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Four key factors that catalyse the impact of refugee-led organisations

Updated: Mar 27

Refugee-Led Organisations (RLOs) are effective contributors to their communities, often filling gaps left by international service providers by providing innovative, cost effective and sustainable solutions. But what is it that contributes to this success of RLOs? Four main factors have been attributed as enablers of RLO impact namely; functional international partnerships, flexible funding, embeddedness in the community and leadership by those most affected by displacement. This was one of the findings in the study commissioned by the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI); Understanding RLO Impact: A Metasynthesis of Five Impact Evaluations Covering Programs Run by Refugee-Led Organizations. The study identified common trends across the external impact evaluations of five RRLI coalition organisations and found that between the five evaluated organizations there were several areas where their impact was found to have been enabled due to these common inputs.

Functional international partnerships, including with donors

Connections and engagement with international actors, including INGOs, donors and foreign governments, support RLOs’ ability to fundraise, to spot advocacy opportunities, and to build rapport and partnerships with like-minded organisations around the world. Without these connections, RLOs impact may be limited. All five of our impactful coalition partners were found to have regular or semiregular engagement with international actors; for example, the success of RAIC’s private sponsorship program is tied to their partnership with Northern Lights Canada. Another coalition member, Refugiados Unidos secured their first grant through RRLI’s Refugee Leadership Fund, and have used that initial funding to build further partnerships.

Access to flexible funding

Funding for RLOs is rare: of the nearly 30 billion dollars circulating through the humanatian sector, estimates are that less than 1 percent goes directly to RLOs, despite pre-existing research on RLOs showing that locally-run RLOs may be more cost-efficient than internationally-run projects. Our evidence suggests that financing, especially flexible financing, is a causal element of RLOs impact. Flexible funding provides organizations an opportunity to finance crucial life-saving activities that might otherwise go unaddressed. The RRLI coalition organisations are grant recipients of RRLI’s Refugee Leadership Fund, which has highly flexible spending criteria. The flexibility of the RRLI grant enabled each organization to fund key unresourced elements in their pursuit for impact. For example:

  • Refugiados Unidos and RAIC moved from volunteer-run to staff-run;

  • StARS supported their reserves to promote sustainability of their 25 programs;

  • Basmeh & Zeitooneh piloted a brand new programmatic intervention to support other RLOs; and

  • YARID invested in their operational leadership, including for monitoring and evaluation.

Embeddedness within the communities they work with

RLOs operate in close proximity to the communities they serve, in many cases through community centers and other central localities, they are community-embedded and culturally aware, and these characteristics inform their work in a manner that leads to profound access and a high quality of services. Basmeh & Zeitooneh for example, had strong connections with the communities they worked with for their Shabake project, a connection born of the organisation’s rapid response to the Beirut Port Blast. Basmeh & Zeitooneh were among the first organizations on the ground following the Beirut Port Blast of 2020 that killed over 200 and devastated local businesses and housing units. In those immediate days and weeks, they implemented rehabilitation projects, and provided protection services and relief such as food baskets, and small in-kind cash grants. According to their external evaluation, Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s presence in the community and staff dedication created an overall sense of “credibility and honesty,” and a feeling of being respected among those who participated in the Shabake project.

Significant leadership by people with lived experience of forced displacement

Calls for representation of those with lived experience within movements have grown significantly in recent years, and within the refugee response sector, the calls for refugee participation and refugee leadership are also growing. The data collected through the Metasynthesis research is consistent with the hypothesis that leadership of those most affected is a key factor behind the impact of RLOs. All of the RRLI coalition organizations are composed of at least 50% people of forced displacement. For example, StARS’ 463-person staff is 85% people of forced displacement. The fact that the majority of staff are members of the community they work with significantly enhances their understanding of the approaches that would have the greatest impact. For most RLOs, this specific input matters because it means there is an ease in identifying with their programme users’ experiences, a deep understanding of systemic barriers, and a built-in legitimacy with some donors. Thus, for most RLOs, internal inclusion of refugees facilitates more impactful programming.

Refugee-Led Organisations often have difficulty accessing international partnerships and flexible funding due to systemic inequities manifesting as access barriers. Meanwhile, international institutions (namely INGOs and UN agencies) often do not have and rarely seek to gain embeddedness within the communities they work with and foster significant leadership of people of forced displacement on their staff. You can join our refugee leadership movement as we advocate for the humanitarian sector at large to support RLOs to access greater flexible funding and forge equitable partnerships with international institutions. Together, we can engage the international community to reflect on how it ensures refugee responses are community embedded and driven by those with lived experience of forced displacement.

You can learn more by reading our metasynthesis, impact report, as well as other evidence generated about refugee-led organizations. You can also donate to help refugee-led organizations scale the impactful solutions they bring to their communities and reach out to learn more about how you can join us in the refugee leadership movement.


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