The Lure of Funding Neuters LGBTI Activists

We’ve all seen it. Activists seeking to serve the LGBTI community chase after the government, corporate or charity dollar, but once they become enmeshed in the system, they end up serving those who fund them more than the communities they started out trying to serve, Sunil Pant was the founder of Blue Diamond Society, the first LGBTI organization in Nepal, and the first gay Parliamentarian in Asia. Thanks to his efforts, Nepal was the first country in Asia to grant LGBTI rights in the constitution. He offers others the benefit of his experience. His advice: stay grassroots. stay raw. Don’t chase professionalism and efficiency.

How a Human Rights Movement gets Disempowered

Activists from the ‘global south’ hear, far too often, from our donors that we should ‘Learn how to become professional, make your NGO management efficient’.

Let’s decode what “becoming professional” means and what “efficient management means”:

1) Professional means a person engaged or qualified in a profession. ‘Profession’ is the key word here, and donors would like to make sure that you become a ‘professional’ activist, and want to see you taking it (human rights work) as a profession.

2) Efficient management means performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort. For conventional NGOs this means achieving targets, writing professional reports and submitting it in a timely manner. To really understand the “danger” of becoming efficient, you must compare it with effectiveness. Being effective is about doing the right things, while being efficient is about doing things right (no matter how far you have moved away from human rights ‘activism’ to be part of an efficient management team).

As soon as a well-meaning group of activists start the process of becoming a NGO, the problem begins. No matter what is said at the outset about the ‘NGOs being free to act the way they have envisioned’, the truth is that the NGOs are deeply indebted by donors, well-funded NGOs are even worse. This is start of a ‘professional’ submission to a system that repeatedly dis-empowers and controls the movement, denies the freedom of a human rights movement to do what it is supposed to do, all slogans of ‘grassroots-led and empowerment’ not-upheld.

Look at the process: once a human rights movement in countries in the “global south” decides to become a Non-governmental organization (NGO), because that’s the only way donors (especially big multilateral or bilateral ones) will fund you the most basic financial resources a movement may need, the poor NGOs have to sign a memorandum of agreement. The NGO’s leaders and management team then have to be inducted into the “good governance” model that is dictated by that donor, through a series of training programs, meetings and even workshops (to develop your operating procedures, organizational policies and even strategies that matches the donor’s expectations) that tell us how we are expected to be professional if we wish to thrive or continue getting funding. Then an NGO has to adopt a human resource policy, finance policy, operating procedures as well as guidelines on how to use computers/internet and how to engage with the press. The activists, who have no choice but to survive on the small salary that the NGO pays have to submit to the processes of the organization as staff.

This will affect everything from when the activist-turned-professional-staff are supposed to arrive or leave and how they are supposed to conduct themselves at work. Although not explicitly stated, but in practice, the movement-turned-NGO often has to share its press releases or statement to the donors for their ‘endorsement’ before it actually can be released. There are guidelines developed by the movement-turned-NGO, with the technical support from the donor, on how the NGO is supposed to conduct meetings, conduct interviews, hire people, determine the staff’s etiquette/ professionalism, appraise the staff, recognize them and even fire them. The staff really don’t have a voice and have to submit to the processes deemed appropriate by the NGO’s management. Even leave is granted as a favor and is accompanied by the fear that it may be declared invalid if the donor’s approval is not secured (sometimes, post approval is allowed if you are charming enough!). And all these procedures are checked by our mighty donors, whether they are followed or not, and reinforced, in a timely manner. In the process of becoming professional and efficient, NGOs, slowly forget to engage with the real people’s problems and emotions. The grassroots people (or fashionably called, ‘target population’) find an ever widening class-gap between them and the NGO management.

This dis-empowerment is least in startups and increases as the NGO grows larger and works with multiple donors. The NGO-management is also obsessed with efficiency rather than efficacy; the donors prefer orderly and measurable reporting rather than actual effectiveness of the activism/work. Thus the donors send templates and forms to make the NGO efficient. The NGOs are told this is for the larger good of the NGO and the target-population.

