African civil society organizations (CSOs) make significant contributions to the continent’s wellbeing. Each year, they raise millions of dollars from individuals and foundations to serve their communities, often testing and scaling innovations and sharing new insights to meet the challenges that face the continent. Additionally, they advocate for transparency and accountability in governments and serve as a chief means of citizen engagement.

African CSOs are on the front lines of development in Africa, yet little is known about them. There is limited data and mapping as to which groups exist and where, what they do, how they get funding, and the impact they make. In a 2018 study by EPIC-Africa, the organization we co-founded, we learned that the few CSO databases that do exist provide mostly basic, directory-like information, and much of it is outdated. The study also found several CSO assessment and accreditation efforts in Africa and abroad, but these initiatives are hard to scale as they require considerable amounts of human and financial capacity.

This lack of data renders the sector’s contributions largely invisible. As a result, many Africans are unaware that some of the benefits they enjoy today are a direct result of CSO-led actions. The sector in turn often lacks the financial and moral support it needs from the public, as it does in many countries (this is especially challenging when the sector comes under attack). Invisibility and fragmentation prevent CSOs from connecting with each other, learning from one another, and leveraging the benefits of networks and collaborations, such as pooled resources and joint fundraising.

Because of this, individuals and institutions looking to identify African CSOs as possible partners and grantees are forced to “ask around,” a process that often favors a small subset of groups. Many worthy organizations remain off the radar of donors, and their insufficient funding leads to resource constraints that compromise organizational health and effectiveness.

This reality is less than ideal. What’s needed instead is the kind of infrastructure, more common in parts of the world where the philanthropic sector is well established, that would help to strengthen CSOs in Africa by gathering, analyzing, and sharing sector data.

If CSOs are to effectively play their role, the local infrastructure that supports them must also be strengthened so that it can:

  1. Provide services and tools that allow CSOs and their funders to share knowledge, build capacity, and become more effective;
  2. Aggregate the sector’s contributions to serve as both an advocacy and a bargaining tool for CSOs as they seek better services from providers and push for more supportive policies from governments;
  3. Provide an independent voice, backed by data-based evidence, when CSOs are under attack; and
  4. Foster greater transparency and accountability in the sector, resulting in more visibility, credibility, local legitimacy, and support.

Read the full article about strengthening organizations by Rose Maruru and Adwoa Agyeman at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.