By Rachel Hayman.

‘Is the future private?’ was an early draft title for one of the main sessions for INTRAC’s workshop on Building Sustainability of Civil Society, held on 25-26 November 2014 in Oxford. When we began planning the workshop, we wanted to look at sustainability of civil society from multiple angles, one of which is the need to diversify sources of funding. The rationale for that session (and its title) emerged from research that INTRAC had been doing since 2010 around the increase in funding from private foundations and philanthropists to NGOs and the activities they have traditionally supported. We were monitoring this trend as we could see that INGOs were increasingly seeking to expand their private sources of funding, partly to address falling income from public donors. Yet, the conversations and shared knowledge between NGOs and private donors have been weak.

The ‘Is the future private?’ session therefore sought to open up the conversation. I wanted to bring together a panel that represented different approaches so that we could interrogate the pros and cons, the opportunities and challenges, and the implications for the organisational development, identity, legitimacy and impact of CSOs.

My ideal panel would have brought together speakers from or on:

  •  large, international philanthropic foundation or trust
  • a community philanthropist or community foundation
  • a corporate foundation
  • the diaspora support sector
  • social enterprise or entrepreneurialism
  • volunteerism
  • crowd-sourcing and small-scale private donations

We ended up with a fascinating panel with representatives from Ashoka, Giving What We Can, Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action (CIVA), African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), International Centre for Social Franchising (ICSF), and the Southern Africa Trust. But it didn’t have the spread I originally envisaged.

The slant was strongly towards social entrepreneurialism and enterprise. And that really seemed to capture the imagination of many participants, providing food for thought about how a more entrepreneurial approach could foster future-facing NGOs that can get creative to generate income and fund their activities.
But it also left me feeling a little uneasy. I was left wondering whether we were placing too much emphasis on private financing for development, whether it comes from communities taking matters into their own hands (a topic for further reflection) or through social entrepreneurialism.

My thinking on international development was grounded in the late 1990s, at the height of the anti-globalisation movement and the pushback against global capitalism. My studies were shaped by critical perspectives on the damage wrought to Africa by neoliberalism, and the externalisation of development to donors, including the exponential growth of NGOs as non-state deliverers of development interventions.[1]

I have personally long believed that development requires on the one hand the creation of a strong social contract between citizen and state, based on taxation and the social responsibility of citizen to demand rights, and of government to listen through some form of locally-appropriate political system. On the other hand, it requires people to take collective responsibility for the well-being of their societies and to ensure that all people can exercise their human rights within that society. Civil society and collective action are crucial parts of this equation.

I found myself wondering how many of today’s High Net Worth Individuals, global philanthropists and corporate trusts started out as ‘social’ entrepreneurs. I suspect that many – though by no means all – only later discovered the desire to give back for a range of reasons, some of which will not be rooted in a serious desire for social justice and rights. If CSOs and NGOs see social entrepreneurialism as one way (among several) of adapting to a different funding future, we have to think hard about what it works for, for whom it works, and where it works best. What are the possibilities in the poorest environments, the remotest environments, the complex and insecure places?

A lot of debate happened at the workshop around the potential for social entrepreneurialism to reach beyond tangible services and engage with the ‘messy stuff’ that is central to much of the work of civil society organisations of defending human rights or advocating for social justice. These issues are becoming increasingly difficult to find funding for. Can the social enterprise model help to address this gap?

The challenge for us as supporters, builders, champions, and members of civil society is to push the boundaries of what is possible through social entrepreneurialism. Social enterprise has to work for the good of all in a given society, not just deliver services under a social banner to specific communities (however defined) or individuals. We need to ensure it does not lead CSOs further down the private, state-bypassing route to development, but contributes to building connections between individuals, communities and the state, and to nurturing voice, accountability, and social responsibility.