The South African NPO Funding Crisis – again?

quote from

Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, Change Room

4th May 2017

If you think that the South African NPO sector is in a particularly tight and horrible funding crisis right now, battered from all sides by events impacting negatively on funding sources, that’s understandable.  You will have been bombarded with a range of tweets, blog posts, articles and chat around which latest local, national, regional or global event is going to make it harder for us to raise funds – and how or why it might make it harder.

I kind of have news for you, though.  Raising funding in support of your non-profit work has never been an easy task. It takes incredibly hard work, and consistent excellence in the practice of a few fundraising basics.  While it isn’t rocket science, it does take commitment, and it requires investment – in whatever way your organisation is able to invest.  This might be budget, for a staff post, a marketing campaign, the implementation of a donor CRM database, or the development of a 5-year strategy and operation plan for attracting funding.  It might be staff time, to conduct 1 hour of prospect research every day, or to staff fundraising events, or to contribute to your organisation’s public profiling efforts.  It might be your volunteers, your board members, or a series of video stories.  However your organisation is able to define “resource”, your organisation will not attract funding without some well-planned resource investment.

So is there a crisis?  Is it getting worse?  Do we need to be on constant watch for what Zuma said at #WEF2017, or Trump’s bulldozing efforts to cease foreign funding (or at least significantly contract existing funding programmes). How impactful was Zuma’s Cabinet Reshuffle, and how will those impacts play out? Does non-profit funding at a local level require economic confidence at a global level?

For every action, there is a reaction.  Basic physics, really. And funding streams have not been predictable for South African non-profits for quite some time, if ever. Since 1994, and no doubt prior to that, non-profits have been hit with one or other “latest funding crisis”.  In 1994, foreign donors decided to channel their funding through the new government’s RDP initiative, rather than fund non-profits directly. These crises have continued emerging, and will definitely continue to do so.  Change is the only constant!

This means that non-profits cannot EVER take funding for granted.  This is a serious and difficult challenge, because all organisations are focused on doing the work they were set up to do – and if funding seems to be taking care of itself, then little attention is paid to building new relationships and identifying new prospective funding sources.  For example, many social justice organisations in South Africa are funded in most part by a well-known group of social justice-focused funders.  My advice?  Do not take your eye off the ball.  We know there are no guarantees that funding will continue to come in from those same sources, but we often ignore this basic funding rule in the interests of being able to get on with the work.  Unsurprising.  But, just like in most for-profits where the next contract/ customer/ client is being sought or pitched to or chased, so too in non-profits we need to identify potential partners and pursue with vigour and commitment to bringing in that next funder, to support us in driving our work forward.

If only the funding crisis would just settle already. It isn’t going to. So is it indeed a crisis?  It feels like it for organisations struggling to find support for their work, but it has levelled out into the “existing state of affairs”. The funding terrain has its peaks and troughs, it’s easier times and rougher times – but if you had to ask any non-profit who has successfully attracted sufficient funding and support to cover overheads, “programme” costs, and growth, you will find an organisation with a strong focus on profiling their work, identifying funders, networking, building relationships – by any means necessary.  And even then, it ain’t easy.

In short, then, it is almost guaranteed that any morning news headline could be argued to have a potential impact on South African non-profit funding.  So keep your eye on what is happening out there, but definitely keep focused on building your organisational profile, ensuring excellence in organisational governance, and don’t stop looking for opportunities in their multiplicity of forms.




Funding our perpetual state of crisis

Gabrielle Ritchie, Director: The Change Room

26th May 2016

WHS logo

The World Humanitarian Summit has just taken place (May 23 – 24 in Istanbul), and a Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative now exists to assist in addressing the ongoing rounds of crises generated by weather-related (“natural”) disasters and war.  Somewhere in the region of 218 million people are displaced annually, driven from their homes by floods, mudslides, earthquakes and other disasters.  60 million people are currently displaced by war.

Crisis is a huge hook for philanthropy and for fundraising, and many appeals explicitly use the word in their communications, rightly so.  At a global level at the moment, many questions have been asked about the role of philanthropy in the refugee crisis in Syria and Europe.  At community level, on the international stage, questions have been asked about the role of philanthropy in communities in crisis – such as the Flint water crisis in the USA.

At a local South African level, we have more crises than we can manage – but the question is the same: What is the role of philanthropy in addressing these crises?  And more so, in a world so battered by war, disasters, emergencies, poor decision-making, and disruptive political strategies, what constitutes a crisis ?

We cannot afford to become inured to the general and persistent state of human rights and social justice abuses, the long-term effects of greed and accumulation by those in power (political , economic, social, cultural – however it pans out), and to the systemic violences that so many experience in their daily lives.  In simple terms, we can’t afford to normalise states of crisis.

We are surrounded by crisis. Take the 10km radius around my office – the crisis of the shortage of low-cost housing in Cape Town’s inner city; the crisis of no water-borne sanitation in Cape Town’s informal settlements; the national education crisis; the food pricing crisis; the university funding crisis; the non-profit funding crisis …

The  use of the term “crisis” implies that something has occurred, circumstances have reached a critical point, that things cannot continue, that the situation is a powder keg waiting to blow, that in-your-face disaster has either happened or is about to take place. Crisis is usually understood as a disturbance or disruption in an otherwise steady system.  It can serve as a tipping point.  So what of circumstances where we are in a constant state of crisis, desperately trying to maintain a balance in a situation that is – at any point, with any small shift in conditions – going to crash/ implode/ explode.

How do we engage then, when states of crisis become permanent states of being?  When what seems to be a crisis for some is in effect a permanent life state for others?  Does a situation warrant the term “crisis” if it is the result of systemic, long-term failures on the part of the state or of business, for example.   How do we tackle the “crisis challenge” if it is unlikely to shift anytime soon?

When crisis becomes the rule, what are the processes whereby crisis becomes normalised and de-politicise? I was wanting to share some thoughts about crisis and how we use the term, and how we understand what such circumstances mean for whom, and how that affects our decision-making on where and how to invest our philanthropic resources. But it turns out states of crisis and notions of crisis are complex things, and the subject of much critical theory and debate.

Regardless of theory, though, what crisis does mean – unavoidably so – is that people, other humans, are in a state of need.  And that always means that, if you care at all, your support (money, voice, action) is required.

So stand up, take a position, get involved.  In fact do this, crisis or not.

SDG Philanthropy’s latest report on The World Humanitarian Summit: A Pivot Point in Philanthropy’s Contribution to Addressing Humanitarian Crises takes a close look at how donors and funders can engage most effectively in humanitarian crises.