frequently asked questions

What is Firelight, and what do you do? +

Firelight finds, funds, and strengthens catalytic community-based organizations (CBOs) that are working with their communities to address significant gaps and challenges for children in sub-Saharan Africa. Our approach is founded on our experience and evidence that communities can best determine and sustain the change they want to see and that CBOs are best placed to support communities in this way.

In order to support CBOs, we raise and strategically invest capital from major foundations, family foundations, and individual philanthropists. Our model of support for CBOs has several core components that we employ in an adaptive process through constant learning and refining. Learn more about our model here.

How many staff do you have? +

Firelight has 12 full-time staff – four in eastern Africa and southern Africa and eight in the United States and Canada. Read more about our team here.

What is your operating budget? +

In fiscal year 2017/2018, Firelight’s revenue was $6.2 million, grants and capacity building administered $4.0 million, and general Firelight administration $860,000. Our full financials are available here.

Who are your donors? +

We are honored to be funded by many large foundations, small family foundations, and individual donors. Learn more about our donors here.

Why fund in sub-Saharan Africa? +

There is a lot at stake right now for sub-Saharan Africa, which is facing a time of unprecedented economic and population growth. Despite progress, many countries have not been able to solve the inequality gap or to speed up job creation in productive sectors. There is a tremendous risk that these gains are not seen by vulnerable populations, including the rural poor, children, and the increasing numbers of unemployed youth.

There is also financial and political momentum in and around Africa that needs to be captured. The Millennium Development Goals and the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals have engaged governments and large foundations in an unprecedented effort to address poverty and its drivers in Africa. Their efforts, along with the desire on the part of many governments to create public-private partnerships for social change, can be harnessed to provide long-term solutions for Africa’s communities and Africa’s children and youth.

But there are also major risks to global development financing. President Trump’s vow to put “America first” includes a plan to drastically cut assistance to developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID. Nationalist sentiments like this are increasing across countries and come at the expense of losing global gains on solving humanity’s deepest problems. As the continent that was, and continues to be, deeply exploited, sub-Saharan Africa has the most to lose.

Why focus on children in sub-Saharan Africa? +

Despite incredible gains in health, education and economic growth, many communities across sub-Saharan Africa still face significant inter-linked challenges posed by poverty, HIV and AIDS, child marriage, poor quality education, poor nutrition, lack of health care and more. These challenges disproportionately impact children and youth, who are unable to realize their full potential. In fact, more than half of the 50 million out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are approximately 32.1 million children in SSA who are either single- or double-parent orphans. At the same time, approximately 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18.

Africa’s children, especially those in rural areas, are amongst the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized and will remain so if they continue to be neglected. Like children everywhere, with better education, healthcare, employment and life skills and stronger rights, children in Africa can thrive and become more resilient and productive. They are also key to a brighter future for Africa and represent the greatest opportunity to realize long-term gains for the region.

It is critical to think about how to best help Africa’s children. The needs are many as are the solutions and approaches. Firelight invests in African community-based organizations (CBOs) because they are closest to the environments and systems, particularly in rural areas, in which children either thrive or are made vulnerable. In Africa, CBOs are often the only safety net for children with the greatest developmental and survival needs. CBOs often serve areas that governments, markets, and large non-governmental organizations do not, or cannot, reach.

  • It is estimated that well over 90% of orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa are cared for by extended family members or by other families in their communities.
  • About 63% of total Sub-Saharan population lives in rural areas, often in areas that still cut off and hard to reach.
  • Less than 2% of international humanitarian aid actually goes to local organizations around the world.
  • About 49% of American government aid flows through American nonprofits, for-profit companies, and American educational institutions – not local organizations.

How do you define community? +

A community is a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often (but not always) have a common cultural and historical heritage. Firelight’s work is most often centered in rural (as opposed to urban) contexts and as such, community at Firelight refers to a village or collections of villages or other similar-sized governance structures. Firelight’s definition of community pays heed to families and individuals (marginalized or not) and to formal and informal leadership and organizational structures.

What are community-based organizations? +

Community-based organizations are indigenous nonprofit or civil society groups that work at a local level to improve life for residents. Unlike other organizations (such as local NGOs or international NGOs), community-based organizations arise from the local community and in direct response to their needs. CBOs are not NGOs founded by outsiders. They are not INGOs staffed by locals and they are not national NGOs founded outside a community structure. Through a process of leveraging existing community resources and outside investments, they focus on improving the lives of community members over the short and long term, often using holistic methods that consider the multidimensionality of issues affecting children and youth.

