Multi-donor Support to Civil Society and Engaging with ‘Non-traditional’ Civil Society

F Tembo, A Wells


Do multi-donor support mechanisms scale up and enhance the effectiveness of civil society engagement with the state? This paper from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) analyses multi-donor support models and partnerships with ‘non-traditional’ civil society. The decision to move from bilateral to multi-donor support of civil society organisations (CSOs) involves a trade-off between direct donor management of project administration and politics, and leaving civil society advocacy to run its own course.

This study is a response to the current lack of systematic analysis of different approaches to supporting civil society, including which models work best in different contexts. It includes a review of 25 Department for International Development (DFID) programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Most multi-donor civil society support programmes are now managed by intermediaries: international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), CSOs, local foundations and community funds. Non-traditional CSOs include, among others, social movements, political factions, faith-based groups and private sector and local government associations. Strategies to reach out to non-traditional CSOs include experimental funding to identify stronger organisations, selecting intermediaries who have worked with non-traditional groups, brokering different funding mechanisms, and differentiated grant-making to CSOs with limited management capacity.

There are a number of management and programme issues related to both CSO-driven programmes and use of non-traditional CSOs:

  • Intermediaries may not have the same capacity as donors to mediate civil society-state relations and absorb the inherent political risks.
  • The use of foundations needs to be carefully managed in fragile states, where legal frameworks are often applied differently to donors, INGOs and local CSOs.
  • Individual donors may continue to exert influence over programme priorities and management, skewing accountability away from the CSOs.
  • Transition to a multi-donor system demands substantial short- to medium-term investment of donor resources to resolve organisational and administrative issues.
  • While non-traditional CSOs can be effective, donor funding/reporting arrangements may impose formal structures on weakly institutionalised CSOs, undermining their informal organisational dynamic.

A number of additional issues warrant further study, in particular in fragile states contexts:

  • Intermediaries: the intermediary-CSO relationship, including the issue of intermediaries acting as advocates; development of community funds as a step beyond donor or INGO management; the role INGOs play once fund management has transitioned to local intermediaries; engagement with private foundations who have worked with mass-based organisations; and small grants mechanisms as an instrument for coalition building.
  • Intervention design: quantitative comparison of transaction costs of multi-donor and bilateral approaches; the potential for cost reductions by working with smaller groups of donors; measurement of impact on accountability; and sector-based approaches to civil society support.
  • Non-traditional civil society partners: the role of civic engagement in reforming formal accountability mechanisms and the possibilities of civic engagement through informal channels and alliances.


Tembo, F. et al., 2007, 'Multi-donor Support to Civil Society and Engaging with 'Non-traditional' Civil Society: A Light-Touch Review of DFID's Portfolio', Overseas Development Institute, London