I’ve been asked to write about the challenges faced by philanthropy support organizations.

My overall thought is that while we know and understand the challenges, while we analyse and talk about them almost ad nauseum, we will continue into the future on our current trajectory and no amount of analysis, understanding or conversation will cause tectonic shifts or earth-shattering changes, at least not any time soon. Rather, the problems and the challenges we face now, we will still face then. New issues will arise but they will more likely be extensions of the present than a break with the past.

So the challenges…

Shifting Funding Terrain

The funding landscape has shifted and though I cringe when I hear others say that, I say it without it being a fait accompli. Sure the landscape has changed but it doesn’t end there.   This funding shift, combined with the ever-changing economic climate in a rapidly changing world, means that organizations have been experiencing growing financial and administrative pressures.  The question of long term sustainability is real and ever present.  Many have needed to seek alternative revenue sources to ensure sustainability.  I recently heard of an “energy exchange” where organizations who can’t afford to pay for services, will cost their facilitation or their premises in exchange for the services they need.  There are in fact several trends contributing to the funding instability experienced by these organizations.  A few to consider: decreasing resources, more restrictive funding requirements, reporting requirements that have become more stringent, more short-term and unpredictable funding, the additional requirement for partnerships or multiple funding partners and complex government regulatory and financial frameworks (in South Africa we’ve noticed a recent trend where government departments are fundraising from the same sources non-profits are – this can be seen as additional barrier).

Technological Tools and Trends

New technologies are constantly shaping the environment in which organizations operate. For many, social media are important tools for communication with the public, clients, individuals, donors, and government funders. There are examples of organizations using new technologies in innovative ways to raise public awareness, increase funding efforts, facilitate collaboration with partners and clients, and find efficiencies. But to capitalize on the full benefits of new technologies, organizations must continually adapt.  This kind of adaptation requires a highly skilled workforce and continuous employee education and training, which can be difficult in a sector that is characterized by limited financial and human resources.  One other consideration is that some organizations don’t always have the bandwidth for establishing a strong digital presence and will be missing out on a critical tool.   While the tools have changed, the fundamentals remain when it comes to building relationships and staying on trend.  Perhaps the more significant challenge is that organizations may get bogged down in the tool rather than the purpose.

Leadership Gaps and Governance

Organizations recognize that their staff are their greatest strength. At the same time, these organizations experience challenges when recruiting, retaining, and cultivating leaders. There are several possible reasons for this. Some are related to organizational and sector capacities, while others can be attributed to shifting generational perspectives and realities.  In a country like South Africa, where the dearth of leadership is palpable, the consequences have been far reaching and has affected every possible sector in the country.  There is also the domino effect in play – along with the dearth of leadership across different sectors, we have also seen an increase in issues related to governance.  For smaller organizations, one of the most significant leadership and governance challenges appears to be the small and shrinking pool of potential board members who understand their roles and their responsibility to the organizations they serve.

The Need for a Unified Voice

There are a number of challenges that impede an organization’s ability to establish a unified voice on policy and advocacy. Many lack the time, resources, or expertise to participate in policy and advocacy activities. In order to achieve meaningful impact, organizations will need to accommodate diverse and sometimes conflicting priorities, approaches, and contexts within the sector.  Furthermore, the current funding environment makes this kind of collaboration within the sector difficult. The specific challenges identified are a lack of time and resource, the lack of expertise, diverse and sometimes competing priorities, diverse approaches, diverse contexts and an environment of competition.

In Summary

These four overarching areas, which describe the current challenges being experienced by organizations supporting philanthropy, were drawn from experiences working in the sector.  The themes include concerns about financial instability, worries about maintaining and developing the required leadership capacities, challenges in meeting expectations to collaborate and concerns about a lack of a collective voice for the sector. While the extent and degree of concern about any of the themes vary, I believe that they’re all important factors with significant impact on the sector. Perhaps the most compelling challenge for the sector is the need to develop a collective voice with which the diverse players can begin to articulate a unified vision for growing and strengthening philanthropy.


This blog was first published on WINGS / ; written by Nazli Abrahams is Programme Director at Inyathelo