NGOs and Foundations – Looking for Common Ground

Stefano Oltolini | 22 April 2016

Over the course of my professional career I have been fortunate to occupy different roles. I have been desk-manager for NGOs, grant manager for Foundations, as well as grant-seeker for NGOs looking to build partnerships with Foundations. From these experiences I have developed an understanding of the potential and the challenges of collaboration between these two worlds – Foundations and NGOs – that observe each other, measure each other up from a distance, and sometimes collaborate, albeit from different perspectives with respect to cooperation and development issues.

For a Foundation, particularly for one created recently and with a necessarily limited budget (compared to institutional investors), NGOs are sometimes viewed with a certain reluctance. The language NGOs speak is too technical, they run large and expensive programs; they serve as intermediaries between the desire of the Foundation to give and the “final beneficiaries”, which at times are small grassroots organizations or missionaries; they don’t know how to speak simply and concretely about the results they achieve, especially in terms of impact. As a result, the tendency (particularly in Italy) for Foundations from 2008 on has been to limit their actions to local/national levels, bypass intermediary organizations and find a niche in which they can have an impact.

On the other hand, larger NGOs with more international experience often have similar biases against private Foundations: they distribute very limited funds compared to institutional donors but require a similar level of management and reporting; they do not understand the complexities and timing of work on the field; they are unpredictable and irrational partners. For these and other reasons, in recent years many NGOs have preferred concentrating their efforts on securing institutional funding (which is the most effective in terms of volume) or private fundraising from individuals (which gives the organization more operating freedom in terms of flexibility for the use of funds) rather than attempting to build partnerships with private Foundations.

In reality, an international NGO like COOPI – where I began working as Foundation Partnership Manager a few months ago – has formidable assets to bring to the dialogue with Foundations. COOPI has long-time experience and presence in complicated and unstable contexts, demonstrating in practice extraordinary capabilities of flexibility and resilience. For instance, the organization has been operating for more than thirty consecutive years in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, in spite of coup d’états, natural disasters, wars and political and social upheavals. Furthermore, COOPI has the capacity for in-depth analysis and integrated responses with an agile and multisector model that allows the simultaneous implementation of a range of interventions against malnutrition, supporting mothers, bolstering vulnerable minority communities, and at the same time implement programs to develop markets and the local economy and increase the revenues of the families involved. The ultimate objective is to increase the capacity of autonomous response of partner communities, thus building their resilience in the process of reducing poverty, which has been the mission of the organization for fifty years.

NGOs such as COOPI can have a significant quantitative and qualitative impact. They have a global vision and are able to face complex situations by offering equally sophisticated responses. Moreover, they value the participation and dialogue with both the communities and the actor-investor stakeholders involved, whether they are multilateral agencies, governments or local authorities.

For a national Foundation with solid territorial roots but is aware of the necessity to analyze global problems in their complexity and entirety, initiating a partnership with an NGO like COOPI is a valuable opportunity. Having a trustworthy, experienced and visionary partner on the ground gives the Foundation the opportunity to strike the right balance between the limitation of its resources and the desire to maximize its impact.

Instead of parceling grants for micro-intervention measures in order to help the greatest number of partners/applicants – but that are unfortunately are still destined to be insufficient compared to the many requests – an increasing number of Foundations are reducing and concentrating their areas of intervention. In doing so, they increase the value of the grants awarded, and give themselves new methods for the selection of strategic partners.

The process of creating a partnership is certainly not easy, and it can often be long and arduous. The role of a Foundation Partnership Manager (like myself) is therefore to create common ground for potential cooperation, to find and develop win-win partnership opportunities and to patiently work to overcome mutual and legitimate points of departure in order to reach new collaboration solutions, with the shared awareness that today’s global problems affect everyone, and that only a truly integrated and multi-stakeholder approach can improve the way in which the entire international community attempts to solve global challenges.

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