Civil Society Program Director shares insights on program’s new direction

Shannon Lawder
Shannon Lawder.

In March 2018, Mott’s Board of Trustees approved the next iteration of the Civil Society program plan that will guide grantmaking through 2028. In this Q&A, Program Director Shannon Lawder talks about the exciting new direction for the Foundation’s Civil Society grantmaking.

Mott: Your team has been hard at work over the past two years creating the updated Civil Society program. How does it differ from the past?

Shannon Lawder: The biggest change is a shift in the structure of the program. We’re moving away from a geographic focus and instead concentrating on thematic program areas in which we believe Mott can have the greatest impact. After 25 years of working on civil society development in specific regions of the world, we decided to refocus on what we’re doing rather than where. Geography will still play a role but will no longer drive grantmaking in the revised plan. The new thematic program areas — Strengthening Civic Space, Enhancing Community Philanthropy and Increasing Access to Justice — offer greater opportunities to respond to changing dynamics in global civil society, track our impact and work more closely as a team.

Mott: How will the new focus affect current grantmaking?

Lawder: The three new program areas include long-term bodies of work for the Foundation, and many of our current grantees working in the United States and at the regional and global levels in these areas will continue to be part of the new program. However, much of our country-level civic engagement and philanthropy development work in Central and Eastern Europe and South Africa is being phased out because of the changes. While we will no longer be able to support most of these organizations directly, we hope that many of these country-level grantees will be able to benefit from Mott-funded programs through regional and global organizations.

In the United States, there’s a need for increased policy and research work, so the sector will be prepared for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Therefore, our support for the U.S. nonprofit and philanthropic sector will now focus on maintaining a healthy policy environment. We will end our grantmaking for general effective practice programs.

Mott: The plan includes a focus on addressing the ambitious United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. How will that play out in Mott’s grantmaking?

Lawder: The SDGs — or global goals, as they’re also called — provide a platform for civil society, governments and the private sector to come together to solve issues of global concern. Mott has an opportunity to help many of our grantees adopt the SDG framework to make a greater impact in their local communities. For example, we’ll now support community foundations to lead efforts to locally address global challenges and share solutions that are working on the ground. Over the years, we’ve seen the power of community foundations to galvanize their communities and confront huge challenges, like in Mott’s hometown of Flint. We also have been impressed with the staying power and resilience of community foundations in countries where other NGOs are severely restricted.

Similarly, through our Access to Justice portfolio, we will specifically address SDG 16.3, which focuses on peace, justice and strong institutions, and targets ensuring equal access to justice for all. Our grantmaking in this area will continue to advance long-term work in South Africa and Ukraine, help expand services in other African countries, and support global efforts to strengthen the grassroots access to justice field.

Mott: A lot has changed in the world in the 25 years since Mott established the Civil Society program. How have the global challenges the Foundation wants to address evolved in that time?

Lawder: Our work in the Civil Society program began with a spirit of optimism about the new opportunities to increase civic engagement and philanthropy in formerly restricted countries. And Mott’s work over the last quarter-century has taken place in that optimistic context.

However, we’re currently grappling with an increasingly closing space for meaningful civic engagement. Across the world — even in the United States — governments are introducing more restrictive legislation and, in some extreme cases, questioning the right of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector to exist. The goal of the new Civic Space program area is to protect space for engagement and help ensure civil society can continue to thrive. We’ll support the nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure in the United States, regionally and globally to advocate on behalf of the sector for policies that encourage its growth and vitality. We also will support research and innovative approaches to civil society development to help the sector stay nimble and able to respond and flourish in the current context.

Mott: What makes you most excited about this next phase in your team’s work?

Lawder: The new plan offers greater opportunities for teamwork across geographic boundaries. The Civil Society team is spread over three offices — Flint, London and Johannesburg — and there has been a tendency in the past for us to work independently in our own areas. As we focus on thematic program areas across various countries and regions, I’m looking forward to the creativity that will come from team members with different perspectives working together to achieve common objectives and outcomes. It will no doubt be more challenging to work in this new way, but I think it will be worth it.