Over the past 10 years, cross-border grantmaking has become more challenging, and the day-to-day work of civil society organizations in many parts of the world has become increasingly difficult. Human rights donors first started to see challenges in places such as Russia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. In these places, organizations reported that they were running into administrative hurdles created by authorities and that basic laws on (non-government organization) NGO registration or taxation were being used to restrict or shut down their work. At the same time, donors were finding that bank transfers were held up, questioned, or even refused. As they compared notes and pieced these stories together, donors recognized a trend that is now often referred to as the closing space for civil society.
Today, this phenomenon is even more widespread. It is no longer restricted to certain regions of the world; even countries that are widely regarded as democratic have introduced restrictions on civil society organizations. Although human rights organizations have been among the first targeted by such restrictions, they are not the only ones affected. Environmental groups, development organizations, and even charities providing basic social services are feeling the effects. These restrictions are often presented as transparency measures or connected to a state’s efforts to combat money laundering or terrorist financing. These are, of course, legitimate aims, but these measures have also placed onerous reporting burdens on NGOs, making it difficult for them to pursue their missions and, sometimes, unjustifiably connect charitable organizations to illicit financial flows in the public mind. In some countries, organizations receiving funding from foreign sources, especially foreign governments, are publicly labeled “foreign agents,” and they are often prohibited from engaging in certain activities. For example, restrictions on advocacy have had a chilling effect on the work of several organizations, including in some otherwise open, democratic societies.
According to a 2018 report by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 72 countries have proposed or enacted more than 144 restrictions on civil society since 2012.1 The same report indicates that, of those enacted or proposed restrictions, 47 percent restrict the formation, registration, or operation of civil society organizations; 28 percent constrain the ability of organizations to receive international funding; and 25 percent restrict peaceful assembly.2
In addition to limiting the work of well-meaning organizations, these restrictive regulations and the government narrative around them erode public confidence in NGOs. In many cases, narratives that characterize organizations as foreign agents, conduits for terrorist financing or money laundering, or simply lacking in transparency are picked up by the media and generate negative attitudes that undermine charitable organizations. This erosion of trust and confidence can be as damaging to organizations working towards social change as the laws are themselves.
How are donors responding?
Through consultation with the partners they fund, donors have developed some best practices for supporting organizations struggling in the current context and to try to turn the tide on such restrictions. Ariadne and the Human Rights Funders Network brought donors together to discuss a philanthropic response to the closing space for civil society in Berlin in June 2015. From that meeting, a series of recommendations for how philanthropy could jointly push back against these trends emerged, which are described in Challenging the Closing Space for Civil Society: A Practical Starting Point for Funders.
Attendees also established the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS), which provides a space for collective strategizing and action in response to the closing space. FICS’s strategy brings the philanthropic sector together to challenge the closing space by shifting international norms with diplomatic influence, engaging the business sector, and developing positive narratives about the value and role of civil society.3
The importance of developing strategic policy responses cannot be underestimated, and there is much more that donors can do to support research and advocacy to resist the closing space. However, many organizations are under immediate threat, and many donors fund with resilience of organizations in mind.
Here are some best practices for funding resilience that have emerged from discussions with human rights donors:
Civil society organizations emphasize the value of core, or unrestricted, support in closing space contexts. Core support is almost always preferable to project support as project support can limit the ability of organizations to plan beyond the lifespans of specific projects and to cover basic operating costs. However, in contexts where an organization’s basic work or existence are challenged, and legislative changes or attacks by the government or media may come quickly or unexpectedly, it is important that organizations have the flexibility to respond as the situation evolves. A previously successful line of work may quickly become impossible or simply less relevant, and organizations may need to develop new campaigns or legal cases without much notice. Core funding that can be repurposed as needed will give organizations an advantage in responding to these challenges.
Funding for administrative or legal support
As new regulations are introduced, organizations may find they need to file new documents, get their tax affairs in order, or even defend themselves against legal attacks. These issues can burden and overstretch small organizations, making them vulnerable and challenging their capacity. Foundations can help organizations in this situation by providing support for technical assistance, such as from a tax professional or a lawyer. The sums involved may not be significant but could make a big difference to the sustainability and effectiveness of organizations.
