Digital space, civil society and nonprofits in South Africa


Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room

25th November 2016

So what is the state of play in South African digital civil society?  My last post looked at the importance of defending digital spaces in South Africa – but now I go back a bit, to the nitty-gritty of digital civil society. This broad phrase refers to a broad mix of concerns, approaches, practices and activities ranging from building the public profile of a cause, to defending current levels of freedom, openness and accessibility of digital space.

Enset has been running a global workshop series focused on supporting civil society organisations around the world to navigate what Enset refers to as “the complex digital landscape” to achieve online effectiveness.  Enset’s mission with these workshops and panel discussions is to identify and, likely, help create the best paths for the use of digital space by non-profits globally.

The Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion, of which I was a part – held at Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town on 4th October 2016 – was titled, “NGOdigitalspaces & Civil Society”.  The discussion addressed a range of issues and practice areas in the digital space, such as:

  • What is the role of Social Media in building civil society?
  • How is digital fundraising changing the donor relationship and giving overall?
  • What are some of the risks and challenges of digital spaces, and what can non-profits to address these?
  • What is the political / regulatory environment and implications of a new NPO Act in South Africa?
  • What is the future of digital spaces for civil society – opportunities, challenges and potential threats?
  • What is the importance of credibility and validation within the sector?


A number of organisations and individuals spoke to their particular concerns, the work they do, and how their work serves to address their concerns.  The panel and issues included:

  1. Jeri Curry, president and CEO, Enset: introduction to the non-profit and civil society digital space, and to the work of Enset – and also navigated the panellists inputs, facilitating the discussion with great knowledge and expertise.
  2. Baratang Miya, founder and CEO, GirlHype: now here is somebody to watch and keep up with. Baratang spoke about her initiative to encourage girls into the digital and tech space, not as users but as innovators.  Great stuff.
  3. Michelle Jones, head of content for digital agency RogerWilco: Michelle shared lessons from a successful client project, showing how paying careful attention to messaging, content, design and site architecture can completely change levels, frequency and type of user interactions with your online presence
  4. Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room: This is me – I spoke about the need to defend digital spaces, as these levels of freedom increasingly come under the state spotlight and as non-profit organisations are under pressure from government. I also shared insights about the legislative framework that currently governs this space in South Africa.
  5. Colin Habberton, IFC Ambassador, South Africa: Colin shared insights into the use of digital platforms for fundraising and for profile-building for organisations and causes, and stressed the importance – across a range of factors – of building an online profile
  6. Michelle Matthews, Head of ED and Innovation, CiTi: Michelle’s focused on trends in ICT and the digital economy, and she shared details of a fantastic digital project supporting start-up and established social enterprises and businesses, including the development of an innovative toolkit (which we all wanted a copy of!)

Are you starting to get the picture?  Around the breadth and depth of any discussions about “digital space”?

We can talk about developments in digital technology; the use of digital technologies for the promotion of civil society campaigns; the role of an online presence in promoting your non-profit organisation and in stakeholder/ supporter/ donor communications; the importance of content in building a profile and positive footprint in the online space; the role of civil society organisations in promoting and encouraging the involvement of girl learners in the digital tech space; the importance of an online presence for fundraising (both on- and off-line); the pressure (globally) on civil society and the closure of operating spaces, both physical and digital; and the legislative framework governing the use of digital technology (eg. drones for journalism) and online spaces.  That’s just the start.

In addition, there is a boatload of information that non-profits need to keep up with – such as the 2014 transition of the domain (used by most South African non-profits for their web presence) to a new regulatory authority, and the implications for non-profits using  Again, just the start.


Enset’s work has had the effect not just of providing spaces to have discussions about digital spaces and civil society, but also of connecting activists and digital specialists locally and globally.  It is critical that we are talking to each other, in light of my particular concern – as per my previous post – about the defence of digital spaces as we see an increase in governments clamping down on activities that challenge their actions (or lack of action).

This space is absolutely critical for civil society organising, as a still-democratic space providing for the proliferation and platforming of a range of voices critical to debate, discussion, defining the languaging around particular issues, and moving away from the dominance of traditional media and their ownership of public discourse.  This has changed irreversibly, and this space must be defended.


The Power Pitch: non-profits on a mission to attract funding

image from @deviantART

By Gabrielle Ritchie : Independent Advisor, Consultant and Service Provider to Grantseekers and Grantmakers

What do donors look for in a pitch or proposal?

I had the excellent fortune of being able to participate as an audience member in a Donor Dragon’s Den this morning at Inyathelo (the non-profit for which I was – until recently – director of programmes, where I established and ran amongst many other initiatives a programme to promote South African philanthropy).  I left Inyathelo a few months ago to pursue my own more focused interests, and it is now a real treat to experience as a client the excellence of an organisation with which one has been integrally involved.  What a great use of a few hours, with Eskom’s load-shedding accommodated into the mix and all!

So what is a Donor Dragons’ Den and how did this first Den work at Inyathelo? (I say “first” as I believe there are others to follow!)

