By Rachel Hayman.

Welcome to the first contribution to a new INTRAC blog series on civil society sustainability. Over the next few weeks we will be offering reflections from a range of INTRAC staff and associates, exploring the sustainability of civil society organisations from different angles, looking well beyond resourcing issues.

Life returning two years after a massive forest fire

New life in a burned forest’ by Andrius Baranauskas via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licensing.

The series ties in with our Building Sustainbility of Civil Society workshop on 25-26 November 2014, when around 60 representatives of civil society organisations, practitioners, funders, and researchers will come together in Oxford, with a subsequent webinar to be held on the 4th of December.

Our objective

We want to push the thinking of NGOs, funders, civil society support organisations and governments on how to ensure a sustainable future for civil society in countries where people face challenges such as poverty, insecurity, poor governance, and social exclusion. In particular we are interested in exploring how civil society support – focusing on policies and practice – can be improved to address the sustainability challenges of civil society. We want to share good practice and lessons as well as foster debate that will lead to action.

Our challenge

For civil society to fulfil its role of empowering people to challenge and change the inequality that affects them, civil society organisations need to be effective, sustainable, rooted and legitimate in their own societies. Their supporters and funders need to back this endeavour, addressing weaknesses in programming, capacity building, and funding. They also need to engage with the regulatory and political conditions which affect civil society organisations. These weaknesses, individually and in combination, often undermine rather than strengthen civil society.

Over the past few years we have been observing big changes in the environment for civil society globally. The Civil Society at a Crossroads project, our work on aid withdrawal, our capacity building and evaluation work for international NGOs, foundations and donors, and our work on civil society operating space all highlight how organisations in the global south and north are grappling with profound questions about their role, purpose, legitimacy, relationships, and funding.

In this changing context, we have seen many organisations facing major reductions in traditional forms of funding, leaving them to seek alternative sources of income to sustain their work. Some strategies organisations are pursuing include diversifying their funding streams, generating income in new ways, and developing different types of relationships with governments, corporate bodies, private funders and others.

A multi-dimensional and integrated view of sustainability

However, funding is merely one aspect of sustainability. INTRAC’s experience suggests that multiple interrelated factors contribute to sustainable civil society organisations and a sustainable civil society overall. We therefore need to think in a more integrated way.

Firstly, we will look at the relationship between sustainability and legitimacy. When organisations make claims about providing benefits to people, it is important that they have a clear mandate do so. They must also be able to demonstrate accountability towards a wide range of internal and external stakeholders. How rooted organisations are in the communities they support is also emerging as a key factor.

However, even if an organisation is perceived as legitimate in what it does and who it speaks for, it may struggle for a lack of resources. So the next blog post in our series will examine the resource issue.

Other factors that emerge as interesting to us within an integrated concept of sustainability are leadership, purpose, values, and structures. We will explore whether particular leadership qualities or approaches matter to sustainability. Organisations that prove to be effective agents of social transformation in the long term rarely exist without a distinct and recognisable base of values or purpose. We will therefore consider how sustainability is related to the clarity of mission or purpose of organisations and the extent to which institutional systems and structures are important.

Much more broadly, however, our experience shows that the social, economic, environmental, historical, geographic and political context in which civil society exists really matters. In many places the sustainability of civil society is challenged because the environmentin which organisations operate does not enable them to fulfil their mission. The issue of space for civil society to operate freely and effectively is often fundamental to sustainability, as is the existence of a conducive legislative framework.

Many forms of civic organisation exist without funding (think of the multitude of voluntary associations which exist with minimal income), exist without formal or distinct leadership, or exist in contexts where the space to operate is extremely squeezed. The world is also awash with NGOs that fulfil a lot of formal criteria but have a dubious function. Therefore, the mere continued existence of an organisation – based on access to resources, acceptance by the state, and the presence of a formal structure and leadership – does not equate with sustainability.

Our experience suggests that the sustainability of individual civil society organisations, and of civil society overall, is determined by a confluence of factors. Greater priority needs to be given to the question of how the long-term sustainability of civil society organisations and civic organising can be supported more effectively. It is on this basis that civil society can then address the poverty, insecurity and discrimination that so many people continue to face.