INTERFUND (now defunct): An interview with Alicia Pieterse , the Executive Director of the now defunct intermediary grantmaking organisation.
How long have you worked at INTERFUND, what is your background and what are your personal development interests?
I joined INTERFUND in March 2000. Before this I worked at UMAC (U Managing Conflict), an NGO in the Western Cape with a focus on conflict resolution. My previous experience also includes working as a counselor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Western Cape (UWC). During my tenure at UCT, I was promoted to the head of the Student Advice and Development Center. I have an undergraduate degree in social work and a post graduate degree in feminist theology.
With respect to my personal development interests, I would argue that I have a passion for poor women’s issues and combating the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. Moreover, as a manager working in the development sector I am quite mindful of the importance of being an empowering development manager. I see my role as someone who supports and empowers people.
What are the key development challenges facing SA today?
From my point of view, these are poverty alleviation and HIV/AIDS. I feel that the youth are a niche group that warrant special attention, particularly as it relates to creating job opportunities for them. However, I am also greatly concerned about women’s issues such as women’s development and empowerment, including gender equality and rights. I am greatly perturbed by the prevalent culture of violence against women and children.
What are the biggest challenges facing donors in SA today?
An important challenge facing local donors is the ability to form strategic partnerships from which funding resources can flow. Developing and nurturing partnerships in the donor arena is relatively difficult given an atmosphere of limited trust between partners. Donors simply don’t talk to each other enough. At the end of the day, I would argue that it boils down to a ‘turf’ issue.
The other much talked about challenge facing most donors is the rerouting of international aid to our democratically elected government. There are some dreadful repercussions that have resulted from this new funding arrangement where aid flows directly into state coffers. It will appear as if the state simply cannot absorb all the funds and a lot of money remains unspent. This situation raises serious questions about the impact of international aid on poor communities.
Finally, one of the biggest challenges facing local donors is the lack of leadership demonstrated by the National Development Agency (NDA). The fact that the current leadership problems have been left to persist for such a long period raises some serious questions about the state’s commitment to civil society . This is a clear indication of a lack of interest from the state to responsibly deal with the dilemma. For example, it is rumored that the suspended CEO of the NDA, Delani Mthembu, is still drawing a generous monthly salary every month. In the meantime, the NDA board is struggling to conclude the matter.
What are the biggest challenges facing the South African NGO Sector, in general and from a funding point of view?
Without a doubt, there is an inadequate flow of funds to the NGO sector. However, the sector is riddled by questions of accountability flowing from poor monitoring and evaluation systems, which hinder its ability to demonstrate impact.
Without the establishment of rigorous reporting systems and the establishment of associated procedures the NGO sector will continue to experience problems attracting financial support. INTERFUND itself reports to various donors and they each have their own reporting requirements. For example, we underwent a compliance audit for the European Union and its terms of reference included a full institutional audit. As a condition of our HIVOS grant, we also undertook a complete institutional audit in 2002. This kind of rigorous reporting certainly keeps us on our toes. Moreover, if we get better at recording our successes, we may get better at attracting funds.
A final word on the challenges facing the NGO sector is that the era of activism seems to have passed. Much of this is as the result of the somewhat confused relationship between the democratically elected government and the NGO sector. With the new state appealing to society at a broad level, NGOs appear somewhat hesitant to critically engage with it. The NGO sector will have to find new ways of engaging the state, whilst at times forming funding partnership with it on the one hand, also maintaining its independence and autonomy.
When was Interfund established and how has the organisation responded over the years to SA’s various development challenges?
INTERFUND was established in 1986 and raised money for NGOs in resistance to the apartheid state. During the period 1993-1994, the focus changed to developing partnerships with civil society to strengthen them at an institutional level. INTERFUND always prioritized and continues to prioritize the notion of partnerships. It stems from the institutional composition of the organisation, which is consortium based. In 2000, the capacity building programme evolved from pure training to a comprehensive and integrated programme that includes mentoring, training and organizational development.
Currently, I don’t really view INTERFUND only as a donor, rather I see us as a co-implementer with its partners. For example, we are active on issues pertaining to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). We have formed a post summit partnership with the Johannesburg +10 office and have participated in provincial workshops to formulate responses to the resolutions that were passed in 2002.
Is there a particular development approach that underpins your organisation’s work?
Our grantmaking is based on three tenets: Forming strategic and sustainable Partnerships, a sustainable livelihoods approach and a rights based approach.
Is there a level of donor co-operation or co-ordination that informs your organisation’s work?
There is a poor level of co-ordination in the donor sector. The South African Grantmakers Association (SAGA) has a role to play in improving this.
What is the geographic scope of your organisation’s work?
We have a national geographic scope.
Where do you see this organisation ten years down the line?
I see INTERFUND as a pre-eminent grantmaker in South Africa working at full capacity in HIV/AIDS, capacity building and research activities, with the cross cutting themes of women’s development and sustainable livelihoods.
There is a perception in the NGO sector that donors are more likely to fund the more formal sophisticated urban based NGOs. Do you agree with this perception?
Yes, this is true, but it’s changing. For example, in 2001 INTERFUND started funding smaller community based organisations (CBOs). Its not easy work for us because its difficult to attract donor money for these kinds of organisations. There is a perceived risk associated with these organisations, particularly in relation to governance and accountability. However, the emerging view is that CBOs are more representative of grassroots communities. The Ford and Mott Foundations each provide funding to INTERFUND for CBO institutional support. Currently, between 60%-70% of INTERFUND funding is earmarked for CBOS and between 30%-40% is earmarked for NGOs. Our CBO partners are integrated into our capacity building programme and in the three years since its inception, the model seems to have worked.
What institutional qualities and characteristics do you think are important for NGOs at the individual level to make a success of their work?
Strong and focused leadership is essential for the success of NGOs, however, institutions should not be built around particular individuals. Succession plans must be put into place and the organisation’s institutional memory must be recorded in order for all staff to access the information.
Access to and visibility within local communities is also an important ingredient for success. Another key characteristic of success is the ability to form strategic partnerships, particularly as this relates to advocacy on a broad range of development issues.
What advice do you have to offer to unknown and new NGOs to get onto donor radar screens?
Network! It’s hard to do but important to persevere with. It is also important to write decent proposals. Donors are a little more understanding and lenient when receiving poorly written proposals from CBOs, but, there should be no excuse for NGOs. The older more established organisations sometimes become lazy with time and neglect to tidy up documents. Moreover, within proposals, it is very important for one’s goal, objectives and strategies to talk to each other. Currently, many proposals can be criticised for their overzealous focus on activities, instead of on impact. Finally, donors are keen to determine the impact of one’s work on the lives of ordinary South Africans.
What trends do you predict for the future of funding in SA?
Funding is going to do a 180 degree turn around. There is going to be a back lash from state funding. I think the NDA will be forced to work with intermediary grantmaking organisations such as ourselves. However, this requires a commitment at national government level and a change in policy.
As for corporate social investment programmes, they will continue with their individualized funding patterns that are very closely related to their branding initiatives. However, I am optimistic that sooner or later they will wake up to the fact that development funding is not marketing.
Finally, if intermediary grantmaking organisations such as INTERFUND can weather the storm over the coming five years, they will emerge much stronger.