Non-profits were invited to submit a one-page written case for support.  From all of the submissions, four organisations were selected to pitch to a panel of six funders, in front of an audience of approximately 100 people from various non-profits and other initiatives around Cape Town. Each pitch needed to be delivered within five minutes – and, along with a spoken pitch, could include powerpoint and other adjunct materials.  This Dragon’s Den was perhaps a little different to the usual DD format as it did not involve funding directly and there was no cash award for the best pitch.

So why did it work so well from my point of view?

It worked for a number of reasons – let me bullet point here:

  • There was a power panel of donors – including corporate funders, private foundations, and community funders.
  • Four non-profits were brave enough to stand up in front of an audience, not only comprising a donor panel but also including 100 colleagues and peers from the non-profit sector.
  • All of us could listen, firstly to the pitches and then to the donor feedback – a fantastic learning opportunity!
  • While there was no funding award for the top pitch, there was a great bag of benefits including tickets to Inyathelo’s upcoming September 2015 Advancement Academy, and a subscription to Inyathelo’s Advancement Academy
  • There was genuine interest and enthusiasm in the room around how each pitch was presented, and in what the donor panel’s comment and feedback was on each pitch
  • The donor panel engaged fully with each presentation, and their detailed feedback on each was thoughtful, careful, constructive and succint – providing insights for all participants to take to apply to their own next set of pitches and their organisational cases for support.

My key take-aways for non-profits, from the donor panel critique, were:

  1. However your case for support is presented, ensure that you tell a compelling story.
  2. Take the donor on a “key points” journey in the short time or space you have to present your case.
  3. The “Donor Grid” is a really helpful frame when selecting what to include/exclude from your pitch or introduction – Story, Statement, Statistics, Solution. There you have it plain and simple.  Provide those in clear, punchy linked narrative, and you are already on a more likely path to success.
  4. Donors see evidence of sustainability as critical – and they don’t only look at funding sustainability.  Donors find it really compelling when an organisation can present or refer to a visible named group of committed drivers/supporters who will BE there for the organisation, and who are deeply committed to its sustainability.
  5. Income generation is a very important criterion in assessment of a case for support. Indicators are sought by donors with regard to viability of income generation. Evidence of active efforts to generate income, based on selling products or services, is deemed a key positive pointer (but, paradoxically, won’t necessarily attract donor funding! Bit of a tightrope there!).
  6. If an organisation is in the brilliant position of getting to pitch directly to a donor, it is the quality of the spoken presentation (passion, integrity, punch) that will win the day – but this must be matched equally with whatever material you leave behind.  A personal pitch and a written piece must work together, and each must be equally powerful.
  7. If you are able to present an in-person pitch, and you do use a powerpoint, ensure that your spoken word matches the powerpoint slides in such a way that pitch and powerpoint both complement and strengthen each other.  One can bring the other down.
  8. It seems REALLY obvious – but you MUST make an ask! The Dragon’s Den panel indicated an appreciation for a specific ask, a specific budget amount for a specific piece of work.
  9. In an in-person pitch, best you know who you are dealing with.  Funding decision-makers are people too – therefore some will appreciate a lot of detail while others are looking for big picture indicators and strategic approach.  Know who you are talking to.
  10. If you have developed a leave-behind pamphlet or one-pager, great infographics work well.  But they need to make a good, stark, unmissable point.
  11. Tell stories that make your organisational work come alive!
  12. It is possible to involve organisational beneficiaries or clients in your pitch or your organisational storytelling.  In-person contributions, though often incredibly powerful, come with a caution from donor panelists around the power politics and possibility of exploiting the holders of those stories.  This is really good to think through and for one’s organisation to be very clear about.

So there you have it.  If you do ever get to pitch to a donor in person.

Most organisations, though, don’t manage to arrange face-time with funding decision-makers.  How, then, do the above points apply when submitting a written case or proposal?

Here is my shot at translating from the “Dragons’ Den” to a “Power Proposal”:

  1. Have a good story – strong, well written, with named individuals even if those names are changed for privacy and protections.
  2. Make a strong statement with your case – illustrating how your organisation provides sound solutions to abiding problems.
  3. Statistics and the use of numbers will provide a punchy, effective, in-your-face illustration of the scale of a problem and the impact of the solution.  Use them – but use them well. As above, great infographics work really well – just as a bad one can really detract from your story.
  4. Make a specific ASK. Mention an amount. Explain the amount. And show through narrative and budget how you will use the funding, what you hope to achieve with that budget, and how such a contribution or investment (yes, use those words!) would support the organisation in achieving specific, defined goals.
  5. It turns out that donors increasingly want to see evidence of sincere efforts to develop income-generating products and services.  Such product development initiatives, and related income, serve to demonstrate effort, intent and integrity on the part of the grantseeker to work toward a real diversification of income streams to support the organisation’s work.  This in itself is a whole topic – one I might get to address down the line!

If you think your organisation’s written case for support or your spoken pitch needs work, take the above into account.  And look out for Inyathelo’s next Dragon’s Den.  It’s well worth a couple of hours!