For more than forty-five years in Brazil, Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço (CESE) has been providing financial support to groups that promote and defend human rights. The work they do serves many populations including women, youth, Indigenous people, and rural and peasant communities.
From 2010, the organization began to work to improve its financial policies and standards in order to become more stable. However, in 2014, the sudden and unexpected loss of a significant donor put them into a major crisis. Using savings, CESE regained stability and continued to grow, and worked hard to partner with large and reliable funders. When they joined the FIRE program in 2020, the priority of the CESE leadership was to minimize risks: they were alert and keen on maintaining their financial status quo.
The FIRE program helped CESE realize how their own fears and assumptions were preventing them from building greater financial strength. The notion that ‘questioning funders is risky’ kept them from recovering their full costs, especially indirect program expenses, or ‘overheads’. They realized that they had a mindset that hindered their growth and a culture shift was required. With an all-new vision and set of tools, they developed more confidence in relating with funders, were able to develop vigilance around recovering indirect costs, and also worked on a reserve fund policy. They saw opportunities for greater diversification beyond their existing donors. And they saw that investments in powerful communications could increase engagement with their community and audience, contributing to greater impact.
The principles of FIRE inspired a new organizational culture at CESE, breaking down silos between different functions and departments. Everyone, collectively and transparently, could take on the responsibility of CESE’s financial health. And they began to also think about how they could pay it forward: CESE, who makes grants to numerous organizations in the country, are using the FIRE principles to inform their grant-making policies, so that their grantees too can become more financially resilient.
Learn more about their story by checking out the blog, video and infographic below. This Impact Story from Spring's Financial Innovation and Resilience (FIRE) program was created in April 2022.
The History and Mission of CESE
For more than forty-five years, CESE has worked with human rights organizations in Brazil. Set up by an alliance of Christian churches working together, CESE’s mission is to strengthen civil society organizations, particularly community-based groups, that can inform political, economic and social transformations where democratic and just change is possible.
CESE was founded in 1973 during a period when Brazil was living under a military regime and civil society had few forums. A group of church leaders in the northeast part of the country
formed CESE, a unique organization where for the first time, churches worked together to support the fight for rights that were under threat. Today CESE is supported by six Christian church denominations and has an institutional board nominated by the represented churches.
As a grant-maker, CESE’s mission is to place resources into the hands of communities and grassroots organizations to do their work. They also support their grantees and others with training to expand the capacity of organizations in areas such as fund mobilization and management, planning, monitoring and advocacy. They also educate the public on the importance of advancing human rights for all the people in Brazil.
CESE supports both popular organizations and small projects, recognizing the limited access of some that are not legally registered. Today CESE supports over 300 initiatives annually and is one of the few funds that can meet the immediate and urgent needs of small groups and organizations. CESE is a rapid response grant-maker and will respond to social movements as needed: groups may apply for funds and receive support within days.
The History of CESE Creates a Vigilant Financial Culture
When CESE joined the FIRE program in 2020, it already had a strong record of building financial health and resilience. When Daniel Musse Pereira joined the organization in 2010, in the role of Financial Coordinator, he found that CESE had capital reserves and owned its office building. But he also recognized that many of CESE’s grants were very restrictive and did not allow for full recovery of indirect program expenses, including administration costs.
Through careful management and planning, the gap began to close, and more expenses were recovered. And while these diligent efforts served them well, their finances were in peril again in 2014 when a major funder broke their contract and left Brazil. That year CESE considered selling their office building but, in the end, were able to fund payroll from part of their savings.
And while they were able to enter into more secure contracts, among others with two large, high profile international funders, the 2014 events had created a vigilant and rather risk-averse financial culture at CESE, with the goal of ensuring that the situation would not be repeated.
The Opportunity of FIRE:
Four key leaders at CESE attended the FIRE training in 2020. Working and sharing with other Brazilian organizations gave them an opportunity to understand that many groups faced similar challenges. Organizations in Brazil manage multiple forces that inform a shifting funding landscape: these include currency fluctuations (Reals, Euros and Dollars), swiftly moving political forces and changes in funder priorities due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The CESE team realized that the risk-averse financial culture they had put in place after 2014 was not serving them in their present context. They needed to challenge their mindset and rethink not only their assumptions around funders and what they could ask for, but also how they understood the balance between CESE’s own financial health relative to the needs of their grantees. They came to see that great programs need a great and resilient organization behind them, and that CESE’s long-term financial resilience was the best way to ensure benefits to stakeholders and grantees, both in the short-term and long term.
These are the five areas of organizational transformation that the CESE team shared as a result of their learning and experience with the FIRE program:
#1: Being unapologetic about indirect costs
The FIRE program recommends that budgets are managed holistically. Rather than thinking about money only having two paths – either for the organization or for the projects – the FIRE program guides organizations to see how both paths, in combination, create resilient and impactful organizations. All projects and programs must contribute to all indirect expenses including administration, communication, resource mobilization and contributions to reserves.
The CESE team realized that there were still risks to their financial health: they were overly dependent on a couple of donors to pay a large portion of indirect costs across many projects. This understanding informed two revised approaches.
