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2. Competitive advantages
Module two of the GFMD MediaDev Fundraising Guide.
Over the past decade, the media development landscape has become increasingly crowded. Not only has there been an uptick in the number of specialised agencies but there has been a tendency for organisations with a wider development focus to extend their portfolio to include media and communications.
Consequently, it is important to ensure that your organisation stands out from the crowd by having a recognisable identity, mission and scope of work.
If donors see yours as the go-to organisation for, say, media literacy, legal reform or production training in a certain country or region, then this will give you a strong competitive advantage.
International or local?
When donors talk about international organisations, they are usually referring to agencies based in Europe or the US which work in the Global South. "Local" organisations are, therefore, considered to be actors based in beneficiary countries which generally work on a national level only.
Increasingly, local organisations have very significant competitive advantages which are dealt with in the sections below but which can be summarised as follows:
- An in-depth knowledge of the operating environment, including cultural and political sensitivities
- Local track record, including relationships with other implementing partners and donors
- A strong network of local contacts including policy-makers and media leaders as well as trainers and consultants
- A good understanding of local legal, financial and customs regulations affecting the work of development organisations
- Technical resources and office facilities which provide a base for international personnel
- Agility and adaptability as a result of maintaining relativelylean teams and deploying a high proportion of freelance staff
- A high degree of credibility in the local media space due to long-term, trust-based relationships and (often) a background in successful advocacy
These are exceptional advantages that "local" organisations are well advised to bear in mind when negotiating with bigger players.
One effective approach is to forge a reputation for working in a niche area that enjoys steady demand but that is not oversubscribed.
First and foremost, you will need to pursue grants which can build up your track record in this field but you will also need to develop the networks, partnerships and expertise necessary to burnish your credentials and establish your footprint.
Proactively securing speaking opportunities in conferences and events linked to the target theme/sector can also help build a reputation for thought leadership.
Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that donors are fickle and niche areas can enjoy widespread support for a time, then mysteriously vanish from their list of priorities. A few years ago, digital security training and constructive journalism were causes célèbres; now media literacy and media viability are on the ascendant.
It is, therefore, risky to be seen as a one-trick pony. There is much to be gained from analysing the trends and embracing new doctrines – as long as they don’t mark too radical a departure from your sphere of interest and your skillset.
The same principle applies to geographical outreach.
Even if your organisation has a primarily national focus, it may be worth exploring the possibilities for sharing your skills and experience on a regional level or, indeed, gaining a reputation for working outside the capital city and supporting the growth of provincial media markets.
For international organisations, there are clear advantages in gaining a solid track record in a country or sub-region which is traditionally overlooked or where others fear to tread. However, maintaining a presence or activity in those countries over an extended period of time may be more challenging.
When developing thematic and geographical niches, consistency and continuity are key, since they are essential for building trust with local beneficiaries and for forging long-term partnerships.
For organisations that do not have core funding, localised operations need to be able to expand and contract in line with available funding envelopes, therefore mechanisms should be put in place to cater for these fluctuations.
Defining and revising your company's unique selling points (USPs) is a useful exercise.
This can be done in the context of specific bids (i.e. defining so-called “win themes”) or more generally against the backdrop of perceived competition.
A focus on “what makes us different/innovative” is an essential part of successful fundraising, since it helps to:
- Your brand: how recognisable is it?
- Your specialist skills: where are they most in demand?
- Your resources: are they fit for purpose?
- Your target geographies: are they oversubscribed?
- Your commitment to fostering innovation: is your organisation adapting to changes in technology or best practice?
- Your partnerships: are you aligned with organisations that complement your offering?
- Your internal systems: can you hit the ground running and adapt to changing circumstances?
Unique tools and ways of working are crucial elements of developing a recognisable profile.
Not only do donors want to be seen to embrace innovation but potential partners will also be attracted by the opportunity to include cutting-edge approaches in their bids.
While, of course, agencies should avoid developing technology for technology’s sake, the media development industry as a whole often suffers from a reputation for being “old school” and for minimising risk by deploying well-worn approaches that have worked in the past or proven successful in a different geographic area.
Innovation should, therefore, be needs- and demand-driven. It should come in response to a specific set of challenges and enjoy strong local ownership.
But solutions should also be organic, adapting to reflect common usage patterns and evolving in line with feedback received.
Most tools or learning materials are developed in the framework of grant-funded projects but it is worth stepping back from the project-based cycle and committing internal resources to develop a coherent suite of products and methodologies that can shape and drive your organisational growth.
Examples of areas in which you might consider developing proprietary tools and methodologies might include:
- Training manuals in key subject areas that enjoy perennial demand
- Training toolkits that establish and illustrate best practice models
- Interactive learning systems (including mobile apps) that can extend your outreach and improve operational flexibility
- Knowledge management platforms that capture lessons learned
- Low-cost programme formats that have a proven track record in promoting socially responsible messaging
- Research methodologies that embrace key considerations such as equity and safeguarding
A recent and relevant track record is all-important when applying for any funding opportunity and, in some cases such as the first stage of a tender procedure, it is the single most important criterion.
Yet, as in most spheres, becoming a recognised player in your chosen field is a chicken-and-egg situation: you need to have a track record to win grants but you need grants to build a track record.
Most organisations, therefore, start out by entering into partnerships with larger agencies and/or delivering a small component of a larger project. This can also be a way to break into new areas and extend your geographical footprint.
Furthermore, there are smaller sub-granting programmes where there is less insistence on previous experience and other pieces of work – such as monitoring and evaluation, external assessment and training – which are sub-contracted or outsourced on the basis of a simple tender procedure.
These procedures are often based on the calibre of individual experts and the proposed pricing rather than track record alone.
Beyond having great ideas and being persistent, there is no tried-and-tested formula for success . On a local level, some donor organisations are described as "fortresses" while others pursue an open door policy. Nevertheless, all conversations with donors are useful and a degree of lobbying is usually possible. The recommendations below offer some insight into potential approaches to key donors in the media development field.
European Commission: consider participating in projects as a consortium partner or co-applicant in the first instance; some Delegations are open to dialogue and may be looking for media development partners to support local stakeholder engagement
EU Member State donors: approach Embassies and seek information about upcoming programmes. Consider Member State donors such as the FCDO and the German MFA as potential co-funders for ongoing programmes
UN agencies: engage with local representations but also watch out for competitive tenders to offer media services
US donors: depending on the country, bilateral opportunities can be relatively common and application procedures are generally quite straightforward.
Not all donors are willing to give unknown organisations a first chance.
Like first-time novelists, development agencies often suffer a slew of rejections before winning their first grant. Nevertheless, it is worth persisting since even failed applications may serve to put you on an individual donor’s map and the experience accrued through the application process is invaluable.
However, as noted elsewhere in this manual, you will limit your frustrations by taking a targeted approach to donor engagement and aligning your ambitions with the realities of the local funding landscape.