Raising Funds for Advocacy in Malawi

May 06, 2024

Trust is one of the most important words in fundraising. But while many institutional donors give it freely to organisations in the ‘Global North’, those operating in Africa are often met with unjust suspicion and bias that means they have to work much, much harder to prove themselves. For a local, independent entity, this can make setting up a new institutional fundraising programme feel like an overwhelming, if not impossible, task.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

“Be realistic. Do want you can. Be credible. Be visible. Share your work. Share the successes. Share the challenges.”

Wise words from Bessie Ndovi, who is the East and Southern Africa Senior Regional Advisor for the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Network. Bessie spent eight years raising funds to build and sustain an independent nonprofit in her home country of Malawi. Growing her team from three to 10 people, it would be an impressive feat for anyone. Bessie did it for an organisation that works in advocacy – one of the hardest things to fundraise for.

There is so much learning in Bessie’s podcast episode, that it’s hard to capture it all here. Instead, I want to focus on the three markers of her team’s journey that, for me, really stood out.

They created an opportunity and boldly jumped towards it

Bessie knew that their historic link to Concern Worldwide had been vital for sustaining their advocacy work in the past, but that donors’ perceptions of a large, wealthy NGO would limit their future fundraising opportunities. Making the decision to transition away and become an independent organisation was massive. Not only would they need their own office systems (from printers to paperclips!), they needed their own strategy, identity, and their own accounts. They set about laying the foundations they needed, piece by piece.

They knew their value

When you’re seeking institutional funding, it’s hard not to design your work around the priorities of donors. Sometimes that’s the only real-world option when you’re starting out. Bessie and the team deeply understood the value they could offer as a partner, and used this to create a short term plan of action: from past experience they knew that their objectives were closely aligned with the work of larger NGOs, and they positioned themselves as a strategic partner that could fill critical operational gaps. Armed with a clear and focused strategy that fitted both national and international priorities, they had a strong angle that made it much easier for donors to say “yes”.

They put themselves out thereand followed through

It wasn’t just this operational strategy that was important. I love that Bessie and her team weren’t afraid to use their networks. They made sure they were part of the right conversations and consultations. Slowly but surely the doors started to open. With every new opportunity they took the chance to show people that they were an organisation that could be counted on to deliver – demonstrating their knowledge, measuring their impact and being accountable throughout. Each success story built their trust in one partnership and created a platform for the next, and as their reputation grew, so did the opportunities available to them.

All of this groundwork has clearly paid off. And I enjoyed how Bessie looks back and measures progress by the number and quality of the printers in the office! They started with none. Advanced to a basic old printer on loan. Now they have three advanced machines – and the proof, as they say, is in the final print-out.

But as amazed as I am at all that Bessie and her team have built, as the conversation progressed, I couldn’t help but reflect on the role of institutional funding as a whole, and how stifling it can be.

I mean, let’s face it. Institutional funding is the major force, particularly in East and Southern Africa. Not only does it dominate cultures, strategies, resource allocation, programmes and partnerships – it forces equally brilliant nonprofit peers to compete rather than collaborate, and leaves little space for teams to explore alternative income models and fundraising partnerships (think local companies, foundations and high net worth individuals).

Bessie and her team have done an awesome job of navigating these structures and evolved into an organisation that stays true to their own vision, mission and values. With a growing portfolio of projects, her team is now working to share this learning, and equip other civil society organisations to follow her example.

Maybe it’s naive to hope that one day in the future institutional funders will be more trusting of African partners. Maybe they will build partnerships in mutual trust, and more deeply value the decades of expertise and community credibility and connections that African partners offer.

Until that day comes, we’ll continue to equip and encourage civil society organisations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America to explore funding from alternative, less stifling sources.


I’m Craig, founder of the Fundraising Radicals, host of a podcast that imaginatively goes by the same name, and convenor of the award-winning Global Radicals: Fundraising Leadership Programme. Our aim is to explore alternative approaches to resourcing causes that are authentically grounded in expertise and experiences in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. We’re also a platform for global voices and perspectives, sharing truly global perspectives and curating ideas and inspiration for fundraisers everywhere.

Find out more about us: https://fundraisingradicals.com

Follow me on LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/craigpollardfundraisingradicals

Photograph of Food Lover's Supermarket in Lilongwe courtesy of ordersabroad.com. 


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