Joseph Tsongo. Photo courtesy of the Amani Institute

Joseph Tsongo. Photo courtesy of the Amani Institute

Joseph Tsongo is no stranger to crises. As the leader of the Amani Institute, he helps ex-combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) use theater to heal from trauma and reintegrate into communities. This work is set against a backdrop of ongoing conflict and atrocities in Eastern DRC, new outbreaks of Ebola, and now, COVID-19. In response to this new crisis, Joseph and his team quickly pivoted their work to integrate educating local communities about COVID-19 prevention along with their ongoing peacebuilding efforts. Philanthropic support for local leaders like Joseph makes it possible for communities to create and lead the responses they need most in moments of crisis and beyond. 

One of the Amani Insitute’s partners, Peace Direct, is founded on a commitment to the importance of working locally. Their philosophy is that local people have the power to find their own solutions to the challenges they face, a philosophy that is shared by a growing number of their peer funders, particularly as COVID-19 spreads across communities in and out of conflict zones. 

It is more important now than ever for funders to be responsive to what communities need, which may be different than what they needed just a few months ago. But knowing what communities need requires building trust with the local leaders already doing critical work. Some organizations, such as the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and the #ShiftThePower movement, have been trying to help funders understand practical ways that they can form better relationships with their grantee partners. A groundswell of funders has discovered that trust-based practices and support for local leaders is not only feasible, but leads to powerful changes in communities, especially in crisis moments. 

Members of the Peace and Security Funders Group’s Locally-Led Peacebuilding Working Group recently collaborated to create Guiding Principles for Funding Locally-Led Peacebuilding in order to help funders better understand how they could form effective partnerships based on local leadership, relationships of trust, and self-reflection. Indeed, these strategies can be the basis of best practices for all funders, not just those who support peacebuilding.  

Adapt funding approaches to local realities

Funders can most effectively support the needs of local actors by providing long-term general operating support and allowing for flexibility to respond to evolving contexts. Reducing administrative burdens is key in moments of crisis, and allows grantees to do the work that is urgently needed.

There are challenges that come with moving money to local organizations, but this does not stop some foundations. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) provides multi-year, core funding to locally based organizations in the Western Balkans because local organizations are the most plugged in to their communities and are the experts in their contexts. For example, the RBF has provided multi-year support to Integra, which facilitates inter-community dialogue in Kosovo, and the Humanitarian Law Center, which documents war crimes in Serbia. Both organizations work in complex and sensitive environments at the community, national and regional level. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these partners are able to adapt in the ways that their communities need and to focus on staff and community well-being. The RBF views long-term unrestricted funding as key to developing institutional capacity and resilience that allows grantees to be responsive to the evolving context and needs of their communities. 

Learn about context and identify local partners

Funders who are not located in communities where they wish to fund must do the hard work of researching who local people trust and respect as leaders in order to create a map of potential investments. The global pandemic has stopped in-person meetings, but relationship-building is still possible if funders are willing to provide the resources and technology to trusted local representatives and to put in the effort it takes to build relationships of trust. Seasoned funders know that they have to be willing to take the time to invest in process, not just products. Putting in this work up front allows for better and potentially less risky opportunities for rapid-response funding when times (such as this) call for it. 

This form of relationship-building takes time, but pays off. For many years, U.S.-based operating foundation Catalyst for Peace supported Fambul Tok, an NGO in Sierra Leone, as they worked with communities to design inclusive community structures to address conflict, reconciliation, livelihoods and development. Fambul Tok staff led an extensive process that invited leadership from within the communities to build these structures, including Community Welfare and Mediation Committees and “Peace Mothers.” The Peace Mothers in particular became very active in Ebola response, and have recently pivoted to COVID-19 education and prevention. Lilian Morsay, Fambul Tok staff and National Peace Mothers director, explained that they have started making and distributing soap door to door as they did during Ebola, as well as educating households about appropriate handwashing techniques and the importance of wearing masks in public. As Morsay explains, the Peace Mothers say “we came and told you about Ebola, we’re now here to tell you that coronavirus is real.” Catalyst for Peace’s investment in cultivating community leadership supported this long-term community capacity to organize to respond quickly to COVID-19.

Around every turn, funders must ask: Whose voices are we missing? Often, the best-known leaders at well-established organizations receive funding, but sometimes, women, youth, marginalized groups and local religious actors are better-suited to lead change on the ground. Funders should include them in consultations and always check their assumptions of what “leadership” looks like. Additionally, funders may be well-positioned to link local, national and international processes, so they should consider this as part of any local funding strategy. 

Cultivate true partnerships

Defining the nature of relationships beyond funding and building trust are key to cultivating true partnerships. Peace Direct commits to a process of continued accompaniment, mutual accountability and, at times, acting as a critical friend, with its local partners. Being a critical friend means treating partners as equals, respecting their knowledge and experience, and also asking questions and offering input to ensure best practice. For example, as local partners shared plans for rapid response to COVID-19 in places like DRC and Somalia, Peace Direct mobilized resources to support them while also sharing queries and international response guidelines to ensure efforts were in line with best health practices. This was only possible because Peace Direct had identified trusted local partners who were already able to absorb Peace Direct’s rapid-response support.

One key feature that sets true locally led funding apart from other types of partnerships is the commitment to mutual accountability. Regular listening, learning, transparency, and a willingness to change course—on the part of both the grantee and the donor—are critical to addressing local needs. This may sit uncomfortably with funders who have to report “wins” to their trustees every year, or worse, every quarter. Nevertheless, a new way of working is called for in times of crisis and beyond.

This is a transformational moment—if we allow it to be

These principles for locally led funding aren’t just important during the COVID-19 crisis. This is a moment when we as a funding community can rewrite the rules. If we were able to relax some grant reporting requirements, if we were able to stand up rapid-response funds, if we were able to help our grantees work better virtually, and if we were able to move funding to those most closely affected by this immediate crisis, why can’t we always do this? When we emerge from this global pandemic— hopefully healthy and wiser—we cannot miss this opportunity to make lasting, positive changes to our funding practices. Let’s seize the opportunity to fund better, including by incorporating these principles of locally led funding. 

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Cath Thompson is a program director at the Peace and Security Funders Group, a global network of  50 foundations and philanthropists who support peacebuilding and security issues.

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