In fact, it is impossible for grassroots organizations to comply with the donor’s requirement of professional reporting, scientific data compilation and efficient management. Donors will try everything to make you ‘professional’, they focus on an efficient system. They don’t care that, in the process of becoming professional and efficient, you become ineffective. You end up spending more time on paper work, documentation and reporting and your actual work, which is about promoting human rights which becomes secondary and slowly falls down below in your list of priorities. In both cases, to become professional and efficient’, you are encouraged, over time, to get rid of the ’emotional’ side of your personality, which not only makes you less of an activist but also make you less human.

Data must be validated by the donors. The injustices, abuses and deprivation taking place may be a well-known fact to the local communities and activists but without research carried out using a methodology acceptable to the donor, the local knowledge retains no value and is considered “anecdotal”. You end up spending so much time and energy just to validate your ‘anecdotal’ knowledge to the donors or western scholars that the crucial advocacy interventions have to wait until the validation is completed with ‘findings, discoveries and recommended actions’. Don’t get surprised that if one of recommendation is: ‘a follow up research or study’. Such study patterns suggest clearly that the “target group are research objects and subjects; and the activists are merely the key contacts”.

And so genuine activists get frustrated and seek escape. They seek ways to block out the dis-empowerment process they have had to tolerate for so long. They refuse to participate while the senior manager is doing ‘staff performance appraisal’ and being indifferent to the various organizational rituals like review meetings or organizational initiatives such as meeting the press or attending quarterly review meetings with the donors. The movement-turned-NGO also seeks escape by simply not sending reports to the donor within the stipulated time and saying “the computer crashed or there was no wi-fi or no power”, even if that means the donor giving you a “red’ mark as your organizational performance indicator and threatening possible discontinuation of funding.

Another important aspect of dis-empowerment is International conferencing. This is a double edged sword. On the one hand you learn so much and can network internationally, especially if you are new to the experience. On the other hand you may not even realize that you become addicted to the international conferencing scene. It all becomes repetitive. You see the same people over and over again, you learn nothing new, and you become part of conferencing-club where you get free flights and accommodation in a posh hotel, just see your conference-buddies. Conferencing addiction dis-empowers you so badly that you become a ‘conference-hacker’ from an innocent activist. You can’t really say anything against the donors who have funded your trip and the donors know this very well. Be careful when a donor sponsors your conference-trip.

A good leader is sensitive to the dis-empowering ecosystem created by a large, process-driven, rule-following NGO/Donor. A leader provides the emotion that donor-pleasing NGOs are incapable of having. S/He has the power to bring joy to the team, discuss their issues, vent their frustrations and encourage their ‘out of the box type’ ideas or styles or conducts. More importantly, a leader protects the interest of the activists and the entire movement – not because that is the ‘expected professional leadership process’ but simply because s/he is an empowered human being and knows why(for what purpose) s/he is a leader. S/He can creatively create the space and freedom for all activists without compromising the funding security. But s/he also should be ready to say no to such funding if the movement’s agenda gets compromised or hijacked by the donor. A good leader merely gives instructions, rather enables the Human Rights movement to be free from the ‘professionalism and efficiency-driven’ activist-taming culture. A good leader also knows when s/he should leave to lead, not because s/he does not have the skills or capacity anymore, rather, s/he has empowered the followers successfully to replace him/her.

Tips: Funding is not the only important consideration for an NGO. It is an important component but certainly not the most important and, in reality, not always needed for everything you do. Keep this in mind when looking for funding. It is a well-known fact that the big multilateral and bilateral donors have more funding to disburse (after their own handsome portion for administrative charge!) but there are small donors, private foundations and grants that are often better suited for Human Rights Organizations. Look for funding only when it becomes vital to carry out some of the advocacy work but don’t make funding a goal of your organization. Some organizations are professional grant writers and know how to influence donors. They are often successful in getting funding but the irony is that the donors love such organizations only because they are “professional” in writing proposals and reports.

Lastly, as a human rights movement: Remain a grassroots, loosely organized movement as long as you can and don’t become a ‘professional’ NGO. As an activist: Don’t become ‘professional and efficient’, that’s like becoming a corporate. Stay a raw, innocent and effective activist and you will deliver much better. Otherwise shift to the corporate world.

Sunil Babu Pant

About the author

Pant was born in a Brahmin family in Gorkha District of Nepal. He has a Master's degree in Computer Science from Minsk. He later dropped out of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 6 months in to his further studies, to volunteer in Orissa with the victims of the 1999 Odisha cyclone. In 2001, he formed the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal's first LGBT organisation, which currently has 120,000 members