Do foundations fear Nigeria?

Merry Christmas one and all! As my people say, “Compliments of the season.” I hope you are enjoying a peaceful holiday, whether with family, friends or just yourself.

While in Lagos for vacation, I had the opportunity to meet with the head of an amazing women’s rights organization that provides medical and referral services to victims of sexual violence. This nonprofit operates in a small and shabby set of rooms on the campus of the state university hospital, and has treated over a thousand clients in the past 2.5 years, using limited resources. I had one or two suggestions to enhance their fundraising, which led to a fun and very familiar discussion about the broader philanthropy sector.

Nonprofits by definition struggle to generate income. If you start a nonprofit, you will not make a profit. In fact, you will not even charge nominal fees for your services. For their income, human rights nonprofits in the African continent, especially women’s rights service organizations, have to compete for a small pool of charitable funds, to be provided by rich foundations in the West (the few indigenous African foundations rarely invest in human rights) or western governments. Nigerian nonprofit organizations feel particularly disadvantaged because they perceive that foundations, especially in the US, find Nigeria  a difficult place to work in, and don’t provide as much grant opportunities as one might expect. Amongst ourselves, nonprofiteers say that donors prefer to work in East Africa because East African governments issue more “appreciative” sounds from their mouths, and their people are nicer.

Head in Hands

Stereotypes aside, this accusation of bias is not completely fair. I took a cursory look at the top ten human rights foundations in the U.S. Three of the biggest foundations – Gates, Ford and MacArthur have offices in Nigeria. Ford is in Kenya only out of the East Africa giants, Open Society Foundation is in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Rockefeller is in Kenya, and Hewlett and Hilton are in none of the countries above.

Kenya wins, but Nigeria isn’t doing so bad.

Further, geographic representation is only one element foundations use to screen African nonprofits. Each of the largest foundations has a collection of carefully consulted “strategic plans” which specify the tiny slices of human rights and development work that the foundation is committed to funding for several years. Even if Ford Foundation is active in Nigeria, it does not mean that Ford will be interested in writing one a grant for human rights sensitization of children or public advocacy on prison reform. The financial difficulties faced by nonprofits in Nigeria may simply result from the law of demand and supply. There are more nonprofits working on a particular issue than foundations available to support them.

Still, I believe there is some truth to the complaint that foundations don’t want to work in Nigeria, and I admit to having voiced this complaint myself. When I worked at a foundation, I was amazed to learn of the process it took to select priority countries. Factors considered were as follows: 1) Where have the decision-makers of our new foundation worked in the past? 2) Which countries are in the news right now, which African presidents do we like (the disappointment and betrayal years later when these charismatic presidents turn out to be corrupt or ineffectual)? 3) Where can we easily separate the impact of our potential grants from the work of the government or other foundations?, and 4) Some stuff about UN development indicators and choosing countries that are not too poor and not too rich, yet meet the other three criteria.


Even if a foundation has a clear, documented and rigorous process for choosing regional and thematic priorities, it will still be the case that many worthy nonprofits will be left out, because they work on issues that do not fit the Strategic Plan, or in countries that have not been selected. This is why individual philanthropy at the local levels is important.

However, nonprofits then face the very difficult task of convincing wealthy Nigerians to support human rights.










Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s