How Should Funders Support Digital Response In Our Current Moment?

Lina Srivastava
6 min readJun 16, 2020

When I first received an invitation a few weeks ago to speak at the Technology Salon event “How Can Funders Support COVID-19 Digital Response?”, the conversation in global development was dominated (understandably) by the effects on the sector of COVID-19. Discussions between February-May 2020 centered on new and sudden challenges faced by NGOs and communities brought on by the pandemic — and explored the need, benefits, and long-term drawbacks of emergency, targeted, short-term responses from funders and sector leaders.

Over the past few weeks, the global conversation about the effects of COVID-19 has been joined by the global uprising for Black Lives. The Salon — the last in a series inviting dialogue on ethical deployment of data and technology to allay pandemic-related damage to the sector and to those served — fell on a day when protests were rising in cities around the world. The event posed an opportunity to speak more comprehensively about intersectional challenges brought on by these two issues. In our pre-Salon prep call just before the event, Linda Raftree, Salon co-founder and one of my frequent collaborators, invited speakers to round out our comments with what was “happening right now outside our windows” — and specifically to address decolonization in the aid and development sector.

Responses to the pandemic cannot be separated from discussions of paternalism and colonialism. Technology and digital initiatives cannot be separated from conversations about sexism and patriarchy. None of what we do can be separated from power dynamics. For too long, they have been. The global development sector has a duty to confront all of these in examining the way it is structured and functions. It’s time to contemplate politics and the role and influence of movements on aid and development. And it’s past time to expand the conversation to racism. Funders — bilateral and multinational institutions, regranting INGOs, philanthropists, and social sector investors — play a role in this reexamination.

Drawing by Aly Blenkin

For the Salon, the core of my planned remarks focused on what I believe we who work in human rights or rights-based development need to create — and how funders should support those needs. Taking off from a piece I recently wrote on the kind of leadership we need to navigate the pandemic, I addressed these needs primarily through the lens of gender and as a woman of color in the space.

First, those of us who work in rights-based development need to ask: What is our job right now?

Our most immediate needs relate to triage — self-care, community care, and short-term sustainability — as many funders and donors have recognized. But this can’t be the sole focus. The time for transformation, to catalyze long-term progressive systems change, is now.

In the sector, systems change will rest on two pillars: decolonization and reimagining future states. These aren’t sequential efforts. The latter relies on the former, but they should happen simultaneously.

In this context, I’m seeing a largely broken funding model. The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities — and causing a backslide in other ways.

Funders should be taking rapid strategic decisions that make it easier for the sector to be resilient and for organizations to be responsive. We need support to respond in the moment. At the same time, we need resources that allow us breathing room to reimagine our work and be more resonant with long-term change — and to create new business models, programming, and relationships with the communities we serve.

There are examples of funders doing so. The Libra Foundation and Liberated Capital in the US and Firetree Trust in SE Asia quickly announced increased general operating funding at the start of the pandemic. The Ford Foundation, as well, announced a group of foundations in the US are issuing up to $1.7 billion in social impact bonds to allay the effects of COVID-19 on the nonprofit sector, with a tacit connection to the movement for Black Lives. There are crucial questions about whether this is enough. Oscar Perry Abello and Justice Funders have explored arguments on how the funding is structured and how much is being provided to the sector vs how much could be.

Other funders are lagging. I’ve heard a foundation say it can’t entertain new proposals because it needs to examine its endowment. Another pivoted its application process repeatedly in response to COVID-19, confusing potential grantees who are already overburdened and stressed. The RFP specifically invited projects from BIPOC founders and project creators, without any recognition that these communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Another funder essentially revised its entire portfolio of funding for global women and girls programs, with little notice or conversation with grantees. Many of these projects were run by women of color themselves, who were publicly vocal about the unfairness and lack of concern for the field. Some foundations have issued tiny micro-grants of USD 1000 or less, but requiring full proposal, documentation, and reporting processes. Again, this disproportionately burdens BIPOC-led organizations. Still others have simply redirected funding almost solely to COVID-19 response, disregarding the need to continue supporting the long term work of social justice. OSF faced backlash from its own program officers in an open letter addressing this very policy.

As Nancy MacPherson said during the Salon, years of focusing on efficiency at the expense of organizational resilience and long-term sustainability have left the sector brittle, at risk for failure in the short term, and unable to plan for a post-pandemic future.

Those of us who identify as BIPOC and are running civil society organizations, NGOs, and social enterprises using digital and media technology can do our jobs better if funders invest in our leadership. Those of us leading movements and heading up collectives and loosely-based community-led associations need resources too, but are too often ignored by funders dedicated to global development. We all need general operating funds and we need resources to fund skills training — from storytelling to innovative finance and use of giving platforms — to technology and tools, including those aimed to protect privacy and security.

Similarly, funders who themselves are BIPOCs and understand the underlying cultural and political issues that lead to injustice — or are part of diverse organizations that are rights- and justice-based — will help us deliver better and more measurable outcomes, and more importantly will help us shift power.

Believe us when we talk about inequality about funding and support. We don’t need another study about inequality. We have proven it over and over again. Redirect that funding to help us do the work, recognizing that the way you ask us to measure our impact can hinder our progress and reinforce power dynamics. Earn our trust. And trust us.

Follow the calls to support “localization” — for example, this recent one from Blessing Omakwu — which are growing louder and stronger in the face of the pandemic and the fight for racial justice. This is a time to finally deliver on the promise of supporting local civil society organizations — and to eradicate the false narrative that “local” means small or ill-equipped. Shift the power. Commit to new structures. Reframe what “scale” means.

Help to shift dominant narratives as we confront our current crises. Those of us with lived experience of the issues need the market flooded with resources that enable us to own our means of production, innovation, and distribution. No media without us, no platforms without us, no technology without us.

We are at a very fragile moment across the world. We are also on the precipice of possibility and transformation. In the face of this, why would a funder not increase funding instead of redirecting only to COVID-19 response, or withholding funding until some unidentified point in the future? What are we waiting for?

This story is part of the “Building a Just Future” Series



Lina Srivastava

Founder of Center for Transformational Change Using narrative to cultivate community power towards just futures.