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Barriers to African Civil Society

Building the Sector’s Capacity and Potential to Scale up

About the report

Vodafone Foundation is driven by a responsibility to leverage our position as one of the world’s largest corporate funding networks to help increase the reach and effectiveness of philanthropy. This starts with research, to better understand the issues we are working to address.

This report was commissioned as an independent project. We do not alter the findings, or the language used. The report investigates the key barriers to funding for African CSOs and provides practical guidance and important recommendations on how the philanthropic community can collaborate to overcome them. These issues and suggested solutions must be considered and acted upon with the utmost urgency.

Vodafone Foundation also recognises the high value international funding organisations create in Africa. We are enormously grateful to our partners for their effort, integrity, and support over the last 30 years - and look forward to working together to apply the recommendations made by this report.

What we found

We have witnessed first-hand the transition to - and calls for - greater independence and self-reliance by CSOs around the world and believe this momentum must be supported and accelerated. As the report recognises, achieving this in Africa will require progress to be made regarding the perceptions and processes of philanthropist organisations, as well as the continued development of CSO leadership, staff skillsets, technical infrastructure, and local governance.

At the same time, we recognise the demands philanthropic organisations face when it comes to accountability and reporting, the level of scrutiny on spending, as well as legally binding compliance requirements. Delivering on the recommendations will not be easy - especially as many smaller funding organisations do not have access to the kinds of resources made possible by our support from Vodafone Group.

Our hopes and goals for this project are that it supports and accelerates the hard work that is already happening to achieve greater equality in philanthropy - while also sharing actionable new approaches through mutual, ongoing learning, dialogue, and action.

Key Findings

Some respondents estimate that

Only 50% of bilateral aid makes it to Africa

Structurally, international development funding arrangements favour Western intermediary organisations at the expense of local African civil society organisations (CSOs) - particularly African non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Multiple barriers are holding African CSO’s back

These obstacles are especially limiting to the sector’s capacity building and activity scaling - severely hindering CSO’s effectiveness.



  • Pre-existing structures of funding impact donor choices, creating a complex mix of systems, requirements, language, and reporting mechanisms.
  • Donors find it more convenient to fund INGOs because they have the required skills, credibility, and resources to deal with donors’ architecture.
  • Capacity building, skills development and sustainability are often not prioritised, or given core funding.
  • Project funding is more common - which comes with tighter spending constraints.
  • INGOs weaken local CSOs by moving their headquarters to Africa and registering as local organisations.


  • Tight regulations and policies for civil society in most African countries - tensions between governments and civil society are rising.
  • Certain African governments use legal and regulatory strategies to control, monitor and suppress NGO operations, through:
    • Burdensome reporting requirements
    • High taxation on international funding
    • Permitting government officials excessive impromptu powers for searching and on-site visits without warning
    • Restricting NGOs from receiving funding from certain donors or countries
    • Limiting the scale of NGO’s international funding


  • There is a lack of capacity to effectively absorb resources provided.
  • Weaknesses in governance and renewal of leadership structures.
  • Weak infrastructure and internal processes exacerbate a lack of trust, accountability, and transparency - so more funds are spent on audits and other compliance processes.
  • A lack of highly skilled personnel, and retention of technically skilled staff for e.g., proposal writing.
  • Further resources constraints result from failure to access big grants.
  • Lack of technological investment in digital platforms hinders organisational agility.


Re-imagine relations, processes, and systems

To cre­ate a more lev­el play­ing field inter­na­tion­al donors must rig­or­ous­ly reimag­ine their grant-mak­ing, guide­lines, pro­ce­dures, organ­i­sa­tion­al norms, and man­age­ment systems.

Balance core and project funding

NGOs need suf­fi­cient fund­ing to devel­op long-term strate­gies and invest in non-pro­gramme crit­i­cal issues, such as improv­ing their finan­cial man­age­ment sys­tems and approach to secur­ing resources.

Accelerate digital transformation

Donors could pro­vide finan­cial and tech­ni­cal sup­port focused on devel­op­ing the dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies (i.e., hard­ware and soft­ware) avail­able to CSOs as part of vital capac­i­ty build­ing initiatives.

