You have to see it to believe it: visiting organisations on-the(ir)-ground is catalytic

Julie Rosenberg, CEO, Australian International Development Network Fri, 16 Feb 2024 Estimated reading times: 4 minutes

The Australian International Development Network (AIDN) conducts Insight Tours designed to connect philanthropists, donors and impact investors with diverse, locally led development initiatives overseas to help break down barriers to funding. Julie Rosenberg, AIDN CEO, shares her experiences of a recent tour to Africa to illustrate how developing on-the-ground, trust-based relationships is key to increasing Australia’s support for global challenges.

International philanthropy continues to account for less than 10 cents in every dollar of giving by Australians and only 0.4% of all international humanitarian funding goes directly to locally led organisations (FCDO 2021). Funders may feel uncomfortable funding programs where they do not understand the social, political or cultural nuances, nor the legal and regulatory giving environment, among other complex issues. But these barriers can, and should, be tackled through on-the-ground, locally led engagement. Trust and relationship-building, with local leaders and other open-minded funders, is also key. Visiting organisations on-the(ir)-ground is catalytic for more and better philanthropy.  

AIDN’s Insight Tours are designed to connect philanthropists, donors and impact investors with a range of diverse, locally led development initiatives overseas. In 2023, we hosted a group of philanthropists on an enriching such experience to Rwanda and Uganda. I can still feel now the energy and vision of Solid’Africa, an organisation we visited on the first day. We were welcomed by Isabelle Kamariza, founder and president. Solid’Africa supports the needs of the most vulnerable patients in Rwandan public hospitals. The organisation feeds more than 1,500 patients every day, supports payment of medical expenses and equipment for the most socio-economically challenged, and facilitates repatriation transport. Since its creation in 2010, Solid’Africa has served more five million tailored meals to almost 600,000 patients, a number rapidly growing. 

Solid’Africa was just one of three sites visited that day. Imagine all site visits from 10 days of travelling (guided by Eve Omala’s Local Leaders Portfolio at Partners for Equity). Add to that the numerous leaders we had the privilege of learning from during wonderful dinners. Add to that, the hundreds (genuinely!) of local leaders at the three-day Segal Family Foundation conference in Kigali. Now you might be getting a sense of the innovation, ingenuity and scale of development leadership we witnessed on the Insight Tour. See a full list of the organisations we met here

We were reminded with every organisation visited that the issues facing our world today are inherently global in nature. No country lives in a vacuum and nor can we continue to do so. Climate change has reinforced this message and it has been shown that the lowest emitters will be hit hardest. The impacts of climate change were consistently flagged by leaders on the tour. Essentially, the more opportunity funders have to engage with these global issues first-hand, the more our duty as economically privileged Australians to support these innovative organisations becomes clear. 

Insight Tours are an exceptional opportunity to listen to stories, for face-to-face partnership-building and on-the-ground engagement. For the funders, fostering face-to-face trust-based relationships helps to address critical knowledge gaps surrounding the local political, economic and social dynamics of overseas organisations, and builds confidence to engage with overseas giving. As my colleague Mark Cubit, AIDN’s Co-founder, said: “The way that every attendee [was] now going to reflect on or adapt how they conduct their philanthropy was a clear highlight. The trip undeniably reinforces that you need to be on-the-ground to know what’s happening.” 

Fostering trust-based relationships with local leaders on their turf is about a commitment to rebalancing power, democratising decision-making and respecting local processes. It is increasingly demonstrated that bottom-up approaches and “trust-based philanthropy” are vital to the sustainability of organisations themselves. Trust-based philanthropy is anchored in the belief that leaders who emerge from the communities that they serve are the best authors of lasting solutions to their own challenges. In practice, this might mean simpler reporting requirements or cutting back on grant restrictions (Trust Based Philanthropy Project 2023). In practice, this allows organisations to be creative, agile and respond to the complex issues they are tackling in a way determined by and sensitive to their own operating context.  

As valuable as it is to learn about the multitude of development approaches from local leaders (from agriculture to healthcare, from micro-entrepreneurs to government adoption at scale), it was also clear that learning with other funders will be key to innovative philanthropy in the future. On the tour, we were grateful to be joined by Partners for Equity, The Life You Can Save, Just Peoples, the Judith Neilson Foundation, the Dawn Wade Foundation and the Intrepid Travel Foundation. At AIDN, we’ve always encouraged donors to tap into wider giving networks and share resources. But to see it in real time was fantastic. Katie Stanford, Director of Research & Business Intelligence at The Life You Can Save, said: “I loved being able to consistently discuss international development trends, evidence and models in an applied setting, which is crucial to learning.” 

I appreciate that travelling abroad may not be feasible for everyone. Development leaders are also incredibly busy individuals, so visiting must be on their schedule and in a culturally sensitive way determined as appropriate by them. It is an incredible opportunity and privilege to meet these change-makers, in their operating context, explaining how they have innovatively planned, strategised and consulted with their community on how to address the multidimensional issues facing our world. As a result, you quickly realise the role of funders as backseat cheerleaders.  

Funders are invited to join AIDN, in partnership with The Life You Can Save, on our Insight Tour to Tanzania and Kenya in May 2024. Logistics for the tour are being generously organised by Intrepid Travel at competitive rates. Find more information in the tour booklet here. If you are interested, please fill out the expression of interest form here. Places are limited.