First, the CESE team brought more scrutiny to their proposals and project budgets: if funding for a project would not appropriately support indirect expenses, and money couldn’t be found in another project, the team needed to recognize that the project should be considered ‘unaffordable,’ and potentially declined. This new thinking has resulted in turning down some funding and backing away from some contracts.
“We realized that we need to learn how to say ‘no’. When a program budget does not pay for what we need, then its unaffordable and unsustainable and we shouldn’t do it.” - Sonia Mota, Executive Director
Secondarily, indirect program costs have to be clear when developing proposals and be part of conversations with donors. The CESE team realized that it once had held some discomfort - even a little shame - in asking to allocate higher percentages for management and payroll.
The FIRE program helped them understand that they needed to change the culture around money. Reliable funding for indirect costs was not a selfish luxury, but rather essential for the organization’s well-being and future. Rather than fearing donor rejection, the team needed to advocate for themselves and discuss their complete financial requirements with all funders.
“We were a bit embarrassed to talk to the funders... It’s important to do the project, because the project is in line with us politically. But does it also cover the costs of who’s going to work, of who’s going to be there in the administration, of the secretary we’re going to need, the cost of electricity, of water, energy, the computer?” - Sonia Mota, Executive Director
CESE is no longer apologetic about indirect costs and confidently raises this with funders. They are determined to avoid compromise: recently they gave up on negotiations regarding a project with a new donor, whose contract required commitments that were unaffordable for them.
#2: Optimizing donor relationships
CESE has come far from their difficult situation of 2014 when a major donor that provided unrestricted funds abruptly ended their contract. Today they have strong relationships with a number of different funders. However, the FIRE program showed them that they still can be vulnerable when it comes to donor dependency.
CESE’s FIRE Financial Diagnostic, undertaken at the beginning of 2020, showed that the organization was overly dependent on two donors in particular – one contributing 29% of income and the other 43% of income. Not only were these contributors greater than the recommended maximum of 20% per donor (according to the FIRE Financial dashboard) but they also contribute a disproportionately higher amount to CESE’s institutional expenses. The CESE finance team wants to rebalance some of these allocations.
Using the FIRE learnings, CESE calculated every funder’s contribution to each area of services and administration that make up CESE’s overhead costs. This view opened a conversation about finding new donors, both to lower their dependency on particular funders, but also to find new sustainable ones that were more open to supporting CESE’s mission.
“Do we have to look for another type of funder that is more flexible? One who understands the importance of having a robust structure? …Where are these funders we could work with? With the ones we have, we’ve been trying hard to change the mentality.“ – Daniel Musse Pereira, Finance Coordinator
Now CESE’s team views donor diversity as critically important: in today’s landscape, the potential threats to their financial resilience are as great as in previous years. Today over ninety percent of funding to the Brazilian NGO community comes from international sources. This represents two challenges for the sector as a whole: it weakens the legitimacy of the work with the public, and also makes the sector vulnerable to government scrutiny and shrinking of civic space. CESE would like to increase its percentage of local funds, in particular individual donations: individual donations not only decrease their foreign funding dependency but also come without any restrictions.
#3: Committing to increasing the reserve fund
The CESE leadership recognizes that a foundational way to safeguard the organization’s financial resilience is through the maintenance of reserve funds. But at the same time, it needs to acknowledge the core tension that exists. Is it right to have large savings when so many groups have an acute need for more funding? CESE experiences this moral dilemma often. The team admits that they are frequently moved by grantees’ situations and want to release funds from reserves to support urgent applications for funding.
“Sometimes, when we have some reserves, people who work in programs tend to say: ‘ah no, but let’s put it into projects.’ And I understand this because sometimes in my heart I want to say to Daniel – Please, let’s release some money.” - Sonia Mota, Executive Director
In CESE’s history, it was often considered that the needs of their grantees should outweigh the financial health of the organization. However, the teachings of FIRE program provided space to this type of reflection and helped them find a better balance. CESE’s leaders understood that theirs was analogous to other dangerous situations: similar to a crisis in an aircraft, the CESE team needs to put their oxygen mask on first before they can help anyone else.
“When CESE starts this work of maintaining the reserve fund, we must change the belief that funding can only go to the front line. We need to understand that a strong CESE is the only way to continue supporting these projects. If CESE goes broke, it's over. - Daniel Musse Pereira, Finance Coordinator
CESE’s leaders now want more structure around their reserve fund. They are working with their teams to develop rules about how it will be used. The funds should be able to support the organization when changes occur beyond their control. They were able to align with their board and create a formal policy and a reserve fund goal that means support for a year: one year of payroll and organizational expenses.
#4: New opportunities with communications that move
In the FIRE program, CESE saw new opportunities to improve the power of their communications. In a FIRE workshop, they practiced telling the story of CESE in new and powerful ways. Why is CESE important? What is at stake for the communities CESE supports?
