Guest blog: Localisation in International Funding – How to be a more effective and relevant international grant-maker

July 2021

Eva Rehse
Executive Director, Global Greengrants Fund UK and Co-Convenor of ACF’s International Funders’ Network

Anni Broadhead
Chief Executive, Support Network Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Co-Convenor of ACF’s International Funders’ Network

As the co-convenors of the ACF’s International Funders’ Network, we asked members in late 2020 what topics they would like to discuss this year. One issue rose to the top of the agenda: localisation. 

Shorthand for “locally-led development”, the localisation movement has over the last few years broken out of the confines of humanitarian aid and development, and become a key concept for international grant-making regardless of sector or mission. What does localisation mean today, in theory and practice, for both NGOs and philanthropy? This is the question we asked four expert speakers who joined us for our most recent meeting. 

Localisation is based in the belief that communities at the frontlines should have the power to determine their own futures. Local actors do not operate on short-term project interventions; instead, their work is based in principles of resilience and sustainability, locally relevant, and accountable to the communities in which they are embedded. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the crucial role of local actors as frontline responders. While many international NGOs were forced to evacuate their staff and unable to reach local communities, community-based actors were the first to provide help. Yet to date they have only been allocated 0.1% of official COVID response funding[1].  Another clarion call has been the Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to a deeper discourse on decolonisation and racial justice in international development. 

Against this background, although some progress has been made in recent years, a more fundamental and transformational change needs to occur in the way aid is structured and delivered, argued Yolaina Vargas Pritchard, Bond’s Sector Change and Funding Adviser. Led by Bond, the international development network, international NGOs have been on a journey of critical self-reflection, to understand why and how to shift power and resources to communities, to move them from “beneficiaries” to “co-creators”, and from “doing to” to “doing with” local partners. Bond explored the key barriers to change in the UK international development sector during its annual conference in May. 

Similar conversations are happening in the funder space. The #ShiftThePower movement philanthropy has been a great rallying cry for philanthropy, identifying many barriers to funding local actors more directly and responsively. Amongst them are lack of capacity especially for smaller trusts and foundations to identify local partners and ensure good oversight and the right due diligence, and also concerns about the capacity of grassroots partners to be accountable and provide the requested documentation. 

More needs to happen to highlight the range of solutions that exist for funders to begin to answer the challenges they have identified. Peace Direct’s Dylan Mathews shared some of the organisation’s resources[2], and highlighted a number of steps international funders can take: 
- Adapt funding approaches to support local organisations, including moving away from projectised funding towards core and flexible support
- Learn about contexts and invest time in identifying local partners, either by looking for existing mapping of local capacity, or by bringing on board trusted local advisors and networks to help
- Invest in processes, not products, for example by funding consultations that allow local actors to gather stakeholders to define their own problems and solutions
- Finally, cultivate true partnerships, which give you honest feedback, define the value of the partnership between funder and grantee beyond money, and set clear expectations from the outset.

While we have seen encouraging progress in trust-based and responsive philanthropy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at domestic level, this has not been the case in international giving. Especially smaller international charities in the UK are struggling for funding to support their local partners effectively while demand is growing, explained Claire Collins from the Small International Development Charities Network, a coalition of thousands of small international development charities across the UK. The kind of intermediaries like the members of this network, as well as diaspora charities and existing grassroots and participatory funds which are rooted in the communities they support, can be important partners for trusts and foundations. Working together as equal partners on tackling the barriers would be mutually beneficial, instead of staying in narrow frames of “funders” and “beneficiaries”. 

Why this is important was beautifully highlighted by Sophia Acheampong from Girls Flow Free, a young international charity working to deliver menstrual and sexual reproductive health education and menstrual products to girls in Ghana. Outlining the impressive outcomes of community work in the country with a £1,000 grant, Sophia pointed to the effectiveness and sustainability of local leadership, and work that builds on existing local assets: “When we leave, we don’t take the change with us.” 

As the lively debate in the meeting showed, there are many philosophical and practical barriers to funders localising their approaches. It is clear that as trusts and foundations funding internationally we have a crucial role to play in advancing the localisation agenda, tackling the very real challenges faced by communities, and addressing the inefficiencies and inequalities of the current aid system. 

As INGOs, trusts and foundations, small and diaspora charities, and local community-based organisations, we are all on this journey together. Only if we keep listening to each other and jointly develop solutions that are adaptable to each of our specific contexts can we truly shift power and resources to those who are at the frontline of providing education, health care, environmental protection, rights awareness and food security, while also tackling the systemic challenges of poverty and inequality. Regardless of whether your trust or foundation funds internationally or not, localisation is a key concept in our journeys towards being responsive, trust-based and effective funders. We look forward to continuing to engage with the Association of Charitable Foundations’ membership in this conversation. 

Eva Rehse
Executive Director, Global Greengrants Fund UK and Co-Convenor of ACF’s International Funders’ Network

Anni Broadhead
Chief Executive, Support Network Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Co-Convenor of ACF’s International Funders’ Network


[2] Supporting local organisations: challenges and opportunities for U.S. funding,; Radical Flexibility: Strategic Funding for the Age of Local Activism