Civil Society’s Sustainability: Not all about Financial Resources
The question of civil society’s sustainability cannot be explored without analysing the implications of financial resource factors for civil society organisations (CSOs). Acquiring the appropriate and adequate financial resources is crucial for the long-term survival and effectiveness of CSOs. However, ensuring the sustainability of CSOs requires efforts that should not be limited to adequate financial resources alone.
Financial resources can be considered as funds used to achieve an objective. For an organisation to fulfill its mission, it must be effective and sustainable within its operational environment; and, financial resources are undoubtedly a key success factor.
Donors and funders need to support CSOs to achieve their respective missions by providing a collaborative response to the organisational challenges in programming, capacity, and funding. These challenges often cripple rather than strengthen affected organisations. It is, therefore, necessary to push the thinking of CSOs, donors and governments to reflect and apply new approaches to ensure a sustainable future for CSOs.
As concerned development actors, we must continually explore how CSOs in Sub-Saharan Africa can be empowered to face and adequately address the threat to their existence and relevance – hence, their sustainability.
It is essential to share best practices and lessons as well as foster debates that will nourish promising actions to boost CSOs’ sustainability. For many CSOs, sustainability has been defined through interconnected factors of the environment, economic and social domains. Despite the increased popularity of the term "sustainability", the glimmer of hope on the extent to which CSOs in this era will become sustainable, and remain so, has been and continues to be questioned.
Sustainability has been defined as “the process of change, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations”. [i]
It “is the strong ability and capacity to maintain independence, continually generate expected funds to pursue planned operations, command strong recognition and legitimacy, and wield influential power in its mission and the sector in which it operates”, WACSI (2015).
Sustainability can, therefore, be understood to be the capacity of an organisation to minimise its dependency and to improve its operational significance while maintaining and striving to achieve its social mission.
Over the years, there has been a global civil society environment in which organisations are facing major reductions in funding. This drives them to seek alternative sources of income to sustain their operations and develop different types of relationships with governments, corporate bodies, private funders and other stakeholders. However, funding is one of several factors that contribute to ascertain the sustainability of organisations. There are multiple interrelated factors that contribute towards the sustainability of an organisation and the civil society sector. These include but are not limited to; (i) ensuring organisational legitimacy, (ii) developing strong leadership, (iii) having a good understanding and respect for their mission and vision statements, and, (iv) appropriately adapting to forces within their space and context.
The legitimacy of the organisation: Legitimacy can be attributed to solid qualities such as CSOs’ credibility with funders, prompt response to different supervisory demands, improved access to and collaboration with key target audiences, among others. In ensuring an organisation’s sustainability, it is necessary to recognise the relationship between sustainability and legitimacy. Most CSOs make direct or indirect claims that they are providing benefits to society or specific groups within it. On these, many organisations build further claims for recognition of special status and for financial and regulatory support. Yet, without the public’s recognition of the social or economic added value of an organisation’s purpose and mode of operation, the said organisation cannot claim legitimacy.
Strong leadership: To be sustainable, having a strong leadership is inevitable for every organisation with such an ambition. It is important to have a robust and competent leader at the helm of an organisation that aims for sustainability. Thus, having a credible, transparent and rotational leadership must be part of any organisational sustainability objective and process. When leadership is weak, static, uninspiring, indecisive, inflexible, autocratic, tired or otherwise inadequate, the performance of an institution can slumber. A visionary and innovative leader who can spot a gap is essential in moving forward an organisation. A democratic, flexible and personable leader is a catalyst for an organisation’s sustainability.
A regular source of funds could contribute to the continued existence of an organisation. However, it requires a purposeful and transparent leader to appropriately manage the funds to achieve intended goals. Without the latter, there could be mismanagement of funds which can dump the credibility of the organisation into the mud. Such an occurrence will be a setback to the organisation’s drive towards becoming sustainable.
The place for an organisation’s mission and values: An organisation can become sustainable based on how well it ‘lived’ its mission and values. The success of an organisation is grounded on whether it is inspired by its vision and it operationalises its mission, not how well written these are on paper. It is about whether the organisation is genuinely realising its mission of influencing change; about whether the organisation’s behaviour is aligned with its values. And how well this is propelling the organisation to achieve the goals it set for itself. It is therefore imperative for CSOs operating in this era of dwindling funds to seek measures that will enable them to be driven by their vision such that they can consciously work to achieve their mission.
Good understanding and adaptation to contextual realities: CSOs can be well resourced and legitimate with established structures and strong leadership yet struggle to be sustainable. The challenges posed by the broader context within which they exist - space and context – plays a vital role in determining their sustainability. Extreme poverty may make it difficult to find sustainable local sources of funding. Conflict and political instability can create uncertainty, making it harder to plan and think strategically about the future. A restrictive political environment may compel organisations to keep a low profile or shift priorities to avoid scrutiny.
In such circumstances, organisations otherwise considered effective can find themselves severely constrained in terms of what they can do; hence, achieve very limited results. Conducive legal frameworks are crucial to creating a supportive operational environment for CSOs. However, their absence, misuse, or arbitrary application can lead to an insecure and unpredictable operational environment for CSOs.
Building organisational sustainability has major implications on every fabric of the organisation. The components discussed above constitute the building blocks to an organisation’s sustainability and these span beyond financial resources.
For CSOs to be truly sustainable and effectively manage the risks associated with funding, it must be influenced by robust institutional structures and good governance practices. Organisations must be conscious of the need to invest in building the operational, identity and intervention capacities of the organisation in these changing times.
[i] WACSI (2015) The State of Civil Society Organisations’ Sustainability in Ghana: Striving, Surviving or Thriving?