‘Radical Flexibility: Strategic Funding for the Age of Local Activism’

‘Radical Flexibility: Strategic Funding for the Age of Local Activism’

by Riva Kantowitz, in collaboration with Peace Direct:


Author’s Note

This endeavor evolved from my two decades of practical experience working with grassroots NGOs in fragile, violence, and conflict-affected countries. I also spent five-and-a-half years under both Obama Administrations managing a significant portfolio of donor funds in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US Department of State (DoS) to support civil society organizations working in violence-affected countries. I watched these organizations try to piece together funding – or worse, have to fire staff and shut down programs – because the international community had decided that Sri Lanka and not Kosovo was the priority, or that funding police training was more important than the psychosocial effects of violence. Many people – my team at the DoS included – constantly scramble to address these funding gaps, but the system is wearing and prohibitive no matter where you sit.

These experiences left me determined to figure out how to better support local actors working in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous situations. Therefore, I left the DoS intent on helping dedicated organizations across the Global South focus on their actual core work of leading social change. The reality such organizations are faced with – should they choose to participate in the international funding industry – is that they must spend the majority of their time appealing to donors and puzzling together grants for siloed projects in order to fund programs they (though perhaps not donors) see as priorities. In my hopes of addressing these obstacles, I spent a productive year as a visiting scholar at the Center on International Cooperation at NYU, focusing on developing and utilizing the tools of innovative finance to sustain peace.

I am a social psychologist by training, though my search for new revenue streams and strategies led me, tentatively, into the world of finance. As I got further into this work, I realized the challenges are not only about money and the tools that generate new money. While more resources for local actors are needed in an absolute sense, money is really a proxy for our values and priorities and one piece – a big piece – that drives the current power dynamic between the international community and local organizations.

This report has clearly laid the basis for a new paradigm and this requires action. I suggest the platform for that action would take the form of a new innovative fund, which requires new partners working to implement the modalities suggested here, and new donors. 

I welcome the opportunity to discuss any of the ideas in this paper further and can be reached at: [email protected].”

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