7 Minutes To Read

Leveling the Playing Field

7 Minutes To Read

Maggi Quadrini argues that funding requirements for locally run non-profits put them at a disadvantage.

Image courtesy of Shona Loong

In the non-profit sector, competition for funds is fierce and dependent on the resources and staff competencies at hand. Every year dozens of human rights organizations along the Thai-Burma border go through rigorous application processes in the hopes of getting funding to secure their programs. The applications, which require written essay-like formats, are almost always in English – often a third or sometimes, fourth language for locals who dedicate their lives to supporting ethnic livelihoods. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that community-based organizations (CBOs), small non-profit groups that work at local levels to improve livelihoods, struggle with securing donor funding.

The operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tend to be less flexible than CBOs. While the two bodies operate in similar spaces, those setting the human-rights agenda come from different backgrounds and movements. NGOs work in broad contexts and have a traditional structure that governments and donors are accustomed to. By contrast, CBOs focus their efforts at a local level with an interchanging agenda that speaks directly to the causes and concerns raised by the people in their community. The flexibility in community-designed and implemented systems allows CBO leaders to adjust as needed in their program contexts with less administrative and policy guidelines.

These aspects of the daily operations of CBOs are not commonly understood across most funding landscapes. Locally founded and administered organizations are run by people in the community. They understand the context they are working in because most of the leaders directly identify with communities’ needs and challenges.

Ole Michelsen is a Program Manager with the Mae Sot-based organization, PlayOnside, which works to promote access to education through football and play for children. He recently returned from his native country of Norway where he had several meetings with donors from various sectors across health and technology. Observing a lack of mutual knowledge between the CBOs and the donor, he intended for these meetings to increase the visibility of PlayOnside.

“The donors don’t know about small organizations because there are tens of thousands of NGOs all over the world that have the budget and resources to be the most noticeable,” says Michelsen. “Once they let you in the door for a meeting, you’re in – but if you do not have these connections, it is very difficult.”

Community-based organizations have an exceptional contextual competence and understanding of the situation on the ground in their particular local community.  With this comes a stronger sense of trust from people in the community that the resources and programs being provided are indeed in their best interest, rather than for the political or social gain of a donor. This stems from the reality that most of the representation at the leadership level of CBOs is former community members; this kind of visibility is important and cannot be dismissed.

Naw Wah Ku Shee is a prominent Karen activist working to promote human rights, democracy and peace, with a focus on women and ethnic communities especially in conflict areas of Burma. She and her family fled their homes in Karen State due to military attacks by the Burmese Army, and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.

She is currently Coordinator at Karen Peace Support Network the largest network of Karen CBOs representing more than 20 Karen civil society organizations from Burma.

Speaking from her lived experience as a former refugee and long-time activist, she says, “Community-based organizations focus our goals and principles on the struggle of ethnic people, such as women’s rights and federalism,” says Naw Wah Ku Shee. “We cannot change the goal until we reach it, but we can change the strategy. However, we cannot allow money to distract us from this goal or we will get lost.”

Naw Wah Ku Shee encourages donors to commit to more meetings and consultations with CBOs, including visiting project sites. She also encourages donors to change their funding requirements as the bureaucracy involved in the paper-trail of required documents leaves CBO staff feeling frustrated and intimidated.

“If a donor is going to support a local organization with their existing structure, they need to reduce some of the funding requirements. CBOs are focused on their work in the community and time spent on paperwork takes us away from community,” says Naw Wah Ku Shee.

Managing resources, time and money on operations and administrative responsibilities is a reality of the work required across the industry. Nonetheless, the biggest challenge contributing to the disconnect with CBOs is the advanced applications requirements and reporting procedures – especially when language is detailed and demands a lot of follow-up.

“We had an application form that was over 40 pages – it takes a lot of resources to apply for a grant like this and small organizations just do not have the capacity to support a large-scale fundraising team to get it done – so what happens? You lose the fight for funding,” said Michelsen.

Lenora Lippmann, a public health specialist currently working as a volunteer in Chiang Mai, has worked across international and local development sectors for over twenty years. Noting some of the challenges CBOs face in their appeals for funding, she says the disconnect between donors and local organizations comes from the donors working to implement their own strategic plans and mission.

“Sometimes it looks like there is harmony between the donor and the CBO’s purpose and plans and so the CBO applies for funding. However, occasionally it turns out that the donor does not respect the CBO’s mission and local knowledge of what might be needed,” says Lippmann.

