Taking risks on informal giving and collective citizen action and networks

heba_178By Heba Abou Shnief

One of the striking themes hammered out during the presentations and discussions at WINGSForum 2014 was the increasingly shrinking space for civil society, combined with austerity measures on the part of foundations, and how this has translated into a growing aversion to risk in the foundation sector.

This risk aversion finds strong resonance in emerging philanthropy infrastructures where the “stay-the-course” approach of foundations is not only due to the need to be target driven, but is also a result of being sensitive to the politics of the time, which is considered a necessary survival skill. Yet, at the same time, the growing movement towards community-inspired solutions and citizen-led activism shows us that change can begin with the smallest ideas, regardless of how structured or informal they are.

Looking back at the Arab transitions, there are lessons to be learned by institutionalised grantmaking, where social movements and innovative solutions to crises and pressing social problems did not happen in the institutionalised sector, but rather did so in the informal space. Small ideas like TahrirSupplies, an online led initiative aimed at mobilising supplies (food, water, medicine) to protesters camped in Tahrir Square during the 18-day protest to remove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, underscored the power of networks and citizen-led philanthropy.

In Southeast Asia, Zakat and other forms of religious motivation are witnessing a constant renewal in the struggle towards more strategic philanthropic giving. This was only possible because the institutionalised sector perceived an opportunity in tapping traditional and uninstitutionalised forms of giving.

In Africa, where African diaspora remittances is higher than any other form of donor-driven giving and informal giving is predominant, more actors are supporting community initiatives and tapping the potential of citizen-led networks.

In complex and emerging philanthropy infrastructures, this partnership between the informal and formal sector can offer a viable means through which foundations can become more engaged and responsive to opportunities, thus offering new approaches to transformative thinking, flexibility, and initiative testing.

Heba Abou Shnief is Research Advisor for the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, and a specialist in development policy research on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

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