Social change can only happen when power imbalances are addressed

A new paradigm

The current foreign assistance model has its roots in the formation of the Bretton Woods institutions post World War II. It has had 70 years to systematize and replicate itself – and become intransigent. The power dynamics intrinsic to this model, shaped in a past colonial and neo-colonial world, are also entwined in decades of history, and persist today.

The aspiration and rhetoric to shift power to locally-led social change efforts exist, in the form of many United Nations resolutions and government and organizational policies. While there is some action, not nearly enough has been done to transition these aspirations from talk to practical new financing models resulting in empowered local communities with less violence and more access to education, justice and healthcare. 

The institutions that have power and resources must commit themselves to changing their own internal practices as well as learning from external communities and working to support them. Simultaneously, radical new approaches to resources and power must be generated. 

Donors, INGOs and funding “intermediaries”, grassroots organizations, even consultants in the aid system are all on a treadmill; we need to figure out how to shift out of the current model that is not achieving results by tackling multiple levels of this funding system, shifting the status quo and simultaneously investing in new ideas. This will enable us to feed tested approaches to funding local efforts into parts of the aid system that are less willing or able to take risks and/or change more slowly.  

The next wave of social change will forge the future of new power and must be enacted.

We at RFF are starting now, hoping to serve as a bridge in bringing together allies also committed to this change with a focus on financing.

These relationships form a foundation for increased collective action, led by grassroots organizations.

The problem

The international donor industrial complex that spent USD $152 billion on projects in 2019 to promote increased peacefulness and human rights and to combat poverty, hunger and disease has systematically underinvested in an essential lever of social change – people and organizations working in their own communities. Between 2011 and 2015 the largest 1000 US foundations made USD35 billion in international grants with only 12% going directly to local organizations based in the country where programming occurred.

Furthermore, it is well documented that small pools of flexible unrestricted funding can be critical to rapid, effective and efficient solutions to social challenges, especially in difficult environments, yet only 1% of international grantmaking went for general operating support to local organizations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what has always been true, that local organizations are on the front lines and are best placed – but almost always under-resourced – to address challenges in their communities. For example in Syria, despite being responsible for three-quarters of program implementation, local NGOs secured less than 1% of total direct and less than 10% of total indirect COVID-19 related funding. Indeed, according to Development Initiatives, direct funding to local and national groups declined, from 3.5 percent in 2016 to 2.1 percent in 2020. This is inefficient – billions of dollars are wasted every year on money flowing through global intermediary organizations that are familiar to donors and can manage administrative requirements, but are often less equipped to design and implement effective solutions to local problems. 

The United Nations has noted – and research has demonstrated - that supporting civil society to create its own solutions can be the most constructive path toward sustainable social change. A 2019 report examining more than 70 external evaluations found that local peacebuilders demonstrated significant impact in preventing, reducing or stopping violence; improving relationships among citizens (i.e. horizontal relationships); and improving relationships between citizens and those who govern them (i.e. vertical relationships).

Donors who utilize radical flexibility in grantmaking, including providing core support with limited administrative burdens, conclude that they get a higher return on investment than those who do not. The reason is clear: donor commitment to flexibility ensures that local partner organizations are not locked into completing time-bound programs that are not working. They are also not required to devote much of their time to justifying their existence by supplicating to donors and undertaking bureaucratic exercises that only reinforce imbalanced power dynamics and do not improve the quality or impact of their work. In the current paradigm, donors must also use significant resources to monitor grants and are often not reasonably able to keep up with vast piles of traditional quarterly reports or to actually use their findings.

The solution

The Fund works with stakeholders and clients to gather information about new financing approaches; uses that information to design and facilitate processes led by grassroots organizations to effectively resource work in their communities; supports the generation of locally-led knowledge; and, monitors and disseminates the learning and impact of these new approaches. 

By gathering together these transformative elements and changemakers from different parts of the funding system we will – eventually – create a new paradigm. Communities will have the authority to make their own choices and determine their own futures through increased ability to generate renewable resources. This will make them safer, more peaceful, more prosperous and healthier. The combination of these elements - and the interconnectivity they catalyze - makes this Fund radical.

It is time to stop using analog technologies to support social change in a digital world.

Radical Flexibility Fund contributes to a new era of locally-led social change by investing in people and communities - supporting their rights and agency and amplifying their voices - in new ways by combining three elements:


Supporting communities to identify their own priorities and define their own impact


Resourcing these priorities through a broad range of funding tools that are more flexible, more inclusive and more sustainable than grants


Allocating resources in participatory ways with a focus on innovative technologies

What we believe

We believe that power dynamics will only be fundamentally transformed when we move away from treating community members as passive recipients of donor aid to protagonists in their own success stories. These redirected and redesigned drive locally-generated priorities and solutions, leading to more effective, durable and sustainable social change.

Our vision defines resources more broadly than money. We believe money should be used foremost to support the real drivers of social change: people, communities and trust-based relationships, not projects, to build a safe, healthy and just society for all.

We believe that in thinking through agency for communities, you cannot be prescriptive. You can’t convene people under old structures and using old tools, assume which tools work in different contexts, and expect new outcomes. 

In order to translate rhetoric into action with new results, we must: gather the right people in authentic partnership; identify challenges collectively; and, based on that process, provide potential new solutions.

Local priorities.
Global change.

From strong words to meaningful actions. 10 steps to real change.
Lead the charge