In order for local actors to truly lead the development process, civil society organisations (CSOs) must first be able to function effectively and independently. Sustainability broadly refers to the ability of local civil society actors to overcome political, economic and environmental challenges, and become autonomous leaders in their context.

It is widely accepted that CSO sustainability is related to organisational capacity, revenue sources, and changes in external environments. In practice however, CSOs face a high number of complex challenges relating to their long-term effectiveness and viability.

Development approaches can have both positive and negative impacts on CSO sustainability. For instance, donor and large INGO approaches to aid and development can often reduce sustainability of local organisations by reinforcing problematic practices or exacerbating existing challenges, particularly in conflict-affected contexts. In cases where donors or INGOs fail to plan or implement an exit strategy, the internal capacity and long-term viability of an organisation is often undermined. However, there are also a number of donors and donor approaches that specifically target CSO sustainability, and work to encourage knowledge transfer and capacity building through their partnerships.

Sustainability is also highly dependent on contextual factors, which affect CSO legitimacy, credibility and access to resources. In many cases, shrinking civil spaces and restrictive legislation has led to CSOs fearing for their survival, and for the safety of their staff. CSOs in conflict-affected countries such as DR Congo also face higher rates of donor fatigue, resulting in large reductions or removal of external funding, shifting donor priorities, and disproportionate investment in the humanitarian sector rather than other sectors. However, there are an increasing number of innovative approaches that CSOs have employed to combat these contextual challenges, including a focus on social enterprise and social investment

Finally, organisational capacity and technical resources have been proven to significantly affect CSO sustainability. The internal structure of a CSO, including the presence of effective management systems (governance structure, M&E plans, etc.) and staff capacity can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful CSO. Additionally, CSO membership in networks can lead to strategic alliances and partnerships that promote adaptability and problem solving, which can support CSO sustainability in the face of contextual challenges.

There are many more challenges affecting CSO sustainability beyond those mentioned here.  As such, this theme provides resources and insight on CSO sustainability, including donor approaches, internal CSO operating tools, contexts analyses and case studies.