“We must fight every day with a lot of forces that are working to withdraw rights, to remove our democracy. Thus, our communications end up getting heavy. FIRE drew our attention to this. When we did the 3-minute exercise where we had limited time to create a campaign - we couldn’t! It was funny. We laughed, realizing how difficult it must be to understand us.” - Sonia Mota, Executive Director
The FIRE program recommends a methodology where communications appeal to the gut, heart and head of the intended audience.
“Communication needs to have a three-pronged approach. A balance between emotion and reason, which is three-way: Heart, Head and Gut. Without this we cannot reach the audience to raise awareness of a cause, to get them to donate resources, to communicate to agencies that are supporting us.” - Patricia Gordano, Communications, Alliances and Partnerships Advisor
It was illuminating for the CESE team to do the communication exercises. It is important to be aware of how communications land with audiences, and what works and what doesn’t.
“The Project Coordinator heard that it is important for us to balance reason and emotion in our communications tools. Because sometimes it's difficult for us to explain to those who work on the programme side, that sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words, right? That less is more. That dense and long texts do not always raise awareness; they don’t help mobilize resources or communicate what activities we are proposing.” - Patricia Gordano, Communications, Alliances and Partnerships Advisor
As a result of the training, CESE was able to implement some immediate changes. The team realized that it needed to be mindful of different audiences; the funders, the churches and the public. As well, different audiences might need different messages to fully relate to CESE’s messages. There is more than one way to talk about the work: some reports need facts and results and other communications worked better in the form of stories, revealing the people who benefit from the support. Each message must also be adapted to its media: social media communications need to be delivered in a timely way and tailored for quick consumption.
“A lot has changed since this training. since the end of the year, our institutional report already has a more emotional tone, is more welcoming in terms of both text and pictures. We’ve been using more illustrations, softer, yet still powerful. When we want to communicate a struggle, we don’t always need to use heavy, dark colours.” Patricia Gordano, Communications, Alliances and Partnerships Advisor
As well, the team recognized that audiences require simplicity. This means providing clarity about what defines CESE as an organization and their ecumenical structure, and CESE must demystify complex issues around rights violations. In Brazil’s NGO community, a lot of money is given in the name of welfare and the defense of human rights is not well understood: there are some misconceptions that defending human rights means defending criminals. CESE’s communications need to be crafted to overcome this bias and educate on the importance of human rights for all Brazilians.
CESE is also mindful that expenses for communications need to be budgeted, especially as the organization tries to attract more individual donors. CESE now has budgets for the different communication requirements.
“Today we think… How can we communicate this in a more compelling way, so, instead of ignoring it, people might say: “Wow, I want to get involved! I want to know what these people are doing, right? I want to participate in this, too.” - Sonia Mota, Executive Director
#5: Paying it forward: a new way of making grants
The FIRE program made CESE think about how many of their own grantees struggle with the same challenges as they do.
“A small local group, which is going to run a seminar for 20 people, also needs to pay for things such as electricity and cleaning. I think that FIRE also opened us up to this possibility of thinking more widely about the budget of a small project sent to us.” - Antonio Dimas Galvão, Programs Coordinator
Just as the CESE team is educating its own donors about the need for funds for both direct and indirect program expenses, they realize that they cannot ask their grantees to go without indirect funds for their small organizations. Now they are training staff to look not only for financial resilience in grantee proposals, but also support them by passing on some of the key learnings in the FIRE training.
“I think this learning from FIRE is also very interesting because we can help these social movements think strategically about their financial resilience, because they also manage funds, on a small scale compared to CESE, but they do.” - Antonio Dimas Galvão, Programs Coordinator
CESE has learned that financial resilience will allow them to build the organization the future requires. They recognize their country is constantly undergoing political and economic shifts and CESE needs to have a foundation that can withstand any adversity.
In the future they see an organization that grows in three significant ways. First, to build the capacity to financially support five hundred organizations annually, growing from three hundred organizations today. The second is to grow income, including the total number of donors. A third goal is an increase in funds that come from individual donors, with the goal of five percent of total revenue in 2026.
To reach these goals the CESE team is deeply committed to continuing the FIRE journey, using the FIRE materials to continue building a strong and collective culture around money and financial health.
“We have improvements to make, there are adjustments that need to be made, this is part of financial resilience, which was not a term we used previously; today we use it all the time when talking about finance, it works really well.” – Daniel Musse Pereira, Finance Coordinator
The CESE team realizes that this new culture will be what carries them through to the future. As a financially resilient organization, CESE will not only be able to defend itself against challenges, but also maximize its opportunities.
“We talk a lot about resilience to survive in pandemic times, in times of economic crisis, but we can now see that the financial resilience of an organization also has to be considered when things are good.” - Antonio Dimas Galvão, Programs Coordinator
The FIRE program (Financial Innovation and Resilience) was developed by Spring and is made possible by the Ford Foundation. FIRE is an internationally renowned program that teaches the fundamentals of financial resilience. It includes the latest approaches in innovative financing models, transformative partnerships with funders, changing funding and investment landscape, resource development and diversification, strategic finance, external communications, and leadership practice.
This is one of several multi-media FIRE Impact Stories. The FIRE Impact Stories describe and illustrate key moments of transformation that took place during the FIRE program journeys of selected organizations.