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From donor-driven to self-sufficient: Story of the Zambian Governance Foundation

Every so often, and with increasing frequency, I’m reminded of the fact that working in development is for many a deeply personal affair.

Having prepared a set of largely technical questions for Barbara Nöst, CEO of the Zambian Governance Foundation (ZGF) for civil society, I was delighted when our conversation took a far more personal turn as we began to discuss how to challenge deeply entrenched power imbalances in the way that Northerners seek to ‘programme’ in Southern contexts.

It’s a sensitive topic, but one that can no longer be avoided. For Barbara, who has been with ZGF for 10 years, preceded by a long career in development, it can be “difficult in this context to stay true to what you believe in and who you are.” I think this sentiment resonates deeply with many of us in the sector.

ZGF has a fascinating history, one that – spoiler alert – ends in the organisation seeking meaningful self-sufficiency by no longer depending on donor funding.

Background: how ZGF came into being

ZGF started its life as a programme financed through a pooled funding mechanism supported by five bilateral donors (UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Ireland). The programme’s purpose was to channel funding to civil society organisations (CSOs) in a more coordinated manner. Soon after work began in January 2009, with Barbara in place as Team Lead, the need to register as a Zambian legal entity in order to issue grant funding to CSOs became apparent. In July 2009, ZGF registered as a Zambian entity – a company limited by guarantee.

From the beginning ZGF recognised the importance of financial self-sufficiency– as opposed to operating as a donor programme. This later on prompted the shift towards finding sustainable financing for ZGF as a whole, given that donor resources to Zambia have been dwindling since it was declared a lower middle-income country in 2011. Several bilateral donors have since exited from the country, including Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. Fortunately, ZGF benefitted from having committed and qualified founders, Board members and an active Chairperson – all poised to make ZGF an organisation that could exist as its own, autonomous entity.

When measurement overtakes meaning

In what seems paradoxical from a sustainability point of view, once ZGF showed their ambition to be financially independent of traditional donors through creating a social enterprise arm, the less donors were interested in working with them, apart from GIZ. As Barbara recounts, “It was never said clearly, but we understood from their conversations with us that they had no interest in us becoming more independent because they created us so they could pool their funds. They couldn’t control things anymore and they didn’t like it – they would never say this directly.”

Part of this control entailed putting in place stringent monitoring and evaluation requirements. As a sector, we talk endlessly about the importance of M&E – and rightfully so. But the trap is that we oftentimes only fund or implement things that are objectively measurable. As Barbara puts it, “I don’t mind the procedures, I can deal with that. But if they come onboard saying this is the logframe and indicators we want, and these are the sectors and partners, it becomes too directive. We started having our doubts. A typical issue was that we were convinced from the beginning that we shouldn’t prescribe sectors – let’s let civil society decide what they want to work on. The donors went with it for a while, but then after a few years they started to talk about aggregated impact and reporting results to our governments. I understood this important need, but is the need of civil society not more important?”

A move to local philanthropy

Although ZGF has succeeded in transitioning away from donor dependence, its organisational growth has not stopped there. ZGF’s latest shift has been to embark on the new and challenging journey of local philanthropy (see my earlier post for background on what this entails). There are obstacles to this approach, as the work is not lucrative and donors often don’t ‘get it’.

Despite these challenges, ZGF views this shift as essential to the future of the organisation. At its core, local philanthropy is about communities no longer depending on external funding for their own survival, but generating as many of their own resources as possible. Or, as ZGF describes it, moving from dependence to ascendance.

Regardless of the obstacles, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm within the ZGF team. Tarisai Jangara, Programme Specialist in Communication at ZGF says that the “local philanthropy work has been very exciting because of the involvement of people on the ground. The energy from the communities is quite inspiring, the stories of their idea of development are ones that everyone should hear about. My view has always been that communities have a voice but someone always speaks on their behalf – politicians, NGOs, people perceived as opinion leaders.” Giving the communities a voice and allowing them to speak about their own development will help #shiftthepower in favour of the community.

As of right now, it may be that local philanthropy is an idea slightly before its time. I’m not the betting kind, but I’d be willing to stake money on the fact that this is an approach that donors will scramble to be a part of in the not-so-distant future. Whether they can do so in a supportive way that doesn’t displace existing work remains to be seen.

To leave you on a high note, I highly recommend you watch the exceedingly catchy Shift the Power Zambia video to get a taste of the ZGF spirit.

Thank you to Barbara and Tarisai for giving me a look into how ZGF works and for sharing their stories.

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