On a crisp June morning in Nairobi, close to 40 people gathered around warm cups of Kenyan tea and coffee to talk about financing for locally-led peacebuilding. But there was a twist. There wouldn’t be long presentations by a handful of ‘experts’, panel discussions with limited time for questions, nor rushed conversations during a break. This was different from other localisation conversations. It was about building relationships and sharing experiences.
The event started as a request. In 2022, the Life & Peace Institute (LPI) provided micro-grants to seven youth-led Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) in Nairobi’s informal settlements. The micro-grants had minimal restrictions and were designed to empower young women and men to design and manage projects in their communities that supported social cohesion in advance of and during Kenya’s general elections. At the end of the projects, the CBOs said they wanted more opportunities to engage. They wanted to share their experiences and ensure they and others could access the funds that can help them to strengthen their communities.
What came of that request was LPI’s first ‘Knowledge Café’ event. Recognising the increasing demand for conversations on ‘localisation’ and flexible funding, we saw an opportunity to create a space to directly connect and enhance understanding between community leaders and the donor community. Why? Because we understand that relationships, fostered through enhanced communication, understanding, respect, trust, and collaboration, are essential in shaping positive social change. In a sector fraught with assumptions and a limited understanding of various actors’ experiences, this required us to design a different type of convening.
To create the opportunity for meaningful engagement between youth community leaders and international donor representatives, we carefully curated a group of participants, ensuring that their experiences and knowledge were relevant to foster relevant contributions and mutual learning. Specifically, we invited: the youth-led CBOs that we partnered with through our participatory and flexible micro-grant initiative in 2022; representatives of the donor community that are supporting peacebuilding in Kenya; and non-government organisations that are playing ‘intermediary roles’ by distributing funds to local organisations through sub-granting mechanisms.
In addition to being intentional about whom we invited, we were mindful of how power dynamics could impact interactions. Power imbalances between donors and grantees are well documented (for examples, see here and here), therefore, we prepared for and facilitated participation in ways that would create an inclusive space where all participants felt equally valued and could draw on both their unique and shared experiences.
In practice, this meant creating a different atmosphere. Notably, we were striving for less formal interactions that would mitigate the influence of titles and organisational positions. From the outset, we used the design and tone of our invitation to create a different ‘vibe’. Invitations emphasised the goal of facilitating deep and nuanced conversations and invited participants to arrive at the Knowledge Café with curiosity and a willingness to learn. Acknowledging the importance of space and environment, we also used a different type of venue – an outdoor and screenless restaurant instead of a sterile hotel conference room.
Sessions were designed to give participants the time to get to know one another, learn from each other, and reflect together. Tables were kept small with no more than seven people sitting together, a number range that facilitator and author Priya Parker notes are ‘conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling’. We strategically sat diverse representatives at each table and, while being mindful not to rush the conversations, individuals were shifted to different tables several times during the event to allow for more connections.
As part of our effort to be power-aware and to ensure the discussions were pertinent and meaningful, in advance of the meeting, we co-designed questions with our CBO partners for each of the planned sessions. Similarly, understanding the challenges that donors often face in such spaces, we emphasised that this was a non-solicitation space – participants were there to share and connect and not to request funding. Additionally, drawing on our report on language in the peacebuilding sector, we asked participants to foster understanding by explaining information and avoiding jargon.
This intentional approach sparked rich and valuable conversations. CBOs were able to engage with donor representatives on their own terms, in many cases for the first time. They asked them questions relevant to their work, such as: what opportunities and risks do you see in partnering with CBOs? What are the challenges and limitations that you face in funding CBOs? What interests you about your partners’ work? What are common mistakes that CBOs make when fundraising? What are things that CBOs shouldn’t be afraid of asking donors? What conditions must organisations fulfil to enter a partnership with your institution and why?
Further, the conversations increased understanding between the CBOs and donor representatives of their respective work, including the roles they play and the challenges and constraints they face. For instance, several CBOs shared the challenges they face in accessing information about calls for proposals, writing and submitting proposals, or in meeting certain funding requirements. Similarly, individuals from the donor community were able to shed light on how shifting political government priorities impact funding opportunities, how different funding streams can lead to siloed interventions, the type of support they can provide to their partners, or how they use narrative and financial reports to justify expenditures.
This had a transformative effect on some of the participants, dispelling preconceived assumptions they held about the other. Specifically, some of our CBO partners expressed experiencing a shift in perspective. From the interactions, they said that they realised that donors are approachable and genuinely interested in engaging with them. They also recognised that donors also face (sometimes similar) challenges, fostering a sense of shared experience. As a result, they gained a newfound appreciation for their respective value and understood that they can partner with international organisations and donors on an equal footing.
As the event ended, and after cups and plates were cleared, we reflected, as LPI, about our connecting role. Sometimes, we foster indirect connections, facilitated through the financial support we receive from our donors and channel to our partners, or through the stories of our partners’ impactful work that we share with our donors. Other times, we have the privilege of bringing people directly together in the same room, as illustrated by the Knowledge Café event. The experience highlighted the value of intentional planning and underscored the importance of creating further opportunities to break down barriers, foster connections, and enable diverse actors to better support one another as they work towards their shared goal of promoting peace.
This was our first Knowledge Café event, but it won’t be our last.