Why should we support community-based organizations (CBOs)? +

Current top-down approaches to the realization of rights, nurturing care and early development of children in sub-Saharan Africa have shown their limits. Even the most well designed, intentioned and funded program will fail if there a lack of trust between a service provider, especially an international organization, and the community; CBOs can help bridge this trust gap.
CBOs are one of the greatest unrealized assets in the goal of achieving lasting outcomes for children. This is because:

  • They exist at the nexus of the child and the community.
  • They understand and can respond to local contexts.
  • They have the reputation, connections and gravitas to shift norms.
  • They are geographically well placed in remote, hard-to-reach, underserved areas.
  • They have familiarity with community and earned trust.
  • They are well-positioned to engage communities in their own change.
  • They are the link connecting networks (families, schools, government, public & private sectors, etc).
  • They complement and strengthen reach of any existing services.

Because they are born of and focus on those who reside in community, they are well connected to the groups they serve and often provide the missing link between formal and informal systems of support in delivery of services and coordination. As a trusted partner, they are sources of critical information to and from the community, many times enabling access denied to outsiders. This is critical in child early education, care, nurturing protection and safeguarding systems where the family is the primary enabler of or encroacher on children’s rights and welfare or where systems are informal.

Sadly however, CBOs have been systematically marginalized and disempowered through infantilization, subcontracting, and projectization. Because they are seen as too small or lacking in the formalized capacity that global development actors “need” for impact/scale/rapid social change.

Like any other organization, in order to grow, reach more people, be effective and efficient, CBOs need financial, technical, and organizational support. Because rural CBOs work with isolated populations, they themselves benefit tremendously from learning opportunities from a range of sources, including their peers within and outside the community. Often, they know what the community needs but lack the means to access resources and effectively carry out their programs. Based on our extensive history and learning of nearly 20 years in the region, we continue to serve CBOs that serve children because when they thrive families and children thrive.

How many grantees do you currently have? +

As of fiscal year 2017/2018, Firelight granted and/or sub-granted to 47 community-based organizations, but we have funded 365 community-based organizations in our 20-year history, including many community grantmakers that have channeled resources and capacity building to countless additional community-based organizations. Learn more about the organizations we have funded here.

How is Firelight different? +

Despite global aid practices since the 1950s, evidence shows that large influxes of foreign aid can end up doing more harm than good. In particular, aid can strengthen corruption and dependency in countries where such challenges are already widespread, meaning funds are not used to help people as they are intended. Moreover, many well-intentioned programs still employ an “outside-in” approach; that is, problems and solutions are identified with little consultation with the people these programs seek to serve. And these programs are then often designed to show high impact quickly; if this doesn’t happen, then funding is pulled.

Firelight is different because we prioritize different things in our support for our grantee-partners:

  • Long-term, flexible funding for grassroots, community-based organizations;
  • Participatory learning and action to enable communities to identify problems and solutions;
  • Technical, programmatic, and organizational capacity-building in thematic and/or geographic clusters for maximum learning and impact;
  • Grantee-partner participation in communities of practice and multi-dimensional networks (peer networks, networks of global experts and consultants, national/international networks) to deepen knowledge-sharing;
  • Systemic policy and/or normative change for children;
  • Organizational sustainability with or without outside funding; and
  • Learning and evaluation processes that value both community practices and international standards.

What is the Firelight model? +

Firelight’s approach is founded on the belief, backed by experience and evidence, that by strengthening community-based systems and structures and developing the next generation of changemakers, communities can best determine and sustain the change they want to see. Our model has several core components that we employ in an adaptive process through constant learning and refining. Learn more about our model here.

What do you look for in a CBO grantee-partner? +

At Firelight, we prioritize organizations that listen to and are deeply connected to their communities, using servant leadership to guide them in their decision making. Instead of simply evaluating them by the size of their operating budgets or current abilities, we look for their potential to grow in their impact and ability to engage community in shifting systems for children and youth both in their communities and beyond. Learn more about what we look for in our CBO grantee-partners here.

Why do you focus on helping organizations, not children directly? +

When communities and the systems that children live in are resilient and thriving, then children will thrive. Communities often know what they need and how to best address the challenges facing their children; they just need funding and support. We want to help close the funding gap for community-based change in Africa.

We also do not want to be around forever – we want to create the indigenous capacity that will thrive beyond us. At Firelight, we have always celebrated when a community-led organization graduates from our support, and we celebrate even more when they take over our role in one way or another. Today’s problem may not be tomorrow’s challenge, so we seek to strengthen indigenous, community-based organizations that can take on those future challenges facing children. Strong, thriving organizations reach children and youth both now and in the future.

