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Community Contribution

Approaching civil society sustainability through a lens of relevance and resilience

May 14, 2021
Zach Center

Zach Center is a technical advisor at Pact, with a focus on civil society strengthening and capacity development. He spent the last five years helping to lead Pact’s programs in Cambodia, including a civic engagement project and an ongoing women’s empowerment project. Zach has a master’s in international development and international economics from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"Civil society sustainability in my country is a myth," a colleague recently told me. He pointed out that in highly restrictive environments, it is often not realistic to think that civil society actors will be self-sustaining, and in many cases, it may not even be desirable for some civic actors or activities to be. His insights aligned with many conversations I have had over the past five years in Cambodia working with Pact on civil society strengthening programs.  In this blog, I propose three key elements of sustainability that civil society organizations should consider.

The topic of the sustainability of civil society organizations is often met with sighs and head scratches. Organizations are often understood to be sustainable when they have internal structures that can be adapted to meet the demands and challenges of the external environment, while continuing to deliver on their missions. While many development practitioners understand that civil society sustainability is a complex, multi-faceted, and systems-related concept – and work to put sophisticated frameworks into place – the reality is that what gets operationalized through engagement with civil society actors is a much flatter notion of sustainability. This notion is focused predominately on the short to medium-term survival of organizations based on their financial viability and their operational capacity.

The flattening of sustainability is problematic for two important reasons. The first is that in many instances, especially for civil society actors in restrictive spaces, the laws, regulations and pressure from power-holders make it very difficult for civil society organizations to be financially viable by their own devices (see this report by the CSIS Human Rights Initiative). Focusing on sustained financial viability results in chronic frustration and even demoralization for many civic actors.

Second, the focus on financial and operational viability can have the unintended, perverse consequence of causing civic actors to align with donor preferences at the expense of remaining relevant to the needs of the citizens they serve or represent. This dynamic of 'chasing the money' results in civil societies that are not in touch with or sufficiently accountable to their citizen constituencies.


Photo: A forum in Cambodia for citizens to speak about issues in their community.


Relevance and resilience, not just survival


Most established frameworks that explore civil society sustainability, including USAID’s Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index, look across two sets of domains: internal and controllable factors, such as organizations’ institutional systems and processes, technical programmatic capacities, and fundraising capacity; and external factors such as macro-level operating space, the legal environment and availability of funding. Supporting CSOs to become sustainable through such a framework requires long-term commitment and significant efforts over the course of many years on the parts of the organizations and those that support them.

However, CSO activity in much of the world is planned around short-term interventions that must align with program cycles and donor priorities. As a result, civic efforts are often inordinately focused on the short-term interventions that enable them to sustain themselves, and not necessarily the capacities needed to feed a strong and effective civil society over the medium to long term.

This causes CSOs to fail to uphold their mandates, instead 'following the money' so they can survive to see another day. I’ve watched how both local CSOs and international NGOs define their missions very broadly or shift organizational missions frequently so they can pursue funding opportunities. While managing sub-grant program components, I have received numerous applications for grant opportunities where local NGOs claim they can help to address all development needs of their local communities but are not able to clearly articulate what those needs are. When civic actors prioritize donor demands and financial viability, they too often let down the citizen constituencies that they exist to serve. 

Civil society sustainability should therefore focus on three interrelated elements:

  1. Aligning with constituent demands and interests to achieve mission and enact change. The focus should be on sustaining relevance above all else. This is a mindset shift away from thinking of sustainability as survival to sustainability as continued relevance. As civil society makes relevance their guiding star, the money will increasingly have to align with civil society, instead of the other way around. Organizations will also put increased time, energy and political will into meeting their constituents’ needs. Relevance is the very thing worth sustaining, and so it is where any discussion of civil society sustainability must start.
  2. Bolstering civic actors' ability to adapt to complex and ever-changing contexts. In a word, resilience. The concept of resilience is useful in highlighting the importance of civic actors’ skills and assets to adapt appropriately to complex conditions and unforeseen challenges. This is also a mindset shift. Resilient adaptation often requires civic actors to change course, form and even constitution. Being able to analyze the situation and react is what will enable civil society to continue serving their missions and constituents as their first priority.
  3. Developing financial and operational viability in service of the priorities above. In almost all cases, robust civic action requires dedicated financial and administrative resources. The better civic actors can articulate precisely how those resources will serve worthwhile missions, the more likely they are to unlock resourcing opportunities that may otherwise be inaccessible to them.

Photo: An NGO team in Cambodia working on a programmatic exercise.


A new approach


A flat conception of civil society sustainability that values organizational survival above all else is at best inadequate, and often counterproductive for strengthening a healthy and effective civil society. We must place the relevance and resilience of civic actors (formal and informal) first, with considerations of financing, operations and institutional structures as being fully in service of sustaining civic missions. The result of this shift in priorities will be a stronger and truer civil society that is better fit to serve and represent citizens’ interests over time. My colleague is right: it is time to rethink our approach.