Updated: Mar 16
Despite their unparalleled impact and access to displaced communities, the full potential of refugee-led organizations (RLOs) continues to be hindered by resource constraints. This was the greatest challenge for RLOs uncovered in the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI)’s latest study: Understanding RLO Impact: A Metasynthesis of Five Impact Evaluations Covering Programs Run by Refugee-Led Organizations.
Flexible funding for RLOs is a rare occurrence. Institutional barriers such as bank access, organization registration, lack of relationships with key donors, and bias within the system make it almost impossible for RLOs to access funding. International institutions are slow to embrace new ways of working that overcome these barriers and challenge the status quo in humanitarian financing. Donor concerns about the ‘risks’ of resourcing grassroots refugee-led responses are prioritized over local community requests for direct funding of their own solutions to displacement. Yet when we examined the literature on the impact of financing local organizations a clear lesson emerged: flexible financing at the local level is a direct contributor to achieving real program impact.
Benefits and challenges of flexible funding in RLOs
In 2021,the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI)’s RLO-to-RLO Fund (a first of its kind fund for refugees, by refugees) awarded our first five RLOs highly flexible grants to use as they saw fit. This flexibility enabled the grantees to fund essential but previously unresourced needs in their pursuit for impact. Each of these elements were identified as critical and missing by the RLOs and were only made possible through access to flexible funding. For example:
Refugiados Unidos and RAIC moved from being 100% volunteer-run to employing their first cohort of staff.
StARS supported its reserves to promote sustainability of its 25 programs.
Basmeh & Zeitooneh piloted a brand-new program to develop other RLOs in the region.
YARID invested in its operational leadership, including strengthening its monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.
Many RLOs find themselves lacking the funds to build essential infrastructure that would support extended programming, while also struggling to be considered for funding without already implementing those additional programs. In the metasynthesis we commissioned, every RLO received recommendations from external evaluators that increased funding was a priority area. The evaluations also found that those who reported dissatisfaction with programs were generally dissatisfied because they could not receive programs consistently due to lack of funding.
For our five RLOs, resource constraints meant the development of adequate compensation packages, policies and infrastructure was constrained. It meant that emergency community needs were not met and the full potential of each RLO was limited despite showing great impact in the programs they could implement. In all cases, evaluators noted that funding is a crucial need to address organizational capacity gaps and grow impact.
The Shabake Project: understanding resource constraints in practice
Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s Shabake project was created to strengthen the resilience of Lebanese civil society to improve crisis prevention and management. In a 2021 independent evaluation of the organization, a budget increase was recommended to employ technical experts dedicated to managing equipment necessary for program success, to manage donor compliance requirements, and to deal with Lebanese government licensing and certification. Income generation in a stagnating economy like Lebanon’s is highly complex, but if flexible funding for in-house technical expertise were available, it would greatly assist the Shabake project in navigating economic realities as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The evaluator also noted that the project may be better executed under the leadership of women, rather than the male team leaders. An informant from the project described that despite multiple attempts to hire a female leader for the project, Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s salary scales simply couldn’t compete with international NGO salaries, limiting a qualified pool of candidates for the role. Similarly, the evaluator noted the need to secure funds for daycare, protection services and transportation allowances in order to promote program participation. These inclusion measures were constrained by the lack of flexible funds and ultimately reduced the accessibility (and potential impact) of the otherwise successful Shabake program.
A path forward for flexible RLO funding
Opportunities for flexible funding remain largely out of reach for RLOs and it begs the question: why are international philanthropic institutions and decision-makers still undervaluing the demonstrated benefits of refugee leadership?
We know that RLOs are embedded and trusted in their communities. They bring expertise and lived experience of forced displacement into every stage of the program cycle. The evidence clearly shows that adequate resourcing at the community level is a causal element of program impact.
Flexible funding enables a path forward for RLOs to establish integral infrastructure that attracts additional financing and ensures sustainable impact. It would see more resources channeled directly towards supporting displaced communities. The sooner flexible funding becomes readily accessible to RLOs - and is prioritised by international institutions and donors - the sooner RLOs will be able to reach their full potential as equal and valued partners in the global response to forced displacement.
Do you want to learn more about the current challenges and opportunities facing RLOs? Read the full metasynthesis report and RRLI's latest impact report. You can also join us in building financial sustainability for impactful refugee-led solutions through a donation to RRLI.