Funding for security enhancements
Similarly, organizations in closing space contexts may be vulnerable to digital and physical attacks. Foundations can help by providing support for security audits and any needed upgrades or enhancements. These could include office alarms, development of security protocols, or installation of Internet security software on computers. By assisting partners with such measures, donors help protect at-risk organizations and send the message that security is important and worth investing in; organizations often de-prioritize their own security, feeling that they should invest their resources in their work rather than infrastructure.
Funding non-registered organizations or companies
As it becomes more difficult for groups to operate because of restrictions on NGOs, organizations may have to explore different existential options. Some groups may find that it is easier to register as a limited liability company than as a charitable organization. Others may not be able to register at all. If donors can be flexible about the type of entities they support, it will help ensure groups doing good work continue to have access to funding. While this may be a challenge for some donors, it is worth considering, especially when funding in particularly repressive environments.
Non-financial support and solidarity
Donors bring many assets to the table beyond their financial largesse. Staff and board members can provide contact with high-level policymakers, media connections, and information about developments in the sector, perhaps internationally. Access to information and centers of power can be extremely useful for organizations affected by or trying to address restrictions on civil society. In addition, when partners feel that they could be helpful and appropriate, donors may be able to speak out on behalf of the organizations they support, calling out the negative impact of certain measures on civil society and supporting the right to work. Such acts of solidarity can help shift the environment. Donors should not underestimate the value of non-financial support for their partners.
Civil society is currently beset by many challenges, and they are too large for any one organization or funder to address alone. This is an issue that requires joint strategizing and work, and donors can help play an important convening role as well as fund networks of civil society groups to collaborate. Even providing a physical space for organizations to gather can be useful to groups as they try to cope with a wide range of threats and pressures. Investing in existing networks and platforms for organizations can provide a voice for the sector as a whole and encourage collaboration.
The value of joint action is evidenced by a successful appeal to re-frame Recommendation 8 by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body charged with combating money laundering and terrorist financing. The original recommendation identified the charitable sector as “particularly vulnerable” to being used as a conduit for terrorist financing. Following a three-year effort by the Global NPO Coalition on FATF, a network of diverse nonprofit organizations, the language regarding charitable organizations was removed from Recommendation 8.4 That coalition included foundations as well as NGOs, and together they were able to make the case for civil society to an inter-governmental body that was relatively unfamiliar with the nonprofit sector.
Listening to and being led by partners
When organizations are under threat and at-risk, they are usually best suited to gauge what will help them and what will put them at greater risk. While donors may want to be helpful, they may not have all the answers, especially if they are located in a different country than the organization they are trying to serve. Therefore, it is important that any decisions that the donor makes be informed by their partners’ assessment of the security and political situation. This is not always the most natural role for donors, but when it comes to decisions that affect security or revolve around what will positively shift the environment in a country, it is important to listen to local partners.
Taking a long-term view
The challenges to civic space are not going to be resolved quickly. The civil society sector has a long fight ahead, and individual organizations may have to change course several times to stay ahead of the curve. Donors ideally need to be willing to commit long-term support to give the sector the stability it needs to carry on its work and defend the civic space.
Looking toward the future
Civil society currently finds itself embattled, having to justify its own existence while pursuing the causes to which it is committed. In such an environment, solidarity between donors and their civil society partners becomes more important than ever. The dynamism and volatility of the civil society context call for creativity and adaptation. By providing support to build the resilience of organizations and strategies to resist further restrictions on civic space, donors can help empower civil society organizations to fight back against the closing space and stand firmly with them to develop long-term strategies and visions for the future. Undoubtedly the current trends mean change will be inevitable, but we can work together to shape that change and keep the civil society sector thriving.
2International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, “Effective Donor Responses to the Challenge of Closing Civic Space,” 10.
<sup3Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society Strategy: http://global-dialogue.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/FICS-Booklet.pdf.
4Iva Dobichina, “The Big Impact of the Little-Known ‘Recommendation 8′” Open Society Foundations, July 11, 2016. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/big-impact-little-known-recommendation-8.