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The Five Pillars of Fundraising Success from Somalia

The following is excerpted from the November/December 2002 issue of Advancing Philanthropy.

By Michael J. Rosen

With its rich history, cultural diversity, and vast and varied landscapes, Africa is a continent I've always wanted to explore. Little did I know that one of my first encounters with the continent would come during a visit to Birmingham, England. While in the United Kingdom for the Institute of Fundraising Conference, I had the opportunity to attend a session led by Bill Bruty, MICFM, director of Fundraising Training, Ltd., in Cambridge, England, and Robinson Esalimba, deputy executive director of the Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization (HARDO), headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa. Founded in 1991, HARDO works toward sustainable peace in Somalia by supporting capacity-building in local communities, the empowerment of women, and protection of the environment. Bruty is a consultant working with HARDO officials in Africa.

During the conference presentation and in a subsequent interview, Bruty and Esalimba explained the five pillars of successful fundraising in Somalia. Because of the radically different environment they describe as compared with the western world, we can see the grassroots character of philanthropy in Somalia. Yet, as Esalimba and Bruty paint a vivid picture of community life, they show us that the pillars that sustain charities in Somalia are just as relevant for philanthropy professionals anywhere in the world.

1. Maintain community goodwill. Esalimba reminds us that nonprofit organizations need to understand the communities in which they work, just as communities need to understand the work of nonprofits. Those working to benefit Somalia must understand that two essential Somali communities exist and must be approached differently: the internal community, divided into five clan territories (some peaceful and some not), and the external Somali Diaspora.

  • Internal community. Internal appeals most frequently ask for and lead to in-kind gifts and volunteer labor. The population of Somalia is largely Muslim and therefore committed to philanthropy as an expression of belief. "In Muslim culture, you are less than a true believer if you have and your family goes hungry, using the word 'family' in the largest sense," says Esalimba. "There is no sense giving at the mosque if you pass someone in a doorway who is in need and you do nothing.

"Most fundraising inside Somalia is based on appeals to family ties. People are quick to make a contribution if they feel that their community stands to benefit. The Islamic faith also places an obligation on members to help family and the less fortunate members of society. These are the big pitching points when working with the community."

  • External community. The large Somali Diaspora community worldwide includes a significant Somali population in Minnesota, and many of these people are philanthropically generous. However, they tend to distrust non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose services have in the past been delivered poorly or whose funds have been "taxed" away by the local authorities. Thus, many Diaspora donors who send money back to Somalia send it to the village they came from or to one of the five clans they are part of.

Appeals to the Minnesota and other Somali Diaspora communities make the traditional Islamic reference to philanthropy as an aspect of religious devotion. HARDO's external fundraising among non-Somalis follows a more or less conventional style and tends not to mention Islamic or family obligations; Esalimba believes that making such points would actually work against fundraising efforts among non-Somalis.

2. Build trust in nonprofit projects. HARDO strives to overcome a general mistrust of nonprofit groups and, perhaps more difficult, to overcome inter-clan mistrust that exists internally and externally. Esalimba recounts an example: "In the year 2000, we managed to get the Somali Diaspora in the U.S. to contribute towards the construction of a bridge linking Bossaso, the commercial capital of Puntland, and other outlying villages. This would help greatly in easing transportation of goods from the villages to Bossaso. This in itself was a very positive contribution since the project would benefit Somalis across various clans."

Esalimba advises, "Treat each donor as the only one you will ever have. Understand and meet their needs as well as yours. Think and work with them as partners." He also believes organizations should keep the channels of communication open both ways, giving donors the opportunity to provide feedback and become personally invested in projects--which leads us to the third pillar.

3. Overcome preconceptions about NGOs. Because Somalia has been ravaged by war and drought for so many years, it is easy even for Somali villagers themselves--and for donors--to accept the difficult circumstances there as normal and unchangeable. Part of Esa-limba's job is to communicate to prospective donors how his charity recognizes challenges, confronts realities, and overcomes obstacles. By telling stories of both failed and successful projects, he paints a realistic picture for donors who would fear giving to a business-as-usual organization. When he approaches donors in this spirit, Esalimba finds them more generous than he believes would be the case if he always put apositive spin on everything.

For example, after raising money to deliver bottled water to a drought-stricken village, Esalimba was confident that he would have a success story to tell. But on an overnight stop on the way, the trucks were broken into by a thirsty baboon troop that destroyed the water shipment. Rather than hiding the truth, as many donors would expect an NGO working in Somalia to do, Esalimba's organization went back and told the donors about the failed project. And rather than feeling alienated, the donors were inspired to give even more generously. The village used these additional donations to dig a new well, eliminating the need to truck water in.


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