Key capacities to mobilize resources

On September 10th, we organized a discussion session on resource mobilization in our Universalia offices in Montreal in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). We were fortunate to have guests from wide-ranging backgrounds (not-for-profit organizations, academia, research institutions, and the private sector) participate and share their viewpoints on the capacities organizations need to generate the resources to do their work. Below are highlights from the discussion:

Participants were asked to identify the key capacities required for research institutions and not-for-profit organizations to mobilize resources.


  • Much emphasis was placed on the importance of strong leadership within organizations, as the organizations that attract funds tend to be those that are well-structured and well-governed. Leaders represent the values of an organization, and act as its voice externally.
  • For leaders to successfully mobilize resources, they must engender trust, live with earnestness and integrity, and fully stand behind their organization’s mission.
  • Organizations that are in an early stage of maturation will tend to have centralized rather than distributed leadership. A danger of centralized leadership is that only one individual within an organization may engage and negotiate with donors, know how to write funding proposals, and have knowledge of the organization’s overall strengths and weaknesses. Transferring this knowledge and developing a fundraising culture within an organization can help it preserve both institutional memory and donor confidence if the leader is replaced.


  • For research institutions, credibility is perceived as a key factor, as people will not use their research products if they are not deemed credible. However, maintaining credibility while navigating political complexities can be quite challenging. For example, if think tanks are perceived as too successful in influencing government policy or the agenda of civil society organizations, they can lose trust vis-à-vis their multiple stakeholders and funding opportunities. On the other hand, who funds them can have an impact in how their research is conducted, and therefore a bearing in turn on their credibility and legitimacy.
  • Certain participants voiced that credibility is a significant concern for other organizations in the not-for-profit or private sectors also. In such cases, organizations must live and prove their objectivity everyday.


  • Organizations must leverage stewardship: the best predictor of a future donor is a happy donor.
  • Cultivating donor relationships requires a whole set of skills. Most important though is listening carefully to what donors want, and taking a sincere interest in them.


  • Organizations must communicate their work and results; when the public understands the work an organization is doing, the trust towards it widens.
  • Organizations can be sensitive to the language used in the context of resource mobilization. Certain ‘capitalist’ terms are not welcomed by not-for-profit organizations or academia, even though the associated concepts could be useful (e.g., business model). Hence, appropriate language is needed to rally people around important concepts.
  • Organizations should also consider adapting their communication to trends in donor terminology (e.g., social entrepreneurship and impact investing), in order to attract different types of supporters.

The conversation then focused on whether the resource mobilization capacities of research or not-for-profit organizations should be geared towards meeting market forces and high demand areas. 


  • Participants noted that focusing on demand can lead research institutions to essentially become service providers for clients: by responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) and  accepting funding for short-term commissioned work, these organizations can struggle in developing an overall strategy and experience huge mission drifts (if not defining their own research agenda).


  • Organizations involved in social research appear to have few tools to assess and understand their market.
  • Most organizations do SWOT exercises (i.e., analyze their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), but typically with an internal focus only. Few appear to look at the external world in this way; context, changing environment, donors, clients, and competition are overlooked.


  • To pursue their mission, organizations often put in place core or ‘general purposes’ funding which is untied to specific projects or funding partners. This gives an organization some flexibility to fund activities in line with its strategic vision. However, many donors are suspicious of such funds. Given limited core financing, the funds may also be sufficient only to cover the ‘overhead’ or administrative costs of the organization.

Participants were asked to comment on the role that executive boards of organizations should play in resource mobilization.


  • It was noted that organizations that are failing often have a dysfunctional board. The worst scenarios are when a board only truly consists of names on a piece of paper (i.e., there is limited involvement) or when roles and responsibilities are unclear.
  • Boards should have a range of capacities and skills; if there are gaps in an organization, board members can then provide support. For instance, boards can help communicate what an organization is doing, which can facilitate its resource mobilization.
  • Boards play or should play a big role in ensuring the credibility and fiduciary responsibility of an organization. In addition to this and to developing networks, they can also serve an important advisory function: they can provide information on what is going on externally in the field and thus help shape the organization’s strategy.
  • Certain participants also noted that board members should make a symbolic financial contribution to the organization, to show that they fully stand behind the organization.

Participants were asked to look towards the future, and to identify the major changes which they foresee in resource mobilization.


  • Participants hoped that better data on not-for-profit organizations would become available (i.e., that countries would invest in learning about these organizations). This was considered a real possibility, as the capacity of statistical units is being built around the world.
  • The continued importance of networks was stressed. However, it was voiced that we would more and more be seeing unexpected partnerships (e.g., between universities and the private sector).
  • It was suggested that design thinking would become an approach more frequently used to design resource mobilization strategies.
  • For research institutions in developing countries, it was highlighted that there might be a considerable shift in international donor support, meaning that these organizations will increasingly need to tap into local resources (national government, people and individual philanthropists within the country). To adapt to this changing environment, it is likely that these organizations will increase the number of learning opportunities to meet and exchange practical experiences.
  • Donors will need to be more rigorous about what they wish to obtain from the organizations they are supporting, and will look to fund those that have the necessary systems in place to perform well.


We consider the discussion session on resource mobilization to have been most informative in that helped identify commonalities across organizations, emerging trends, as well as dominant themes.  We are very grateful to all participants  who so generously shared their time (see list further below), and whose thoughtful ideas have stimulated us to pursue our reflections on a variety of issues. In particular, we noted that there is increasing interest amongst not-for-profit organizations and research institutions (think tanks) in how resource mobilization connects their business models and funding models. More specifically, we are interested in exploring how the business model concept (traditionally used in the private sector) can be used to diagnose the sustainability of organizations. This is a line of inquiry which we will investigate in the coming months.

What are your thoughts on the key points raised as part of our discussion session on resource mobilization? Do you agree with the positions advanced? Do you feel there are important dimensions which we did not address?

We extend our thanks to all discussion participants:

Name Position Affiliation
Anita Nowak Integrating Director, The Social Economy Initiative Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University
Charles Lusthaus Co-founder and Senior Consultant Universalia
Karen Rodrigue-Gervais Programme Evaluation Analyst Universalia
Leon Schor Business Development and Quality Vice President L.E.K. Consulting
Mariane Arsenault Consultant Universalia
Mohamadou Sy Directeur Général Institut Supérieur de Développement Local (ISDL), Sénégal
Nicole Généreux Senior Partnership Officer, Donor Partnerships Division International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
Peter Taylor Senior Program Specialist, Think Tank Initiative International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
Robin McLay Executive Director Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University
Shelagh Gastrow Executive Director Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement

2 thoughts on “Key capacities to mobilize resources

  1. Pingback: Non-Profit Organizations – Think Business Model Before You Sink | Organizations and Change

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