The future of civil society today

By Dr Bheki Moyo, Adjunct Professor and Director, Centre for African Philanthropy

Originally published in the 2018 Inyathelo Annual Report

The future of civil society today

Today, it is common knowledge that a large segment of civil society is facing what we could refer to as a drought in funding. The funding landscape has changed drastically, forcing a number of changes in civil society designs, ways of working and even identity. Many groups are adopting social enterprise models in order to address the challenges of dwindling resources. At the same time, a few large and in most cases international organisations now based in the south are flooded with a lot of financial donor funding.

The behaviour of donors has led to a very interesting phenomenon where most local civil society organisations are too small for big grants and too big for small grants. Either way these groups are faced with potential death. They can either be flooded if big grants were suddenly to be given to them or starved completely by the dry spell. This is the view that one gets when looking at civil society today in Africa and the prevailing funding environment. This, coupled with environmental changes that we are witnessing today, and the political and economic uncertainties, paint a bleak picture for the future of civil society.

These massive changes in the world demand that leaders of civil society institutions change the way they do things. The world is Fast, Urbanizing, Tribal, Universal, Radical and demands Ethical leadership (FUTURE). Patrick Dixon captures this in a fascinating book called The Future of Almost Everything. Any leader today cannot avoid harnessing the power and potential presented by the Fourth Industrial Age. The fl uidity of roles, organisations and information signify a drastic shift from the traditional to the new normal future of work. The entry of artificial intelligence, algorithms and robots has massively changed the world as we know it and in so doing has also changed the nature of our organisations and the pace and speed at which we ought to do things. We have no choice but to think futuristic; rather be futurists than fatalists.

Five years ago, I took over leadership of a regional organisation and embarked on a restructuring exercise in response to the funding environment. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. I got the news that our main donor who had set us up would be leaving South Africa and that we would be getting our last grant, for 18 months only. We had a very short runway to take off. It was very clear to me at that point that we were being asked to either close our operations or pivot into new and perhaps even unconventional ways of doing business. We chose to pivot and manage the change that was about to engulf us. This is what we did:

1. Quickly questioned our funding model and adopted a hybrid between commercial and nonprofi t approaches. We quickly went into the property market in order to invest in real estate for income generation. We had never considered this and our donors would never have bought us a building anyway.

2. Rebranded ourselves from a humble and conservative organisation to a more confi dent and visible modern organisation that utilises fi rst world technologies to manage its affairs. We fully automated our operations and began working in virtual ways, including having fl exible working hours.

3. Aggressively broadened our donor base by conducting donor intelligence reports as well as developing an infrastructure for fund management.

4. We became lean, agile and nimble. We did not solve everything, but we were certainly vigilant. We took the opportunities presented by the best of times and mitigated risks during the worst of times. This is the future of organised civil society today.