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Strengthening African civil society organizations: Linking program impact to organizational capacity

  • Locally-rooted infrastructure organizations are key to building a vibrant philanthropy eco-system in Africa

By Rose Maruru and Adwoa Agyeman – (Co-founders, EPIC-Africa)

African civil society organizations (CSOs) make significant contributions to the continent’s wellbeing. Each year, they raise millions of dollars from individuals and foundations to serve their communities, often testing and scaling innovations and sharing new insights to meet the challenges that face the continent. Not only do they advocate for transparency and accountability in government, they are a chief means of citizen engagement across Africa.

African CSOs are on the frontlines of development in Africa, yet little is known about them. There is limited data and mapping as to which groups exist and where, what they do, how they get funding, and the impact they make. In a recent study by EPIC-Africa, we found that the few CSO databases that do exist provide mostly basic, directory-like information, much of it outdated. The study also found a number of CSO assessment and accreditation efforts in Africa and abroad, but these initiatives are hard to scale as they require considerable amounts of human and financial capacity.

This lack of data renders the sector’s contributions largely invisible. As a result, many Africans are unaware that some of the benefits they enjoy today are a direct result of CSO-led actions. The sector, therefore, often lacks the financial and moral support it needs from the public, especially when it comes under attack, as it does in many countries. Invisibility and fragmentation prevent CSOs from connecting with and learning from each other, and from leveraging the benefits of networks and collaborations, such as pooled resources and joint fundraising.

Individuals and institutions looking to identify African CSOs as possible partners and grantees are forced to “ask around”, a process that often favors a small subset of groups. Many worthy organizations remain under the radar of donors, their insufficient funding leading to resource constraints that compromise organizational health and effectiveness.

What’s needed is the kind of infrastructure, more common in areas where the philanthropy sector is well established, that would help to strengthen the sector by gathering, analyzing and sharing sector data. It would consist of services and tools that aim to set standards and ensure continuous improvement in performance and impact, champion new approaches and advocate for better policies to support the sector. Without this kind of robust, locally rooted infrastructure, CSOs, when they can afford it, must rely on global for-profit consulting firms whose frameworks are not always adapted to the realities of the not-for-profit sector in Africa or its specificities.

If African CSOs are to effectively play their role, which is increasingly, and thankfully, recognized in national plans and global compacts, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the local infrastructure that supports them must also be strengthened so that it can:

a)     Provide services and tools that allow CSOs and their funders to share knowledge, build capacity, and become more effective.

b)    Aggregate the sector’s contributions to serve as both an advocacy and a bargaining tool for CSOs as they seek better services from providers and push for more supportive policies from governments.

c)     Provide an independent voice, backed by data-based evidence, when CSOs are under attack.

d)    Foster greater transparency and accountability in the sector, resulting in more visibility, credibility, local legitimacy and support.

EPIC-Africa is among a growing number of African organizations that are seeking to strengthen this infrastructure and to deepen philanthropic impact on the continent. Our mission is to fill critical data and capacity gaps in the philanthropic marketplace. Our specific focus is on strengthening the organizational capacity of African civil society organizations.  We are building a platform to support the growth of a vibrant philanthropic ecosystem with diverse, influential, sustainable African civil society groups at the center. Underlying the platform is an index of African CSOs, a tool to build CSO capacity and to map and rank CSOs across the entire continent, across multiple sectors and indicators. The EPIC-Africa index leverages technology to achieve rigor and breadth while providing rich and actionable data.

To further highlight the importance of organizational capacity, EPIC-Africa, in a joint initiative with the Rockefeller Foundation will be launching the African CSO Excellence Awards. The Awards shine a light on African CSOs who demonstrate excellence in terms of organizational effectiveness– how they do their work. Not only are they producing results, they are finding ways to build their capacity and manage challenging environments, all while ushering their organizations safely into the future

The Awards are based on a rigorous data-based methodology which assesses eight key aspects of organizational capacity. CSOs nominate themselves by submitting data through EPIC-Africa’s web-based portal. By sharing their data, CSOs get the opportunity to self-assess and consequently receive a diagnostic report that they can then use as a benchmark. It is also an opportunity to kick-start conversations with their funders around their capacity-building needs.

Because creating and sustaining infrastructure is a long-term endeavor, it is not for the faint hearted. It requires the same kind of dedication and drive for innovation that we look for in programming. Strong organizational capacity and program impact are two sides of the same coin: a strong organizational structure is essential to achieving, sustaining and scaling the change that our sector seeks through our programming. They are inextricably linked. As we embark on this journey, we are calling on like-minded institutions and individuals to join us in supporting this initiative to build the underpinnings of a thriving and resilient civil society sector in Africa.