We recently sat down via Zoom with Lorrie Fair Allen, Chief Program Director for the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), to learn more about the foundation and its work. Lorrie oversees strategic learning and impact at CTAOP, which is dedicated to supporting community-based organizations in Southern Africa that are working to keep young people healthy and safe.

Q: Can you just tell us a bit about yourself and the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project?

I joined CTAOP in 2011. At the time, there were two of us – the Executive Director, Ashlee George, and me. I spent my first year based in rural South Africa, helping a community-based organization (CBO) manage a community project. When I got back to the U.S., we shifted gears and focused on rethinking how the foundation could be most effective and how best to grow our impact. We reached out to over 200 people across sectors and communities for their input, and those conversations and learnings helped shape how we operate today.

CTAOP works with CBOs in Southern Africa, with the majority in South Africa. Most organizations we partner with are grassroots, and they invest in the health, education, and safety of young people in the region. Our mission used to be focused specifically on HIV prevention, and as we saw the interrelated nature of other elements – like education, safety, and sexual violence – we shifted our mission to reflect a more holistic approach.

We support CBOs and youth on the frontlines of social change by providing funding, strengthening capacity, mobilizing and activating networks and resources, and advocating for youth and CBOs. Our key focus is around sexual reproductive health and rights, including HIV work. Recently, we added gender-based violence prevention to our list of priorities.

Q: One of the reasons we’re catching up today is to talk about some of your current work around trust-based philanthropy? Can you tell us a little bit about this journey that you’re on? What does trust-based philanthropy mean?

From the start, CTAOP has always been relationship-forward. We try to get to know the people living in the communities where our Program Partners operate, including the people doing the work and those benefitting from it. Then do our best to provide the kind of support and transparency that they say they need while simultaneously letting them lead. It takes time and is a process to build trust – for both sides. To do it successfully requires a lot of listening and genuinely seeking to understand the nuanced challenges within each community and each organization, as well as reflecting on and openly sharing our own strengths and limitations. Valuing relationships and the human lives at the end of all these data points allows us to walk alongside Program Partners on their journey, and enables us to play various supporting roles. We are advocates and ambassadors for their work, we are sounding boards or perhaps critical friends when needed, and we are conveners and connectors whenever possible.

That said, as we look to continue our journey, one of the challenges in philanthropy is the harmful pitfalls of gatekeeping—the process of deciding who gets money and how it should be spent. We did some hard reflections over the past few years about the inequality and inequity in the philanthropic sector, especially pertaining to Global North grant makers giving to Global South organizations. We knew that we had to work more proactively to make things more equitable. For us, that meant making immediate shifts, while also planning how to make grantmaking and CTAOP’s work more equitable in the long-term. For example, we are exploring ways to incorporate participatory grantmaking in an upcoming initiative. We believe that these shifts will also lead to more effective solutions – that it’s both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. But we also recognize that we are very much still on this journey, and would love to engage more in conversations within the FCAA community about how we can better serve our Program Partners and advance equity.

Q: Have there been any difficult—or scary—aspects to shifting power in this way? What were some of the first steps you took? 

I think there’s always a fear of saying or doing something that may reinforce harmful power dynamics. For example, even saying that we need to “shift power” assumes that CBOs and their communities don’t have any or have little—it’s subtle, but it’s problematic, right? The truth is that people have inherent power that is often stymied or stifled by funders’ lack of trust and a desire to control. We need to ensure that folks closest to the challenges feel physically, psychologically, socially, and financially safe enough to wield that power and fully realize their potential as changemakers. That takes time, relationship-building, and trust.

New Program Partners might ask us, “What do you want to us to do with this grant?” We should be asking them what they want to do with it. We keep reinforcing the idea that, “We’re here to serve your organization and its work with youth and their communities.” It feels like CBOs have been really beaten down by the existing unequal structures and practices in our sector, and they’re understandably wary. They may not trust us at first. If we ignore the legacy of colonialism and the systemic racism that goes with it, we’re not seeing the whole picture and the challenges that come with trying to create an equitable philanthropic sector ahead.

We started self-reflecting about these power dynamics a few years ago. We really admired what we saw some other grant makers doing – Firelight Foundation and Thousand Currents come to mind among others. Our internal discussions led us to make some immediate shifts. We streamlined applications and reporting and began providing flexible funding for multiple years. We thought more carefully about the kinds of organizations we were supporting. Were they large international organizations that are mostly white- or expat-led? Or were we supporting locally led CBOs?

And Charlize is a big advocate for CBOs and local solutions, so she has been a big supporter of this journey.

Q: What does a successful grant or a partnership look like for you now?

We know that each of our Program Partners serves a distinct community with different nuances and challenges, so we ask each partner to define their own goals. What do they want to achieve? What future do they want for young people vis-à-vis sexual reproductive health, gender-based violence, and HIV? And then we ask how they want to help create that future.

We also streamlined our process of proposal writing. Jessie Chiliza, our Associate Program Director in Durban, will sit and chat with a potential Program Partner to determine whether we are a good fit. Oftentimes, the decision is based on mutual values and how they engage their community. If we’re aligned, Jessie will talk through the process and offer to write the proposal with them if they would like. We ask for examples of activities they might do, but we also tell them that if something isn’t working, they are free to change it. We want to encourage innovation and learning.

As time goes on, we have check-ins to ensure we’re supporting our partners as best we can. We might offer to connect them with other Program Partners, or, if there’s a capacity issue they want to address, we offer capacity-building grants. We also offer travel stipends that they can use to visit a Program Partner in another city and learn from them. Finally, we convene Program Partners each year either as one big group or in smaller regional summits to hold space for healing and rejuvenation, dreaming and creating, and addressing challenges collectively.

Q: In FCAA’s latest strategic plan we highlight the importance of “HIV-informed grantmaking” in addressing the deeply ingrained injustices that the epidemic is symptomatic of. What does HIV-informed grantmaking mean to you?

The areas where CTAOP focuses—sexual reproductive health, gender-based violence, safety, education—it’s all connected to HIV. HIV-informed grantmaking means that we must center humans and their experiences. The response to HIV and AIDS has really shown what’s possible when the people who have traditionally had the least power are welcomed at the decision-making table and provided an opportunity to wield their power and share their experience and knowledge. HIV-informed grantmaking means following the mantra: nothing about us without us. And the philanthropic sector can continue learning from the successes that the HIV response has had when those with lived experience are in positions to fully lead.