CBOs are small – how can they make a big impact? +

Community-based organizations are the ultimate incubators of great ideas. With the capacity to solve real-world problems in groups of 100 to 10,000, community organizations can incubate, test, iterate, and prove ideas that can then be taken to scale.

If they choose to do so, community-based organizations can then scale effectively. The prevalence of community-based organizations across Africa means that they are an effective mechanism for reaching hard-to-reach populations in large numbers. When properly resourced, skilled and networked, community-based organizations can provide the ultimate vehicle for scale that is also sustained. Community-based organizations can also be effective in scaling solutions at the government level or holding governments accountable. By strengthening the social fabric of a community and developing effective, locally-based solutions, community organizations can build up collective voice and demonstrate collective impact to demand more from their governments.

Can you trust CBOs? +

Community-based organizations are accountable to the people they serve. As an intimate part of the social fabric, community organizations are accountable to stakeholders who are more than just “beneficiaries” – they are friends, neighbors and colleagues. Firelight’s “loss” rate is approximately 1%, meaning that we are able to guarantee that 99% of our grants were used for the purposes for which they were intended.

What do CBOs need? +

A recent Firelight survey of community-based organizations showed that, in addition to programmatic and technical capacity support, inadequate funding remains the key challenge, especially flexible, long-term, unrestricted capital.

Most foundations, aid agencies and government donors are results-driven, focusing on short-term outputs, which are the products of externally-planned program implementation, rather than long-term outcomes. Whether it is changing cultural norms and practices, laws and systems, or targeting certain outcomes, systemic change takes time and patience. CBOs need multi-year, flexible funding in order to deepen their impact, to expand their programs, and to see long-term changes for children and youth in their communities .

Donors often provide restricted funding to programs that leaves large gaps in organizations’ budgets, shying away from unrestricted funding that allows organizations to decide how best to use their funds. According to “Virtuous Capital,” an article from the Harvard Business Review, “In the process of making a grant, foundations often overlook the organizational issues that could make or break the nonprofit. Instead, they fold organizational requirements into the category of routine overhead costs—costs that divert precious resources from the real work of delivering programs. Foundations’ attitudes have long encouraged nonprofit organizations to focus on mission and to regard organizational capacity as worthwhile in principle but a distracting burden in practice. Hence a serious problem for the nonprofit sector: no one is investing in nonprofit organizational capacity.” We have heard from our CBO grantee-partners that investing in “overhead” is essential to producing long-term, systemic change.

What do you mean by capacity building? +

Capacity building refers to many different types of activities that are all designed to improve and enhance a nonprofit’s ability to achieve its mission and sustain its impact over time. Capacity building is whatever is needed to bring an organizational entity to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, so it may more effectively and efficiently advance its mission into the future. Capacity building is not a one-time effort to improve short-term effectiveness, nor is it based on assumption that no capacity already exists – it is a continuous improvement strategy toward the creation of a sustainable and effective organization.

Why do you focus on organizational capacity as well as programmatic capacity? +

Many donors can’t or won’t provide much-needed investments in the capacity of a community organization to be an agent of change, instead preferring to fund exclusively programs or capital infrastructure. We see the value in investing in the organization as well as in the work they are doing.

According to “Virtuous Capital,” an article from the Harvard Business Review, “In the process of making a grant, foundations often overlook the organizational issues that could make or break the nonprofit. Instead, they fold organizational requirements into the category of routine overhead costs—costs that divert precious resources from the real work of delivering programs. Foundations’ attitudes have long encouraged nonprofit organizations to focus on mission and to regard organizational capacity as worthwhile in principle but a distracting burden in practice. Hence a serious problem for the nonprofit sector: no one is investing in nonprofit organizational capacity.” We have heard from our CBO grantee-partners that investing in “overhead” is essential to producing long-term, systemic change.

Isn’t this work expensive and time intensive? +

Because we know that sustainable social change takes time, Firelight aims to provide its grantees with critical, flexible funding for up to seven years. At the same time, while other organizations may fund only short-term programs, we take a holistic approach towards capacity building – focusing not only on technical and programmatic capacity but also organizational capacity, communities of practice, and learning and evaluation mindsets that will last long after we have gone.

In addition, we know that a two-year funding cycle is often too short to make a true difference in the life of a child, let alone in the long-term outcomes of an entire community. Regardless of their intentions, few major funders are able to stick with a grantee as long as Firelight can. We want to see long-term sustainable change in the communities where we work and patient capital is the best way to make that happen.

