what we 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. In order to support these organizations, we raise and strategically invest capital from major foundations, family foundations, and individual philanthropists.
Our 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.
1. Map the challenges for children and youth.
Despite economic and social sector progress in many sub-Saharan African countries, children in rural eastern and southern Africa continue to be excluded from these gains. At Firelight, we find the geographic and thematic areas where the needs of vulnerable children and youth are the greatest and where community-based organizations can have the greatest impact. We identify this intersection through our strategic networks in southern and eastern Africa, nearly two decades of experience, extensive and rigorous data collection, and active consultation with communities and community-based organizations.
2. Identify catalytic community-based organizations (CBOs).
We seek out local, community-based organizations that are actively and innovatively mobilizing their communities to change the lives of children and youth. We identify these CBOs through the expertise of our Africa-based Program Officers, as well as our local networks and referrals from a variety of local stakeholders – such as community-based leaders, former grantee-partners, policy makers, and civil society leaders.
What is a community-based organization?
Community-based organizations are nonprofit or civil society groups that originate from a group of community residents and work at a local level to improve life for the community. 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. 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.
3. Identify root causes.
With our mentoring and financial support, grantee-partners engage in deep community listening to identify root causes that push children into vulnerability and prevent them from thriving. Challenges can range from cultural norms and family practices, to a lack of supportive child-centered services, to more systemic barriers at local or national levels. Tools such as participatory research, user-centered design, community mapping, community dialogues, and community-driven assessments enable stakeholders to have a voice in identifying where the root causes of challenges lie, and to have agency in addressing them. Actively engaging community members also yields greater transparency across the life of the initiative.
4. Identify solutions.
Firelight and our CBO grantee-partners work together to identify the strategies that best fit the challenge at hand. Desired outcomes can include:
providing effective programs and services
improving existing quality of programs and services
shifting community attitudes or practices towards children
stimulating structural shifts in local systems; and/or
engaging governments to provide services or change policies.
Ongoing engagement and participation of community stakeholders during program implementation enables community agency and ownership of solutions and therefore long-term sustainability.
5. Bring CBOs together.
We cluster our CBO grantee-partners geographically and thematically in groups of 4-12 organizations with one Lead Partner who is an established local community-based organization. These clusters create partnerships and networks through which our grantee-partners share knowledge and work towards a common goal together. Our cluster approach also facilitates greater collective action towards changing the systems – local and/or national – that impact children's lives.
6. Invest in CBOs using patient, flexible, but targeted capital.
Our funding covers a range of support that our grantee-partners need to be successful. We proudly fund what some call “overhead” because we know that core operating expenses are an essential part of running an organization. Our flexible grants – ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 – support organizational increases in technical and programmatic capacity as well as increases in ability to effectively manage resources. We also know that producing tangible and measurable results in the social sector takes time so we strive to raise enough long-term funding to support our grantee-partners for up to seven years.
7. Strengthen CBO capacity.
Each organization will have its own definition of program success and thus have different needs in order to achieve that success. Regardless of size, they all want to be effective organizations whose work positively impacts their communities. Applying our unique “multiform mentorship” model, we draw on the expertise of our own Program Officers and Lead Partners, as well as best-in-class technical consultants and experts from across the African continent, to build the programmatic and technical capacity needed by CBOs addressing the complex challenges faced by children. At the same time, we build the organizational capacity needed to run an effective organization such as financial management, governance, strategic planning, and information systems. Our funding also strengthens our grantees’ systems thinking approaches and participatory learning and action methodologies so they can engage communities in achieving the deeper, longer, community-driven impact they seek.
8. Support communities of practice.
From very early in our history, our CBO grantee-partners told us over and over again that the thought partnership and networks Firelight provides throughout the relationship are just as valuable as funding. This means that we are there at every stage of our CBO grantee-partners’ journeys, walking with them as they develop the capacity to address their challenges as well finding the right external connections and resources when needed.
CBO-to-CBO networks – Firelight actively brings its grantee-partners together within districts, within countries, and across countries on a quarterly basis so they can learn from each other and collaborate on shared goals. Our Lead Partner in turn provides lived experience and guidance to our CBO grantee-partner clusters to extend knowledge sharing further.
CBO-to-technical expert networks – Our Program, and Learning and Evaluation, Officers are based in Africa, which means they have intimate knowledge not only of our grantee-partners and their communities but also of other local and regional experts whose input is valuable. This network of African technical experts and consultants forge strong relationships with grantee-partners and provide ongoing follow-up support and coaching to our CBO grantee-partner clusters.
CBO-to-policymaker networks – We encourage CBO grantee-partners to join other local, national, or international learning, policy, and funding networks who can also support, learn from, and amplify their work. We celebrate when our grantee-partners become sought after leaders and partners or are cited for their expertise by the local and international communities.
9. Measure progress and document best practices.
Learning and evaluation means that we regularly measure programmatic and organizational effectiveness as well as document what we and our grantee-partners are learning. We employ participatory learning and evaluation practices so that communities can determine their own indicators of change while also introducing empirical data frameworks that will be important to policymakers and other stakeholders. We are transparent and open with our data across all of our grantee-partner clusters and support them to be transparent with their communities as well. Our strategy is two-fold:
We use participatory and independent methods to identify, assess, document, and disseminate key learnings and best practices on how community-driven solutions can be most effective for children and youth. This informs our own methodologies and those of our CBO grantee-partners so that we can adapt accordingly based on what is working and what is not. As importantly, we are building and sharing this body of evidence and knowledge base so that it can be used, adapted, or replicated by others.
We specifically target building a robust participatory learning and evaluation mindset in our grantee-partners so they can sustain an ongoing, iterative, learning process in their work and communities long after we are gone.
Scale and/or shift systems
A core part of Firelight’s strategy for each CBO grantee-partner and grantee-partner cluster is to look at shifting systems or scaling their ideas at the community, district, and/or national levels. This might mean that a CBO grantee-partner’s programs or solutions are adapted or replicated by other CBOs or adopted by governments as part of practice or policy. It might mean that healthier, child-centered norms or practices have been adopted by a community. It might mean that a community is mobilized to hold their government accountable for services it should be providing. We look at impacting not just individual lives but also the systems and structures within which children and youth live.
A core Firelight value is that we want to leave our grantees and their communities stronger than when we met them. They in turn have told us that they do not want to be dependent on us, or outside donor funding, in the long term. We work to honor that by helping them identify how their work and impact can be maintained after the funding cycle ends. For Firelight, it means that our work is sustained in a meaningful way beyond the life of the initiative or intervention.