Learnings from our journey


Learning 1: Respecting applicants’ time and resources is not about patronising.

It is about providing sufficient information, being approachable and mindful of other people’s experiences and capacities, empowering them to make informed decisions about whether they should apply for a grant or not and making their fundraising experience less exhausting and time consuming. This allows civil society individuals and groups to focus on what really matters: serving their communities instead of investing excessive time in disproportionate grantmaking applications.

Learning 2: An eligibility quiz can also reduce the gender gap of applicants.

Implementing an eligibility quiz seemed like an ideal pre-application exercise to save time for CSF applicants. This was the initial rationale for creating the quiz and it did serve its purpose: it saved time and resources for more than 70% of the applicants that we were unable to fund during the CSF’s last funding cycle.

However, the quiz (and, of course, the eligibility criteria) produced an unexpected result: it played an important role in closing the gender gap of applicants. In 2020, seven out of ten CSF applicants were men (most of them leading groups working on women’s rights). In 2021, most of our eligibility criteria focused on constituent-led groups and gave preference to groups most commonly involved in civic space incidents (as identified by the CIVICUS Monitor), which led to an increase in the number of women-led groups.

Learning 3: Giving preference to groups rather than to thematic priorities increases the confidence of applicants.

When redesigning the CSF eligibility criteria, we gave priority to funding civil society groups that are most involved in civic space incidents, instead of prioritising specific themes or areas of work we wanted to support. We learned that listing types of eligible groups and countries increased the confidence of applicants that often decide not to apply, either because they don’t think they are included in the call, or because they are not willing to compromise their values by applying to grants that - in order to fit - might entail changing the essence of who they are.

Learning 4: Easy, accessible and targeted information reduces the barriers and costs applicants face and, in turn, increases confidence and trust in the process.

Our main goal during the redesign phase was to shift the costs and barriers from applicants to ourselves as much as possible. We created the eligibility quiz to help applicants easily identify the eligibility criteria; provided clear instructions in multiple formats and languages; used accessible and jargon-free language; and added a glossary. Those are all good ways to start, but the application form must also follow the same assumptions and be easy and accessible.
Open questions and open criteria increase the time applicants spend on the application, creating additonal barriers when applying for grants.
We learned that to reduce the costs and barriers for the applicants, the application form should contain clear and straightforward questions to help applicants structure their ideas while answering the questions. For example: if funders are expecting to receive applications from constituent led groups that follow participatory decision-making in their processes, the application form should have targeted questions asking specifics about this. “How do you involve the communities you serve while designing your proposal? Share with us the decision-making process” was a good starting point for us, enabling applicants to share how participatory and accountable they are with their communities.

Learning 5: By honouring relationships we build solidarity

Increasing visibility, offering trust, creating inclusive and safe spaces, culptivating communities, investing in capacity-building and providing monetary compensation are some ways to honour the relationships with our grantee-members. These value the person behind each activist and respect their unique contributions. Our main takeaway from this effort is that by honouring these relationships, we built authentic solidarity and trust, increased the sense of belonging and ownership within the CSF community and established meaningful relationships.

Learning 6: Ownership = accountability

The ownership created from these relationships served as an accountability mechanism. The CSF became more transparent and shifted the decision-making power to the members that are actually in charge of the Fund, allowing our processes to be more flexible and responsive to the communities we serve.

Learning 7: Funds must manage grantees’ expectations from the very beginning

We realised how important it is to make sure that the organisations, groups and movements engaging with the CSF are aware of our limited funding possibilities, understand our internal bureaucracies and where/when these can affect them and know how we can support them despite these challenges. Being transparent about this from the beginning helped us build our relationship and smoothed the agreement signing and financial reporting procedures. Knowing our limitations also helped us find alternative ways of support for grantee-members, like offering access to networks, non-financial resources and collaboration.

Learning 8: If you want to support movements, your Fund must adapt to them, not the other way around

Social movements are unique ecosystems. We  learned that to support them in a way that honours their nature and true needs, our solidarity grants had to embrace the flexibility, adaptability and openness that movements need. This must be considered from the very beginning of the conceptualisation of the grant, as well as throughout the application and reporting processes. Grants should never compromise the agendas and values of social movements.

Donors who want to engage with social movements must adopt the right mindset and embrace the principles of solidarity, trust and collaboration throughout their engagement. They must be willing to become part of social movements, attend meetings, listen to their members and brainstorm and find solutions together.