Complaints of the international donor class ignoring the voices of local leaders have existed for some time. Co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati, Lahpai Seng Raw, expressed concern for the top-down development model in August 2019, noting that the concept of localizing efforts was “glaringly missing.”

This disconnect is not surprising, yet what remains worrisome is the lack of responsibility taken when projects fail because there was not enough consultation with local organizations. This can be observed in the tension between Karen community-based organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) during plans for voluntary return in which efforts towards organizing a return to Burma for Karen refugees was initiated. While UNHCR believed voluntary return was a viable option to support refugees who were interested in returning back to Burma, CBOs strongly felt that the concerns of refugees, including fears of insecurity and protection in their villages, were not adequately considered.

In a 2016 article, the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) criticized the refugee repatriation process facilitated by UNHCR and claimed they “were neglected in decision-making processes and were not invited to cooperate in recent refugee repatriation efforts.” CBOs could have supported the process by consulting with their communities directly in the language that was familiar to them and in turn, voicing concerns back to UNHCR to be considered. The lack of consultation coordination expressed by KRC shows the frustration local groups face when they are undermined by larger institutionalized bodies.

Donors are understandably worried that supporting an organization that is not registered in Thailand, meaning the government is unaware of the group’s efforts and intentions in a legal capacity, could lead to worst-case scenarios of the funding being misused. Their requirement that every expense be documented is also not all-together unreasonable, but the level of time and skill this requires for staff who are not formally trained takes them away from administering project work.

Registration for organizations in Thailand is not only time-consuming and expensive, but it also increases the risk of human rights defender’s security being undermined. Information required to be submitted for registration includes details about the owners and board, copies of identification cards and addresses of the organization’s operations. Much of this information is considered confidential by CBOs along the border who are at particular risk of raids by the authorities and staff members with incomplete papers being deported.

Naw Wah Ku Shee maintains CBOs are strong in their abilities to implement project work on the ground to their communities regardless of the circumstances. She says, “NGOs will leave when there is no more money, but CBOs will always be there for their community. We have good systems and donors should recognize this rather than focusing on registration.”

Donors can foster closer ties with CBOs by establishing relationships rooted in trust and understanding of operations. As Michelsen suggests, pro-bono support can be a part of the exchange by donating time, expertise and training. In the past, PlayOnside has accepted technical guidance for web-design, logo compilations and templates. It can be extended to support on reporting, legal assistance and research. For PlayOnside, equipment donations for football and coaching materials are needed and appreciated.

Lippmann agrees a new approach is long overdue and suggests an approach where international donors considered the circumstances of the CBOs who may be interested in applying. For example, if the grant maximum is $20,000 USD for 12-months, they should consider the length of the application and anticipated time it would take to complete the questions.

“Such standards should differ depending on the amount of funds to be allocated to an individual entity,” says Lippmann.

Referring to the International Women’s Development Association (IWDA), an Australian non-profit organisation that works to support women’s rights in Asia and the Pacific, she says an example of good donor-CBO relations can be seen with their face to face partnership assessment with organizations they fund. This entails an IWDA project manager meeting with a CBO representative to ask what they think makes a good partnership, such as good communication and honest feedback. They then discuss whether each partner thinks that characteristic is present in the partnership to the greatest extent possible or what improvement might strengthen the relationship further. The criteria for a good partnership, according to Lippmann, should be determined by the funded CBO.

A level playing field for the donors and CBOs means not only recognizing the gaps and challenges in partnerships, but seeking ways to collectively work together towards meaningful and sustainable change. Community-based organizations cannot be expected to navigate the application process without proper training or leadership direction. Both actors have their respective set of competencies in working towards a common goal – nonetheless, more consideration must be given in reworking the current exist frameworks which disqualify many CBOs with small administrative capacities and working-language expected of donors in the sector.

Donors have a responsibility to engage with CBO leaders to learn about the context they are working in, and respective challenges. They also in turn have an obligation to work to advocate for systems that make the application process more accessible. With much to gain from establishing relationships with CBOs, there have been too many missed opportunities for collective engagement in building a partnership that is mutually beneficial. Supporting CBOs provides donors with more ownership over where their funds are going and donors can feel they are making a difference. Indeed, the flexibility of CBOs is a positive sign that they are constantly working to improve the lives of their community and involving donors who can support strengthening local leadership through less traditional means is a promising way to move forward.

Maggi Quadrini works in communications-advocacy for non-profit on various projects along the Thai-Myanmar border focusing on gender equality.