What are some examples of capacity building? +

  • Organizational capacity – supported by Firelight Program Officers and Lead Partner mentor organizations – equips CBO staff with the necessary skills and tools required to run an effective organization, such as budgeting and forecasting, governance, financial management, strategic planning, stakeholder analysis, program documentation, storytelling capacity, and participatory learning and action.
  • Programmatic and technical capacity positions CBOs to better innovate, design, manage, and evaluate programs. At Firelight, we engage the expertise of technical consultants and academics across the continent to strengthen CBOs’ programmatic and technical capacity.
  • Communities of practice, or linkages with peer, national, and international networks and mentors, improves CBO effectiveness by enabling them to share learnings and collaborate on shared goals, allowing them to expand and to deepen their impact in their communities. Our Lead Partners and Firelight Program Officers both support and coordinate these communities of practice to ensure that they are useful for all involved.
  • Building learning and evaluation capacity – with the expertise of our Firelight learning team and external experts – helps our grantee-partners collect evidence of impact that helps them improve programs and share learnings with their communities and donors.

What do you mean by participatory learning and action? +

Participatory learning and action (PLA) is an approach to social change based on the fundamental belief that the meaningful participation of beneficiaries, key stakeholders, and ‘community’ is critical to more fully understanding an issue and carrying out actions for relevant, effective, and sustainable change. Firelight supports our CBO grantee-partners to implement PLA methodologies to facilitate the meaningful participation of community members at all stages of the learning-action cycle – from understanding an issue to carrying out actions to evaluating and reflecting on outcomes. With community participation and iterative learning and action cycles, community-based approaches become more responsive, relevant, and effective over time – sustaining change for children and youth both now and in the future. Learn more about how Firelight supports partners with methodologies in participatory learning and action here.

Why should I give to Firelight? +

We work with both donors at any level as their partner in changing the lives of children and youth in eastern and southern Africa, creating sustainable social change through strong community-based organizations. Constrained by staffing limitations or budgetary constraints, foundation donors may want to fund at the community level but often lack the resources or staff to do it alone. Firelight has worked with some of the biggest names in philanthropy and social change – the Hilton Foundation, Nike Foundation, the MasterCard Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Johnson and Johnson, ELMA Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the Oak Foundation, amongst others. We work effectively with large donors to help them achieve programmatic outcomes, combining their support with our own flexible capital and our expert staff resources. This means we can fund great programs for children and youth that are implemented by strong community organizations over the right period of time to result in sustainable social change.

While Firelight has the expertise and experience in helping big foundations implement impactful programs at the community level, we also help smaller philanthropists’ capital go further. We can help individual philanthropists learn, see their impact, and be part of something big. We match their contributions with those of larger foundations and provide leverage for their capital by grouping our grantees to address major hotspots of need and opportunity. All the while, these philanthropists can learn and see the impact of their giving.

Shouldn’t I give to one of these organizations directly? +

We hope that one day you can and you will. Today, there are two key reasons we believe that Firelight provides a great opportunity for donors. First, donating to Firelight gives donors a way to leverage their giving across multiple community-based organizations, all of which are vetted and strengthened by Firelight staff and external experts. Second, donating to Firelight gives donors a way to help community-based organizations work together, in a community of practice that will do so much more than just help children in the short term; it will help them change the very systems that disadvantage children in the first place.

What will your investment in Firelight support? +

$5,000 can be leveraged with other funds to enable Firelight to continue mentoring and supporting critical community-based organizations with capacity building, learning and evaluation capacity, and systems change

$10,000 enables Firelight to provide a community-based organization with specialized training that they might need to be more impactful in the lives of children and youth – such as quality care for very young children, leadership development, or how to engage governments

$25,000 enables Firelight to provide community-based organizations with learning and evaluation frameworks that are informed by their communities, value local knowledge, are academically rigorous, and can help them adapt and change their work if needed

$50,000 enables Firelight to support a community-based organizaton to directly impact the lives of children for an entire year while also preparing that organization to continue their work after Firelight has gone

$250,000 helps Firelight build a cluster of grantee-partners where the need and opportunity is the greatest

$1.5 million helps Firelight support an entire cluster of community-based organizations for three years to measureable change the lives of children, while also shifting the conditions in which the children live

How do you measure change or impact? +

Firelight takes a multi-pronged approach to learning and evaluation and collects a variety of data:

