 

“We need to humanise these conversations. Once we humanise the conversations and each other, we can move towards transforming the relations.” Otto Saki, Ford Foundation 

    • We have forgotten to see and consider the humans behind the causes, institutions, movements, and projects. Activists feel treated as another resource or tool of the development industrial complex and do not know or understand the people working in funding and enabling institutions.  
    • Activists feel particularly dehumanised in this transactional funding system. It seems like donors care more about what they decide is “impact” than about the stories, visions, wellbeing and needs of activists and their communities. 
    • There is an urgent need for platforms and spaces where grassroots activists, donors, and enablers can connect at a more intimate level and have honest conversations. 


3.   Decolonising the international aid and development systems is vital for this transformation. 

“The idea of creating equal partnerships or even equitable partnerships cannot be done unless there is a reckoning with the legacy of international aid and development and recognising and naming that this is very much rooted in a colonial legacy.” Saranel Benjamin, Oxfam GB. 

    • The international aid and development systems are replicating and enabling the continuation of colonialism in the present. Funding and enabling organisations have created an infrastructure and bureaucratic processes that allow them to retain power and control over the people, communities, and organisations receiving aid. 
    • This colonial legacy manifests itself in the relationship with grassroots groups in several ways:  
        • Donors burden activists with excessive compliance requirements to receive funding. 
        • Grassroots organisations must compete under unfair conditions against international NGOs for funding. 
        • Foreign agendas, solutions, and experts are imposed on local communities disregarding their own solutions and expertise. Grassroots activists feel like “invisible experts.”  
        • Donors do not embrace and share risk and failure. They punish grassroots groups and communities for “failing to achieve results.” 
    • Unfortunately, most people in donor and enabling organisations are speaking about “shifting power” to grassroots groups and communities lightly, without challenging their own power, privileges, and biases on race, caste, class, gender, misogyny, and ableism. 


More voices from the webinar 

The panelists and other assistants raised their voices about other issues that deteriorate the interactions between grassroots activists, donors, and enablers:  

Activism is not a hobby; it is a job! 

“Many donors do not see what we [activists] do as a job… They see what we do as altruism, a hobby, or something we do just because we have a good heart when it is really a job. I spend 8 to 12 hours a day, I work holidays… It is a job like any other. It is a problem that they see what we activists do just as a social contribution and that there is no real work behind it that should be dignified and paid. This replicates the vertical dynamics of charity.” Dahlia de la Cerda, Morras Help Morras.  

The stigma around activism blocks resources and support

“In the Philippines, there is strong stigmatisation of the word activist… Some would say they are advocates but not activists and that differentiation is enough to not receive any grants at all. If you are an advocate, you have more privileges in terms of receiving aid, support, and resources. All the activists I know that identify themselves as activists have never received a single grant instead, they would rather be autonomous and self-finance, for example with [selling] crafts or using money from their own pockets… There is a sense that it is very scary for enablers and donors to support activist organisations because they also would be experiencing the same stigma coming, for example, from the government…” Naro Alonzo, KERI: Caring for Activists.  

Donors: Local activists and communities have expertise and dignity! 

“Recently, one donor tried to choose the solutions for my community. They said that because they have the money and international experts, they know better than us, grassroots movements, what is best for our communities. These international experts never put their feet in Madagascar, not even once! I said no to US$10,000 [grant] because it is better to respect the dignity of my community. We should be considered. We have values. We are not beggars.” Marie Christina Kolo, Indian Ocean Climate Network.

“Most of the work [for social change] is done by grassroots movements and activists because they themselves sit at the center of the communities where projects need to be implemented. They know exactly what challenges their communities are facing, so they are better able to decide the best practices and activities for their particular issues, but they are left out [of funding opportunities] because they don’t meet a particular [donor] criteria.” Samuel Sebit, Talent Initiative for Development.

Improve other donor practices 

“Our best experiences with donors are those where we have constant communication and flexibility to shift the projects along the ways and find new ways to do things together. The worst is having seed funding that comes out of nowhere, you never have contact with the donor and after a year we just send a report.” Anna Ferreira, Proyecto Base. 

“Why aren’t donors highlighting the good work of activists? They are quick to highlight the bad and this increases the existing mistrust.” Sola Fagorusi, Onelife Initiative.  


Watch the webinar recording