Vodafone Foundation’s m-mama programme partners with community health workers and local taxi drivers to improve access to emergency treatment for mothers and babies in Tanzania and Lesotho. Credit: Vodafone Foundation (UK charity 1193984)
Vodafone Foundation’s m-mama programme partners with community health workers and local taxi drivers to improve access to emergency treatment for mothers and babies in Tanzania and Lesotho. Credit: Vodafone Foundation (UK charity 1193984)

Perspectives on becoming a locally led funder

Vodafone Foundation is a corporate foundation, connected to and funded by Vodafone. Working in Europe, Africa, India and the United States, we identify and deploy technology solutions to social challenges, covering issues as broad as education, healthcare, and safety and security.

We are a funder, but we also operate our own programmes. And like many organisations, recent events have prompted us to think more critically about how we operate and what implications this has for the effectiveness of what we do.

Catalyst for change

In 2020, Vodafone Foundation was approached by Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan social entrepreneur seeking support to educate funders on what it means to support black-led organisations. In response, Vodafone Foundation commissioned and published research highlighting inequities in global philanthropy and barriers to funding for African civil society organisations.

Responding to recommendations set out in the research, Vodafone Foundation committed to:

  • Review its own funding process
  • Work with partners and other funders to pursue international standards for the proportion of charitable funds that reach locally run organisations
  • Support the digital transformation of local civil society organisations across Africa

Taking stock of where we are

Since its inception, Vodafone Foundation has been locally minded. Our model is to establish a charitable entity in each of the markets in which Vodafone operates. The majority of our charitable activity is then managed by these local entities, each staffed by local nationals and overseen by local trustees.

This isn’t a model that would work for every organisation, and there is some cost duplication in running multiple charitable entities. We frequently review whether this approach is still right for us. However, it has substantial benefits when it comes to locally led development. An April 2022 review of funding for the previous financial year found that 89% of the €26m funding distributed through our local foundations was granted to local civil society organisations or spent with local suppliers to deliver charitable programmes.

To complement this model, we take a partnership approach to programme design and delivery. As an organisation, we bring funding, mobile technology (through our connection to Vodafone) and project management capabilities. But in most cases, we are not experts on the issues being addressed, so we need to work hand-in-hand with local organisations that are.

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Ensuring our funding works harder to deliver local impact

Undoubtedly, there is more we can do. Our April 2022 funding review found that Vodafone Foundation distributed one-third of its funds to INGOs in 2021/2022. This reflects the fact that we operate multi-country programmes, so we need to work with partners that can deliver across multiple geographies.

The destination of funding is an important part of the picture, but we also need to look at power dynamics within those funding relationships. As an international funder, we have applied the lens of ‘local’ in terms of national boundaries. But we recognise that power dynamics also exist within countries.

As befits our operating model, we began a collective discussion with all our local entities on the issue of locally led development. To frame the conversation and encourage consistency in our approach, the starting point was to define its principles and practices. These were developed by Vodafone Foundation but informed through discussions with local colleagues. We are giving each local team time to decide how these are best implemented in their environment. We will then bring the group back together to share best practices and for further guidance to ensure outcomes are consistent.

Figure 1: Vodafone Foundation’s principles and practices for locally led development

Vodafone Foundation's principles and practices for locally led development

Barriers to change

It will take time to embed new practices across the organisation. We would like to move faster, but we also want to get it right.

And there are competing interests to balance. The first of these is governance standards. It would be naïve to think that devolving decision-making doesn’t come with additional risks. I strongly believe that, when done effectively, the benefits will outweigh the risks. This relies on trust. However, we work in an environment where the pressure to meet governance standards is only increasing. We see this in Charity Commission guidance, the policy requirements of our corporate funder and the terms and conditions institutional donors set.

We also need to consider how local perspectives can be better incorporated into strategic decision-making at the top of the organisation. Through our local entities, we ensure that local communities are heard in the design of our programmes and in impact evaluation. However, it is challenging to comprehensively feed this into discussions at the Board level when we operate across 25 countries and a range of issues.

Reasons for optimism

Change is not going to happen overnight. It will require concerted collective action across the sector and shifts in mindset and systems within organisations. But I am optimistic that more equitable philanthropy can and will take root. Ultimately, funders want their money to have as much impact as possible. Experience at Vodafone Foundation has shown that our programmes are most impactful when local organisations take a lead in decision-making and delivery.

More information on Vodafone Foundation’s programmes can be found on its website.

What makes a good locally led funder?

Check out this Bond report What makes a good “locally led” funder? Stories from your partners

This collection of stories provides concrete ideas to help design funding models that are accessible and appropriate for community-led development.

Read the report