Why (And How) Philanthropy Must Shift Accountability Toward Communities

There is an imbalance of accountability in aid and philanthropy that tips heavily to benefit funders. How can we rebalance the equation? GlobalGiving’s Alison Carlman explores.


Today’s aid and philanthropy systems rely on exchanges of resources, trust, and information—often expected to come from outcome or impact reporting. In these systems, accountability flows primarily “up” (toward funders): the implementing organizations receive funds from donors and they are typically required to report back to them on output and outcome information to demonstrate impact or demonstrate fidelity to a contract. And future funding decisions are generally driven by a nonprofit organization’s ability to prove a return on a past investment.

Here’s the problem with the current system: this approach often results in metrics that rarely measure an organization’s success at achieving the vision and priorities of the affected community. Making matters worse, sometimes the actual processes of collecting output and outcome data can be extractive, it can reinforce distorted power dynamics, and place an additional burden on people we intend to serve.

Our goal at GlobalGiving is to disrupt the current, top-down philanthropy system. Our mission is to transform aid and philanthropy to accelerate community-led change. For us, this means shifting the primary direction of accountability toward the people most affected by projects and programs.

After nearly two decades working with community-led nonprofits around the world, we’ve seen the powerful results of investing in local leaders and local ideas. However, the percentage of existing aid and philanthropy funding that ultimately ends up in the hands of local organizations is so small; just 2% of humanitarian funding after disasters goes toward national or local actors, for example. So we’ve made it our goal to find ways to make it easier for individual donors and funders to identify, support, and strengthen community-led approaches.

We’ve begun by exploring these questions:

  • What does “community-led philanthropy” look like in practice, from the perspective of communities?
  • How can “community led-ness” be evidenced?
  • Do communities experience a connection between community-led organizations and long-term impact? What evidence do they give?
  • How do funders enhance or inhibit nonprofits’ ability to be community led?
  • How can GlobalGiving create and scale a system (a structure, tools, incentives) for accountable philanthropy that preserves and enhances organizations’ accountability to communities?

Because these are emerging, systems-change questions focused on community priorities, the only way we can explore answers is through practical collaboration with communities. We’ve started by engaging our own community of 3,000+ nonprofit leaders to understand what they think about community-led change. We’ve also partnered with peers such as Root Change through the Movement for Community-Led Development to build understanding and offer some operational definitions of “community” and “community led.” These definitions serve as hypotheses for our next phase of research:

    Definition of “community”

    There are many different definitions of “community.” In this case, we’re using the term “community” to refer to “those most affected by the work.” This would include people directly served and those you seek to influence in order to serve that group. (For example, if you work with children, “community” might include the children themselves and their caretakers.)

    Definition of “community led”

    We are also testing our definition for “community led,” which is to be accountable to the vision and priorities set by a community. Community-led approaches put the people most affected by the work in the lead, ensure diverse representation in planning and decision-making, mobilize the community’s own resources, and use feedback to improve.

Starting in 2020, we’ll test these definitions/hypotheses with a community-based action research project to ask community members in several countries what “community led” looks like to them, how community-led approaches can be evidenced, and whether or not it’s related to real-world impact, given their experiences. We’ll also be exploring the way funders and funding relationships have an influence on whether organizations can be community led.

To undertake this research, we partnered with the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF). GFCF brings extensive experience conducting and supporting research, action-learning, and writing that deepens the evidence base for community-led development and provides practical guidance for practitioners and funders. Our research will be conducted in six countries, by in-country researchers, and supported by a diverse peer learning group. It will be grounded in an equity-based approach that will position community members as authors and owners of the findings and recommendations.

Our aim is to follow community members’ recommendations, which we will collect through our research.

We want to listen and learn from communities where we work in order to: develop tools to identify organizations engaged in community-led approaches, understand the dynamics between funder and community accountability, and provide greater visibility for community-led organizations to prospective funders. This will help us shift the flow of resources and accountability toward the people most affected by the work.

We have a lot to learn as we continue this work, and we’ll approach it with the knowledge that our strategies and systems will be imperfect. But we’re committed to sharing what we learn and collaborating with others who are also seeking to better understand and support local changemakers.

Right now there’s an imbalance of accountability in aid and philanthropy that tips heavily to benefit funders. Only when we rebalance the equation—so those of us working in these systems share the same level of accountability toward the people we intend to help—will affected communities actually experience the lasting change they seek.

Interested in engaging in this work? Please get in touch with Alison Carlman
Featured Photo: Help Families in San Miguel by Casita Linda, A.C.


Looking for something specific?

Find exactly what you're looking for in our Learn Library by searching for specific words or phrases related to the content you need.

WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.