Build self-sustainability

In addi­tion to giv­ing larg­er grants and pro­vid­ing more core fund­ing, donors must make con­scious efforts to strength­en the skillsets and capac­i­ty local CSOs need to sus­tain them­selves man­age­ri­al­ly and financially.

Leverage domestic funding sources

Growth in African sources of fund­ing pro­vides new rev­enue streams, so more col­lab­o­ra­tion should be devel­oped between local CSOs and African foun­da­tions, indi­vid­ual givers, and high net-worth individuals.

Leadership development and succession planning

Local CSOs must invest in and take own­er­ship of improv­ing their own gov­er­nance and lead­er­ship, which donors could sup­port by cre­at­ing a lead­er­ship insti­tute in an African uni­ver­si­ty, for example.

Create an Enabling Regulatory Environment

African gov­ern­ments should proac­tive­ly sup­port CSOs and pro­mote poli­cies (e.g., tax incen­tives) that facil­i­tate rather than hin­der their oper­a­tions. CSOs must also trans­par­ent­ly self-reg­u­late their own activities.

Enable diverse voices

Donors, includ­ing INGOs, must make delib­er­ate, mea­sur­able efforts to share more pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ty with local CSOs that are in tune with com­mu­ni­ty-lev­el real­i­ties and nec­es­sary alliances.

Case studies

West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI): Building CSO Sustainability

The West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) was established by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and became operational in July 2007. Its mission is to strengthen the core and operational capacities of civil society in the West African sub-region, through programmes for increased, effective policy engagement as well as the promotion of development, good governance, and democratic values.

The organisation’s programmes focus on improving the performance of CSOs - with the aim of strengthening their legitimacy, transparency, and accountability. WACSI also advocates for donors to support greater CSO capacity through the provision of core funding.

The organisation has moved towards providing a more holistic training approach which incorporates coaching, mentoring and peer learning, as well as focusing on how to build sustainable CSO identities, operations, and finances. WACSI has also trained CSOs on how to better mobilise domestic resources, as part of efforts to strengthen local philanthropy in West Africa. Lastly, WACSI has also built the technological capacities of CSOs by working in partnership with TechSoup to provide them with subsidised computer software and hardware.

Despite these successes, multiple challenges remain.

WACSI leadership reports that it is still difficult to build CSO organisations that can sustain themselves beyond current project cycles. This is because many donors are not interested in investing in building broader operational capacities of local CSOs, in ways that aren’t directly related to the donor’s own projects.

Which is why so many capacity building initiatives are tied to specific projects, rather than deliberately trying to strengthen the CSOs core capacities as an end in itself.

A WACSI senior manager commented: “Despite its value - capacity building is considered as an add-on. Most donors do not see it as core to their projects.’’

Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism (LEAP) Africa: Leveraging Technology for Greater Impact

LEAP Africa has successfully built its reputation as one of Nigeria's best performing NGOs, working in more than 26 states throughout the country, as well as having a visible footprint in five other African nations.

The organisation credits much of this recent success to an ICT upgrade - specifically a migration of their internal systems to ORACLE NetSuite systems. This boosted effectiveness, scalability, and extended organisational capacity by enabling the automation of multiple back-office processes across HR, procurement, administration, accounting, and accelerated reporting. All of which helped the organisation become more resilient, especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Strong, dedicated staff have been a key strength of LEAP Africa, and in 2020, LEAP introduced increased staff benefits to ensure staff are properly remunerated and incentivised.

However, an unintended consequence of LEAP having such well-trained and high performing staff is that they are often poached by INGOs.

A senior manager at LEAP, commented: “We indigenised organisations, we don’t have the talent of the private sector, but we have to attract talent. It is also a challenge that some partners are purely focused on supporting their project, and not the broader sustainability of our organisation.”

The inflexibility of local partners and their limited ability to negotiate project scopes with local donors, are identified as additional barriers, as are the very strict reporting expectations from local partners (even for smaller grants compared to those available from international partners).

Lastly, the lack of a culture of trust within Nigeria's CSO ecosystem further constrains vital collaboration between local organisations and the private sector.


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