  • Organizational development assessments - The Organizational Development Tool – which has been replicated by many other organizations – assesses the capacity of each community-based organization across a spectrum of indicators to measure whether they have become more accountable, more sustainable, and more financially responsible. Using this tool, we seek to understand, measure, and constructively use information about the organizational health of our grantee-partners to help us tailor our grantmaking and mentoring for greater organizational growth, impact, and sustainability.
  • Assessments of child and community outcomes - We seek to measure and evaluate the outcomes of children, youth, and communities that our grantee-partners serve in order to create an evidence base for community-led action and to help CBOs improve their programs on an ongoing basis. We implement periodic quantitative and qualitative assessments into all of our initiatives in an effort to enable us all to track success and learn from challenges. As part of these assessments, we:
    • Gather data with tools designed to assess and provide feedback on the quality of our grantee-partners’ programs, as well as to assess longer term shifts in child outcomes or community norms
    • Develop monitoring, evaluation, and learning frameworks and processes which provide feedback on the implementation of the program, test assumptions, and measure short-term and long-term outcomes
    • Use data to improve program quality, refine or revamp program models, and assess progress towards outcomes
  • Program model documentation and evaluation - We assist our grantee-partners in documenting their innovative program models and in communicating them to broader audiences so that they may be assessed, critiqued, and replicated by others. We also conduct program evaluations to learn which interventions work well and which do not, as well as how Firelight can improve in its model of support.
  • Learning questions - We ask learning questions which are critical to our own desire to be a learning organization. These questions might relate to our grantmaking, our mentoring, the growth of our CBO grantee-partners, or to the change they seek. We use these questions to adapt and learn and to help our grantees do the same.

Underlying all of these approaches is an enduring commitment at Firelight, and amongst our grantee-partners, to listen and to respond to the needs of communities and children. We seek to understand their realities, build programs that are responsive, and use that information to adapt our work. We deliberately fund and enable our grantee-partners to listen deeply to their communities and to engage them in collaborative processes as they together develop action plans and engage in learning and evaluation that is integrated with community-led action.

Does Firelight measure cost per beneficiary or cost-effectiveness? +

At Firelight, we do not measure cost per beneficiary because we believe that investment in systemic change cannot truly be measured that way. While our partners do work partly on direct service delivery and programs for children, they are also trying to shift the systems around them – focusing on community-led action and engagement, advocacy and lobbying for policy or budgetary change, and engaging with powerful local and national networks that can amplify their impact.

However, we do also know that CBOs can be more cost-effective than international NGOs. Costs are inherently lower when not paying international staff, and CBOs are also often able to mobilize volunteers and community members in their work. An example cited by Dr. Geoff Foster in his report “Bottlenecks and Dripfeeds” is indicative of how cost-effective community-based organizations can be:

“Some of the most effective initiatives to support children affected by HIV/AIDS are low cost and receive small amounts of private funding. For example, in Zimbabwe, the Bethany Project mobilized 656 volunteers throughout an entire district. They provided visits and material support to 4,952 needy orphans and 3,052 other children at an annual cost of $20,000, or $2.50 per child. Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT) mobilised seven communities involving 142 volunteers supporting 6,500 orphans and vulnerable children in 2,170 households at a cost of $3 per child, $10 per family and $0.31 per visit.”

What are your major achievements? +

During Firelight’s almost 20 years of grantmaking, we have made 1600+ grants, totaling more than $24+ million, granted in 12 African countries, supported 365 community-based organizations (including many Community Grantmakers), raised $33 million since 2010, and impacted millions of children, parents, caregivers, professionals, and community members. In the last year alone, with Firelight’s support, our grantee partners provided holistic support to just over 67,000 children, 19,000 parents and caregivers and 39,000 community members.

Firelight grants have often been the first external funding for many organizations and many of them have now grown into more impactful, more sustainable organizations, serving more children and communities. Our partners have leveraged our grants in almost every community, matching Firelight’s contributions by at least 20% and sometimes up to 100% with contributions from their own communities. Many have also been able to access funding from large foundation and government donors like ELMA Philanthropies and USAID and in some cases, have become Community Grantmakers – able to raise and make grants to other CBOs – in their own right.

We are also proud that our support for them is meaningful - according to Firelight survey results, our grantees saw significant increases in programming and organizational capacity after partnering with Firelight. This means they are fundamentally:

  • more stable
  • more grounded in their communities
  • implementing better programs and providing better services for children
  • more transparent and accountable to their communities
  • able to reach more beneficiaries

There are almost too many amazing stories to mention but our grantees have recorded significant progress in many areas impacting children and youth including gains in adolescent girl empowerment in Rwanda, reductions in child marriage in Tanzania, and increases in access to early childhood education in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania. Learn more about our initiatives and their impact here.