Firelight Finds Lack in Modern Philanthropy; We Can Do Better

A recent report from the Firelight Foundation urges modern philanthropy to transition to “community-driven systems change”.

Firelight Foundation urges the switch to "community-driven systems change", providing guidance to donors. (Image credit: Firelight Foundation)
Firelight Foundation urges the switch to “community-driven systems change” in its new report providing guidance to donors. (Image credit: Firelight Foundation)

International development funders and Global-North foundations and philanthropists have faced intense criticism as they struggled to deal with the challenges of the past year – from COVID 19, to racial justice, to the potential that the world may not realize the SDGs. Critics have accused global north donors of hindering community-led progress and perpetuating white supremacist, neo-colonial approaches to development.

A new report from the Firelight Foundation offers a reckoning for donors and an alternative approach to funding – by supporting community-driven systems change. The report challenges donors to re-think community-led action as an often overlooked but – in reality – a powerful, scalable and critical solution to what the world is facing.

The report, Community-Driven Systems Change: The Power of Grassroots-Led Change for Long Term Impact and How Funders Can Nurture It, provides foundations, philanthropists and other donors with practical actions they can take and questions they can ask themselves to move away from Global-North directed programming towards a model that centers the leadership and expertise of communities and community-based organizations in social change.

“The future of international development philanthropy must be rooted in the knowledge and experience of the people who are best positioned to bring about meaningful change — community members themselves,” said Dr. Sadaf Shallwani, Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Firelight Foundation. “In this report, we have laid the groundwork to help philanthropic institutions understand where existing practices are falling short and how they can rise to this historic moment and refocus on funding lasting, systemic change led by community-based organizations.” 

Firelight’s report was created over a three-year period across nine countries, beginning in 2017. The Firelight Foundation undertook a process of inquiry, learning, co-creation, and validation with community-based organizations (CBOs) that produced these recommendations for philanthropic reform. 

The report provides a robust outline for how funders can center CBOs in their philanthropic work by moving through the “what, why, and how” of community-driven systems change. The report highlights the gap between how the global development sector and CBOs from eastern and southern Africa conceptualize success, effectiveness, and sustainability, while providing tools for donors to bring their work more into alignment with CBOs on the ground in communities. 

“The fragility and weaknesses of donor-imposed strategies and priorities were brought into clear light by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Adela Materu of community-based organization KIWAKKUKI, based in Tanzania. “As international staff flew home in the early months of the outbreak, it was local African community leaders who stepped up and continued to provide services to their communities. This moment of crisis is reflective of what CBOs have been saying for years; that local leadership, strategy development, and program design is the most realistic and best to build lasting change.”

“CBOs are not just “barefoot soldiers” [for funders and INGOs],” said Wairimu Mungai of WEMIHS Kenya. “Their mandate at the community level is much more complex, more challenging. Just delivering programs and collecting data is easier – this can be done in a short period of time, and the results will also be short-lived. Real, sustained change can’t be achieved on a timeline or with a work plan that was created thousands of miles away. Real change will always come from those directly impacted by the issues.”

“When a CBO is (treated as) just an implementer, their power is not harnessed,” said Moses Zulu of the Luapula Foundation in Zambia. “Even funders need to learn. CBOs come with a very rich contextual understanding, from which funders can learn. When donors assume they know best, they are perpetuating a myth of white saviorism that in fact only hinders development and change.”

The report, along with a short summary of the key recommendations, is available on the Firelight Foundation website at  


The Firelight Foundation is a multi-donor public charity fund. Since 2010 Firelight has raised USD $38 million working with foundations, individuals, and other philanthropic institutions to support community-based organizations and community action for children, youth and families in southern and eastern Africa. Since its founding in 1999 Firelight has made over 2,000 multi-year grants supporting 490 community-based organizations across 12 African countries. Learn more about Firelight and their grantee partners here: 


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Author: Gender Equality Funding News

Philanthropy Women aggregates the most important gender equality funding news.

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